December 5, 2023

When we go on adventures, we like to work in some stops when we can that mean something to us. We nailed a big one this summer with an overnight stay in Laurel, Mississippi, home of HGTV’s “Home Town” starring Ben and Erin Napier.

My wife Kristi and I are like a lot of married couples in that HGTV programming is a big part of couch time. And cleaning house time. And random doing-stuff-around-the-house-time. However, about a year and a half ago, we started watching “Home Town” and were immediately drawn to its premise and protagonists. First, we’ve both lived in small towns and understand their charm. Second, we’re drawn to genuinely nice folks — and that’s the Napier brand. We especially love how sweet they are to each other.

“Home Town” is now a regular, almost religious part of our Sunday routine.

One big difference between our small-town experiences and what we see in HGTV’s “Home Town,” however, are these gorgeous Craftsman homes with magnificent Southern porches and great bones. Oh, and most of the budgets on “Home Town” are between $150,000 and $250,000 — as opposed to what we see on “House Hunters,” lol.

I’m a teacher in a school for the underprivileged, and my husband is a busker at the local town square, playing his banjo for tips. Our budget is $1.7 million.

So, when Kristi and I decided that we were once again headed to Gulf Shores, Alabama, for our summer vacation, we figured out a way to make Laurel, Mississippi, a destination. Is Laurel the real-life version of “Pleasantville”? No. It’s a small town like the ones you know and love. It’s got its blemishes. But if every small town had a Ben and Erin Napier championing it, people would flock to them like we did (and many others do) to Laurel.

For what it’s worth, any time we go to or through Mississippi, we stop in Vicksburg.

Laurel is in SE Mississippi, about 112 miles from Vicksburg. We were able to drive from Oklahoma City to Laurel in one day pretty easily (6a to 8p) — and our first stop was a barbecue joint called Hog Heaven. Locals and visitors were eating outside on picnic tables. The place was packed, and the food was excellent.

Given the popularity of “Home Town,” I figured that at least a quarter of anybody we saw were HGTV tourists. However, Sunday morning in Laurel was super sleepy, just like you’d imagine the idyllic Southern small town of your dreams. Our breakfast stop was at a place called Vic’s, a greasy spoon breakfast joint where $20 would get you and yours a mountain of breakfast, your arteries beware.

The experience was as delightful as the victuals.

Vic’s Diner in Laurel, Mississippi.

That brought us to our reason to visit: to see Erin’s store, Laurel Mercantile, and to look at the homes of Laurel in hopes of seeing one from the TV show. Firstly, we didn’t stick around for the Mercantile to open. That day, if I recall, it was to be open from 1-3 p.m., and we were on a schedule that necessitated us being on the road to ‘Bama by then. That’s fine. Gives us a reason to come back.

I still took plenty of photos.

Not to unnecessarily draw comparison to another reality-TV small town we’ve visited, which will go unnamed, but Laurel — as a whole — has done an amazing job leveraging the fame that came from this show to uplift the entire downtown area. Laurel’s downtown is small but mighty.

The local businesses aren’t your typical small town operations. For example, bigger cities would love to have a Lee’s Coffee & Tea.

A distinct advantage that Laurel has, for sure, is architecture. As Erin says in the cold open to “Home Town,” most of the buildings and homes in Laurel are like a “pretty girl who doesn’t know she’s pretty.” Or something like that. Put another way, the architecture in these parts is a natural resource.

So, about the houses. Best we could tell, there are one or two streets in town that have all the beautiful homes. I’m sure Erin and Ben are renovating homes across the town as a whole, but we didn’t exactly prepare for this tour as if we were stalkers. We were like, “Let’s drive around and see what we can see.” What we came away with was, if you were lucky enough to have a job that would allow you to work remotely — and you could work from absolutely anywhere — why would you not want to live in a neighborhood like what we saw in Laurel?

Were these homes on “Home Town”? No idea. (Take that back: at least one of them was shown in an episode.) But they caught our eye, and I am that guy. I snap photos of everything.

In all, we spent a night and half a day in Laurel, and I could see us coming back if only to visit the Mercantile when it’s open. But just to make the in-person connection between the Ben and Erin Napier love story and ours, as repeated every single Sunday afternoon and evening, was pretty special if even we only visited once.

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