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Published: February 3rd 2012
The front of Rosalie mansion in Natchez MS
Today I explored Natchez
, another old Mississippi River town.
All Southern towns to some degree worship their history, particularly the time before the Civil War.
Natchez in particular is consumed by it.
Everything here seems to celebrate the antebellum era
of the Old South, which in reality was enjoyed only by a tiny elite.
In Natchez’s case, this nostalgia is a big part of its modern existence.
Natchez was founded
on a high bluff above the river.
It’s the southernmost river town that was guaranteed to not flood, so it became a natural port.
Men came here to set up cotton plantations or become dealers, and make their fortunes.
A surprising number came from northern states.
Many of them became very successful at this, to the point Natchez had the highest number of millionaires in the country in 1860.
These men built grand mansions around town.
The Civil War ended the slavery system that was the basis of these fortunes, and the boll weevil
, accidently imported from Mexico, finished off whatever was left of the cotton plantations.
Natchez went from being one of the richest
Mississippi from Rosalie
The view of the Mississippi River from the yard at Rosalie. The river is significantly higher than normal due to near-historic flooding.
towns in the US to one of the poorest in a few decades.
The planter families still owned their grand homes, but they could no longer afford to maintain or modernize them.
By the turn of the century, Natchez resembled a movie set.
The old houses ultimately became the basis of a tourist industry.
People started arriving in the 1920s to see the houses.
The publication of Gone With the Wind in 1936 accelerated this trend.
It wasn’t long before locals took advantage.
They formed a garden club in 1936 which organized a yearly house tour of their homes.
They called it the Pilgrimage
, and it’s one of the largest events in Natchez.
The town has been soaked in antebellum southern nostalgia ever since.
The nostalgia shows up in some odd ways.
Just inside the door of the visitor’s center is a portrait of Miss America 1960
It looks oddly out of place, until one realizes she is the only winner of the Pilgrimage beauty pageant to go on and win it all.
Seemingly every publication in town, including the promotional
Stanton Hall front
The front of Stanton Hall in Natchez MS. It is framed by Greek Revival columns.
brochures, features a young woman in a hoop skirt on the cover.
The outfits represent the era when the town was at its height.
The logo of the garden club is a lady in a hoop skirt, and during Pilgrimage all house guides
are required to wear them.
While most houses in Natchez are only open during Pilgrimage, a number are open for tours year round.
By the time I arrived, this was my third straight day of plantations, and I was beginning to wear out on them.
Still, Natchez has some special ones that are worth seeing.
One is unique in the South.
The first house I toured was Rosalie
Rosalie may be better known for the view from its yard than the house itself, because it is the only one directly on the river bluffs.
The view of the river stretches for miles in both directions.
The water was high from rain, and very brown.
The mansion is Greek revival.
The tour was the by now standard description of architecture and decorative arts.
Very little of the furniture was original to
Stanton Hall from the side
Stanton Hall takes up an entire block in Natchez. This picture from the side shows the size.
It’s now owned by the Mississippi chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution
, and they use it to show off their antiques collection.
The house also has a precious artifact that I have seen nowhere else.
After the Civil War, former Confederate officers were prohibited from participating in civic affairs until they signed a loyalty oath
to the Union.
Rosalie has one on display.
The next house, Stanton Hall
, was better.
It was constructed by one Frederick Stanton in 1857 to show off his cotton wealth.
The location alone shows prestige, on a hill overlooking the town.
It was owned by only two families before the garden club bought it, so most of the furniture and art is original.
The design is Greek revival, like many other plantations around Natchez.
Visitors first enter a long hallway that runs the length of the house.
The ceiling here is very high for houses of this time at sixteen feet.
The walls are decorated with art.
In the center is a decorated arch carved from a single piece of cypress wood.
The purpose of all
Stanton Hall Gardens
A small portion of the formal garden at Stanton Hall
this extravagance, of course, was to show that Frederick Stanton was so wealthy he could spend money like it was water.
The ballroom lies next to the hallway.
This room is a fantasy of red and white, with luxurious curtains, rugs, and furniture.
It also has carved cypress archways.
The pure visual impact is less than the white ballroom at Nottoway (see yesterday), but the wealth on display is higher.
The guides go through it all pointing out the details and what they signal.
The curtains are reproductions, but everything else is original.
The chandeliers came from Philadelphia, and the fireplace from Europe.
The second floor features another long hallway with a series of bedrooms.
These rooms feature details that currently only historians can appreciate but in their time were shocking.
The guides describe many of them.
For example, in the 1850s house taxes were calculated per room.
Closets and such counted as separate rooms.
The logical result is that houses featured a small number of huge rooms and no closets.
Stanton Hall featured multiple closets per bedroom!
Welcome to the oddest shaped diner in Mississippi
This was a clear signal to all overnight guests that William Stanton was so wealthy he didn’t care what his taxes were.
Some of the closets were eventually converted to indoor bathrooms.
By this point, I needed lunch.
I found it at one of Natchez’s more famous restaurants, Mammy's Cupboard
The restaurant is unmistakable.
The building is a large statue of a woman wearing an enormous hoop skirt and holding a tray.
