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Monday, November 26, 2012

The Phantom of Kingston Road

The first time I noticed him it was the holidays – I can’t remember if it was Thanksgiving or Christmas. I was driving home on Kingston Road when I saw the little white dog running down the road after a car. I slowed my car and he started running toward it. Then another car passed. His ears perked up as it neared; then as it blew past, he ran after it.

It was obvious what had happened; it broke my heart. How could someone just dump a little dog like that? You could almost hear him shouting, “Wait! Wait! You forgot me! Come back.”

As the car drove on, he gave up and trudged back toward his post by the gate where he’d been left. He couldn’t have weighed more than ten pounds. He was just a little terrier mix, cute as could be and desperate to find his family.

I parked my car and got out. He stopped, eying me -- wary and distrustful. Remembering all the dog advice I’d heard throughout the years, I tried to make myself as unimposing as possible, and crouched down on my knees, holding out my hand.

“Come on, fella,” I coaxed in my highest singsong voice – the one reserved for babies and pets. It almost never fails. “Come on, baby!”

But he wouldn’t come. If I tried to inch closer, he ran away, refusing to be bribed with kindness. So I went home to get something more tempting. I came back with cold cuts from the fridge. But he was adamant. All he wanted was his family, who he was certain were in the next car coming down the road.

The weather forecast for later in the week was for below-freezing temperatures. Lying in my warm bed, I wondered how he’d make it. The next day, my father and I set out a humane animal trap, baiting it with leftover roast and hiding it behind some branches so it wouldn’t be stolen. But no matter how many days we left it freshly baited, he wanted nothing to do with it.

In the meantime, we and several other area residents began putting out food and water for him, comparing notes on our efforts to catch the little scamp. Somehow he survived the cold weather, even seeming to thrive. He moved up onto the embankment by the road, where he’d sit like a proud watchdog, guarding his little kingdom by the Kingston Road, but still chasing after passing cars, certain his family would finally stop. Hope must spring eternal in the canine heart, too.

Every day on my way to and from town, I’d hold my breath, hoping he hadn’t been hit by a car. Often, I’d not see him at all, and wondered what had become of him. Then one day there he’d be, watching for cars and running after them, day after day, then week after week, the little white, elusive phantom of Kingston Road. I dubbed him “Phantom” in my mind, and saluted his "dogged" persistence. Some days he looked so cocky and proud I laughed aloud, and began to look forward to seeing him surveying his little kingdom.

Finally one day about three months later as my father crested the hill, he saw what we’d all been dreading. Phantom lay beside the road, perfectly still while a kind and concerned woman bent over him, looking for signs of life. He lay breathing but unconscious and broken. Daddy took him to the vet where he died later that night. It was painful and it was sad and it was all so unnecessary.

I often wonder about the people who left their little dog by himself on the side of the road at holiday time. I wondered if they ever traveled down Kingston Road and saw him bravely trying to recapture his people. I wondered if they had a happy Christmas. There are crosses along Kingston Road where people who’ve died in automobile accidents are honored, their memories cherished. There is no cross for Phantom; only regrets.

I regret not calling the Humane Society – something that in all my efforts, hadn’t occurred to me. I don’t know why. Perhaps they’d have been able to catch him and prevent a senseless death.

The local shelter is in the final push to raise money for a new shelter with more room and better facilities than the one they’re presently using with even enough room for the occasional horse, mule or other large animal.

In lieu of a roadside memorial for Phantom, I think I could honor his memory best by asking you, Reader, to make a donation to the Natchez Adams County Humane Society. And, please, please, don’t leave your pets to die painfully on a lonely road. The phantom of Kingston Road will haunt me for years to come.

Natchez Adams County Humane Society
392 Liberty Road
Natchez, MS 39120

Mailing address :

P. O. Box 549
Natchez, MS 39121

Please denote on check whether your donation is for the building fund or the general fund. Thank you.  Only checks denoting that it is for the building fund will be used for the new shelter.

* Photo Credit: Http:// Thank you, Wizmo!

Friday, November 2, 2012

Where the Dead Lie Buried

Dunbar Cemetery
When Courtland Smith returned from battle after the War of 1812, he was a changed man — disfigured, and embarrassed. So instead of living in town, he chose to live in relative isolation near the Kingston Community south of Natchez.  He picked an Indian mound as a site on which to build his house. 

 His family tried to dissuade him, but he liked the spot. The hill offered a lovely view, and most of the Indians were gone. He should have heeded their warnings. Not long after the house was finished, he was found dead in his bed with an arrow shoved through his heart. Burial places are sacred. 

