Arthur Davis was retired at 50 and living a comfortable life in his home state of Florida with his wife, Margie.
Their sons, Arthur Jr. and Derrick, received full academic scholarships to Alcorn State University, located near the southwest Mississippi town of Lorman. They needed a car. He drove it to them in the fall of 1996.
He has been here ever since. Margie, too.
“Got this Mississippi mud in my shoes and it stuck,” he says with a grin. “I never in my wildest dreams saw this coming.”
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He reaches for a 2016 copy of Mississippi Magazine. Shows me the cover. Flips through the pages. “I’m nowhere in here,” he says.
Then he tosses the magazine onto a table, front cover down. The back cover shows Davis — better known as Mr. D — holding a plate of his famous fried chicken, which people from all over the world enjoy at his Old County Store restaurant, located on US-61.
“I ain’t the governor. I’m not a senator or a representative,” he says. “But they chose me as the poster boy for Mississippi tourism last year. It’s the greatest honor of my life.”
Tears well in his 70-year-old eyes. “I used to think Mississippi wasn’t a place I wanted to visit,” he says. “All I knew about it was what I’d read, what I’d heard. Well, those folks had it wrong. I can’t think of a more beautiful place to be than right here.”
A scan of his restaurant’s guest register reveals signatures of people from Maine, Arizona, Texas, Nevada, Germany, China, England, Sweden, Australia.
Davis jokes that if Colonel Sanders had his chicken recipe, “he would be a five-star general by now.”
Alton Brown of the Food Network profiled the Old Country Store in 2011. He said on the air, while munching like a starved man, that Davis’ chicken was “the best I’ve ever had in my life.”
Brown added, “I hope Mr. D doesn’t understand how good his chicken is, because if he did, it would be $75 a plate.”
Every day but Christmas, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Davis and his crew offer a buffet feast. His fried chicken is the featured star but hardly the only lure. The lineup includes mustard greens, collard greens, candied yams, sweet potatoes, macaroni and cheese, pork chops, smoked ribs, potato salad, green salad, cornbread, biscuits and three flavors of cobbler — apple, peach and blackberry — that a lot of customers enjoy with a dab of ice cream on top.
The tables are covered in white linen and decorated with a rose. He holds one to my nose.
“Smell it,” he says. “It’s real. I want to present Southern cuisine properly. I want people to have a wonderful experience here because they fulfill my days and give me a reason to wake up every morning with a smile on my face.”
The restaurant is housed in a an old two-story building (circa. 1875) that Davis purchased “for a real good price.” On the outside, it looks its age. Each level is 5,000 square feet. The cooking and eating is done downstairs. He has an antique furniture shop upstairs. “But that part is not air-conditioned so we only show it in the winter,” he says.
The building has served a lot of purposes: post office, Western Union office, bus depot, train station, telephone office, craft mall, ballroom, Louisiana-style restaurant and a bank.
“Then it got lucky and got me,” he says, tossing his head back as he laughs.
“It’s a funny thing,” he says, his voice softer now. He points upward. “The good Lord … he wanted me here. He saw my purpose. That’s the only way to explain this whole thing.”
College parties & Southern Living
Davis was raised by his maternal grandparents near Fort Pierce, Florida. His grandfather was a saw master. “He traveled all over the South harvesting wood,” Davis says.
His grandmother, Elnora Adkins, “gave me the tools for life,” he says. “She was a very sophisticated woman. She pushed the importance of education.”
After high school, Davis attended Florida A&M University, then spent 28 years working in quality assurance for Florida Power and Light.
Adkins also taught Davis to cook and shared her recipe for chicken and cornbread.
“I’ve always enjoyed cooking and I’d worked in restaurants when I was in high school and college. But I’d never cooked in a restaurant until I opened this,” he says of the Old Country Store.
It started 20 years ago as a fast-food joint, with Davis frying chicken in a skillet. Business was slim for nearly a decade. He sold cars in Vicksburg for a while to help supplement his retirement income.
“A few people would stop in to use the restroom while they were visiting Windsor,” he says, referring to nearby Windsor Ruins — 23 standing columns that were part of a 17,000-square-foot mansion that survived the Civil War but was lost in a fire in 1890. “I always say I’ve sorta become the welcome center for Windsor.”
