At Tupelo, Mississippi we took the exit for the Natchez Trace heading southwest across the state toward the city of Natchez. By doing this segment we will have travelled the entire parkway except for the section between the Alabama border and Tupelo. The Natchez Trace is one of five parkways under the National Park Service banner. Can you name the other four without heading to Google or Wikipedia? Hint: Only one is located in a western state. Just so you won’t loose sleep over this I’ll put the answer at the end of this entry.
One of our bucket list goals is to visit all of the 391 (and growing) National Park sites. So far we have been to 58.
By taking the Natchez Trace our trip added an hour but who cares when the route is scenic and relatively free of traffic. Some place north of Jackson I asked Steve if he thought this would be a good road for me to try driving while pulling the trailer. I’d pulled our former 26′ trailer with the Toyota Highlander but never did learn to back in to camping sites. This trailer at 35′ long and 13′ high intimidated me but I knew I had to learn to do everything in case there would be a time when Steve couldn’t drive. So we pulled off at one of the many historic sites and I adjusted the seat and mirrors while Steve cleared out my “nest”. The “nest” is where I keep all of our maps, brochures, iPads and computers plus anything else we want handy. Having short legs is an advantage! So off we went. I was surprised to find the trailer pulled so easily. After a few minutes I relaxed. I learned how to judge braking time and once I even worked up the courage to pass a slow moving car. I did tense a bit as we went under the first overpass and Steve making a crunching noise didn’t help. Now I’m game to start learning to back in the next time we come to an easy site.
We arrived at Natchez State Park and pulled right into our full service site with a very level pad. Based on the two parks we have used we are very pleased with the Mississippi State Parks. We always tour the campgrounds to note sites we might want to use in the future. We were in campground A (old campground) but even the sites without sewer would easily accommodate our trailer. Campground B (new campground) has water and electric hookups and is on the lake. Again all of the sites looked spacious. We met another full time couple, Morey and Janet, from South Dakota and invited them over that evening. They’ve just completed their first year on the road. They were off to Texas for the winter.
Our first stop was to the Natchez Visitor Center for information on tours and for Chari to load up on brochures. We learned that 12 homes are normally open to the public. Right now two of them were undergoing renovation and were closed. During the Spring and Fall Pilgrimages these and over 30 private homes are open. Here only a day and already we’re saying “when we come back!” Natchez is one of the oldest cities in North America predating New Orleans by a few years. At various times it has been under French, British, Spanish and American governments. During the first half of the 1800s Natchez was chosen as the place to live by wealthy planters and merchants because it sits high on a bluff (i.e. not prone to flooding) and the breezes from the west cooled and reduced insects. At one time during the antebellum period, Natchez was home to 48 out of the 100 millionaires in the USA. Many of the men were originally from NY, PA and OH but married into prominent families. Adams County where Natchez is located was one of two counties that did not vote for secession from the Union. They feared, correctly, that whichever side won they would suffer financially. Oddly Vicksburg was the other holdout. Therefore Natchez was occupied early in the Civil War and the general in charge did not loot and destroy property. These actions preserved the properties we enjoy today.
One of the plantation homes, Auburn, that normally charges $12/person was holding a free open house on December 9. We didn’t hesitate to take them up on the offer. They were trying to raise money for renovation of the kitchen building. There were volunteers in period dress, music and refreshments. All of the homes we would visit were lovely but the stories that went with them were even more fascinating. Auburn was designed for the first Attorney General of Mississippi, Lyman Harding by architect Levi Weeks and was completed in 1812. Weeks had gained notoriety when he was the defendant in a 1800 murder trial in New York known as the Manhattan Well Murder that was strikingly similar to the O. J. Simpson trial. Weeks was accused of killing a woman he was dating and stuffing her body down a well. His wealthy brother hired a “dream team” of lawyers that included Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton. Weeks was acquitted but public opinion ran against the decision and he was forced to leave New York. He relocated to Natchez. The feature Auburn is most noted for is the freestanding spiral staircase in the foyer. The staircase is made from cypress and the railing is black walnut. This was built by steaming the wood in spaghum moss and using bent wood techniques. Each of the 100+ spindles is hand carved with a round shape at the top and oval at the bottom. After Harding’s death in 1820, Auburn was purchased by a prominent physician, Stephen Duncan. It remained in the Duncan family until 1911. It was then donated to the city of Natchez. A city park was established on the grounds but the city wasn’t interested in the home. It fell into disrepair. All of the antiques were auctioned off. One of the docents said that several generations of Natchez children learned to roller skate inside this home! In 1972 a restoration project was begun by the Auburn Garden Club. Some of the original furnishings were located and donated back to the home. Today it is an excellent example of antebellum beauty. At the time I didn’t realize that there would be so few homes where we could take pictures. This home was beautifully decorated for the holidays as a special bonus.
