View from street

HGTV Home Town | The Burks House

First featured on the Laurel Mercantile Co. Journal, March 4, 2018.

“He wondered whether home was a thing that happened to a place after a while, or if it was something that you found in the end, if you simply walked and waited and willed it long enough.”
― Neil Gaiman, American Gods

Used to be, that when I thought of ‘home’, the first thing that came to mind was the place I grew up.  I was raised in the county, outside Laurel proper, on a hundred acres of lapsed cattle farm.  My earliest memories are of time spent combing the woods for hideouts, or flowers, or wild animals I could turn into pets (I was rarely successful with that, but I tried).  Home to me was both freedom and safety — I could be a wild thing all day, as long as I was home in time for supper.

My views changed as I grew.  With all the self-righteousness that a teenager could muster, I made the decision that I would never again live here — I was going to have a career in a city where there were “things to do”.  I went to college, went to work, and married a man who’d never visited Laurel until he met me.

All those years, I felt a pull — a little reminder of that free feeling that can only come from a place of true safety.  A whisper that we weren’t ‘home’ yet.

In December of 2016, I finally answered the pull, and Cory and I moved to Laurel, where we opened Guild and Gentry.  Through mutual friends, we met Josh Nowell, who owned an apartment downtown that we lived in while we launched the business.

All the while, we looked at houses.  We desperately wanted a home here; the community had embraced us, the store had been well received, and we were aching to put down roots.

We looked at houses for nearly a year, and nothing spoke “home” to us.  Enter Erin, Ben, and Home Town.

Our friends and family had been trying to convince us to contact the show for the majority of the time that we’d lived in the apartment, but we were hesitant.  The idea of giving someone free reign with your home (and your money) is terrifying.  We knew Erin and Ben were incredibly talented, but as self-professed “control enthusiasts”, Cory and I struggled with letting go of such a weighty series of decisions.

We finally reached our breaking point with house shopping several months into our time in Laurel.  We decided to look for the third time at a house that had been for sale for a while; although it wasn’t our dream house by any means, it had a few redeeming features and we thought we could live there a few years while we looked for something better.  The afternoon of our appointment, we arrived to a dark, locked house.  A call to the owner revealed that the house had sold the day prior, and she had lost my phone number and didn’t know how to contact us to let us know.

That sealed it for us.  We talked it over and decided that reaching out to the show would, at best, find us a place to live, and at least, we’d be no worse off than we were then, standing on the porch of that dark house.

We applied, and, a few weeks later, found ourselves meeting the Napiers for “Real Estate Day” — the day that we would see the two houses they’d chosen as good fits for us.  The first house they showed us was lovely.  As you saw last night, it was cozy, it checked off most of our list of “wants”, and that backyard space could have been amazing in their hands.  What you didn’t see was the reaction in my mind when they showed us the second house.

My heart stopped, just for a second.

I knew that house, because I’d always loved it.  It was on my family’s drive to church, so I’d passed it at least six times a week for over a decade of my life.

The house had some rough patches, sure, but I knew that it had the potential to be gorgeous.  To be home for us.

We left the Napiers, and I told Cory about my feelings on the Ratcliff house.  He didn’t know my history with the house, but he’d felt the same way about it.  We made the decision immediately and set up a time to meet with Erin and Ben later in the week.

A few days later, while having lunch with my mom and stepdad, a friend of my mom’s stopped at our table to speak.  Rebecca Patrick and my mom went to college together, and after the usual pleasantries, Rebecca asked where we were living since we’d moved back, because her father’s house had gone on the market.

Rebecca went on to tell us about how she wished someone would choose it for Home Town, because Erin and Ben met through her yearbook class at Jones County Junior College, and she would love to see what they did with the place.  Having already made my decision about the Ratcliff house, I wasn’t really interested, but asked anyway — where was her father’s house?

As Rebecca gave me the directions, I had the strangest feeling.  I don’t know if you’re a believer in the good Lord, but I am, and I felt His hand right about then.  Her maiden name was Ratcliff, and the house she was describing was the house that Erin and Ben had shown us, the house that I’d loved for years — the house Cory and I had decided would be our home.

That conversation, combined with a million other subtle nudges, thoroughly and finally changed my mind about letting go of the process.  The rest, as they say, is history.

View from street

Front Door of House

It’s HGTV policy that homeowners don’t get to see their episode until it airs, so we watched our home’s renovation right alongside the rest of America last night.  It’s a surreal feeling, sitting in a house while watching it on TV.  Watching them find the chimney, and the board with the house’s “birthday” on it, I got a little misty.  In a way, I wish we could have been here to see those moments in person, but having them captured on film means that we’ll have them forever.

