The genesis of their story is the stuff of TV fairy tales. It goes like this: College sweethearts Erin, an artist and graphic designer, and Ben, a woodworker, craftsman and former minister, had their historic home in Laurel, Mississippi, featured in “Southern Weddings” magazine in 2014. Erin gained a slew of Instagram followers practically overnight, one of whom happened to be an HGTV executive who loved their collected, easygoing style. She wondered, might the couple consider a new chapter on television?
They accepted the challenge: “Home Town” debuted in January 2016, and the Napiers have been amassing a loyal audience ever since.
“It’s pretty unexpected. This was not something that we thought about or dreamed of,” says Ben. “This is all sort of a happy accident,” Erin, adds.
That ability to complete each other’s thoughts and take the fame in stride – maintaining an approachable style and small-town pride – are key components of their appeal.
The pair met at Jones County Junior College in Ellisville, Mississippi, each secretly harboring a crush on the other. When Erin scored an assignment to interview Ben for the yearbook in 2004, he used the conversation to ask her out on a date. The two became inseparable. “December 8, we took the photos for the yearbook. December 9, we went on our first date, and he met my mama. December 10, we looked at the Christmas lights in Mason Park. December 13, we decided we would get married someday. It sounds crazy to you, maybe. But it makes perfect sense to me,” Erin shared on Instagram on the 15th anniversary of that fateful week.
They transferred to the University of Mississippi in Oxford in their third year and married after graduation in 2008. The newlyweds moved into a loft in historic downtown Laurel, where Erin grew up. “We renovated it together on a shoestring budget,” she recalls. She had her heart set on a $5,000 armoire (“which we could absolutely not afford”), so she took photos of it from every angle and asked Ben to build it. “He’d built me picture frames, so I figured surely he could build me an armoire,” she laughs.
Ben took on the labor of love, learning from the process and deepening both his love for and competency in woodworking. Although he notes, “There’s a lot of stuff I can’t stand about it,” Erin still declares it “beautiful,” and it holds a place of honor in the couple’s home.
Those lean years provided some valuable lessons they bring to every “Home Town” renovation they do today. “We were trying to figure out how we could stay on budget but still do as much to the place as we could,” Ben says. “That’s what we do now, just for other people.”
The town of Laurel (population 18,338) itself is a starring character in “Home Town,” and it’s a huge part of what keeps the Napiers grounded. “Everybody here knows us,” says Ben. “When we’re in places like New York, Atlanta, Nashville or (Los Angeles) and people stop us on the streets …” Finishing his thought, Erin says, “It’s very surprising.”
Laurel, located about 90 miles southeast of Jackson, was founded in 1882 and flourished thanks to the timber industry (the region is known as the state’s Pine Belt). Mills and factories followed, bringing economic prosperity. Even now, the town boasts the state’s largest collection of early 1900s residential architecture. But as companies moved their operations offshore seeking a cheaper bottom line, the town languished. When the Napiers planted roots in 2008, there was virtually nothing to draw visitors or locals, with vacant storefronts lining the brick streets. Still, they saw its potential and looked for ways to support it, with Ben volunteering with economic and preservation organization Laurel Main Street.
Now, thanks in no small part to the success of the show, “People come to visit Laurel every day, and that’s amazing. It’s incredible. It’s why we agreed to do the show,” says Ben.
Living in a small, tight-knit community makes them especially mindful about the way they approach home renovations. “With everybody who we do a house for, there’s a 90% chance we’re going to have an ongoing relationship with them because Laurel is such a small town,” Ben says.
They’re also known for their exceedingly personal touches, a result of getting to know the homeowners who will inhabit their designs. It’s not uncommon for them to use a piece of childhood memorabilia or a family heirloom displayed in a clever way to make their TV clients feel at home. “We are surrounded by the people we work for,” says Erin. “We want to make sure that they’re happy and that they feel seen and heard when we design their house.”
After observing the impact of manufacturing migrating away from towns like Laurel, Ben and Erin were determined to use their platform to support and amplify makers and artisans, not just in Mississippi but across the country. After they signed on with HGTV, in 2016 they made plans with two other couples to reopen the Laurel Mercantile Co., which operated from 1901 to the 1930s. Now, it’s a downtown attraction, calling to mind the meteoric success of another HGTV power couple: Chip and Joanna Gaines, whose Magnolia Market in Waco, Texas, pulls a steady stream of fans-turned-shoppers.
Everything in Laurel Mercantile is made in the United States. “Without American manufacturing or American industry, Laurel wouldn’t exist,” says Ben. “(Having American-made products) is putting our money where our mouth is.”
Although they could source mass-produced items at a lower cost, domestically made products were a non-negotiable from day one. “If we’re going to say we care about small-town revitalization, yet we have all of our products made overseas, then we wouldn’t really care about small-town America,” says Erin. Their company employs 35 locals and uses more than 100 vendors from around the country.
The pair will debut a spinoff show, “Home Town Takeover” (premiering Sunday), in which they’ll make over elements of Wetumpka, Alabama (population 8,371). They hope to bring some of their approachable star power to revitalize the struggling town. They’ve also debuted “Home Town: Ben’s Workshop” on Discovery+. “It’s me in my woodshop, building furniture with some type of celebrity guest,” says Ben. Singer Chris Lane, astronaut Scott Kelly and tennis legend Martina Navratilova are some who’ve visited the show.
Fans of “Home Town” enjoy the loving banter between husband and wife, who seem uniquely suited to working together. Erin recently shared via Instagram that Ben writes her a little love letter each morning, and she frequently gushes on social media about still having a crush on him. He told “People” magazine last year, “Erin is my dream girl. Why would I not continue to court her and win her over every day?”
With an adorable toddler named Helen (and a new baby girl due this month), three television shows, a retail business and other projects in the works, it’s an understatement to say the couple is busy. And while some with a similar meteoric rise to stardom might embrace the prospect of moving somewhere bigger, closer to the bright lights of Hollywood, such a move holds no appeal for the charming couple.
“This is our hometown,” says Ben.
“I’m a homebody,” Erin adds. “I like to take a trip, but I also like to get home as fast as I can.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: ‘Home Town Takeover’: HGTV’s Ben, Erin Napier welcome fans to new show