Main Street in downtown Columbia today looks much like it did when the town was founded in 1819. The buildings are, for the most part, original, and the courthouse, which sits at the end of the street, harkens back to a time when things were a little grander. That grandness could be attributed to the brief time 1821 to 1822—when Columbia was the capitol of Mississippi. The splendid little town on the Pearl River named after Columbia, South Carolina, from which many of the first settlers came, seems untouched by the passing of time.
“That’s the most interesting part of Columbia to me,” said Chris Watts, curator for the Marion County Museum and Archives. “Its history. It was one of the 14 original counties and is the fourth oldest town in Mississippi.”
The town’s museum is located in an original 1907 railroad depot and has displays ranging from Native Americans to modern-day Columbia. The museum’s exhibitions about the timber and sawmill industries, which were the main trades of the town in the early years, are visitors’ favorites. Watts also said the Civil War library is ever expanding, as more content is being collected, catalogued and archived.
Just down the road from the museum is Corner Oaks Bed & Breakfast, another Columbia landmark, which opened in 2000 but feels much older. “It’s a comfy type of place,” said Brenda Pounds, who owns and operates Corner Oaks with her husband, Paul. “You do feel like you’re going back in time. It makes you think of how things used to be.
The couple moved to Columbia from New Orleans and previously hosted visitors during Jazzfest and Mardi Gras when all the mainstream hotels were booked. When the two moved to Mississippi, they decided to open their home again. This time around, they are hosting more pastors for revivals than jazz enthusiasts.
The town of about 7,000 has almost as many restaurant options as residents. While the typical fast food abounds, the real gems are less obvious. With unassuming catfish houses like Stogner’s Fish Camp and Kane’s Catfish, Seafood and Steakhouse, small burger joints like Jack’s and The Deck, and the newly opened Magnolia Grill, you will not go hungry in Columbia.
Around the corner from Corner Oaks is an eatery that brings a little something new to the historic town. Second Street Bean opened its doors in 2009 and has thrived. Owned and run by siblings Josh Drummond and Paris Schepemaker, Second Street is a family affair with Schepemaker’s parents and sister helping out.
Initially meant to be a coffee shop with food, the lunch crowd has enabled Second Street Bean to expand the menu. Local favorites are the cranberry pecan chicken salad, turkey pepper jack panini with pepper jelly and pasta salad.
But, there’s more to this coffee shop than coffee and great food. It is conveniently located in the same building as a local project to share the artistic side of Columbia. Artwistic Revolution Art Gallery is a cooperative gallery owned and run by local artists.
“There are artists always there working on something cool,” said Schepemaker. “Being surrounded by so many talented people has been a real inspiration.”
There is no lack of inspiration in Columbia. Savannah Parker chose to follow that inspiration and Sweet Flour Bake Shoppe was born. After studying at Culinard, the Culinary Institute of Virginia College in Birmingham, Alabama, and completing an externship with the renowned pastry chef Tarq Hannah of Sucre in New Orleans, Parker moved home to Columbia to open her shop. Just outside of town, the shop specializes in cakes, cupcakes and more.
“I never even considered opening anywhere other than Columbia,” Parker said. “This is my home and we didn’t have a bakery here at the time and we definitely needed one. Most of all, I needed my family, my friends, my town.”
Across town from Sweet Flour Bake Shoppe is an outing that is not to be missed: Red Bluff, or “Mississippi’s Little Grand Canyon,” is the perfect ending to a trip to Columbia. The bluff is not likely to show up in a travel guide and is hidden a few miles outside of town, but is well worth the drive. The bluff, formed by years of natural erosion, creates a colorful panorama with sand, gravel and clay. The bluff descends more than 200 feet and empties into a creek, which eventually leads back to the Pearl River.
“If you’re visiting Columbia, I would recommend checking out Red Bluff; it’s a beautiful hike, a nice way to spend some time with your family and connect to nature,” Schepemaker said, echoing the sentiment of many native Columbians.
With locally owned shops, restaurants and entertainment, “The City of Charm on the River Pearl” certainly lives up to its name. The town runs on Southern charm and hospitality. While Columbia has a creative and determined group of young people opening businesses, restaurants and continually working to improve the town, it still very much has an old-time appeal. As Pounds described it, “It’s like time stops here.”
Columbia may be a town time forgot, but between you and me, let’s hope it stays that way.
Photos by Alex Doleac // Story by Kaitlyn Dubose