Natchez, MS Wednesday March 12
A cold windy morning has given way to sun, light breezes, and relative warmth. A typical spring day I guess. Flowering trees are in bloom, grass is green and some flowers are out.
We are in Natchez, MS continuing our explorations along the Mississippi River. This area of the country was extremely wealthy before the Civil War with river commerce and rich farmland exploited with slave labor. We keep hearing that Natchez had the highest per capita concentration of wealth before the War.
Natchez was a town heavily settled by northerners and voted not to secede from the Union. When the State of Mississippi did secede, though, most people from this part stuck with their friends from the South. Unlike Vicksburg, which was primarily destroyed by Union artillery, Natchez was spared from the destruction.
Natchez comes across in a quick view as the most favorable city we have seen so far. It has a population of only 16,000 but has 80 B and B’s, plus hotels. We are staying at an Airbnb house, Waverly Cottage, just outside of town. It is very nice, the type of housing one might use for an elderly parent, with its own kitchen, bathroom, bedroom and living room. Plus, there are no stairs to climb.
Most of our day has been spent exploring homes. In the springtime, many southern towns have a period of open houses, frequently called a Pilgrimage. The Natchez Pilgrimage runs for four weeks, features 24 homes open on a rotating basis, with three open in the morning, and three in the afternoon. Each day of the week (Wed-Sat) features a different set of homes.
We drove up from St. Francisville this morning and made our first stop at the Natchez Historical Park which spotlights the Melrose Plantation. Since this is a U.S. Historical site, there is a greater coverage of the slave aspects of the plantation with no use of the euphemism “servants”.
Melrose was constructed by a former Pennsylvanian who became a lawyer, partnered with a future governor, married into a high-class local family and acquired the first of five plantations and slaves. The home was built around 1849 and was considered one of the finest homes in all of Natchez. The Park Service bought the site in 1990 partially because the families who owned it through the years kept meticulous records.
I won’t encumber you with all of the details, assuming I could remember them, so just a few comments. The house is undergoing some exterior restoration. The interior is quite sumptuous with many of the original furnishings. Chris and I saw our second punkah, or shoo fly. These are devices hanging over the table with an attached cord that was pulled by a young male slave, scared flies away and created a cooling breeze.
Carpets were created in strips and shipped to the house where each strip had be sewn to others to create the pattern. Other flooring was woven fibers and covered with some sort of varnish that made them look and function like linoleum-which had not been invented yet.
Our tour was provided by a volunteer. She and her husband have been full-time volunteers for the last ten years, working for the federal and state parks, corps of engineers, wildlife refuges, etc. This is their second time here.
After the tour and lunch at a local cafe, we began our afternoon “Pilgrimage”. Our three homes were The Burn (Scots for creek); Lansdowne named for European noble family, and Twin Oaks-named for two oaks on the property way back when. One is still alive.
Not all of the homes on show are plantations but are obviously of some size and age. It did not hurt to have wealthy parents where one side would gift the new couple with a city house and the other parents would provide the starter plantation and some slaves.
The Lansdowne has been in the same family since it was built in the early 1800s. The Burn home was taken by Union forces and used as a hospital and headquarters during the war. It is currently a B and B.
Twin Oaks was a treat. Not only were we given almond iced tea and home-made biscuits, the owner is married to a man from Nordeast Minneapolis and his mother arrived today from Minneapolis for a visit. The owner, Regina Charboneau, is a chef who owns “Biscuits and Blues” in San Francisco, publishes cookbooks (Regina’s Table at Twin Oaks), has hobnobbed with stars (Mick Jagger was a recent guest), and had two Audubon prints in the dining room. (John Audubon spent four months at a nearby plantation and painted 32 of his bird paintings there.) The owner had a person re-enacting the scandalous life of the owners.
Our final stop was at “The Forks”. This was a crossroads outside the city limits where slaves were sold. For decades, slaves from New England and the Upper South were sold here to planters to work the cotton fields as the cotton fields further east were worn out by over planting.
Dinner was at a local restaurant recommended by our host. The evening was spent at “The Historic Natchez Tableaux”. The show is put on four nights per week. Not showing today was another show, “The Southern Road to Freedom”; gospel music put on by the Holy Family Catholic Church Gospel Choir relating the story of African-Americans in the area.
The Natchez Tableaux includes a series of scenes depicting an event prominent in the life and culture of the Natchez area up to the Civil War. It is a community sponsored program put on by hundreds of volunteers and two local garden clubs. Our host has a role in the organizing of the tableaux and was able to upgrade our tickets to put us in the President’s Box. We chatted with the President ( a four year position) and her husband. The show does a nice job of summarizing southern life and features entertaining dance skits.
We are meeting Minnesotans frequently. Just this evening there was a couple from Oakdale at our dinner restaurant. Behind us at the Tableaux was a Roads Scholar tour group and the people directly behind us were from Arden Hills. The woman sitting next to Chris was from East Grand Forks.
Ed and Chris 12:10 am March 13th