Travel/Mississippi: Taking in the antebellum mansions of Natchez

Travel/Mississippi: Taking in the antebellum mansions of Natchez


For want of a stamp, we found ourselves in the lobby of the Natchez Post Office on a Saturday shortly after noon. The retail counter was locked up tight with no self-service stamp machine available. As we stood there pondering our next move, a gentleman stuck his head out of the service door and asked if he could help. Kathy replied that she was looking for stamps for a couple of postcards. "Where y'all from?" When told Illinois, he replied, "Wait here a sec."

While this was transpiring, I engaged a woman, who was collecting her mail from a post box, about the best choice of two restaurants that we were interested in. She recommended one and said she was not too familiar with the other.

About that time, the postal worker came back out and handed Kathy two stamps. When asked how much, he replied, "On me; thanks for visiting Natchez."

As we left the building, the woman who I had spoken to hurried after us and asked if we liked barbecue. Of Course. "You need to go to the Pig Out Inn, its real good."

While hospitality is not uniquely Southern, our encounters were welcomed in an age when civility is not always practiced.

Natchez, Miss., is cast right out of a Margaret Mitchell novel. Located high on the bluffs of the wide, muddy Mississippi River, this small, well-kept city was established by French colonists in 1716.

By the mid-19th century, the city became the epicenter of a host of Southern planters, who built grand homes with their vast wealth from the cotton and sugar cane trade. Natchez was where planters came to escape their remote plantations and the stifling heat.

Before the Civil War, Natchez (rhymes with "matches") had the most millionaires per capita in the United States, and it shows. Luxurious antebellum homes abound. Natchez has more than 500 antebellum structures inside city limits. Unlike many parts of the South, Natchez escaped much of the destruction that took place during the Civil War.

With a host of innumerable white columns, grand porticos and an array of wide verandas with rich vistas, Natchez provides a museum of outstanding early prewar mansions that radiate Southern charm.

Strolling the very walkable downtown area and surrounding neighborhood, we were greeted with an album of Georgian, Federal and Greek revival architecture interspersed with tidewater planters-style homes. It was as though we had walked into an open-air museum of stunning pre-Civil War Southern life.

Each street lies in the cooling shade of centuries-old Oaks and Magnolias dripping with Spanish moss. Fashionable gardens, large and small, abound. It's serene.

Over a dozen of these grand homes are open for tours throughout the year.

Our first stop was the Rosalie, built in 1820. Perched high above the Mississippi, it stands on the site of Fort Rosalie, where the Natchez Indians in 1729 massacred the entire French settlement.

Rosalie came into being because Peter Little in 1808 had married 14-year-old orphan Eliza, whom he sent north for education the day of their wedding. When she returned as a grown woman, he presented her with the newly finished house.

The red-brick structure has an impressive portico and columns with pronounced skylights over both the first- and second-story front doors.

During the Civil War, the Union Army occupied Rosalie, with Gen. Ulysses S. Grant having spent a night or two here. The furnishings include nearly two-dozen pieces of rich Belter furniture, rosewood pianos (all Southern belles learned to play), heavy fabric curtains and two huge gilded mirrors from the front parlor that were wrapped in quilts and stored in a cave during hostilities and were later rehung in perfect condition.

Stanton Hall is probably Natchez's grandest mansion, comprising 11,000 square feet on the two main floors. Ceilings are 17 feet high, and mahogany doors stand at 10 feet tall. The white mansion sits on tree-shaded property encompassing an entire city block in the heart of Natchez. Begun in 1851, the mansion took eight years to complete.

We were greeted by four immense white Corinthian pillars on the front gallery. Stepping through the imposing front door into an arched hall 65 feet long, one is immediately struck by the enormousness of the palatial home.

Grand parlor rooms are decorated with beautiful hand-carved marble mantels, massive gold-leaf mirrors and grand chandeliers. It's reported that Frederick Stanton chartered an entire sailing ship to fetch the European treasures from the continent that he furnished his home with. Unfortunately, Stanton lived in it only a few months before he died of yellow fever.

The most intriguing, and perhaps Faulknerian in its history, is Longwood.

Longwood is an octagonal Byzantium fantasy, an unfulfilled dream and an unfinished monument to the end of an era.

It was begun in 1859 for Dr. Howard Nutt and his family by a Philadelphia architect and his northern artisans, who all rushed northward upon the declaration of war leaving Nutt, his wife and eight children and their servants to live in the half-built house.

Originally designed to have 30,000 square feet spread over six floors, with 32 rooms and 26 fireplaces, the proprietors fell on hard times during the war. Dr. Nutt, a Union sympathizer, lost all his money and died during the war. His widow and children lived out the rest of their days in the home's basement, the only finished floor, selling milk, eggs and vegetables from their gardens.

To this day, tools, buckets and unopened crates can be found in the upper floors where they have lain for decades now covered in dust.

The splendor of antebellum life is showcased in these great homes, which are genuine treasures that transport you back in time to an age when cotton was king. However, the elephant in the room is, of course, that the wealth that created these palatial monuments was driven by slavery. Although not entirely ignored by the caretakers, there is certainly a glossing over of that dark history. This is unfortunate, as Natchez was home to the Forks of the Road, one of the largest slave markets in the country until the Civil War.

The Natchez Museum of African Art and Heritage, located in the old Natchez Post Office on Main Street, tries to address this oversight. Besides the impact of slavery, other exhibits describe the contributions of the African-American populace of the city. The museum provides you with a look at another dimension of Natchez history.

We found ourselves at the end of our day seated at the Magnolia Grill, a good restaurant below the town's imposing bluffs with a fine view of the Mississippi sunset.

The Mississippi River slipped quietly past Natchez with barely a ripple.

Scarlett O'Hara would feel at home here.

Frank Hosek of Bourbonnais is director of human resources at Carpet Weavers Inc. in Champaign. His hobbies include travel, reading, writing and photography.

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