The next day was cool and rainy so we wanted to do something inside. We chose the Natchez in Historical Photographs exhibit at the First Presbyterian Church. What a hidden gem this is! Rand McNally has even listed it as a Best of the Road selection for their 2011 Road Atlas. The exhibit houses over 500 photographs taken from the Civil War era through 1951 but most are from 1880-1920. It covers portraits from all levels of society and races, street scenes, men (and women) at work and play and river life. This is the collection of Thomas and Joan Gandy. Dr. Gandy found the glass plates and celluloid negatives that had been stored in boxes on an outside porch for decades. He realized their value and learned how to make prints from them. My favorite was of a street scene where a tailor is standing in the store’s doorway measuring a customer while outside the store is a sign offering information on the Klondike Gold Rush. No photos are allowed so you will just have to go see for yourself. What really impressed us though was a poem written by a local man called Youth. Both Steve and I felt this summed up our reason for doing what we’re doing. Steve has written a bit more about it.
There was, however, a poem, written by a Natchez resident, Samuel Ullman, entitled “YOUTH” hanging on the wall. Mr. Ullman was a German Jew, born in 1840, and immigrated to the United States at age 11. He died in 1924. His poem struck a chord with both Chari and me, and we’d like to share it here. A few of the words may seem a little dated today, as when he refers to what we call a radio with the word “wireless”. We use “wireless” in today’s computer age with a similar but somewhat different meaning. And the word “aerial” is a word I haven’t heard in years… not since my own “YOUTH”.
Youth is not a time of life; it is a state of mind;
It is not a matter of rosy cheeks, red lips and supple knees;
It is a matter of the will, a quality of the imagination, a vigor of the emotions;
It is the freshness of the deep springs of life
Youth means a temperamental predominance of courage over timidity of the appetite,
For adventure over the love of ease.
This often exists in a man of sixty more than a body of twenty.
Nobody grows old merely by a number of years.
We grow old by deserting our ideals.
Years may wrinkle the skin, but to give up enthusiasm wrinkles the soul.
Worry, fear, self-distrust bows the heart and turns the spirit back to dust.
Whether sixty or sixteen, there is in every human being’s heart the lure of wonder,
The unfailing child-like appetite of what’s next, and the joy of the game of living.
In the center of your heart and my heart there is a wireless station;
So long as it receives messages of beauty, hope, cheer, courage and power from men and from the Infinite,
So long are you young.
When the aerials are down, and your spirit is covered with snows of cynicism and the ice of pessimism,
Then you are grown old, even at twenty,
But as long as your aerials are up, to catch the waves of optimism, there is hope you may die young at eighty.
What more can you say?
The chapel housing the exhibit is also interesting. It was built in 1828 but now is used as the education complex. The pews have the doors on the aisle similar to those we’ve seen in New England.
