Welcome to Laurel: TV show turns small town into tourist destination

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Before 2016, Laurel, Mississippi, was just another sleepy small Southern town, a place most people drove past to get to the Gulf Coast.

Today, it’s a thriving tourist destination, teeming with people visiting from all over the world, thanks to the hit HGTV show, “Home Town.” Ben and Erin Napier, both Laurel natives, star in the home-renovation series, which first aired in January 2016.

If you take a day trip to Laurel – it’s a three-hour drive from Tupelo – you can park downtown and spend hours strolling past some of the homes and businesses the Napiers have renovated, visiting small boutiques, restaurants, churches, bookstores, antique shops and the crown jewel of Laurel – the Lauren Rogers Museum of Art.

There’s plenty to do downtown, and something for just about every taste. Restaurants offer everything from Italian food at Mimmo’s Ristorante Pizzeria and New Orleans-style fare at Cafe la Fleur to a plate lunch at Pearl’s Diner and a hamburger sack lunch from The Knight Butcher. Many locally owned restaurants are closed on Sunday and Monday, so be sure to check before you travel.

Don’t forget to take a look at all the murals in downtown Laurel – there’s one on just about every block. And when you need to rest, there are a several public parks sprinkled around with plenty of benches for people-watching.

To plan your perfect day, go to visitjones.com, which has complete lists of places to shop, eat, stay and play. In the meantime, here’s an idea of what a day trip in Laurel looks like.

Lauren Rogers Museum of Art

The Lauren Rogers Museum of Art opened in 1923 as a memorial to Princeton-educated Lauren Eastman Rogers, who was primed to take his place with the Eastman Gardiner Lumber Company when he died in 1921 at the age of 23 from complications of appendicitis.

Rogers’ family built the museum in his memory as a testament to the promise of his future. Their goal was to create a place for the advancement of learning and to never charge an admission fee.

Ninety-nine years later, the museum still holds true to its ideals. It serves as a welcome center of sorts, where visitors can pick up brochures for places to visit and recommendations for restaurants.

“Because of the TV show, the number of visitors is up a good bit,” said George Bassi, the museum’s director. “We probably average 700 to 800 people a week. For a town our size, it is really a major institution.”

Building additions and renovations completed in 1925, 1983 and 2013 have brought the museum to its current size: 30,000 square feet. It features seven galleries for its permanent collections, three galleries for temporary exhibitions, an art studio and an art reference library with more than 10,000 volumes.

“We’re known for our Native American Basket Collection,” Bassi said. “It’s one of the most representative collections for that time frame in North America.”

The Georgian Silver Gallery, featuring more than 80 British Georgian silver objects used for high tea, is also popular, as is the Japanese Print Gallery, Bassi said.

The museum also has an American Gallery, with works by artists like Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent and Mary Cassatt, and a European Gallery, which features 19th century French Barbizon paintings and English landscapes.

Every Friday in the spring and fall, Bassi takes visitors on a 90-minute walking tour of a two-block area around the museum.

“You learn about the people, the history of Laurel, the timber industry and the railroad,” he said. “It’s not a long distance, but it’s a lot of history.”

The museum, located at 565 N. 5th Ave., is open Tuesday-Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4:45 p.m., and Sunday from 1 to 4 p.m.

Caron Gallery South

One of the newest businesses to open in downtown Laurel is Caron Gallery South, located at 407 Short 7th Ave. It’s open Monday-Friday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

“We opened the first of March, and we have 40 artists represented,” said Laura Otis Zumwalt, the gallery manager. “Most of the artists are either from Mississippi or live in Mississippi.”

Adam Trest, whose work has been featured on “Home Town,” has a studio in back of the gallery.

“There was a need for an art gallery in Laurel, a void to fill,” Trest said. “People are excited to see original art from Mississippi artists and take a little bit of Mississippi home with them.”

Trest’s wife, Lily, co-owns the gallery with Kim Caron, who opened the original Caron Gallery in Tupelo in 2010.

“The two galleries share a website and the same artists,” Zumwalt said. “We’ve added several South Mississippi artists since we opened our doors. It’s exciting for people in Laurel and South Mississippi to see artists’ work in person, rather than online.”

Bird Dog Cafe

Across the street from Caron Gallery South is Bird Dog Cafe, which was featured in Season 4 of “Home Town” when it opened in 2020.