For eons man has honored his dead with physical monuments. Nothing speaks of place and our relationship with it as where we choose not only to live, but also to be buried. The arrowheads that reappear above ground after the rain are as much a testament to those who came before as the ivy-covered angel that weeps above the grave in a forgotten wood. Each grave and stone is a testament to someone’s journey on this earth. History is all around us. Indeed, it is underfoot. 

The Historic Natchez Foundation has an exhaustive list of burial places and the names of those interred. Many are on private property, but there are still a few in that are both beautiful and accessible. 

Kingston Cemetery
Not far from where Courtland Smith built his fated house is a beautiful little cemetery in the Kingston Community. Rising on a gentle knoll shaded by large oaks, are several old family plots with names of the original Kingston settlers: Ogden, Swayze, Thorne, and others. A beautiful spot for a fall picnic.

Ogden Cemetery at Retirement Plantation

Courtland Smith’s tomb is in the Philanda Smith burial ground on Retirement Plantation near Second Creek in Adams County, just off Kingston Road. It is one of three small, private family cemeteries attached to Retirement. What is not found at Retirement are the graves of some 40 slaves, who were tortured and hanged after the rumor of a slave revolt was discovered. 

There are many private, family cemeteries scattered throughout the area. The oldest, which is still in use and within the original family -- the Surgets, whose descendants are the McNeils who also own Elmscourt -- can be found near Kingston at Cherry Grove Plantation, which has been in the same family since it was obtained as part of a Spanish land grant in the late 1700s. 

Surget Cemetery at Cherry Grove
There is a family cemetery at Lansdowne, on land that has been in the family since the 1780's.

Longwood Plantation has a small cemetery as well, which is open to the public. A short walk down a wooded path brings you to several graves in a small opening in the trees. Thanks to the late Alma Kellogg Carpenter’s indefatigable efforts, many of the names of people interred there have been identified. 

Longwood Plantation
 On Lower Woodville Road just up the street from Longwood Plantation is Gloucester, the home of Winthrop Sargent, first governor of the Mississippi Territory.  Although Sargent is not buried here, many in his family are, including a beloved pet with a small, simple stone reading, “Pug,” and that of Sargent’s son, George, who had returned to Gloucester after being wounded in the Civil War, and was murdered. 

Catherine Van Court included an account of that murder in her book, The Old Home. It was told to her by Anne Swayze, who with her husband, George, was visiting one night: 

George got up and limped over to the fire where he slid one log over another. …Suddenly, the half-smile on his face drifted away. Something had attracted his attention. Back in the dark recesses of the house bells had begun to jangle. They were ringing rapidly and seemed to be growing louder every moment. I looked up at the clock. Twelve o’clock was late for us to be riding about the country. 

‘Who can it be?’ I asked. …At that time, we were cautious about opening the outer doors at night.

 George chose one of two doors – the one with heavy inner bars before it. 

"As the door opened slowly, two men crowded close. 

 ‘What do you want?’ George demanded. 

 ‘We’ve lost our way,’ a broad-shouldered Dutchman announced. It was evident he had been drinking. 

 ‘But fellows,’ George said. ‘You’re not lost. You are on the Natchez Trace right now. The town itself is only a couple of miles away.’ 

 ‘We want a bed,’ the smaller of the two pleaded. 

 ‘Just two more miles,’ George urged, ‘then you can get a bed, eats and everything.’ 

 When the men insisted, George informed them that there was a lady in the house and it was inappropriate, especially in their inebriated state. 

"‘To hell with her!’ the Dutchman yelled. ‘You open this door, you dirty Reb, or I’ll…’ 

‘What’ll you do?’ George asked tauntingly. 

The muzzle of an army pistol was thrust through the bars. A flash flared. George’s big body swayed for a moment. Then he crumpled to the floor. …’Blue uniforms, I thought, as I slipped an arm under George’s head. ...By the time [we had gotten] George upon the sofa both Philip and I realized he was dead. He had been shot directly through the heart.” 

Routh Cemetery
 My favorite plantation cemetery is directly across the street from Dunleith on Homochitto Street. As a child, I spent many an hour playing there when visiting my friend Alma Carpenter, who lived at Dunleith. 

The cemetery is connected with the Routh family whose home, Routhland, was built at the site where Dunleith now stands. Although the gate is locked, the giant oaks and crepe myrtles dripping Spanish moss welcome visitors. 

 Peering through the gate is like coming upon a secret garden that still whispers about the past. There are the usual obelisks and headstones and crucifixes, along with a cast-iron sculpture of a large, Newfoundland dog, which was commissioned by the family patriarch, Job Routh. 

