Forest of Dreams
The Grove at Ole Miss is to college football what Valhalla was to Norse warriors. There is no other place like it on earth.
photographs by Timothy Ivy
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Are … You … READY?”
Someone loudly calls out the question, from a dark corner in The Grove on the University of Mississippi campus in Oxford, and, ready or not, here comes the response from thousands of fans shouting in thunderous unison:
Hotty toddy, gosh almighty
Who the hell are we? Hey!
Flim flam, bim bam
Ole Miss, by damn!
The chant’s cadence speeds up as it roars through the woods, like a running back hitting a hole in the defense and racing to score the winning touchdown. The unofficial fight song of the University of Mississippi can be heard most anytime a passel of Rebel fans are around. To hear “Hotty Toddy” as it should be heard, you’ll need to travel to Oxford, to The Grove, on a Saturday in the fall. There you will observe, in the midst of a stand of trees, in the center of a college campus, in the veritable heart of the South, “Hotty Toddy” in its natural setting.
“The Grove” is a synecdoche for the entire football game day experience at Ole Miss. It encompasses the mini-forest on campus actually called The Grove, but it also includes The Circle, a gorgeous green-laden roundabout adjacent to The Grove, a legion of parties, tents, and tailgaters stretching to all points of the campus, and the adjoining Rebel home-base of Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. The Grove is a noun, a verb, an adjective — possibly an adverb if you’ve had enough to drink. It routinely is named the best place to tailgate, anywhere.
I ventured into the wilds of The Grove this season, having never before been to Oxford on a game day. I came away appropriately awed, amused, and appreciative.
So: Are . . . You . . . Ready?
The Grove is a preternaturally beautiful spot of earth. And, though it may appear to the untrained eye to be a collection of roughly homogenous vegetation forming that vaulted canopy, there are, in fact, 38 species of trees composing The Grove and The Circle. The Grove began in the late 1800s, as Chancellor Robert Fulton planted trees and ornamental shrubs and a privet hedge around a section of campus.
Today, the trees present are: American Ash, American Elm, American Holly, Black Gum, Black Jack Oak, Black Oak, Black Walnut, Burr Oak, Chapman Oak, Eastern Red Bud, Flowering Dogwood, Gingko Biloba, Japanese Magnolia, Japanese Snowball, Leyland Cypress, Longleaf Pine, Northern Red Oak, Nuttall Oak, Pin Oak, Post Oak, Red Maple, Sand Hickory, Sawtooth Oak, Scarlet Oak, Shumard Oak, Southern Catalpa, Southern Magnolia, Southern Red Oak, Sugar Maple, Sweetgum, Sycamore, Umbrella Tree, Water Oak, Western Pine, White Ash, White Oak, Willow Oak, and Yellow Pine.
It’s a who’s who of American timber. The school takes its flora seriously: It has an official Ole Miss Tree Trail and boasts three Champion Trees.
Keeping it looking “au naturel” isn’t easy after the armies of fans visit on Saturdays. On Fridays, Landscape Services distributes 500 30-gallon trash cans and 200 cardboard boxes over the 11-acre Grove and Circle area, plus an additional 200 55-gallon barrels across campus. The school distributes garbage bags to each tailgater on game day, to help ensure that trash is disposed of correctly. Landscape Services estimates that 489 tons of waste was removed from The Grove during the 2012 season. The Texas game alone generated 87 tons, a weight heavier than an empty Space Shuttle.
It’s a bizarre procedure, but how else do you propose getting so many tailgaters into The Grove in a method that wouldn’t mean mere anarchy loosed upon the world?
Sometime on the day before a game, “squatters” begin to appear in The Grove. Squatters are folks, usually students, paid to claim a space for a tent. Oxford businesses such as Grove Daddy Tent Co., run by Rob Koestler and John Jordan Proctor, hire squatters (shown right) for their customers, many of whom have been tailgating at the same patch of The Grove for years. Depending upon the size of the game, squatters will start appearing mid-to-late morning on Friday. They settle in for a long day of not leaving their spot.
Security guards keep all tents, tables, and chairs out of The Grove until 9 p.m. There’s usually an anxious waiting game until tailgaters or their emissaries can seize property. “Someone always tries to jump the gun at 8:57, and the cops tackle them and carry them off and everyone starts cheering,” Koestler says. At 9, they open the floodgates for prospective tailgaters to claim a patch of real estate for their tent. “Someone starts the ‘Hotty Toddy’ chant, and after that everybody starts screaming and running. The theory is, if everyone runs at the same time, there’s not enough cops to stop everybody.”
It’s a mad land grab, but there’s method to it. One might think that if there are squatters, what’s the rush to start setting up a tent there? But therein lies the rub: Squatters are not technically a legally binding instrument in The Grove. A squatter’s space is generally accepted, but sometimes an interloper will ignore the gentleman's agreement and set up a tent in that spot anyway. “You still have to get there as quickly as you can,” Koestler says. Worst case: If you don’t get your preferred spot, you might have to move over a few yards.
Grove Daddy Tent Co. is one of a few student-owned businesses to go along with a couple large tailgating companies who will set up for customers on a single-game or season-long basis. Set-up doesn’t take too long for Koestler — he’s usually done preparing for his 40-50 customers by 12:30 a.m. — but breakdown after a game can last until 4 a.m. and even longer.
Grove Daddy Tent Co. charges about $200 per tent, more depending on what other services are tacked on to the basics. Do the math, and it’s a heck of a way to make some money while going to college. They employ about 16 people per game.
“I’m not sure if I’m working full-time and going to school part-time or the other way around,” Koestler says with a laugh.
Lee and Kim Gibson met as students at Ole Miss years ago. They got married, and the Mississippi natives moved to the big city in Memphis. They had two daughters, Elizabeth and Kimberly, who attended Hutchison. The Gibsons tailgated every season, and when it was finally time for Elizabeth and Kimberly in turn to choose a college, naturally they both picked the University of Mississippi.
Elizabeth is now a senior and Kimberly a freshman. Lee and Kim and several other parents of Ole Miss kids devised an ingenious way to stay involved in their kids’ lives: join forces and host a tailgate tent in The Grove. So every Saturday the Gibsons and other Memphis grownups get to see their children and meet who they’re hanging out with or dating. It’s better than waiting to see if they’ll come home for the weekend. “We’ve been able to spend more time with them here than anywhere,” says Lee, a principal at Diversified Trust.
It may be a bit of a conspiracy on the part of the parents, but the kids don’t mind. “The parents put up the tent, so we’re grateful for it,” Elizabeth says. “It’s a place where you can feel at home.” It doesn’t hurt that the parents bring their kids’ favorite foods.
Drew Karban is another student whose parents, Larry and Renee, co-host with the Gibsons. “It becomes a family reunion,” Drew says.
Since The Grove magnetizes so many alum, game day also serves as a class reunion every Saturday. “I see old college friends I haven’t seen in years, all the time,” Lee Gibson says. Further, The Grove is a central meeting point for Mississippians from disparate corners of the state and the South. Often, tents are identified by what town its tailgaters are from. “You’ve got Nashville right there, and Jackson, Mississippi, right there, and there’s another Memphis tent right there,” Karban says, indicating those bordering his tent.
Kneeland “Neel” Gammill, who is also a principal at Diversified Trust, describes The Grove regionalism as a neighborhood, where everyone tries to get as close to their same spot as they can, week after week, season after season. “There are a lot of little towns from all over the place represented in The Grove,” he says. “It’s a legacy, and you try to return to the same patch of land.”