Working with Erin and Ben and the team of craftsmen, artists, and makers they bring together was far removed from my initial fears about letting virtual strangers design our home.  Because I know everyone wonders — Erin and Ben are exactly who you see on TV.  They’re goofy and funny and earnestly genuine people who fiercely love our little town and want to see it grow.  They made an effort to get to know us, found out what mattered to us, and used their respective gifts to make this house our home.  They listened, about everything from our appreciation of exposed wood and brick to our ideal floor plan, and teased out details we love but would never have foreseen.  The detail at the side of the stairs remains one of my favorite parts of the house because of it’s unexpected beauty, and I don’t think Cory and I will ever become numb to the view from the living room door into the kitchen.

The Ratcliff house — now the Burks house — is a blessing I don’t think we’ll ever get over.  We were able to include Rebecca and her brothers in the process; you probably saw Erin’s post with Rebecca the night of our reveal.  The Ratcliffs all came to visit, and gifted us with a drawing of their own — a print of the sketch that Roy, the oldest of the brothers, did of the house when he was in high school.

We’ve finally gotten moved in and settled in our new house.  It doesn’t look exactly like it did when Erin designed it, because we live here, and life is messy.  It may not have turned out exactly as we expected, and our journey home definitely didn’t go as planned, but as you saw in the show, it’s the things that you don’t expect and don’t see coming that make all the difference in the end.

Thanks to Erin and Ben, this place is truly ours.  It’s our center, our place of safety to return to after days in the wild.

We’re glad to be home.


Distinctly Masculine: A Manifesto


We believe that commerce is impossible without community.

Success is multiplied, not divided, and the more people that choose to participate in the economy, give back to their neighbors, and engage with their community, the greater level of success for all.


We believe that shopping should be an experience, not a chore.

Life is too short to be bored. If we’re not surprising, delighting, and engaging you as customers, we’re doing it wrong.


We believe that a few things, done really well, are better than a multitude of sub-par offerings.

Quality trumps quantity, every time.


We believe that dressing well is a mindset.

Style is personal, and your clothes should make you feel good. If you feel good, you look good, no matter what you’re wearing.


We believe in craft and chivalry.

We believe in the value of all people — our investment in ourselves and in others is our legacy.

First Baptist Church, Laurel, MS, Sanctuary Architectural Plans, Detail Drawing with Construction Notations

2017: Resurrecting the City Beautiful

Click here to read the previous post in CRAFTING THE CITY BEAUTIFUL.


Fast forward one hundred and twenty five years to 2016, and my grandfather had just passed away.

One rainy Saturday in May, I was digging through what seemed like an endless array of belongings stored in my grandparents’ basement. My grandparents were Depression babies, and they never threw anything away. Everything had a use, and a reuse, and endless potential, because it could be the last time anything of similar significance came their way. This transferred into their adult lives – my grandfather as a construction superintendent and my grandmother as a teacher – and on this particular Saturday, I was sifting through the expansive collections of construction detritus that my grandfather had compounded over the years.

As long as I could remember, that basement was his version of a museum. He had leftover building materials and tools from every job he’d ever worked on, and could wax poetic about the trials and tribulations that accompanied each and every project. He used to tell me in detail about the way the floors were laid in the Lauren Rogers addition, or exactly how and why the crane failed the day they were trying to place the First United Methodist steeple. He helped build the Laurel we know today, and never missed an opportunity to talk about it.

I never paid enough attention.

I’d finished high school here and hadn’t wasted a minute getting away. I went on to architecture school at Mississippi State; I came from a family of builders, of one stripe or another, and architecture seemed the logical way to marry my creativity with my attention to detail. I finished, and moved further away to begin my career.

I learned quickly that a life spent in front of a computer was not what I wanted.

I went back to grad school, and got an MBA. I chased that with a stint in sales, which kept me on the road constantly, and from which I was taking vacation to help my family pack up my grandfather’s home.

Back to the Saturday in my grandfather’s basement.

In the farthest shadowed corner of the basement – a place I’d always been scared to go as a child – I was moving out old wood, boxes, and abandoned furniture components when I hit a layer of papers covering an old drafting-style table. After bringing in more light and uncovering the entirety of the tabletop, I realized what a treasure I’d just uncovered.

In the dark, moldering corner of my grandfather’s basement, I found architectural plans for a handful of the most pivotal projects of my grandfather’s career — First Baptist Church’s sanctuary, the Laurel Leader Call building, Laurel Fire Station Number One, and several others that he spoke of often.