When he was eight years old, Job fell into the Potomac River and nearly drowned except for the efforts of a beloved family dog. He never forgot it. 

 Driving south on Highway 61 toward Baton Rouge, and about a mile south of Mammy’s Cupboard on the left side of the road, you can see the family cemetery for the long-gone Forest Plantation, sitting amidst oil field equipment. 

Dunbar Cemetery
 Surrounded by a brick wall, it holds the grave of the Scottish scientist and inventor, William Dunbar and his family and at least two of their slaves whose inscriptions are a testament to the real fondness the family felt for them: Lucy Barnes was nearly 100 years old when she died. “Welcome Sweet Day of Rest.” Mammy Betsey Bruin’s reads “Faithful Unto Death.” 

 Heading north of Natchez is a small Presbyterian church, which served the residents of the plantation community known as Pine Ridge. Although the1828 Federal style church was destroyed in a 1908 tornado, the existing church, which echoes the appearance of the earlier church and was dedicated in 1909, still stands with a small cemetery alongside.  There you will find many old Natchez family names: Bisland, Chamberlain, McCalip, Henderson, Archer, Lamdin and Foster. 

 Heading north along the Natchez Trace and on into Jefferson County are more small cemeteries, one of which can be seen just off the road in the woods near the community of Church Hill, known as the Wood Family Cemetery. Efforts to restore this cemetery are ongoing. 

 No cemetery is more beautiful, however, than the one at Christ Episcopal Church in Church Hill. Sitting on a gentle knoll, the church and its graveyard are reminiscent of medieval Europe with its Gothic architecture. To get to Church Hill, you pass Emerald Mound, the third largest Indian Mound in the United States. Yes, many have left their mark. 
Photo by Walt Grayson

 Further down the Natchez Trace is the tiny community of Rocky Springs, a once-thriving community of nearly 3,000 people.  The community disappeared due to hardships, including the Civil War, bad land management and mosquito-borne epidemics. All that is left of the town are the remains of two old safes, one from the post office and one from a store, which are on a beautiful little nature trail. 

The most poignant reminder of hardship is the small cemetery next to the only building left at Rocky Springs—the church. Wandering through its plots, one is struck by the number of babies and children buried there, a testament to the ravages of cholera and yellow fever:

Agnes, age 11

Blessed be the dark 

that wafts us to the shore 
where death-divided friends
part no more 
join those there 
herewith thy dost repose 
all the hope 
thy hapless Mother knows 

 Louisiana’s flat delta land with its shallow water table is not conducive to cemeteries, but a short drive past Jonesville to the tiny, historic town of Harrisonburg reveals one of the most beautiful cemeteries in the area. Giant old cypress trees tower like pulled taffy over the graves, their evergreen boughs reminders of everlasting life after death. 

Harrisonburg Cemetery

 There are also cemeteries that are returning or have returned to the earth — the ones we no longer see. Bodies have been uncovered at Fort Rosalie in Natchez. The most recent was a skeleton found in 2011 with its head facing west, its arms crossed neatly over its chest. 

Fort Rosalie
Another is the tragedy known as The Corral. After the fall of Vicksburg, mobs of hungry, frightened ex-slaves descended on Fort McPherson, which was located on what is presently the Natchez City Cemetery. In order to house them, Federal officials built a stockade on the batture lands Under the Hill near Learned’s Mill Road, where they died by the hundreds from drinking polluted river water, and without any sanitary conveniences. 

A letter written by a Confederate officer’s wife reads: 

It is said 20,000 negroes have come to Natchez. All the able-bodied men are put in the camp at the Forks of the Road, and the old men, women and children are put Under-the-Hill. We hear they die there, sometimes twenty a day… 

A former slave in the Davis-Kelly family related what she’d seen: 

I saw the Corral. It was the terriblest thing that ever was. People died there like sheep wid distemper. The dead wagon would come around ever mornin’ goin’ from tent to tent where people stayed an’ got the dead. Then they hurried off to bury them in pits one on top of another. They didn’t even shroud ‘em or nothin’, just piled ‘em up like cotton sacks guine to the graveyard. ~ excerpts from Natchez-Under-the-Hill by Edith Wyatt Moore, 1958. 

 Left to her own devices, nature takes back what is hers. On a visit to a forgotten cemetery in the woods, I saw a headstone nearly completely enveloped by a tree. The next time I visited, it was completely encased. No sign of the stone remained. Peering through the forest, I witnessed a battle for superiority between the forest and the stones, reminding me that no matter how important we think we are, we are not so mighty in the grand scheme of things.


I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away. 

~ Percy Bysshe Shelley

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

An Oldie but Goodie: Halloween 2010

Who knew that losing a camera could turn into such a feelgood moment?

