I knew nothing about Natchez. I went there on the recommendation of a good guy I’ve gotten to know from Louisiana. Hearing I was roughly following the Mississippi down to Florida, he said if I was anywhere near Natchez it was worth seeing. So I went.From Bostrop I drove toward Sterlington and headed the direction of Monroe. In Columbia I turned on 4 East following it through Gilbert, Jigger, and Ft. Necessity. I picked up 425 S. again there and crossed the Mississippi River for the last time, entering the State of Mississippi into the town of Natchez.
I went up a hill from the river, and drove through a town that looked much like any other. I pulled into a gas station, filled up while I was there, and made an inquiry of a guy at the pump across from me.“Guy told me there were old mansions and stuff in this town. Where would I head to see them?”
“You’re over the hill. You want to down the hill to see old town. Did you cross the river just back there?”He pointed in the direction from where I came.
“Yeah.”“Go back that way. As you head down the hill take a right on any of several streets. You won’t miss the old town. It’s big and fancy.”
That it certainly is. When cotton was king in the south the bluff in Natchez, facing the river with views of the Louisiana shore, became the favored building site for rich plantation owners to put their mansions, outdoing each other with architects, sparing no cost for design or furnishing. It’s a spectacular display of antebellum southern lavishness, if you’re into that kind of thing. There is something about regular people marveling the rich, from any time period including the present, that I don’t understand. But hey, using an old river saying, whatever floats your boat.I turned onto a street that gently swept through old trees, huge yards, and gigantic stone buildings. I guided the Buick into a driveway with a sign pointing the way to a parking lot, a property obviously open to the public. It was close to five. As I walked towards an outbuilding behind a split rail fence I encountered two people in period costume. An older woman in a long gingham dress walked towards me. Behind her a young man was locking a door. They were obviously leaving. The woman spoke to me.
“You can come back tomorrow morning for the tour if you’d like, but we’re closed now.”As her words ended she sucked on one of those electronic cigarettes whose tip glows blue when you draw on it. Vaping is the term I hear. When she exhaled a cloud of white curled up around her big bonnet. The boy behind her, in knickers, high socks, and suspenders was on his cell phone texting. He didn’t look up. Something about people depicting life 180 years ago using modern devices is weird but I get it. They were off the clock. I caught them at a bad time.
“I’m just trying to get oriented. I plan to stay the night in Natchez. Can you suggest a hotel? ““Darryl, get this man a pamphlet will you?”
Darryl looked up from his phone, not terribly pleased, offered a smile (fake, I could tell), turned back, unlocked the door and went inside.“I could tell you about hotels but Natchez is a bed and breakfast town. Your best bet is Googling a list of B+B’s. They’re all in the old part of town, you can get a good deal, and the breakfasts are to die for.”
Darryl handed me a pamphlet.“You’ll find some in there but there’s more on line. Really. It’s the way to go. Enjoy Natchez.”
I took her advice and ended up at Choctaw House. The host at the bed and breakfast, or more accurately, splendid mansion with breakfast, was a southern gentleman, previously from Marlsgate, a plantation showplace in rural Arkansas. Choctaw House is a four story Natchez mansion. Architects call it transitional, containing the general Federal style while blending Greek Revival details. I don’t know what that means at all.It’s a damned big structure though, tall and built right out to the sidewalk in 1836 for a guy named Joseph Neibert, a southern real estate speculator. I was shown into one of four guest rooms found in the above ground basement that once housed slaves. That floor, once simple and crude, is now decked out with huge four poster beds, elegant bathrooms, and antique furniture. Everything above, three floors of it, is parquet floors, shiny hardwood, elegant wallpaper, sweeping staircase, high ceilings, you name it. Mr. Neibert didn’t look to be worried about expense. If it was expensive in 1836 it went into this house. You got your double porches, formal garden in the back, a view sweeping down to the river, and a widow’s walk on top. It’s a helluva of a place.