Elliot Bell co-owns the restaurant with his brother, Connor. The eatery is located at 412 Short 7th Ave., and is open Monday-Wednesday from 6:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Thursday-Saturday from 6:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.

“We’ve kind of been all over the place to find our identity,” Bell said. “We made a big list of things we thought Laurel needed, like breakfast and wine.”

The breakfast menu offers grits, potatoes, homemade sausage, waffles, homemade pastries, and coffee roasted on site from Manuscript Coffee Roasting Company. You can also order a mimosa or a bloody mary.

Best-selling lunch items include the Bird Dog Club on thick wheatberry bread, the salmon Caesar wrap, and the tarragon chicken salad on a croissant. Dinner options include seafood, steaks and burgers.

Popular appetizers at Bird Dog include tomato bruschetta, peach-almond bruschetta, and marinated mushroom bruschetta; and the snack board, which features a selection of meats, cheeses, nuts, fruit, crispy bread and other small bites.

“So far, we’ve been really successful with our wine selection and cocktails,” Bell said. “We really want to be the wine spot in Laurel.”

Next door to the restaurant is Bird Dog Goods, which offers souvenirs, gifts, curated antiques and bagged coffee from Manuscript.

“We also have five Airbnbs on Short 7th Avenue,” Bell said. “Our next move is to push Short 7th as our next identity. The street has not been part of downtown before, but when road work is complete, we will be.”

Laurel Mercantile

The Napiers, along with Mallorie and Jim Rasberry and Emily and Josh Newell, opened Laurel Mercantile in 2016, before the first episode of “Home Town” even aired.

“Their hope was to build a lasting brand, even if the show didn’t last,” said Hayley Raines, general manager of Laurel Mercantile and the Scotsman General Store, where many “Home Town” episodes are filmed.

“For someone like me, who was born here – these buildings downtown were empty in the 1980s,” said Jacque Odom, a sales associate at Laurel Mercantile. “Ben and Erin are responsible for the buildings being full, the restaurants, the small businesses. On the show, they’re always promoting other businesses. They want this area to grow.”

The mercantile offers T-shirts, cookbooks, Erin Napier’s candle line, textiles, butcher blocks, charcuterie boards, stoneware and products from Rifle Paper Co.

“We offer an extensive Jadeite collection,” Odom said. “Customers come from all over the U.S. and the world and say they just don’t see it anywhere anymore.”

Work by local artists like Adam Trest and Erin Napier are also featured in the store, along with Cavallini posters and a collection of vintage quilts.

“One of the reasons I’m proud to work for them is because all the products here are made in America, and many are made in Mississippi,” Odom said.

Laurel Mercantile is located at 414 Front St. Scotsman General Store, which offers everything from glass-bottle sodas and cast-iron skillets to flannel shirts and hardware, is located at 1 Spec Wilson. Both stores are open Monday-Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday from 1 to 4 p.m.

Shug’s Cookie Dough & Candy Bar

Alise Mathews opened Shug’s Cookie Dough & Candy Bar in September 2017.

“I’d been out of school for a year – I was 22 – and I decided I wanted to come back home and be part of the revitalization of Laurel,” Mathews said. “In my lifetime, to see how far downtown has come – that’s been real special.”

Mathews’ mother is a caterer, and her grandmother taught her how to make pralines, so sweet treats are in her blood.

Mathews said when Laurel was in its heyday, all the downtown department stores had candy counters.

“So, I feel like this place is the trifecta – we have a candy bar, we use family recipes, and we have cookie dough,” she said.

The cookie dough is made without eggs and uses pasteurized flour. Everything is treated with heat before it’s turned into cookie dough, so it’s safe to eat raw.

Shug’s offers eight cookie dough flavors, and they’re sold in scoops: chocolate chip; sugar cookie; pucker up buttercup (a nod to Reese’s); s’mores; brown sugar; red velvet; strawberry; and runaway bride, which tastes like birthday cake.

“Runaway bride and chocolate chip are by far the most popular,” Mathews said.

For those in a hurry to get dinner on the table, there’s a freezer filled with casseroles-to-go that Mathews’ mom prepares. Three favorites are lasagna, chicken pot pie and chicken spaghetti.

“We stay busy here,” Mathews said. “We’ve been really blessed. I don’t see us going anywhere anytime soon.”

Photos by Adam Robison