Touring hometown history
Even after thousands of tours have been staged for wedding parties, birthday parties, conference groups, sororities and fraternities – not to mention the general public – not everyone has yet been on a Double Decker bus historical tour of Oxford.
For the uninitiated, here’s a taste of what it’s like, from last week’s tour staged by VisitOxford for National Tourism Week:
Passengers of all stripes board the Double Decker bus, one of two – soon to be three – that the City of Oxford owns. They’re all 1950s and 1960s models, iconic red British vehicles with dual wheels in back, all of which had useful lives in the United Kingdom before “retiring” to the States.
The open top quickly fills with the young, the ambitious and their tag-alongs, who climb a steep stair-ladder to the upper deck. Utah native Dalaney Mecham and his wife, Hannah, who are about to graduate from the University of Mississippi School of Law, opt for the lower deck with its inside seats – a concession to Hannah’s being already overdue to deliver their first child. Sitting across from them is Dalaney’s mother, Jeannie Mecham.
“In all our years here, we’ve never taken the tour,” Dalaney Mecham said.
A raspy drawl crackles over the microphone, and Jack Lamar Mayfield welcomes townsfolk and Oxford visitors alike to the Double Decker bus tour. As soon as traffic offers an opening, the fifth-generation Oxonian tells how the 1832 Chickasaw Cession opened up what is now North Mississippi to white settlers.
The first white owners of the land on which Oxford is centered gave 50 acres for a county seat, and William Faulkner’s great-grandfather surveyed its lots. Borrowing the name of England’s most famous university town was suggested as part of a 1830s campaign to land Mississippi’s new state university.
As with Faulkner’s fictional Jefferson, the Civil War played a dominant role in Oxford’s shaping.
“The Union forces, when they occupied the town in August of 1864, burned the courthouse and all the buildings on the Square,” he says as the bus passes the imposing structure with its clock-clad cupola. He notes prominent houses burned, records destroyed and decades of suffering that followed for whites and blacks alike.
At the L.Q.C. Lamar Home, Mayfield introduces Mississippi’s most notable statesman – one of only two men who served the nation in both houses of Congress, the Cabinet and the Supreme Court. Lamar played key roles in the Confederacy and then became famous as a postwar reconciler.
Architecture plays a strong supporting role in Mayfield’s narration, from the $2,000 Craftsman house ordered from Sears & Roebuck to the blue Italianate “Fiddler’s Folly” and “The Magnolias,” built as a wedding gift. He notes several nearly identical houses built by William Turner, including Cedar Oaks and Faulkner’s Rowan Oak, and points out Ammadelle, designed by Central Park architect Calvert Vaux.
Countless historical nuggets offered on the Ole Miss campus include its ill-fated astronomical observatory, the Lyceum’s use as a Civil War amputation venue, bullet holes in the Lyceum from 1962’s integration riots, the resulting statue of James Meredith, and the 2008 Presidential Debate that played a part in the election of the first black U.S. President.
Along with the occasional celebrity sighting and restaurant tip, humor and tragedy mix easily on the tour. Mayfield tells of a college that accepted $10,000 cash from Jacob Thompson’s estate in the 1880s instead of $100,000 stock in a startup known as Bell Telephone.
He also tells of the blacksmith, “Old Bully,” who opened a bank after the Civil War on the strength of paymaster funds taken during a raid on the Union Army supply post in Holly Springs and hauled in stacks of sheets of bills back to Oxford under his saddle blanket.
Mayfield chuckles, “Even though the Yankees burned Oxford, it was rebuilt on stolen Yankee payroll.”