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Natchez Not Gone With the Wind

February 23, 1986|M. J. HARDEN | Harden is a San Francisco free-lance writer.

NATCHEZ, Miss. — The Old South need not rise again here, because in appearance it never fell.

This is a town dedicated to preserving the antebellum South, a town full of plantations and pre-Civil War homes. It is a place where most women have hoop skirts in their closets, where there is still only one War and where the mere mention of the song "Dixie" can bring on a calliope sound of whoops and yells.

Natchez celebrates itself every year in March (this year March 8-April 6) in a monthlong run of pageantry, skits and parties that they call the Pilgrimage.

Townsfolk don their Confederate uniforms and hoop skirts and act out the town's antebellum history in a pageant run every night of the month. This homespun amateur hour features beautiful costumes and sweet adolescent dance numbers, and is fun, folksy and colorful, a piece of the proverbial American pie.

Tourist Gape In

In the daytime the families open the doors to their beloved Taras and let the tourists gape in. Thirty homes are organized into six tours, five homes shown on each tour. The cost is $15 a tour. To see all 30 homes would cost $90 and take three days.

The ladies are in charge. Hoop-skirted women in every room in every mansion with enduring patience and charm explain the four corners of their assigned room and its furnishings.

I joined their ranks one Sunday and helped five women show one of the homes. I borrowed an unbelievably sweet white dress that transformed me into a floating bonbon. Little puffed cap sleeves perched on my shoulders and more than a dozen ruffles cascaded over my wire hoop petticoat.

Something happens to a woman in a dress like that. My eyelids started fluttering more, I became awfully feminine and I no longer walked, I skimmed along.

Each of the 30 homes shown has a name--Lansdowne, Greenleaves, Elm Court, Fair Oaks, Mistletoe, Mount Repose. The homes have become like Scarlett's Tara, not merely a house but a mansion with its own identity, a member of the family. One does not just go home, one goes to Lansdowne.

A few of the mansions have barely been touched since the Civil War, and some are still inhabited by direct descendants of the original Confederate owners.

Lansdowne is just such a place. It was built in 1853 and has been left untouched since then. The paint on the doors and windows has tiny age cracks through it, the kind of cracks in old museum paintings.

Parlor Furnishings

The parlor furnishings were used by the original members of the Marshall family, and present-day Marshalls still sit in these uncomfortable Victorian chairs. The rug, the wallpaper, the mounds of silver serving sets and dishes in the dining room have all been there since before the Civil War.

A main hallway cuts through the center of the house, 65 feet long and big enough for a skating rink. It's lined with portraits of ancestors and current Marshalls. Gen. Robert E. Lee, hero of the South, hangs alongside them.

The March, 1977, issue of Antiques magazine featured Lansdowne and marveled that it was "never restored, but simply and painstakingly preserved."

Natchez was settled as a strategic river trading post. But when cotton became king in the early 1800s and steamboats began crowding the Mississippi, transporting crops and produce from South to North, the little river town was transformed into the most prosperous, elegant city in the South. It sat high on a bluff overlooking the river in a cloud of opulence.

Of the 20 millionaires living in America at the time, more than half chose to live in regal splendor in Natchez. They built mansions fashioned after European tastes, they shipped in French furniture, Italian marble, British hardware, gold-leaf mirrors and hand-painted wallpaper.

They had acres of land and hundreds of slaves, and with all their money and all their hodgepodge of styles they created their own aristocracy and built the legend of the antebellum South.

Shaky Financial Times

After the South fell and the steamboat era ended, times got a little shaky financially. Many of the old families sold off much of their plantation acreage, but clung to their mansions.

In 1932, during the Depression, the fast-thinking ladies of the Natchez Garden Club, the ruling matriarchs of town, got the idea of Pilgrimage to attract tourists. The idea was to bolster the town's economy, and along the way it created a livelihood for many a mansion dweller.

Ruth Ellen Calhoun, owner of Elgin Plantation, is frank about the money. "There's no pressure (from the garden clubs) to show the house," she said. "In fact, there's a fight to get on the tour. It's very profitable and it's a great deduction. You need the tour to keep the house in operation."

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