When Haller Nutt started building Longwood Plantation in 1859, the future looked bright for the successful plantation owner, his wife and 12 children. The antebellum octagonal mansion held promise to be one of the most distinguished homes in Natchez, Mississippi.
That promise was fulfilled, but not for the reason Nutt would have wanted. Because what distinguishes Longwood from other mansions is not what it has, but what it lacks.
Today the home is open for tours. As you drive up the windy, forested path, you’ll see the grand mansion peeking through the trees. The outside displays the grand vision of architect Samuel Sloan.
But two years after construction began, the Civil War started. The construction workers left. And, three years later, Nutt died of pneumonia, leaving Longwood with only nine of the 32 rooms completed. Only the basement was finished, and that’s where tours start – at the bottom of the staircase that leads to the rest of the mansion.
As Shreveport resident Becky Kolbenschlag walked through the unfinished rooms one day this fall, she expressed amazement at its beauty, but also melancholy.
“There was a sadness about the house,” Kolbenschlag said. “It was like time stood still.”
As with Longwood, the city of Natchez also seems in some ways frozen in time. This small town, on the east bank of the Mississippi River, is rich in history that is well preserved for today’s traveler.
Natchez was well known in the antebellum South. It was the home of multiple millionaires by the mid-19th century, enriched in part from the cash crops such as cotton and the use of slave labor. While similar cities like Vicksburg, about 70 miles north, were left with massive devastation from the Civil War, Natchez was left intact.
What did have a devastating effect on Natchez was the boll weevil, a pest that destroyed the cotton crop starting in 1907. Natchez began an economic decline, made worse by several Mississippi River floods.
An oil boom in the 1930s and factories helped sustain the town during the 20th century. But today its largest industry is tourism. The town is filled with attractions, festivals and accommodations to make for the perfect weekend getaway.
“A trip to Natchez will feel like coming home,” said Stratton Hall of Visit Natchez, adding that Natchez has “diverse cultures, interests, intellect, curiosity and courage.”
One of the more unusual stories about the people of Natchez will lead you to the Natchez City Cemetery on the bluffs above the Mississippi River. The sheer beauty of this cemetery, established in 1822, is worth the trip, but it is the grave of Florence Irene Ford that is a must-see.
The strange grave of Florence Irene Ford in Natchez, Mississippi.
Henrietta Wildsmith/The Times
Florence was a child who was frightened of storms and rushed to her mother for comfort whenever they struck. She died at age 10. In her grief, the girl’s mother had a staircase built with a window next to the casket.
“The grave was dug to provide an area, the same depth of the coffin, at the child’s head, but this area had steps that would allow the mother to descend to her daughter’s level, so she could comfort Florence during storms,” according to Historic Natchez on the Mississippi. “To shelter the mother during storms, hinged metal trap doors were installed over the area the mother would occupy while at her child’s grave.”
The glass is now bricked over, but the grave is still accessible and the staircase can be seen. Passersby have left coins and trinkets.
One of Natchez’s biggest draws is its antebellum homes. Several are open year-round, with more open during the fall and spring Pilgrimage Tour.
Some operate as bed-and-breakfasts. For a touch of grandeur, it is hard to beat the Dunleith Historic Inn. This 1856 antebellum mansion is listed as a National Historic Landmark and sits on 40 acres with the original buildings dating to the 1790s. Breakfast is available in the Castle Restaurant in Dunleith’s original carriage house. Historian Kearby Swafford offers daily tours unless the main house is closed for a function.
“When I first saw the house I was in awe,” Swafford said. Now he shares his love of the house with others through telling its story.
The Pilgrimage Garden Club owns both Longwood and Stanton Hall, a Greek Revival home finished in 1859. Both are open for daily tours.
The Natchez National Historical Park, managed by the National Park Service, has several properties to explore. A tour of another Greek Revival mansion, Melrose, includes seeing painted floor cloths, rococo revival parlor furniture, Gothic revival dining room chairs and bookcases with books dating to the 18th century along with other period pieces collected from Natchez families.
The William Johnson House houses the park’s headquarters. It originally was the home of William Johnson, a 19th-century African-American barber who was born a slave but was emancipated and lived as a free man, even owning slaves. Johnson began a diary in 1835, leaving an incredible account of the daily life of a 19th-century Mississippi businessman. The building now contains a bookstore, exhibit room and a recreation of fully furnished living quarters.
