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Hot Coffee residents show National Geographic a good time

Busy downtown, growing industries in Collins, Covington County

Collins — Things are happening in Covington County and Collins, the county seat. The area’s most enthusiastic cheerleader and executive director of the County Chamber of Commerce, Marie Shoemake, talks excitedly about new tourism and industry opportunities.

National Geographic magazine recently spent four days in the Hot Coffee community gathering information and shooting photos for a spread that will run in the January 2005 issue, she said.

“They discovered Hot Coffee when they were researching something about zip codes and liked the unusual name and the fact that it has two zip codes,” Shoemake said. “They undoubtedly loved it there because they stayed four days.”

She said the magazine people, along with other visitors, are taken with the pastoral beauty of the countryside and the old-fashioned ways of the Old Order German Baptist community in Hot Coffee. The Old Order families live without electricity and telephones, similar to the Amish, and dress conservatively.

“They are wonderful people, are perfectionists in all they do, and are so at peace with everything,” she said. “We have a lot of visitors, and I think tourism is our niché. A lot of it is because of that community and the unusual name.”

Shoemake said tourists can take a trail that leads them through the area of Mount Olive, Sanford and Hot Coffee along state Highways 532 and 35. Members of the Old Order community run Roger’s Basketry, Martha’s Kitchen and Dill Brothers handmade furniture. Anyone wanting to place an order or reserve a table with these businesses can reach them the old-fashioned way: by writing a letter or calling McDonald’s Store and asking them to relay a message.

McDonald’s and J. & H. Harper Grocery Store in “downtown” Hot Coffee, while somewhat modernized, are also popular stops for tourists. Mitchell Farms, a you-pick vegetable farm, is also a favorite stop that sometimes has as many as 400 visitors a day, Shoemake said.

Hot Coffee is not incorporated and has no post office. Shoemake said the village got its name because many years ago it was a stopping place for travelers to drink hot coffee. At some point, someone hung out a sign to formally let it be known that the hot beverage was available and the place became known by that name.

“We’re trying to work regionally with Hattiesburg and Laurel to promote a two-day stay in the area,” Shoemake said. “We’re setting up a Web site so people can see what all we do have.”

Working together

Equally enthusiastic is Collins Mayor V.O. Smith, who’s served this town of 2,786 as mayor for 23 years. They have completed five blocks of a downtown revitalization project that he describes as beautiful. There are decorative lights specially made in Canada, new landscaping, underground power and water lines and a repaved main street. There are 26 large 26-foot lights with hanging baskets. Seven 15-foot domed lights are in between the larger lights.

“We get comments all the time on how beautiful it is,” he said. “We’ve spent several hundred thousand dollars with no grants, no bonds and no tax increase. Everybody’s working together to make the town better.”

The group that’s working together includes favorite son and actor Gerald McRaney, who, along with his actress- wife Delta Burke, owns the Best Little Warehouse in Mississippi, an emporium of handpainted furniture there. McRaney was in town last week “to promote new things” and met with Mayor Smith twice in one day. Smith says he’s not at liberty to reveal McRaney’s plans just yet.

There are no vacant spaces on Main Street and Smith says he has people calling to inquire about space. “We have a mix of businesses and I think that mix, along with our revitalization, will get people back downtown,” he said. “We’re hoping to attract some traffic from off busy Highway 49.”

Out of the ordinary

Collins has the distinction of being the only city in the state that owns its cable television system. They also run their own electric system and buy power wholesale from Mississippi Power Company. The $11-million city budget includes the power and cable budgets. The six-man electric crew also manages the cable system and provides 24-hour-a-day service.

“At one time we had our own generator but we’ve been with Mississippi Power for 15 years,” Smith said. “We have our own poles, lines and crew. That’s why we have the cable company. It’s more economical for our people.”

With 1,500 employees, Sanderson Farms is the largest employer in Covington County and has been there since 1981. The company processes chickens and has a hatchery there. Division manager Dan Nichovich says the county is a good place to do business. Sixty million chickens per year are processed from that facility.

“It’s easy to get good workers here, the location is great with the highway intersections and proximity to ports and railroads and freight costs are low,” he said. “We have growers spread out in a 60-mile radius who are contracted to raise chickens.”

He added that having the county’s newest company, CHS Inc., nearby will help Sanderson Farms grow the poultry business more. A Fortune 500 company that began in Minnesota in the 1930s, CHS located in Covington County one year ago to supply corn to the four poultry processors there.

“The poultry industry in South Mississippi can now rival Scott County as the poultry capital,” CHS plant manager Steven Jeffcoat said. “We came because they’re here and the rail rates gave us a break.”

CHS (Cenex Harvest States) employs five people at the facility that receives corn by rail and distributes it by truck to poultry growers. It is a storage and distribution facility. No corn is processed there. With 1 1/4 mile of railroad track parallel to the main line, they have room for 110 rail cars. That is the equivalent to 400 truckloads of grain. The CHS facility holds 700 truckloads or 700,000 bushels of grain.

Other industries in Covington County — population 19,000 — include Rutland Lumber Company, Warren Inc., Blaine Construction Company and Covington Needlework. Another company, Fresh Harvest International, processed three million blueberries this year, according to Marie Shoemake.

“They just did an expansion and had a real big year,” she said. “We grow a lot of blueberries here, and they have a contract to process berries from Florida.”

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at mbj@msbusiness.com.

About Lynn Lofton

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