Stopping en route for Hot Coffee

SUN JOURNAL

Roadshow: Deep in Mississippi, far from major highways, is a settlement -- just a store, really -- named for the beverage perhaps most desired by weary travelers

April 04, 1999|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

HOT COFFEE, Miss. -- Hot Coffee's coffee is neither especially hot, nor especially popular.

In fact, just inside the entrance to J&H Harper Grocery -- which, truth be told, is about the extent of what there is to see in Hot Coffee -- the Pour-O-Matic coffee maker goes barely noticed as customers file through the door and head straight for the deli counter.

A number of them are buying a local delicacy -- sliced souse -- a rubbery lunch meat made from processed pig ears. The souse is selling well. The coffee is not.

Of course, coffee doesn't have to be much more than a name here. This is one of those American towns that draw a smattering of travelers who can't resist taking a detour when they spot bizarre-sounding places on the map. These road warriors are curious types, not necessarily thirsty.

The late Charles Kuralt, the newsman famed for his on-the-road reports, wrote about some of these towns in his last book, "American Moments." "Could the good people of Sleepy Eye, Minnesota use some Hot Coffee, Mississippi to wake them up?" he wrote.

He also mentioned Lick Skillet, Texas, Gouge Eye, Calif., and Monkey's Eyebrow, Ky. "You can go from Matrimony, North Carolina to Caress, Virginia," he wrote. "Or from Caress to Matrimony."

Kuralt failed to mention the center of weird-name America that is the Amish country of Lancaster County, Pa. There tourists can visit such communities as Blue Ball, Gap and Intercourse.

In contrast to the Amish tourist strip, Hot Coffee is well off most vacationers' beaten paths, tucked amid peanut, cotton and soybean farms in a scarcely populated expanse between Hattiesburg and Jackson.

Here you'll fine Herbert and Judith Harper, who operate the general store in the middle of town. Save for a couple of trailers and a farmhouse or two, the store is in fact the town. The Harpers will sell you a Hot Coffee coffee mug or souvenir T-shirt and tell you all about how Hot Coffee became Hot Coffee.

In the 1800s, farmers traveling by horse and buggy to purchase necessities up the road in Ellisville frequently spent the night at a campground once located across the street from what is now the Harper business. The farmers counted on a cup of pick-me-up when they arrived.

"They used to say, `It won't be long until we can get some hot coffee,' " explains Herbert Harper, 58, in a slow-moving Mississippi drawl. "As time went on, it became, `Won't be long until we get to hot coffee.' "

The name stuck, and it's now on most road maps.

Hot Coffee's population is not known because no official borders or post office exists. Herbert Harper stands outside by rusty gas pumps and begins surveying the few surrounding houses and counting on his fingers. "About 18 people here," he finally declares.

About a decade ago, the Harpers paid to have signs posted on the road welcoming folks to town. Buzzing along east-west Route 532, drivers first encounter a green sign that says "Hot Coffee." Travel 30 more yards, and there's a brown sign that says "Downtown Hot Coffee" that is smack in front of the store. Drive on, and almost instantly come the two signs facing travelers in the other direction. Just like that, you're apparently out of town.

The Harpers are mighty proud of the gimmick -- which draws unofficial borders encompassing nothing but their store -- yet they insist that they have no desire to make the town more of a hot spot than it already is. A dozen or so souvenir-seekers trickle in each week, and that's enough.

"Our kids are computer nuts," Harper says, rolling his eyes. "They want us to get on the Internet."

With no national advertising, Hot Coffee is visited mostly by folks who spot the town on a map (there are no signs on the main roads) and are willing to take a half-hour jaunt to the east while barreling along U.S. 49. Only occasionally will Hot Coffee get the determined visitor who drove all the way from home because he thought it would be cute to tell friends he drank hot coffee in Hot Coffee.

"One fella came through here one day and said, `I just left Two Fried Eggs, Fla., yesterday, I'm coming to Hot Coffee today and when I leave, I'm heading to Soso, Miss.,' " Harper recalls. (He likely was referring to the town of Two Eggs.)

There is no mayor in Hot Coffee. No fire department and no police. The store is the unofficial Chamber of Commerce, Harper says, and if there was any mischief the town would hold court in the basement of a white farmhouse across the street.

"And if we want to take you to a higher court," he says, "we'll take it upstairs."

The store has been in Judith Harper's family since 1929. Today, it serves as a whatever-you-need stop for about 100 regulars. The mix of products in the store -- which is part quickie mart, part antique shop and part Woolworth's -- spins one's head. Above the deli counter, which is between the candy and medicine shelves and the video-rental rack, is a giant jar of pig lips. They apparently sell as well as the souse.

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