My host explained that he provided the bed in this bed and breakfast deal, and assured me I didn’t want to eat his cooking so he would give me a voucher at Dunleith Historic Inn down the street which qualified me for a tour of that mansion, and of course he would give me a tour of Choctaw House whenever I chose. I told him I was mostly hungry at the moment and would most likely take him up on that tour in the morning . He recommended Cotton Alley for supper, three blocks over and one block down the hill. He was a smooth talker, dapper little southern man with a handlebar mustache and carefully combed white hair. He looked like a shrunken Colonel Sanders.Cotton Alley was an old restaurant with a small menu and great food. I had a cup of gumbo and crawfish etouffee with a glass of wine. After dinner I asked the waitress if they served Sazeracs, a rye whiskey cocktail. She leaned down and spoke softly.
“Our bartender is new and has been looking drink recipes up in a book behind the bar for a week. If you want a really good Sazerac go up the hill to King’s Tavern and have Ricky Woolfolk make it for you. He makes the best cocktails in town. Tell him Sarah sent you.”Why stop going where people send you and taking their advice when it’s working for you? I paid my bill and strolled up the hill in search of some joint called King’s Tavern.
Natchez has live oak trees and pretty vines that climb up fences and posts and break out into blooms, some red, some purple, which smell wonderful. That night offered a kind of quiet that wraps around you. It was warm even though it was of February and a slow stroll up the hill on dimly lit brick streets seemed the perfect thing to do.Kings Tavern, as it turns out, is not only the oldest building in Natchez, but the oldest in the entire Mississippi territory. It was built in 1769 as some kind of block house attached to a fort and has operated as a tavern and an inn more or less continuously since 1789. It was the favorite place for riverboat men to hang out after they had delivered their goods on the Natchez docks.
Before steam engines and the locks and dams on the river commercial traffic was carried out by wooden barges that could float down the river but had no power to return upstream. So they dismantled the boats, sold the lumber, and returned north overland via the Natchez Trace Pathway. Many of the first buildings in Natchez, including King’s Tavern, were built from that lumber. Stepping into that tavern, through a small wooden door over a raised threshold, into a big room with low ceilings of exposed hardwood joists, dim lights, wooden tables and benches, made me feel as if I was stepping back in time.Behind the bar was a friendly guy framed by rows and rows of whiskey bottles. There’s something about being in well stocked bar that I find very comforting.
“Are you Ricky?”“Yes.”
“Sarah down at Cotton Alley says you make the best Sazerac in town?.“She did? I’m going to have to buy that girl a drink soon. What kind of whiskey would you like in that Sazerac sir?”
“Pick me out a good one.”He did. Ricky Woolfolk’s Sazerac was so good I had another before making my way down the hill to Choctaw House. Lying alone in that big four poster bed I thought it would be an excellent night to have a companion on the trip. Travelling alone offers lots of freedom, an advantage not to be taken lightly, but it has its downside as well.
I went to sleep thinking of Choctaw House as it was before the civil war, well aware that I was sleeping in luxury in a place once crude and inhabited by slaves, people owned by others, who were bought and sold, considered assets not unlike a herd of cows. Funny how the past continues to affect the future.Once my host heard that I was up in the morning he came down and inquired how I liked my coffee. He made his with a New Orleans blend that included chickory.
“Not everybody likes it.”“That’ll do fine. I’ll take it black.”
He talked entirely too much for that early hour but I listened politely. Southern history seemed to just roll out of his mouth.He had purchased Choctaw House as a business venture to showcase his family’s art collection. His family owned at its height a 7,000 acre cotton farm in Arkansas. His great great grandfather (there is possibly another great there) just as short as he, was the original cotton planter. He was awarded a land grant, given the land in other words, for most of that acreage and bought the rest for sometimes under a dollar an acre.
It was said in those days, according to my host, that if a man could plant and sell three consecutive cotton crops he would have made his fortune. His grandfather did that, and following his success married a beautiful woman nearly six feet tall, took her on a grand tour of Europe that lasted nearly a year, and for three years following their return large wooden crates containing all manner of art, brocaded cloth, custom made furniture, silverware, dishes, and most importantly to him, fine porcelain all signed by a Frenchman named Jacob Petit were unloaded on the river docks and hauled up the hill by slaves to their plantation mansion, where the mere presence of those objects loudly proclaimed their owners' wealth.“So did you become a cotton farmer?” I asked.