Tommy and I went down to St. Francisville last night for the Faux Blood Music Festival with True Blood soundtrackers Jace Everett, et al, and Chuck Prophet and his band from San Francisco, who played at Magnolia Cafe.

The music was awesome, and I was awestruck at meeting the guy who wrote that song for the opening credits of True Blood.  To meet the person and be able to tell him how much you love it is something special.

(Apologies for the image that video shows up with.)

If you're not familiar with it, Magnolia Cafe was the winner of Country Roads Magazine's Favorite Small Town Dining Destination" and Favorite Venue for a Live Performance.

Knowing we'd be having cocktails, Tommy and I did the responsible thang and took a taxi to the restaurant, asking the driver if he'd be so kind as to return and pick us up later that night.  The driver's name is Mark Armstrong, a 70-something-year-old man with his own taxi and tour service.  He promised he would come back, but said he had to get up this morning to go see his wife, who is in a nursing home with cancer.

After we got out of the cab, I realized I'd left my camera in the back, and called.  Told Mark just to hang onto it and bring it when he came back.  Alas, we were having such a fine time, I didn't hear my cell phone when he called at 11 p.m. to say he just couldn't stay awake any longer and he'd bring it by the hotel in the morning.

The noise was so loud I couldn't quite make out what he was saying, though, and thought he'd said he would bring it by last night and leave it at the desk.  So when we got to the hotel and discovered it wasn't there, and tried to call, I must admit I suspected I'd seen the last of my camera.  Now, you can get these cameras for a lot less today than you could ten years ago, but when I bought it, it was a pretty pricey item.  And I make my living with my camera and my 'puter, both of which I hope to never lose.

I was having murderous thoughts:  "I wanna do bad things to you."

When he showed up at the hotel this morning, he emerged from the taxi with his little dog -- same kind of dog as Toto in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.  The two came up to the room to deliver the camera in person, and I felt downright ashamed.  We talked about Muffin, his dog, and he said he was taking her to see his wife, whom he informed me, he still adores 25 years after he married her.  Muffin, he said, really cheers her up.

"I hope she gets better," I sympathized.

"Oh, honey, she's not gonna get any better.  This is it."

"I'm so sorry," I said, quite honestly.

"We've been together 25 years," he said, and it's been really hard being at the house alone.  If it weren't for Muffin here, and my little cat," he continued, "I don't know what I'd do."

He told us about his place in the woods, and the deer he feeds daily -- just like my own father -- corn that he pours out dutifully every evening.

And he started getting choked up.  Before you knew it, the three of us were crying, and Mark and I were hugging each other.

"You know," he said later as he was about to leave, "I gave three sisters a drive up to Natchez a few years back.  They were taking a cruise.  They were staying at the Eola.  That's just about the prettiest hotel I've ever seen.  And Natchez is pretty, too," he said.  "I think of St. Francisville as a little Natchez."

I quickly agreed.  St. Francisville is a jewel.

"Well, next time you want a vacation, drive on up.  We've got a little B&B you can stay in."

"Why, that sounds just fine," he said, and we parted ways.

We drove through Centreville on our way back to Natchez, and had lunch.  On our way out of town, I noticed I had several missed calls on my phone.  It was Mark.

"Can I get your names, please?" he asked.  "I really enjoyed meeting y'all.  You're nice folks."

Guilt about the camera sticking in my craw.

"Next time y'all come down, I want you to call me," he said.  "I give tours, and I'd be proud to take you on a tour.  I told my wife about you, and it was just real nice talking to someone.  I don't have any family.  No children.  Just my wife and my pets.  I haven't talked to anyone like that in a long time."

I felt that old familiar lump in my throat.

Then he told me to Google him.

"I've driven everybody from George Clooney and Bob Hope to The Rolling Stones and AC/DC.  Just a whole bunch of people.  Look it up.  You'll see."

So I did.  And you know, he wasn't kidding.

So for all my readers, please call Mark Armstrong at Tiger Taxi and Tours the next time you're in the St. Francisville/Zachary/Baton Rouge area.  You'll get a ride with a real character -- one who knows all the haunts and stories and the heart to tell them.

Maybe I should lose my camera more often.

Tiger Taxi and Tours

"Always on the Prowl"

Mark Armstrong, owner
Cell Phone:  225-921-9199                 Home Phone:  225-635-4641

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Howard's Revenge

While cleaning out some bookcases in the library at home the other day, I found an old photo, which I had mentioned in a post called Howard's Revenge.  I wish I'd known I had it before I published the first time because it really adds to the story.  So I'm reposting this article with the photo of my great aunt Katherine and Douglas MacArthur, along with my father's caption written on the back.

