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Natchez, Mississippi – Stanton Hall

2 Aug

Stanton Hall

Stanton Hall is Natchez’ largest antebellum mansion.  Grand in scale but beautiful and approachable and friendly.  One can come within a block of the home and not know that it is there and then once it is found one wonders how in the world could they have missed this place?

When the mansion was first built, by Frederick Stanton, it was named Belfast.  Yes, Mr. Stanton was born in Ireland but I am not prepared to say that is the reason he named it Belfast.  In walking around the wonderful structure the cost of building such a structure comes to mind and why was it built in Natchez?  Cotton is the reason.  Stanton Hall is a testament to the importance of cotton and to the wealth that cotton brought to the area.

Stanton Hall is also a testament to the skill of the architects and craftsmen that built the mansion.  The house is monumental in many respects but the small details, such as decorative carvings, demonstrate the master skills of the builders.

The home encompasses 11,000 square feet on the two main floors.  Ceilings are 17 feet high and the doors stand at 10 feet tall.  I was wondering too how many people it would take to keep such a place going – not only the house but the grounds?

Yes, Belfast, or Stanton Hall, is a grand monumental place that once expressed the great wealth of the cotton economy, the South, and Natchez.  Yet by the 1930s this magnificent place was empty and in desperate need of repairs.  In 1938 Stanton Hall was purchased by the Pilgrimage Garden Club.  Since then it has been under their maintenance and is open to the public.

Frederick Stanton built this magnificent home in 1857 but in 1858 Stanton died.  Since then the cotton dominated economy has died. If not for the Pilgrimage Garden Club it would not have lasted 75 years.

Port Gibson, Mississippi – Windsor Ruins

29 Oct

Twenty-Three Columns Are All That Remain of the Grand Plantation Home Windsor

The first time that I visited Windsor I turned off of Highway 61 near Lorman, Mississippi, and drove straight to the place.  On another visit I decided to go the back way from Port Gibson.  I thought I would never find the place and perhaps end up hopelessly lost.  After driving through the thick woods and all the ravines filled with kudzu it became more of a maze than a trip. If I had driven off of the narrow road and into one of those kudzu covered ravines chances are I would still be there.  If lucky, the cold weather might have knocked the leave off of the kudzu enough for someone to spot a vehicle wrapped in those tenacious vines.  In my estimation there is a chance that Jimmy Hoffa is there – someplace on the back roads, toward the Mississippi River, in a kudzu covered ravine west and south of Port Gibson.

One thing about Windsor is that it makes a person wonder why in the world it was built in the middle of nowhere.  There are places located in the middle of nowhere all over the place but not many as wondrous as Windsor.  Those large palatial columns are just standing there.  It is sort of like a story book setting.  When it was built, back in the late 1850s, it was located near the Mississippi River and near a narrow road known as the Rodney Road.   The soil in the area is loess.  That means in was brought to the location by wind.  The loess layer is very thick and the loess formation that Windsor was built on extends from Memphis down to Baton Rouge on the east side of the Mississippi River. How it got there is somewhat of a mystery.  Perhaps during the an ice age most of the fresh surface water was tied up in glaciers and westerly winds just pushed the soil westward as if it was a great dune.  In any case it does erode very fast when exposed to the rain and so the giant ravines have formed and reformed over the ages making it very difficult to traverse.  After the ice age the waters began to flow and perhaps a large stream worked its way around the loess and eventually became the Mississippi River.  The ridge tops of the loess formations are flat and fairly fertile and they make good places for winding roads and the soil is also fairly fertile so it would be possible to grow cotton in the area, however, the other side of the river is much more fertile as it was continuously replenished by yearly floods.

Well that is it for the geology of the area but to me it is a part of the story of Windsor, or at least a part of the story that I am interested in.  Those  interested in architecture will love the ruins of Windsor and those that like plantation homes can only imagine how great the home was that once stood between the columns.  Those that are interested in history will perhaps relate the land and columns back to the historical events that took place here about 150 years ago.  That is what I wish to discuss after the obligatory brief history of the home.