“Heavens no. I studied art history. My life has been devoted to the care and the preservation of these things. I’ll show you after your breakfast.”The Dunleith Inn is another imposing mansion on the Natchez river bluff. Breakfast was served in a converted horse barn on the grounds of the mansion. Fancy is the only word to describe that layout; heavy silver, nice table cloths, delicious omelet. The staff there almost insisted I take the free tour of the mansion, but I figured one mansion was plenty, and I still had Choctaw House to get through.
My host began the tour outside by bringing me up the sweeping double staircase that leads to the big entrance and into the dining room of that old mansion, as invited dinner guests might enter the mansion. The table was set with more dishes than I have ever seen in my life. According to him his family owns seven sets of Jacob Petit dishes. He also dropped the name of the silversmith who made the utensils. There had to a dozen pieces of silver at each place setting. A big ass crystal chandelier hung over the table. I don’t know about you but I get nervous around all that breakable expensive stuff. I know it was beautiful and valuable, but to me it was over the top gaudy. If there is an opposite of Zen simplicity, the dining room table at Choctaw House is it.It was that way through the entire house. Chock full of porcelain. My host kept picking up pieces of it and showing me the signature on the bottom. I believed him after the first one but he persisted.
One of his favorites was not a Petit piece but rather a figure of a pretty woman leaning out an upstairs window of a tall skinny house, waving a red kerchief. He explained that the brothels in Amsterdam, in the red light district, gave their best and most loyal patrons a piece of this porcelain in gratitude for all the money they spent at their establishments. The southern men, returning to America, often gave them to their wives who thought they were lovely, and were none the wiser. His eyes twinkled when he told stories. He was full of them I tell you.He explained the origin of the curtains, the bedspreads, the step stools used to climb up into the canopy beds, the painting on the walls, the busts, the fireplace andirons. By the third floor I’d about had it, but he just kept talking.
The fourth floor was the best, lots of windows and light, and a staircase leading to the roof.“If the weather is good on New Year’s Day we always have a party on the roof. My serving boys hate those parties, they have to carry all the food and drinks up from the kitchen on the first floor. But my it is a fine place to party. Would you like to see it?”
On the very top of Choctaw House you realize the real beauty of Natchez. It’s the valley, the bluff, and of course the river, the central feature of that part of the warm and rich south. You can have the art, I’ll take the geography.As we went back down the staircase I saw a curious painting on the wall. It depicted a flood. In the swollen river were black people on the roof of a building floating downstream. One of the men was trying to pull a mule up on the roof. A woman was reaching out to a child in the water. And on the bluff, on a widow’s walk high above like the one I had just been standing on, was a handsomely dressed white couple, the woman in a long hooped dress, the man with a tie and hat. They were waving at the struggling black people below. Waving.
“You like that painting?”“Not especially no.”
“A man wants to buy the rights of that painting from me and produce a set of prints. I’m not sure I should let him.”“I’d get as far away from that painting as I could if I were you.”
My host looked at me curiously.“Well, you’re a Yankee and I understand how you might feel. But it was a way of life.”
“How many slaves did your family own?”“We can’t exactly tell, but we believe over 200 at one point.”
“How did your family and those slaves the Civil War and the end of slavery?”“Well even though we lost the war we didn’t lose our money. My great great grand daddy had confederate money of course but he also had money in European banks and Northern banks. They hedged their bets. And they adapted quickly to a new business model after their slaves were “freed.”
“What business model was that?”“Share cropping. The slaves had nowhere to go and no means to get there so the landowners sold them their mules, assigned them a patch of land, built them a shack and the cotton continued to grow. And the people that owned the land still made money. It would never be like before but the South still offered the rich a good life.”
That’s kind of what I was thinking when I went to sleep in the slave quarters. The rich stay rich, and the rest of us look in from the outside. I think that’s life in America.