It’s a little controversial in these parts because some people believe it promulgates slavery stereotypes.
The dining room is located inside the hoop skirt.
There were enough cars to fill the parking lot and nearly all of them had local plates, a very good sign.
The food itself is southern diner food.
They had very good sandwiches and heavenly pies, accompanied (of course) by enough sweet ice tea to drown a horse.
The tea is served in ball canning jars.
The staff is friendly.
I needed to eat fairly quickly, and they ensured I got through in time.
The last house today was the most unusual of
This Moorish fantasy would have been the grandest house in Natchez, had the Civil War not interveaned.
the entire trip so far, Longwood
Longwood is unusual due to the circumstances of its construction.
It was planned by a wealthy cotton merchant, Haller Nutt, to be the best house in Natchez.
He started construction
That date should imply what happened afterward.
The exterior walls and basement were finished by the time war broke out, at which point all the tradesmen left.
After the conflict was over, the family could not afford to finish the work.
When the garden club acquired the property in 1970, it was still unfinished.
They have left it in this state, as a symbol of the deprivation of the war.
The house was meant to be the centerpiece of a grand estate.
One reaches the building on a long winding drive.
The drive was dirt and gravel at the time it was built, and still is.
Even though much of the area is overgrown forest, it’s still remarkably pretty.
Eventually, the road reaches the one part that was properly landscaped, a wide lawn with lots of magnolia and oak trees.
The trees at this point are
Longwood's grounds were intended to be as glorious as the house. This is part of the only finished section.
The enormous house comes into view behind the trees, just like the designer intended.
Longwood was designed with a combination of Greek revival and Moorish elements.
The outside walls are entirely brick, which were made on site by slaves.
The house is shaped like an octagon with an enormous cupola roof.
Nutt believed that an octagon shaped house would have better ventilation. When finished it would have had five floors.
Every wall has a porch with white wooden columns.
In the original design, these would be cypress.
For some reason, the owners erected temporary oak ones instead, and these ultimately rotted.
The garden club had to replace them with more modern versions.
The tour starts in the basement.
This was the only level that was finished, and was supposed to be servants’ quarters and storage.
After the war, the family themselves moved into these rooms.
Even though they had no house, they inherited quite a bit of furniture from relatives.
They managed to have a comfortable life given the circumstances.
The walls have a number
Longwood unfinished interior
The unfinished interior of Longwood. It has looked like this for over 150 years!
One of them is of the family butler before the Civil War.
It is one of only two known painted portraits of slaves from the antebellum era.
The tour then went to the first floor, which is a sight unique in the South.
The rooms look like a construction site.
The floor is unfinished wood, and the walls are unfinished bricks.
Layers of wooden scaffolding rise four stories above the floor.
A pile of old wooden tools is in one room, and wooden packing cases are in another.
Brick and cypress wood do not rot, so it has changed remarkably little in a century and a half.
If one ignores the electrical wires now taped to the floor, it’s easy to imagine that the workers went home yesterday.
This room symbolizes the grandeur of the antebellum era, and how the Civil War took it away for good (in popular myth, at least).
No wonder nostalgia is so much a part of the culture of Natchez (and the South in general to a certain extent).
Forks of the Road
Work tools abandoned at Longwood. This scene is over 150 years old, and looks like it happened yesterday.
leave Natchez without seeing the other side of the culture, what provided for all that grandeur.
I found it at the Forks of the Road
In the early 1800s, demand for slaves to grow cotton in the Deep South grew, while demand for slaves to grow tobacco and indigo in the upper south shrunk.
Traders made quite a bit of money by buying slaves in Virginia and other states and sending them (often forced to walk chained together) to Mississippi and South Carolina.
Natchez was the site of the second largest slave marketplace after Charleston, and the Forks of the Road is where the nasty business took place.
The site today shows little sign of the human misery caused there, just a small open field next to a highway split.
The field has several sign boards describing the trade and its toll in human anguish.
There is also a stone bench that serves as a memorial.
I spent the night in Vicksburg.
I chose it mostly because it has the largest cluster of hotels
in this part of Mississippi.
Stopping here ultimately proved to be a very good idea.
The Forks of the Road
All that remains of the second largest slave market in the South, the Forks of the Road.
front was approaching the area, and this one was predicted to be a killer.
When cold air from the Midwest meets warm moist air from the Gulf of Mexico, the result is dangerously strong thunderstorms that produce tornadoes.
This front had the potential to make the previous storm (see April 15th
) look like a warm up.
Vicksburg was just south of the main danger zone.
The storms finally arrived around three in the morning.
I was awoken by a sonic boom.
The room flashed so bright I could read.
The situation lasted for over an hour.
As the storms receded, I noticed something odd, how warm the room was.
I eventually figured out this was due to the air conditioning being out.
The entire city had lost power
in the storm.
I found out the next morning Vicksburg got out easy.
Further east the storms generated huge tornadoes
that destroyed entire communities from northern Mississippi to western Georgia.
It was the third worst tornado outbreak since records have been kept.
I give the hotel staff quite a bit of credit for keeping the place running the
Historic Oak Hill
Stay in history in Natchez
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