These Fluted Corinthian Columns Appear Almost in the Middle of Nowhere, Mississippi

Windsor was built as a plantation home for Mr. and Mrs. Smith Coffee Daniel, II.  The plantation consisted of about 2,600 acres and was completed in 1861 just in time for the War Between the States.  Twenty-nine columns were constructed of bricks, made at the site, that supported the magnificent structure.  Each Fluted Corinthian Column was 45 feet in height and was covered in mortar and plaster. The fluted columns had iron Corinthian capitals and were joined at the galleries by an ornamental iron balustrade. The completed structure was a marvel in that it contained its own school, commissary, Dr.’s office, dairy and kitchen under one roof. On top of the house was an observatory. Each of the 25 rooms had its own fireplace and the home contained indoor bathrooms with running water that was supplied by a water tank in the attic.  This was the state of the structure on the eve of the most important event in American history.

Capturing the Mississippi River strategically was the top priority of the Union, so it wasn’t long before the war came to Mississippi.  As the war continued Vicksburg became the key to victory but the Union Army was on the western side of the river.  Grant had to cross the river.  On the night of April 30, 1863,  troop ships were loaded with soldiers and a journey down the river commenced.  The first planned stop for a possible landing was Grand Gulf but the Union gunships could not silence the guns at the confederate stronghold so General Grant proceeded south to Bruinsburg. There was a road (Rodney Road) near there that could be used by troops headed east.  Thus began the largest amphibious landing of American troops in military history prior to D-Day. On April 30 and May 1, 1863, over 17,000 troops landed at Bruinsburg and headed east on the narrow and winding road.

There was still a considerable “unknown” that General Grant had to deal with and that was the location of the Confederate Army.  As the troops were landing in Bruinsburg General Sherman feigned an attack on Vicksburg and the confederate forces stayed at home.  The Union troops at Bruinsburg immediately began a hasty advance along the road that passed in front of Windsor.  Grant had to get his troops into strategic positions and capture strategic locations such as bridges quickly.  If the large confederate force at Vicksburg moved against him all could be lost.

When walking around the large columns at Windsor one hardly thinks that Union Soldiers were resting and crunching on their hardtack on the grounds.  Union forces took control of the house and when the ensuing battles with confederate troops took place the plantation was used as a hospital and the observatory became a place to observe troop movements.  Prior to this the confederates had used the observatory to monitor Union ship movements on the river and to signal confederate forces on the other side of the river.

The Original Corinthian Metal Caps Sit Atop Columns Made of Bricks That Where Manufactured On Site

Each time I visit Windsor I think about the advancing Union forces and their dash inland and the ensuing fights at Port Gibson and other locations.  General Grant went on to destroy Jackson in order to protect the rear of his army when he advanced on Vicksburg.  That turned out to be one of the most important decisions of the Civil War.  If Grant had decided to go directly to Vicksburg he would have certainly been destroyed by a waiting confederate army. Instead he protected his army by taking Jackson and then set in for a siege at Vicksburg.  Lots of history in the middle of Nowhere, Mississippi.
But try as I may to remember all of the history that is close by I have to admit that the ruins of Windsor captures my mind in a mysterious way and makes it impossible to think of troop movements and the like.  Windsor is a place unto itself –  a place to experience awe and mystery.

Windsor did not come to ruins because of the Civil War. The house survived until 1890 and hosted a number of people and events over the years.  One visitor was Mark Twain and he even used the observatory on top of the home to observe the Mississippi River.  On the 17th of February 1890 some work was being done on the house by carpenters.  There were some visitors that day and apparently one of them left behind a lighted cigar or cigarette and it fell into some wood shavings on the third floor.  The family was returning home from a trip to get the mail when they saw the flames. Windsor burned from top to bottom.

