Conference on the Front Porch returns to Taylor neighborhood

Posted on Oct 17 2017 - 12:00pm by special contributor Hannah Hurdle

For many people in the South, the front porch is a place of fond memories, ranging from summer days sitting on the steps as a kid covered in sticky popsicle syrup to afternoons spent snapping peas with grandma in her rickety rocking chairs.

In an effort to remember this past and celebrate Southern culture, Plein Air neighborhood in Taylor (a seven-minute drive from Oxford) is hosting the second annual Conference on the Front Porch Thursday and Friday. The conference will feature 10 speakers, including some noteworthy names from the Ole Miss community.

Anthropology and sociology professor Scott Barretta will speak at this year’s conference, alongside Overby Center fellow Curtis Wilkie and former Chancellor Robert Khayat. Barretta said the front porch is somewhat of an old-fashioned symbol for community, as people only build them now only to evoke a feeling of the past rather than wanting to use them.

“I am not sure if the porch is something that in actuality is all that important to people engaging with their social media,” Barretta said. “We don’t take enough time off from our busy schedules to sit there and engage with each other in a familial setting.”

Long before the introduction of Twitter, Instagram or texting, people in the South’s main way of communicating was on their front porches. As people used porches to visit with neighbors, family and friends, a sense of community was built, which saw the front porch slowly integrate into Southern culture.

In a fast-paced world where people today are caught up in technology and can’t seem to slow down, the way of the front porch can seem like a thing of the past. Smart Insights reported that 76 percent of the United States population uses at least one form of social media and as of January 2017, Twitter had 317 million active users.

Front porches came to the South in the 1800s and became popular because of heat. Desperate to find cooler air, people in the South would gather on their front porches to tell stories, eat, talk or play music. Over time, the front porch wasn’t just considered a place; it became a state of mind.

“(I) can’t remember when there wasn’t a front porch attached to the houses I lived in or visited,” artist William Dunlap said. “But (there) were always stories, long elliptical tales, either true or not. It hardly mattered, but it gave you a sense of who you were.”

Dunlap is one of the 10 speakers slated to address the conference at Plein Air this week. Plein Air was built in order to highlight traditional Southern architecture and living, which is why conference creator Campbell McCool decided to host the inaugural Conference on the Front Porch there last year.

While last year’s schedule focused on the history of the porch along with its development and resurgence, this year attendees will experience life on the porch learning how the porch was instrumental in the making of the blues, the influence it had on art, as well as its impact on traditional southern storytelling.

John Maxwell, conference speaker and creator of the one man show “Oh, Mr. Faulkner, do you write?” said he couldn’t think of anything more southern than sitting on a front porch telling stories. He believes it encourages a lazy kind of freedom that allows people to explore and walk into their imaginations.

During the conference, Maxwell plans on performing a 40-minute version of his show, telling stories about William Faulkner’s family and his adventures in Hollywood. For Maxwell, performing on a porch for the first time is exciting not only because it brings new life to the show but also because of the fond memories he has of growing up on his own grandmother’s porch.

“I can remember sitting on her front porch, sleeping out there, and hear cars going down the street thinking to myself that those cars were full of people going who knows where,” Maxwell said. “Magical cities like Chicago, Mobile and (just) the fantasy of being 5 or 6 years old. … I’ll never forget that.”

For McCool, that’s exactly why porches are needed now more than ever. With all the distractions in the world, he feels it is nice to have something like the Conference on the Front Porch encouraging togetherness.

“Just go find a front porch somewhere and just sit there,” McCool said. “Get off your phone, (and just) write, read and sit there.”