When Erin Napier first got a phone call from a producer at HGTV, she assumed the woman on the other end of the line wanted to buy some stationery. At the time, Erin owned a letterpress company called Lucky Luxe, and husband Ben had just decided to make the transition from student ministry to full-time woodworking. Becoming famous television personalities was not on the agenda. That all changed when the woman said, "I've been stalking you on Instagram. I'm in love with you, and I'm in love with your husband, and I'm in love with your town."
That last part is what ultimately clinched the deal for the Napiers. Erin and Ben also really love Laurel, Mississippi (population 18,000). Erin was born and raised just outside the city limits. After she and Ben graduated from The University of Mississippi, they briefly thought about going someplace new. But, says Erin, "I traveled a lot in college, and when you travel, you realize how special the place you're from really is." Ben, who grew up all over, had also come to love Erin's Mayberry-esque hometown.
In 2008, the couple set about renovating a downtown loft, and a few years later they took on a 1920s craftsman that had long been Erin's dream house. "I have loved it since I was a kid," she says. "I used to walk by it whenever we visited town. I even did sketches of it for my junior high art class." They were lucky to get it. Ben says there's an unspoken waiting list for old homes that are well cared for in that neighborhood. "But then one day, as we were walking by again, we happened to see the owner, Miss Mary Lynn, on her porch," he says. "She went to church with us, but we didn't know she lived there." Erin happened to mention that they would love to buy it someday. Miss Mary Lynn called to sell a week later.
These are the kinds of small-town stories that the Napiers wanted to share with the world, and they liked the idea of Laurel being a main character on a television show. "We wanted to change people's perceptions of small towns in general," Erin says. "We knew that we might be sacrificing our personal lives and privacy, but we would do that as long as Laurel could finally represent Small Town, USA, in the most positive way possible."
And that's how the HGTV home renovation series, Home Town, now filming its second season, came to be. Every week, audiences see Ben and Erin getting their hands dirty, gutting and renovating homes in need of serious help. They also see a charming town on the rebound. Until the mid-1960s, Laurel boomed, thanks in part to the timber and oil industries; but like many small towns, business eventually dried up and moved away. "Ben and I may be getting the attention," says Erin, "but this show belongs to the entire town. There's an army of people here devoting their skills to making it the boomtown it used to be."
That army regularly comes together for spirited small-town gatherings. There's the big Halloween party on Sixth Avenue—a street that only runs a few blocks. There's the fall Loblolly Festival, where Ben dresses up like a lumberjack and takes photos with local kids. And last year, residents gathered for the inaugural BYOCACD ("Bring Your Own Chair and Covered Dish") celebration, aka Friendsgiving, where they broke cornbread and toasted their camera-ready community around a long farm table on Main Street. "It's a small town with a huge heart," says Erin. "We have a lot to be thankful for."