The haunting columns are all we have of the structure today.  Twenty-three of them remain.  Those columns have not only witnessed history but they have become part of history.  It is a mysterious place and is hard to comprehend.  I have taken picture after picture and can’t capture the essence of the place.  There is just too much here for the senses to take in and process at one time.  There are so many questions that can’t be answered.  If fact they can’t even be verbalized so one is left with their feelings.  You can feel the history, the architecture and the grandeur but you cannot explain it to others – it is just one of those places that impresses you and stays with you but you can’t really say why!

Natchez, Mississippi – Routh Cemetery

20 Jul

Behind the brick wall was a well kept cemetery of some age

In April my wife and I had a visitor from England and we decided that a day in Natchez would make a nice trip.  We didn’t realize though that we would spend so much time in Lorman, and in Rodney, and at Windsor Ruins.  Earlier in the day we even stumbled upon what appeared to be the last resting place for fleets of school buses.  All of these places begged to be photographed and appreciated and we happily obliged.

The time soon got away from us and by the time we arrived in Natchez it was getting late.  Our first stop in Natchez was the Natchez City Cemetery.  Again more photos were needed and more time spent but it was worth it.  The cemetery is a very pretty and historic place and worth a visit in itself.  However, a visit to an antebellum home is a necessity when in Natchez and the sun was going down.  Now there is not a shortage of antebellum homes in Natchez but there is a problem in selecting just one, for a picture, and hopefully before the sun goes completely down.

We headed for Dunleith.  It is very open there and good pictures can be taken from the street and as luck would have it there was an empty parking lot for a business that had closed for the day fairly close to the the house.  My wife opted to stay in the car but Sally and I headed toward the house.  As we approached the house I noticed a brick walled area on a small hill on the other side of the road.  It appeared that this may be a cemetery, which meant I had to check it out.  The pictures at Dunleith went quickly as the sun was already behind the beautiful columned house.  The westward light was on the brick walls across the street.  We made our approach in haste and then up the steps to what indeed turned out to be a cemetery.  This was a complete surprise to me.  A very nice cemetery it was too and the graves appeared to be fairly old as indicated by the wear on the tall stones and vaults.  One thing very special caught my eye and that was a large black dog statue that appeared to be sitting beside a larger tomb. It was near the rear of the cemetery and since it appeared to be a private or family cemetery we did not enter  All of this was a mystery so when I arrived home I went to work searching for clues to the mysterious cemetery that we had mysteriously stumbled upon.

Image taken from the front of Routh Cemetery

It didn’t take long to start unraveling the mysteries via the Internet.  It was the Routh Cemetery and as I studied along it became clear why the cemetery was at that location.  Dunleith was at one time named Routhville and it was the Routh family that first established Routhville/Dunleith.  Most of the inhabitants of the cemetery were the old time owners of Dunleith and their relatives. It was interesting to learn the history of the family and the house but I soon discovered there was a story about the dog statue in the cemetery.

The dog was a life size Newfoundland made of iron.  It was next to a tomb and one of the persons interred there was a man named Walton Pembroke Smith.  He was married to Mary Routh if I remember correctly and he was originally from Virginia.  As a child he fell into the Potomac River and was in danger of drowning.  His dog, a large Newfoundland, jumped in and saved him.  When Smith became an adult he described his beloved dog to a New York iron works.  The result was a treasured statue that resembled his well remembered dog.  After Smith died the family was left with the statue.  It was decided that the best thing to do with the statue was to place it in the family cemetery next to the vault of Mr. Smith.  Today the statue, of the dog that once saved Walton Smith’s life, now guards him in death.

A Friend in Life and a Friend in Death

Being an ignorant traveler can be a disaster, however, I do not believe I would have appreciated that cemetery as much had we not discovered it by accident.

There are many places with unknown stories all along the course of the Mississippi River.  I hope to post many more such “discovered places” in the future.

Vicksburg, Mississippi – Margaret’s Grocery & Bible Class

17 Jun

The Reverend H.D. Dennis "God Sent You Here Today!"