People stopped in 2005, in the hours after Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast. “We had 28 people here with no place to go,” Davis says. He fed them and comforted them the best he could.
“But most of the time I’d sit here and watch for shadows to show up in the windows and hope it wasn’t the light bill man,” he says. “I became friends with him, and he’d usually give me a few extra days to come up with the money.”
Davis began throwing Thursday night parties for the students at Alcorn State.
“We would get 200 kids in here,” he says. “They didn’t want to eat. They wanted to chill. So it was the students, me, a bouncer and a DJ. That kept the business afloat for a long time.”
In 2006, a writer from Southern Living stumbled upon the Old Country Store by accident. He couldn’t get enough of Mr. D’s fried chicken.
“He kept asking about my recipe and I told that man everything but the truth about it,” Davis says. “He finally got disgusted and said he couldn’t do a story on it without the recipe ... Somehow, he wrote it anyway. Called it ‘heavenly fried.’
“That story was the beginning of the Old Country Store as we know it today.”
The singing chef
On this typical July day in Mississippi — hot and suffocating — a good crowd has stopped in for lunch. Davis stops by every table and thanks them for coming in.
With no warning, he goes from chicken fryer to entertainer. “Grandmama was a cornbread cooking que-ee-ee-een … ” he sings, soulfully and on key. It is part of the Old Country Store experience.
“If he didn’t sing, I would be worried about him,” says Willard Cash, 41, a truck driver from Leake County who eats here about twice a month.
“I tell people all the time, ‘You ain’t had chicken until you’ve had Mr. D’s.’ The whole buffet is good. But he makes it taste even better because he’s going to put a smile on your face before you leave here.”
Kathleen O’Neal and Pippa Rex are on a road trip from Texas back home to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. O’Neal is originally from Jackson and had eaten here more than 20 years ago. This is Pippa’s first taste of Mississippi.
“She knows I love fried chicken,” Pippa says. “She said it would be the best I’ve ever had — and she told the truth. Oh, my Lord! And the sweet potatoes … as I told the young lady working here today, ‘You must’ve taken a piece of heaven and put in them.’”
'Stop getting mad and start getting paid.'
Davis has the gift of gab, able to communicate with just about anyone.
“But I’m different than most folks,” he says.
And he isn’t bashful about speaking his mind. He would like Gov. Phil Bryant, members of the state Legislature and Mississippi residents to read his ideas on tourism.
“Come here for a second,” he says and leads me to a box of biker head rags that are usually worn under a protective helmet. The design is that of the Confederate battle flag — a controversial part of our state flag. Many view it as racist and want it removed.
“I have no problem with the emblem,” says Davis, who is African American. “And you know why? Because I pay $2 apiece for these head rags and sell them for $24.95. I’m here to tell people, ‘Stop getting mad and start getting paid.’
“When I lived in Florida, I was mad about it, too. But I didn’t understand. We are sitting on a billion dollar tourist business — the Civil War. It’s waiting to boom. And you know why we won’t cash in? Because some dude might get mad.
“The military battle park in Vicksburg and the one at Grand Gulf … they’re there for a reason. We should be having reenactment skits every day, every two or three hours. People would come and pay to see it if it was promoted.
“The (Mississippi) Blues Trail runs right through here. And there are so many old cemeteries up and down 61. We need to identify them and mark them. I had a woman in here yesterday who had come from out of state trying to find where some of her people lived and died. They would visit these cemeteries, and while they’re here they might visit a casino or eat at the Old Country Store. Spend their money here.”
Davis greets two customers as they walk in. Both are white.
“Ninety-five percent of the people who eat here don’t look like me,” he says. “But I have no fear of history. Love can overcome hatred. I’ve seen it. People not of color will come in here and eat, and after their meal a husband will ask if I will take a picture with his wife. That’s love and respect and honor.
“That’s the Mississippi I know. That’s the Mississippi I believe in. What happened with me here at this restaurant, most people wouldn’t believe it. But it did. We can do this. Together.”