I had cause to go to Como, Mississippi when I researched the area during the writing of my novel, Little Tea. A friend of mine knew I was writing a book set in Como and had the inspired idea to introduce me via e-mail to a Como local named Sledge Taylor. “Trust me on this,” she’d said. “Sledge Taylor will show you the lay of the land.”
I set a date with Sledge Taylor and flew from California to Memphis, where I stayed a few days then drove 45 miles south to Como, anticipating a full afternoon of being a tourist.
What follows is my attempt at sharing that memorable trip to Como, Mississippi, in hopes it will give you a taste of what can be found in a small gem of a town tucked away in the Deep South.
Driving from Memphis to Como, Mississippi on I-55 South, the flat Delta land is weighty. In the greening of May, both sides of the highway teem with flourishing oak, elm, hickory, and pine set among ochre forest litter so dappled and dense, it haunts with a history, its watchful eyes on the back of your neck.
Turning off I-55 to Oak Avenue into Como, the first thing I saw was a rust-colored water tower on Sycamore Street,
across the road from red-brick and multi-windowed Como Methodist Church, which looms on the corner of Oak and Main, its black signage announcing in white block letters, “Blessed Is He Who Comes in the Name of the Lord.”
Down on Main Street, a row of one-off businesses sit like ducks in a row facing the railroad tracks.
On the berm before the tracks, two community storm shelters lie side-by-side, their weathered metal doors to the underground ensconced like coffins with handrails no bigger than a coat hanger.
I met Sledge Taylor at his office, in a brick building his family has owned since 1880. It was tucked down a hallway behind a glass door announcing “Office, W.S. Taylor, Jr. Farms,” topped with adhesive decals telling of his life: Delta Wildlife, Farm Families of Mississippi, University of Mississippi, and the National Cotton Council.
In his office, tiers upon racks upon bookshelves like a shrine to Como’s antiquity. There were plaque awards from cotton associations, faded photographs of men in bowties smiling before stacks of cotton bales,
and multiple images of his family’s plantation taken at different stages of prosperity.
In the corner, a full-size taxidermy turkey perched in profile, its red head and tail feathers up, glowering above a computer.
It was a thinking man’s racket of an arrangement, a ramshackle office on beaten wood floors so fascinating at every swivel, I wanted to stay and disregard why I was there.
Sledge Taylor didn’t seem the agrarian type. Were you to pass him on the street, the last thing you’d think is there goes a farmer. A scholar or historian would be your first guess, and you wouldn’t be far off because today’s version of a Como farmer necessitates artist, historian, and scientist rolled into one. Spending time with this erudite man was an education in small-town history and what it means to be a gentleman farmer.
After a gravy-smothered plate lunch at The Windy City Grill,
Taylor I took to the sidewalk of Main Street, where I received a tutorial in the history of every building standing shot-gun style on the historic street. Taylor currently owns the building that was once the town’s general store.
In its interior, everything was frozen in time. A mule harness dangled from a wall peg, a massive dust-covered, slatted accountant’s desk stood high with a matching wood stool, rows of curio shelving housed pitchers and planters and sets of china,
and in one of the walls, a man named S.L. Sturdivant had thrown an ice pick at the 1968 Como Parts calendar, and it remained embedded because it made a good story and nobody thought to remove it.
At the north end of Main, Holy Innocent’s Episcopal Church sat white wood and A framed, with two gold crosses emboldening its red, cathedral doors beneath a porte cochere beside an oak tree.
Inside, red-carpeted oak floors, pine pews, and five cathedral stain glass windows graced either side, one memorializing a Taylor named Robert, who died in 1916.
Above the door on the way out, Jesus stood in a field beside three lambs, holding a staff in his hand and looking out from a pastoral mural.
Out on the street, I photographed an elegant willow tree rustling in the breeze as we made our way to Taylor’s four-door, Ford F-150. In ten minutes, we were on the outskirts of Como proper, where a chiaroscuro of forest primeval stretched as far as the eye could see on either side of the mostly unmarked roads, winding through what seemed like borrowed time. Canopies of hickory, cherry, oak, and sweet gum covered Johnson grass, honeysuckle, Bermuda grass, crabgrass, and sage.
As we careened through the countryside, there wasn’t a car in sight, nor was I given a heads up when my guide turned up a gravel road that rambled on two hundred acres until a house came into view.
The house was massive. It rose up to a pitched red roof on a patch of groomed velvet lawn. Its four columns bracketed a seven-foot front door, but we sailed past and parked behind it. Like a ghost from the ether, a tall man approached and addressed my guide heartily as Mr. Sledge, though we were not expected. Within minutes, the ground’s caretaker of thirty- nine years invited us inside, and I was given a tour of one of Como’s grand houses. As the house is a private residence, primarily used as a weekend getaway, out of respect for its owners, I will refrain from posting interior photographs and let you use your imagination. I will share that we entered through the kitchen, whose entrance was heralded by a series of weathered brick steps beneath a heavy muscadine trellis, positioned just so, to abate the sweltering summer heat.
I’ll describe the interior of the house for you: Every spacious room downstairs had a crown molded ceiling towering at nine feet. Beneath area rugs, the wood floors flowed through the dining and living rooms, straight to a screened porch furnished with leather club chairs beneath a whirring ceiling fan. In the catacomb of the entrance hall, two bedrooms opened at the left, adjoined by a dressing area and attendant ivory-tiled bathroom. In the center, a wooden staircase rose to a second-floor landing with a view of the grounds rambling to a cabin by a pond. Upstairs, three more bedrooms, one with a white mantled fireplace and two matelassé covered beds. All the bedrooms were resplendent with antiques. Some had four-poster beds, tall chests of drawers, and porcelain in nooks besides built-in shelving. Mounted on walls were portraits painted in oil: austere, looming family member facsimiles with eyes that followed you everywhere. It was not a glittering, ostentatious plantation house, boasting in pomposity, rather, it was a shop-worn, elegant house, pitched to a practicality that gave it a warm, sophisticated edge in a way that lived and breathed history and spoke of safe haven.
And it’s fascinating what you learn when being given a tour of a historic house in Mississippi. I learned there’s a problem in the area with ladybug infestation, that they swarm the window screens by the millions and lay eggs to the point where the light can’t get through, and that an Eastern box turtle crossing the road is as good a portent as any of coming rain.
Sledge Taylor drove me to another of Como’s magnificent houses, which had hundreds of rows of pecan trees at the front of the property. I saw his family’s cotton gin, and fields where they’ve grown cotton and rice and soybean for as long as anyone remembers.
The sky above Como is endless in otherworldly hues I’ve never seen the likes of anywhere else. Hazy blue, yellow and cream, like sunlight filtering through gauze, and the air so soft in the first week of May, it enveloped the surroundings in a dreamscape.
I did all I could to describe Como, Mississippi during the writing of Little Tea. Como has an inexplicable feel to it well worth writing about. It sings of history and belonging. It’s a gem of a town in the loess country of Panola County; population of 1,245, the likes of which spawn a man such as Sledge Taylor: a proud steward of land passed down through generations, the kind of man so proud of his Mississippi roots, he takes the time to show them off to a writer.