“God sent you here today” said Reverend Dennis as he looked at me directly in the eyes with a peaceful and confident stare.  He then looked over to my friend Paul to include him. Margaret stood behind the counter and smiled at us.  She knew that she would have to remain there and interpret as the Reverend began to talk.  Rev. Dennis could not hear well at all, and I was convinced that the battery was always dead in his hearing aid.  It was not long before he was obtaining some loud Amens from Paul and me.  We had to almost yell for him to hear us but he knew he was getting a response and that was invigorating to him.  Since the Rev. could not hear hardly at all his speech was somewhat, okay mostly, garbled.  This is when Margaret would interject her interpretations of his speech.

Margaret was one of the most kind a gentle people that I have ever met.  Her gentle voice was soothing and always pleasant.  Occasionally she was humorous.  On a previous visit with another friend she told me how enjoyable it was to have some country folks to talk to.  She said that even though she loved the many people that stopped most of them were from the city and she felt that country people had a unique richness about them because they were close to the land to other people that worked the land.  I guess she could tell both of us were piney-woods bumpkins from our speech and the things about which we talked.

As the Rev. carried on with his mostly incomprehensible sermon Margaret showed us some items around her place and took particular pleasure in showing us some pictures of her mother.  We did not ignore Rev. Dennis because he did say something we understood every once in a while and we acknowledged that he indeed was correct and that we agreed with him totally.

He told us how the City of Vicksburg had given him an old school bus and that he had turned it into a sanctuary in order to preach the gospel.  I am hesitant to call the bus a church but the Rev. would place people in the seats of the bus and deliver a short sermon to them.  he stood near the drivers seat and left no doubt he was in charge of the occasion.  He was the driver and those in the seats were the students. In fact his whole place along old US Highway 61 was the Church and the bus served its duty as he needed it.

Main Sanctuary at Margaret's

A Typical Southern Grocery and Bible Class Place

As he showed us around his wondrous place he talked that day mainly about the colors of his creation.  His “place” had grown to be world known and everyday people from all around the world would stop and visit.  “Just like those people, said Rev. Dennis, that come here from all over they are of different colors.  The Lord made it that way”.  He talked about the many beautiful colors that God had used in his creation.  “That is why there are different colors here at this place, they are to show that God likes things of different colors and that there is no difference between the black man and the white man and there is no difference between the Jew and the Gentile.”  In fact Reverend Dennis encourage all people to drop by his place and take a visit and to hear a little of the Gospel.

Margaret was always near with her loving smile and gentle voice.  Her voice always had a tone of encouragement and love for all who would listen.  Despite their trials in life the Dennis’ were filled with love for other people.

Margaret was first married to another man.  I think she loved him very much and he was married to her when she started with the grocery business.  She said that he had gone through World War Two without a scratch but had come back home and was murdered during a robbery.  The Reverend Dennis was her second husband.

Margaret told us that the parents of Rev. Dennis had died when he was young and that he had to live with a close relative.  She said either a grandfather or an uncle I think.  In any case the man treated Rev. Dennis badly and when he had all that he could stand he sneaked a ride on a train to escape.  He had ridden on the front of the train on top of the “cow catcher” and that he always remembered that ride of 19 miles because it was very cold that night.

Margaret died last year at the age of 94.  She lived a full life and had seen the extremes of sacrifice and the joys of love.  The Rev. Dennis is now in a care facility in Vicksburg.  I have read that a church is supposed to preserve the Dennis place but I do not know if that is possible. It takes a special person to keep a place like that up.  Once his spirit is removed there will be nothing there to keep things in order.

Beautiful Margaret Waved Good Bye As We Left

There are some things I will never forget about Margaret and the Rev. Dennis.  Margaret would never let us leave without a hug and a kiss and a kind comment.  I have to smile though when I remember one thing that the Rev. talked about.  Once he spoke you understood fully why Hurricane Katrina had hit New Orleans with such fury.  I will not tell you why but my guess is that he thinks that the terrible oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is for the same reason!.

