Monday, November 28, 2022

Allen Boyer: ‘Oxford, Mississippi – The Cofield Collection II,’ by John B. Cofield

Editor’s Note:  John Cofield will hold a book signing for “Oxford, Mississippi – The Cofield Collection II,” at 5 p.m. Tuesday, November 1, 2022, in Off Square Books.  Masks are encouraged.

The most striking image in this memorable book – one of the hundreds that John Cofield has collected and published – is an aerial photograph of where Bramlett Boulevard meets Sisk Avenue. It was taken when the world was young, maybe 1965, when all the ranch homes were in place and the trees had not yet grown tall.

John Cofield. Image provided

Volume I of “The Cofield Collection” (2017) started on North Lamar and ran to the Square. Volume II of “The Cofield Collection” maps the east side of Oxford.  It runs along the ditch of Burney Branch, starting north of Avent Park and ends where Bramlett Boulevard meets University Avenue – near the Kream Kup.

Bramlett Elementary School and Oxford High School are landmarks, here as in life.  Teachers Flora Tucker and Virgie Swinney are memorable personalities – so too are the Avent and Bramlett families, remembered for the developments they fostered and the donations they made, and the McLaurin family (captured in one photo sitting in a row in the shoe department at Neilson’s).

Jackson Avenue figures here also.  The solid serviceable cube of the old City Hall.  The bait shop and Loeb’s Bar-B-Q and Burns Methodist and the familiar concrete block towers of Second Baptist.  Pettis Cigar Company and the old retaining wall (hung here with bright wisteria) that made the railroad underpass look like a castle gate.  Just north is Central High School, with the Eagles marching band, and the choir, and a shot of the playing field through the scrub trees beside the railroad track.

The last chapter of this book is “The Velvet Ditch,” a term that Cofield narrows down to a geographic feature of social significance: the valley on the east side of the Square, formerly home to Brown’s Gin, Avent’s Gin, and the Ice House, more recently to The Warehouse, The Gin, and the Hoka.

Helping to anchor this history is a photo of Brown’s Gin that the reviewer’s father took circa 1960.  It captures the era but does not capture the complaint of the reviewer’s mother about the cotton lint that drifted half a block up North Fourteenth Street and into the screen windows.

John Cofield will hold a book signing at 5 p.m. Tuesday in Off Square Books.

“The Gin, The Hoka, and The Warehouse were the beginning of the end and the end of the beginning,” Cofield writes.  “Our parents’ memories circle the Square still today while ours have settled in our Velvet Ditch.  A vibe, aura, feeling, call it what you like, time can’t steal it, we hold the whole mortgage.”

Restaurants and hang-outs are prominent here – not only those of the Velvet Ditch.  Readers may pause over Angelo Mistilis’ recipe for hamburger steak (contributed by Joey Mistilis as a tribute to his father).  The recipe includes two tablespoons of lard and two slices of “regular American cheese,” and advises that the half-pound of ground beef, properly shaped, should form a patty “almost as big as your flat, opened hand.” (“Hope we get the onions just right,” Cofield comments in a respectful aside.)  Habitués of the Hoka will find another recipe, for Ron’s Cheesecake.

A detour through the local music scene of the 1980s and 1990s (Beanland, the Tangents, the Kudzu Kings) cuts to another local figure whose work rang loudly: blacksmith M.R. Hall at his forge.

J.R. “Colonel” Cofield opened his photography studio in Oxford in 1928.  He took William Faulkner’s portraits.  His son Jack Cofield continued this tradition, and John Cofield has earned a position as Oxford’s most notable local historian. 

As Richard Howorth notes in a preface:

“In Oxford and beyond, Cofield is a name nearly synonymous with photography; thus, John Cofield’s capacity to gather and assemble the pictorial material here, much of it from various sources, is not too surprising.  His ability to cast a narrative, however, that weaves its way around the images … is additionally impressive.”

The photos here draw not only on the work of the Cofield family but on other photographers and artists who have called Oxford home. Deborah Freeland, photo editor for this volume, has earned the credit that Cofield accords her. Cofield Press, currently expanding, forms a vital part of Oxford’s most notable local industry. John Cofield thanks his father and grandfather for their role, and his brother Glenn, who helped found the press but did not live to see this book.

“Those of us who love Oxford, or wish to know it better, will find in these pages a treasure of its people, places, and times,” Howorth sagely comments.  “William Faulkner gave this place and its people universality, and the documentary given here in words and pictures affects the same.”

One phrase in this book sums up a moment and lingers in memory. 

“Pulling out of Kiamie’s with our new drivers’ licenses,” Cofield remembers. 

That may be no more than a throwaway line, but it rings true about Oxford, and the generations who will recognize the images here.  

“Oxford, Mississippi – The Cofield Collection II.”  By John B. Cofield.  Cofield Press.  328 pages. $49.95.

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Allen Boyer, Book Editor of HottyToddy.com, is a native of Oxford.

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