Just a mile from downtown is the site of the Forks on the Road Slave Market, once the second-largest slave market in the South. Nothing of the original market remains, although several signs have been placed there and shackles and chains have been placed in concrete as a visual touchstone to the market’s former use.
“We are in the process of figuring out how to interpret that site,” said Jeff Mansell, the Natchez National Historical Park’s historian. “Its mission is to tell the story of all people of Natchez.”
Nearby is a plaque with the names of the 58th U.S. Colored Troops, who occupied Natchez during the Civil War, and the 14th Wisconsin. They worked to tear down the slave pens. From a Jan. 23, 1864, letter published in the Milwaukee Sentinel from a member of the 14th Wisconsin:
Explore Forks in the Road Monument in Natchez.
“This order was received just at evening and was hailed with the wildest enthusiasm by these men (the 58th U.S. Colored Troops) who had been chained, gagged and whipped, and suffered tortures unutterable within these same walls, and through that long night they worked with a terrible earnestness and the morning saw the slave pens of Natchez leveled to the ground, never, it is hoped to be again reconstructed.”
It is a solemn reminder of how the riches of the South were made.
A great way to explore the small city is on foot. The views are amazing whether you’re walking among the historic homes, along the Mississippi River or high on the bluffs above the river. A number of trails have been mapped out and are available at visitnatchez.org.
Within the city, several churches are open to the public. The Gothic revival St. Mary Basilica with painted ceiling and ribbed vaulting is worth exploring. The cornerstone was laid on Feb. 24, 1842, and the building was Mississippi’s only cathedral, a church that contains the seat of a bishop. In 1977, the diocesan headquarters was moved to St. Peter the Apostle in Jackson and the title of cathedral was transferred with it. In 1998, Catholic authorities in Rome granted St. Mary the elevated status of minor basilica.
Downtown has several shops and restaurants that cater to the traveler as well as being local favorites. Worth a visit is Natchez Coffee Co., with a wide selection of flavors and its “hard to pass up” desserts.
The sign above Darby’s storefront reads “Everything Under the Sun,” and that is probably true. Their massive inventory of furniture, rugs, gifts, clothes and even tasty fudge fills four buildings on Main Street.
Locals rave about the margaritas at Fat Mama’s Tamales.
Of course, it would not be a trip to Natchez without a stop to where it all began. The Under-the-Hill Historic District has a few remaining original buildings. Silver Street Gallery & Gifts has a great collection of local art, gifts and home decor. Next door is the Under-the-Hill Saloon, which may not be as rough as in cotton-trading days but does offer live music on the weekends.
“Natchez is the quintessential American small town”, said Mansell.
And that is every reason needed to plan a trip.
Things to do and see in Natchez, Mississippi
The Pilgrimage Garden Club tours
(601) 446-6631 or (800) 647-6742
Stanton Hall Tour Hours
Every 30 minutes 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m.
Tour Hours: Every 30 minutes from 9 a.m.- 4:30 p.m.
National Park Service
William Johnson’s House is open seven days a week from 9 a.m. to noon and 1 p.m.-5 p.m. Admission is free.
Park service headquarters: 640 S. Canal St., Suite E, Natchez, MS 39120. (601) 446-5790
Melrose Montebello Pkwy, Natchez, MS 39120. (601) 446-5790
Open to tour daily at 10 a.m., 11 a.m., 1 p.m., 2 p.m., 3 p.m. and 4 p.m.
Tour fees: Adults 18-61 $8. Groups of 13 or more $7. Children 6-17 $4. U.S. citizens 62 or over $4. Children Under 6 are free.
Under the Hill Saloon
25 Silver St. Natchez, MS 39120. (601) 446-8023
Fat Mama’s Tamales
303 S Canal St., Natchez, MS 39120. (601) 442-4548
Silver Street Gallery & Gifts
27 Silver St., Natchez, MS 39120. (601) 653-0614
410 Main St., Natchez, MS 39120. (601) 446-9737
Natchez Coffee Co
509 Franklin St., Natchez, MS 39120. (601) 304-1415
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