Hot Coffee, Mississippi

Hot Coffee, Mississippi

Originally Appearing in "Hot Coffee" (Abstract 7)
Words and Images by James Charisma

The asphalt road to Hot Coffee is smooth but worn, nestled in a sea of thick green trees in backwoods Mississippi. It is midsummer and humidity hangs in the air, thick and damp like a warm bath. An unincorporated farm community, Hot Coffee is generally considered to be any land in Covington County not part of the nearby city of Collins or the towns of Mt. Olive and Taylorville.

More than a century ago, Levi Davis built a store to serve those traveling between Natchez, Miss.,  and Mobile, Ala. In the late 1800s, the typical mode of transportation was by horse and wagon; trips to deliver crops to market and return trips with food and living essentials took days.

A small inn provided lodging for those making the long journey, and Davis’ store provided “the best hot coffee around” as advertised by a large coffee pot he hung over his door. Made from clear spring water and coffee beans from New Orleans, the coffee Davis served was sweetened with molasses drippings, never with cream. (He believed cream ruined the taste.)

In time, word about Davis’ shop (and coffee) spread and began to measure their journey by how much further it would be to “hot coffee.” The phrase stuck, even years after Davis stopped making coffee and closed the inn; eventually the community adopted it as its name.

Hot Coffee has received a good amount of media attention for a sparsely populated unincorporated town; it has its own Facebook page and Wikipedia entry and it’s made it onto of tourist roadmaps and onto lists of unusual place names. In 2005, National Geographic wrote an article about the area, specifically the Old Order German Baptists who live nearby and operate a furniture woodshop and a restaurant in their home called Martha’s Kitchen.

“Martha’s Kitchen closed about a year or so after that article was published. Harper’s Store has too, around the same time. Things do change around here,” says Lynda Sanford, owner of McDonald’s Store on Mississippi State Road 532, one of the area’s few shops.

McDonald’s Store is Hot Coffee’s gas station and self-proclaimed mini mall, carrying everything from canned goods to clothing to farming equipment to automotive parts. Built in the 1930s by A.B. and Ruby Knight, the store was passed to Henry and Lucille Sanford in 1967 and then to their daughter Lynda in 1976, who has managed it ever since. Her children (and grandchildren) have worked at the shop over the years, greeting the tourists and bus groups that take self-guided tours or who visit the nearby Mt. Olive (where the German Baptists operate the town’s bus station, all by use of mail and money orders and without electricity).

“We have visitors coming from all over,” says Sanford, bringing out a guestbook with names from almost a dozen countries including Brazil, Denmark, Scotland, and Austria, as well as from 25 states. “Never anyone from Hawaii before, though,” she says, asking for a signature. Make that 26 states. A Mr. Coffee instant coffee maker sits besides the register, all that remains from the days of Davis’ coffee. Sanford offers to brew a cup for the journey back.

Although worlds apart, Hawai‘i also knows a little something about being the only landmark to stop, rest, and refuel between miles of travel. Both cultures are shaped forever by the visitors who have chosen to settle down, and each has preserved its own sense of individuality. Isolated for a time, communities like these grow inward, moving forward without losing sight of all that has come before them.

Hot Coffee’s a long way from Hawai‘i. But not as far as one might think.