I am thankful for the times that I stopped and visited with Margaret and the Reverend.  Things do not stay the same forever and now I know that a colorful part of our Southern heritage has gently faded into the past.

Rodney, Mississippi – Presbyterian Church

16 Jun

Just getting to Rodney can be an adventure.  We had no idea where we were but we turned up in Rodney. It was easy though to see how isolated and difficult it can be to find this place. Rodney is in Loess hills that are on the edge of the Mississippi River and valleys and gorges have formed that can be confusing and treacherous. The small roads cannot be much larger than a single vehicle and I say that because in going there and coming back I did not encounter another vehicle so I am just estimating. The small town was mostly the remains of an older town with some buildings in decent shape but with most not suitable for visitation. A few people do live in Rodney as do some loud mouth barking dogs.

Articles and books about Rodney abound so I will not go overly in depth in this post. In the future I plan to make a number of postings about Rodney. For this posting I will limit my discussion to the Rodney Presbyterian Church that proudly displays a cannon ball in it’s facade.

There is a historical feeling about this church and that was very apparent as I circled the church looking in the windows. Despite all the history associated with Rodney, and this church, my thoughts could not stray far from the events that happened on Sunday September 13, 1863. Those that did not attend church that day missed the most exciting day in the history of the church. Some of those that first attended that day probably wished they had never set foot in that church.

The US Gunboat “Rattler” was on duty in the Mississippi River to prevent activity at the port of Rodney and to report on Confederate activities in the area. Seems like duty on that ship was growing routine and the sight of nicely dressed women going to church must have created excitement on the boat that day. On the other hand there was a passenger on board from Red Lick, Mississippi that was headed back North. Mr. Baker had just resigned his position as the Presbyterian Pastor in Red Lick. He was a Northern sympathizer and was on the ship as the guest of Master Fentress awaiting passage to the North. Knowing that Mr. Baker was on board the Rattler the Pastor of the Rodney Presbyterian Church, the Rev. Robert Price, invited Pastor Baker to deliver the message on that day. Pastor Baker accepted the offer and extended an invitation to Captain Fentress and Ensign Strunk. They with about 20 sailors set out for services with Rev. Baker.

Cannon Ball Lodged in Front Facade of Rodney Presbyterian Church

The call of duty should have prevented the acting master and some 20 odd crew from abandoning ship for the pews of the Church that day. It seems that the Union sailors had just settled down into their pews for a day of worship and were finishing the second song. Then in walked Lt. Allen of the Confederate Calvary. He was not looking for a seat but strolled up to the pulpit and after apologizing to the minister he announced to the congregation that the church was surrounded by his men and that the Union sailors were under arrest. A small melee broke out and some shots were fired. Most of the congregation sought safety under the pews while some fled from the church. One elderly woman stood on her pew shouting “Glory to God!”

Once the skeleton crew on the Rattler learned of this fiasco they began lobbing shells into town. As the cannon balls flew through town one of them hit the church and stuck into the exterior. Not to be out ordered and out gunned Lt. Allen sent word to the Rattler that he would start hanging his prisoners if the shelling did not stop. He informed the Rattler that the towns people had in no way played a part in his actions.

The next time that Master Fentress was heard from he was in a prisoner in Libby Prison in Richmond, Virginia. He had written a letter to Admiral Porter explaining the events of that fateful day. The Rattler became a laughing stock and it’s fate was spread far and wide. However the ships notoriety did not last that long because on December 30, 1864, the Rattler hit a snag in the river and sank.

I wonder if Pastor Baker delivered a message that historic day and if he did what did he talk about? A interesting day I must say. Having half the congregation arrested, others diving under pews and some even firing shots. Then on top of that having cannon balls rock the Church. I guess that would drive an elderly lady to stand in a pew and shout “Glory to God.” One thing for sure is that the Spirit does work in mysterious ways in Rodney.