First Baptist Church, Laurel, MS, Sanctuary Architectural Plans, Section Drawing

First Baptist Church Sanctuary Plans, Section Drawing with Notes

My architecturally-inclined heart skipped a beat. My grandfather literally built parts of Laurel, and I’d found the instructions he used. These buildings had shaped my life, and my experiences of my hometown. I realized then that my architectural aspirations had always been about building, but that building something didn’t necessitate construction.

The only way to build a place is to give its people a reason to stay, and give everyone else a reason to want to.

Laurel is thriving again. It’s an uphill battle, but it’s one being waged by visionaries of all stripes who know that Laurel can be the progressive, innovative and culturally relevant place that our “Iowa men” intended.

Guild and Gentry was envisioned as an homage to our city’s founders, both the named and unnamed in the annals of Laurel’s history — the men who built this town with their hands, hearts, and minds. Laurel’s past offers us a glimpse into what’s possible for her future — craftsmen, innovators, visionaries, and makers working together to foster creativity, build community, and leave this town better than we found it.



Click here to read the FIRE + FORTITUDE series.

Eastman Gardiner Lumber Company Employees

1882: Building the City Beautiful

The sun was hot, but the massive pines grew too close to let the light in.  They didn’t throw limbs until twenty or thirty feet high, creating a vaulted, green cathedral that smelled of pine sap, smoke, and sweat.  This was church, and the men worshipped at an altar of yellow pine.

In the Reconstruction South, progress was dependent on timber.

Timber manufacturing began in our stretch of the Piney Woods in the late nineteenth century with the expectation of a Yankee-driven lumber boom.  John Kamper and A.M. Lewin, seeing a wide open market, founded Kamper and Lewin Manufacturing Co. in the late 1880s.  They built two mills in the area and began clearcutting and processing yellow pine.

In 1882, the USPS began the process of establishing mail stops at the lumber mills popping up all over the Southeast.  This directive landed on the desks of Kamper & Lewin Manufacturing Co., with instructions to name their two mills— one on what is now First Avenue, and one in the already-named community of Kingston, a few miles north.  Tasked with identifying the settlement that had grown up around their as-yet-unnamed mill, the men each tried to name the community after the other.  Both men immediately declined – neither Kamper nor Lewin wanted his name attached to such a forgettable place.  Faced with the impending deadline to name the outpost and establish mail service, they visited the mill in search of inspiration.

They walked the rails, circled the camp, and stood under the pines.

Nothing came to mind.

In desperation, they finally named our future City Beautiful after the first thing they’d laid eyes on when the train stopped – a stubby patch of mountain laurel growing between the tracks and the trees.

The men submitted their mill’s name — “Lawrell” — to the USPS.

The community grew, and mail began to arrive.  The small mill town gained the attention of the national Postmaster General, John Wanamaker, who was irked by the misspelling.  He officially changed the name to Laurel, and effectively erased the incorrect spelling from Mississippi geography.

Laurel was born.

She was small, and unimpressive to the naked eye, but her potential was visible to those who would see it.

Kamper was not our visionary, though.  When he crossed paths with father and son Silas and George Gardiner, and their cousin, Charles Eastman, on a train platform in Slidell in 1891, he thought he’d found the perfect way to get rid of the mill he wouldn’t give his name to.  The three “Timber Cruisers” were visiting from their homes in Iowa, searching for timber investments in the pine-rich South.

Our “Iowa men” agreed to visit Laurel with Kamper.  What they were shown was a run down mess: a ramshackle mill with an even shabbier settlement.  What they saw, though, was potential.  The virgin pine forests in and around Laurel were impossible to resist, and for four dollars an acre, the Gardiners and Eastman purchased 16,000 acres of land.  Later that year, they packed up and moved their homes, families, and hearts to the Piney Woods of South Mississippi.

Property Lauren Rogers Museum of Art Archives

Property Lauren Rogers Museum of Art Archives

They may have been timber men by trade, but they, and their families, were builders at heart.  The first generations of Gardiners and Eastmans, and later, their cousins the Greenes, saw no reason why a small encampment in the deep woods of Mississippi – the poorest state in the post-Civil War Union – couldn’t be a bastion of culture, progressivism, and intellectualism.  While most timber barons kept homes for their families in larger, more metropolitan cities, and traveled back and forth to the lumber camps, these men chose to settle their families here and bring the urbane with them.  They contracted the foremost experts of the time, on everything from education to park design, and poured a significant portion of the money they made from the land back into Laurel.

They built a place worth calling home.

Click here to read the next post in CRAFTING THE CITY BEAUTIFUL.