D’LO — Residents of this tiny Mississippi town are hoping a season in the television spotlight will jump start their local economy.
D’Lo, a 40-minute drive southeast of Jackson, is just one character on a yet-to-air series entitled “Small Town, Big Mayor,” which follows Mayor John Henry Berry as he works to revitalize the Simpson County community.
“I mean, D’Lo’s not just a real exceptional town but it is a good little friendly town,” said John Veazey, a D’Lo native and building inspector. “We don’t judge people. We give them a chance. But if you act like an idiot we’ll treat you like one.”
Berry has been filming the show five days a week — his off days are Tuesday and Wednesday. The film crew follows the mayor as he navigates the many hats (not counting his signature straw cowboy hat) he’s required to wear as mayor, family man and volunteer fireman. Berry also works two days at week at Southern Air Conditioning Supply Company.
UP TV, a network that proclaims that it “tells the stories of families of all shapes, sizes and complexities through authentic, unique and relevant storytelling,” will air the show.
A pilot episode already aired, but the first season will premiere this summer, network officials said.
Amy Winter, executive vice president and general manager of UP TV, said the network learned of D’Lo and its mayor through American Chainsaws Entertainment, the production company now working on the show with UP.
“What first interested us was the passion Mayor Berry has for his mission and the compelling personalities that are prevalent in D’Lo,” Winter said in an email. “Beyond that, we believe America will fall in love with this community and root for its revitalization as emblematic of so many great hometowns across this country.”
Veazey’s father Emory was the town’s previous mayor and Berry was serving as an alderman. Emory Veazey encouraged him to run for mayor, and in 2009 Berry was elected. Berry said he won by 12 votes. This year, he ran unopposed and was re-elected.
Berry “don’t never meet a stranger so he’s just good at what he does,” John Veazey said.
“John’s not a regular politician like you would say,” Veazey said. “He don’t have to get out and politick, he don’t have to go out and print cards or signs much. I mean you can talk to everybody in town in a week.”
Town clerk Betty McDonald says the town’s population is 452, taken from the most recent U.S. Census report in 2013.
Berry is a familiar face in town; he said he makes it a point to stay in his office as little as possible. He is often seen riding around town in a golf cart, now legal, thanks to a bill Rep. Andy Gipson, R-Braxton, authored on his behalf this past legislative session.
The town is ten square miles in total area. Depending on the direction visitors are coming from, their cars will drive by a faded sign on Simpson Highway 149 that reads “Welcome to D’Lo. Not the Biggest, but the Best.”
About a block away is the town’s main street area, named East 4th Street, a roughly tenth of a mile stretch of road that once contained the town movie theater and bank. Today, the building has a sign in the door that says the bank moved to a different location.
“I want to restore main street, for real,” Berry said. “That’s what I’m after.”
That revival is already in the works.
Gipson said he and his wife purchased the former corner grocery at the entrance to main street and intend to turn it into a coffee shop. The roof is falling in and the building needs work on the inside as well, but Gipson, who lives with his family in nearby Braxton, hopes the renovation will spur others to do the same with other buildings on the street.
“I thought, why not invest your money and try and save an old building and try and do some good?” Gipson said. “Nobody’s gonna get rich off it but it’s doing a good thing and it’s in my district.”
Gipson believes the community can be revived, because “a lot of people move to the big city, metropolitan areas, far off, and so many people want to come back and experience small town America.”
In addition to restoring main street, Berry has other big plans for his hometown. With the help of the show, he wants to install a disc golf course at the nearby water park, create a library, and restore the town’s main street and community center.
“I personally look at the TV show as helping D’Lo,” Berry said.
Berry said the show will kick off a crowdfunding campaign to collect donations for the D’Lo Community Center, which needs about $60,000 to begin restorations.
“You know, grants are few and far between. And what are they doing? They’re cutting the budget,” he said, referring to the Mississippi Legislature. “So that being said, we have to do what we can.”
D’Lo has had a brush with fame before — LIFE Magazine featured the town in a short to highlight its role in World War II.
“Every man of fightin’ age in the lumber town of D’Lo, Miss. (pop. 400), is a fightin’ man now,” the Nov. 23, 1942 article said.
Thirty-eight percent of D’Lo’s population served in the war, making it the town with the highest amount of citizens per capita sent to serve in WWII compared to any other city in the country.
According to LIFE, 20-year-old Howard Clayton Cook was the last to go. Today his name is the third listed on a giant stone slab dedicated to D’Lo’s veterans posted outside of the community center.
It’s reasons like these — the town’s history, the community center, and more — that encouraged Berry to consider the show, although his friends and family were skeptical when it was first proposed.
One of Berry’s daughters, Ashley, said another television network was originally in talks to produce the show, which made her worried the series would become a joke about her family and hometown. She was relieved when UP took over, because of the network’s self-described family values.
“I didn’t want them making us look bad. Mississippi already gets a bad enough rap, I didn’t want to add to it,” Ashley Berry said. “But then whenever UP was mentioned and came into the picture it was definitely okay.”
Ashley’s sister Autumn attends nursing school at Hinds County Community College, but comes home frequently to film the show with her family. On a recent afternoon, she was negotiating with one of the show’s production managers to work out filming around her testing schedule.
Managing the two responsibilities creates a tight schedule for the 21-year-old, who said the town’s residents occasionally come knocking at the door to alert the mayor about various traffic tickets or other issues they’d like resolved.
“The citizens come here and they think that we (our family) work for the town of D’Lo, so we get a lot of complaints,” Autumn Berry said.
“I woke up one morning and there was a horse tied to the front of the town hall,” Berry said. “It kept getting loose and the people were tired of it running through their yard so they told me ‘Mayor you’re going to dispose of this horse.’ “
Eventually, family members of the people who owned the animal took the horse to a pasture, Berry said.
“We all kind of thought this TV show was just kind of a joke like Honey Boo Boo or something,” Veazey said, referring to a separate TLC show that features a family in rural Georgia. “It ended up being something that we’re kind of proud of because they don’t make you look stupid or redneck.”