Our next stop was at the two sites composing the Natchez Historical Park, a NPS site. The first was the plantation of Melrose. The entrance is lined with draping live oak reminiscent of Gone With The Wind. This mansion home was built in the Greek Revival style over the course of eight years by John McMurran, a wealthy lawyer, state legislator and cotton grower. This was one of five plantations he would eventually own. After moving to Natchez from Pennsylvania in the 1820s he married into a wealthy local family. Cotton was in high demand in England and prices were often manipulated by the growers. Today we’d call it a monopoly. In a good year a the Mc Murrans could expect the equivalent of 3 million dollars. The Mc Murrans moved in to the mansion in 1849. The home was said to be decorated with everything “good taste and full purse” provided. They sold the property in 1865 to George Malin Davis after the death from disease of their daughter and grandchildren. The Davis family kept Melrose in the family until 1976. The National Park Service took possession in 1990. Currently the exterior is undergoing renovation. By Spring 2013 the front will be repainted the original cream color with a faux marble appearance. A portrait of John C. Calhoun hung in the parlor. Since we had visited his home this summer, it was interesting to see how these families knew one another. The interior is lovely but dark. The shutters are kept closed to prevent discoloration from sunlight. This made hand held photography difficult. If you look closely at the master bed you will see 2 hooks on the rear of the canopy. This is where the mosquito netting was hung. The posts at the foot would be raised at night and the netting secured there. Yellow fever and malaria were constant threats in this area. Two slaves would use a large rolling pin to smooth the feather bed each morning. If you wanted to nap during the day, the day bed at the foot of the bed was used so as not to mess up the feather bed. In the dining room the large paddle structure over the table is called a punkah. Originally from India, it was operated by a slave and the back and forth motion cooled you and kept away flies.
The next plantation is called Longwood and “it is the one everybody comes to see” because this is the largest octagonal house in the USA. Melrose seemed large at 16,000+ square feet but Longwood dwarfs it at 30,000 square feet. When wealthy cotton planter Haller Nutt (original family name was Scandinavian Knutt) wanted to build a new home he wanted something different than the current Greek Revival style, something to impress. He certainly got his wish. The Oriental villa with its Moorish Byzantine dome looks as if it were transplanted from Turkey to Natchez. The open rotunda towers 6 floors to the dome which is crowned with a 24 foot finial. The home was designed by a Philadelphia architect who brought 24 skilled workers with him and work was begun in 1860. One million bricks were made on the property. When the Civil War erupted in April 1861 the workers fled back North. The basement level was completed with local workers and the family moved to Longwood. Mr. Nutt thought the war would be short-lived and that the home would be completed when it was over. This was not to be. He died in 1864 and the remaining 2 floors were never finished. By luck or fate, our guide this day was a descendant of the Nutt family. His grandmother was the last inhabitant of Longwood. His mother grew up playing in the unfinished upper floors and wandering the estate. The furniture originally ordered for Longwood was confiscated by the Union port blockade. Therefore the furniture at Longwood came from Mrs. Nutt’s family and has remained there for 150 years. It was beautifully decorated for Christmas. Much to our dismay no photos were allowed in the finished area but were allowed in the unfinished portions. We were told that the Pilgrimage Garden Club who now owns Longwood had allowed Bob Vila to film their sister property at Stanton Hall. When the show aired some enterprising crook used that to scope out the security system. Since then no photography has been allowed.
While we were waiting for the tour of Longwood to start an interesting event happened. Our guide, Alex, mentioned that he lived with his mother and grandmother on a plantation which was the oldest continuously inhabited plantation in Natchez. A man in the tour was from Natchez and asked “Do you still have the Mastadon tooth?” Alex replied “Yes. We used to use it as a door stop until someone told us how rare and valuable it was. Now we have it under glass.” The first man asked “Have you ever heard the story of when it was found?” Alex hadn’t. Here’s the story. It was Alex great grandfather or uncle who found a mastodon skeleton on the property. It was dug out carefully. It was very brittle. Ten men carefully moved the skull onto a truck. His great grandfather told the workers to take it up to the barn and he’d be along shortly. When he got to the barn he saw nothing but a pile of dust and some teeth. The workers, not knowing what these old bones were had just thrown it off the truck. The tooth they have now is the only thing that survived.
We can see that this post is going to be quite long. It was a very busy week. Since we want to get this posted before the holidays we’ll split it up into two parts. Before we go, here’s the answer to the National Park Service trivia question: the 5 parkways are 1) Natchez Trace Parkway 2) Blue Ridge Parkway 3) Skyline Drive 4) George Washington Parkway 5) Rockefeller Parkway between Yellowstone and Grand Teton NP.