We went to Natchez with my dad this spring and saw the beautiful town houses of the planters. We actually got to tour the insides of two: the tragic Longwood (otherwise known as Nutt's Folly) and the gorgeous Stanton Hall.
The tour I most enjoyed, however, was a photographic tour through time, located in a church rather than a home. The 1st Presbyterian Church, a beauty itself in terms of architecture, houses a sizable collection of photographic art from the 19th and early 20th Century-- fashion, town and river life, families, homes and businesses. The photos personalized and brought reality to the fantastic buildings we were touring.
An organist was giving a lesson in the sanctuary while we were there, and, since Dad and Aravis and I were fascinated by the photos, the kids occupied themselves listening when they got tired. (I was so fascinated that I didn't even take any pictures of the building or the gallery.)
The people at the church were welcoming and kind, and even offered to let us help paint a couple of rooms they were working on downstairs. :) I might have taken them up on it, they were so friendly and the place so beautiful, but we were slated to drive up Natchez Trace and have a picnic, so we declined.
Henry C. Norman was an internationally recognized photographer from the early days of photography. There is a book I want, Norman's Natchez, that contains quite a few of his pictures. I think it is out of print. I am wishing for it on Paperback Swap.
The day before visiting the photo gallery, we travelled across the Mississippi River into Louisiana, where the wealthy of Natchez traditionally had their plantations. We visited Frogmore Plantation a working cotton plantation and gin that also contains historic slave cabins and other plantation buildings.
At Frogmore I purchased two books:
My Folks Don't Want Me To Talk About Slavery, a collection of accounts of slavery related by former slaves to writers in the Federal Writers Project of the 1930s. The interviewers followed a list of prescribed questions, and the interviewees' answers were candid. There are over 2000 of these interviews available for perusal at the Library of Congress website. I found the book intensely interesting.
The Plantation Mistress: A Woman's World in the Old South by Catherine Clinton, a history of planters' wives and their world. Despite the obvious radical feminist bias, I relished this book, especially because in the writing of it, Ms. Clinton accessed and quoted from over 500 manuscript collections containing many source documents previously unexamined. (What I would really like is a book containing all of those source documents!) Unfortunately, Ms. Clinton's determination to label these women "prisoners in disguise" is a distraction from the admirably detailed look at the social customs, health, morals and management of these amazing women.
We went to Frogmore first, because I wanted the girls to see where the wealth came from before we saw the town houses. By a strange coincidence, the two homes we chose to tour in Natchez were built by wealthy men who, like the rich fool in the parable (Luke 12), did not live to enjoy their wealth:
Longwood was built for Julia Nutt by her husband, Dr. Haller Nutt. A Northern sympathizer and incredibly bad prophet, Dr. Nutt did not think all the secession talk would amount to anything, and began building his lavish Oriental octagonal villa only months before the War of Northern Aggression (that's the Civil War to Northerners). When war was declared, the Northern workers dropped their tools where they were and fled the South, leaving Dr. Nutt and Miss Julia with a home finished on the outside and unfinished on the inside. They were living in the slave quarters while the building went on, so Dr. Nutt hired local craftsmen to finish out the basement of the mansion and the family moved in.
Julia would live in the basement of that mansion for decades.
Being a Northern sympathizer, Dr. Nutt gave General Grant permission to use his Louisiana plantation, Winter Quarters, for a military camp. When the soldiers left, they looted and destroyed the crops, leaving no means for supporting the people who lived on the plantation or across the river at Longwood. (However, Winter Quarters was the only plantation in that area left standing after Grant's men came through.)
Dr. Nutt passed away in 1864, leaving Julia and her several children with many slaves, no crops, and bills overdue for luxurious materials and furnishings that had not been received due to Northern blockades.
I mean, really, the man had no clue, did he?
Julia rose to the occasion, fought the federal government for damages after the war, won enough money to send her children to school, and raised her family. Eventually, the unfinished mansion was turned over to the Pilgrimage Garden Club (a group of ladies that caretake and provide tours of many Natchez town houses) with the stipulation that the Oriental villa never be completed. Until the 1960s, the tools lay on the upper floors exactly where the workers dropped them as they returned North.
Longwood is located in what would have been the outskirts of Natchez at that time, while Stanton Hall was built on a city block in the downtown area. It was completely finished, and we got a private tour of the inside. No one else joined our group, so the kids and I asked every question we could think of and stretched what was supposed to be a thirty minute tour into over an hour.
Oh, goodness, that was a fancy house. And very symmetrical. The house had several stories, but we toured only the first two. Each level had a large hall in the middle that stretched from the front to the back of the house, with rooms on either side. There were gorgeously carved Carrera marble fireplaces (all I could think when I saw those was the poor parlormaid and the dusting she had to do), lavish cornices and draperies and moulding, Hudson River School artwork, and a beautiful little piano in one corner. I thought the most striking decorations were the ornate wrought-iron chandeliers adorned with a different theme in each room-- the dining room had Native American warriors; the drawing room had cherubs and fruit if I remember correctly; and Frederick Stanton's office had English soldiers from the 1600s-- you know, like Captain John Smith. I could go on and on about the ornamentation. There was a LOT. It was fatiguing on the eye after awhile.
Frederick Stanton, a cotton broker, died one month after his dream home was finished. Thankfully, he paid cash for materials as he went and did not leave his widow in debt.
I haven't said much about Natchez Trace, or our climb up the ceremonial Native American mounds, or our visit to one of the roadside inns, or our treacherous and questionable journey on dirt roads of loess soil out to the ghost town of Rodney to see the church that was fired upon by the Union and still contains cannon balls in its facade, but I have really gone on too long, so I will save those for another day.