Pictured from left, back row:   Howard Pritchartt, Jr.; Devereux Marshall; Elizabeth Patterson; Bubba Patterson; Sophie Junkin; Mimi Brown; Neville Marshall
Seated, from left, front row: Alma Kellogg, Andree Benoist, Sally Junkin 
The identity of the woman in the photo is unknown.  I do wish I knew who she was.  She's got the sweetest expression on her face, and should be recognized for playing the role so well.  She's a good sport, to boot.

Utter the name "Katherine Miller" in Natchez, and the reactions you get vary wildly. She's either the patron saint of Natchez or evil incarnate. Sometimes both. But you have to give the old girl credit, for it was Katherine Miller who spearheaded the formation of the Natchez Pilgrimage, which saved this town from certain doom.

During the 1930s, Katherine traveled the country with a projector slideshow of antebellum homes, inviting prospective visitors to see how the Old South used to live. Because of the success of her campaign and the cooperation and efforts of the other ladies in town, people who were barely eking by during the Great Depression were able to hang onto their homes in Natchez.

For over sixty years, she ruled Natchez society engendering fear, admiration, adoration and loathing in equal measures. Under her direction, grown men were persuaded to dress up like Southern planters and dance the Soiree for strangers. They even allowed their wives to smear rouge and lipstick on their sons, and dress them in lace and knickers and ballet shoes to dance around a Maypole with little girls in hoopskirts.

Sure, for the rest of the year they wore camouflage, slapped each other on the back, broke wind, hunted wild game, played football and talked about the price of oil. But March belonged to the women. No disgrace was too demeaning to keep them from following the orders of the matriarchs of Natchez.

When General Douglas MacArthur visited Natchez after World War II, a photographer captured a photo of him being told to look at the camera by The Mighty Katherine Miller. She was a'scared of nobody, and her legacy lives on even now as every year March comes in like the lion....or lioness, and goes out like the lamb.

It was under the shadow of this matriarchal monopoly that my father, Howard Pritchartt, spent his childhood. His mother, Bessie Rose, was Katherine's sister, and boy, was she disappointed when her only child wasn’t the girl she’d always wanted. She'd had visions of playing dress-up with a beautiful little girl. Not to worry. Bessie Rose decided she'd dress him any way she darned well pleased, and that's exactly what she did.

Every morning she'd send young Master Howard off to school in a sailor suit or Little Lord Fauntleroy outfit, where he'd get beaten up for wearing sissy clothes. When he got home, she would rage at him because he'd ruined his outfit. He remembers one incident, in particular, when she ripped off his jacket and started jumping up and down on it in a fit of fury as he backed away, awed and terror stricken.

Like my great aunt Katherine, Bessie Rose worshiped at the altar of high society, and for her, every night was a party. Nearly every evening, they’d leave Howard at home with his elderly grandmother. He and the old lady took care of each other. He would bring her milk toast and they would keep each other company in the silent house. It was a lonely time.

One night, he begged, "Please don't go, Mubba. Stay home, please?"

"You ought to be ashamed,” his mother replied. “You ought to be happy so many people want us to join them.”

So he grew to hate social events and all that they entailed. As he grew older, my grandmother and her sister tried teaching my father the importance of the social graces. The harder they tried, the more he rebelled. He wanted nothing more than to be a man’s man, happiest when he was out on the river with his friends, hunting and exploring the muddy banks and back bayous of the Mississippi.

Handsome though he was, he always felt at odds when dressed for a party. And though he did his part by participating in the springtime madness that is the Natchez pilgrimage, he never tired of thumbing his  nose at it all.

He still laughs when he remembers that when he was still in the army, his aunt Katherine sent a letter to his commander asking him in all earnestness if they could let him come home for the month of March so that he could be king in the pageant.  I mean, sure, World War II was important and all, but this was Pilgrimage!

“They’d never heard of Natchez,” Daddy laughs. “Those women thought Natchez was the center of the universe and that, of course, I should be excused to be king. God, I was embarrassed.”

One of his fondest memories is of his best friend, Johnny Ogden, sneaking into the City Auditorium the afternoon before the pageant with a dead fox he'd found beside the road. Dragging the fox by the tail, Johnny made his way up and down the aisles, over and under the seats of the room, laying down a scent and then slipping back outside.

They roared with laughter that evening when during the tableau for The Hunt, the beagles and hounds used for the scene broke their leads and climbed across horrified tourists' laps, baying loudly, drooling, trembling and peeing with excitement, as they tracked the scent of the long-departed fox.

And now at eighty-five years old he, like Katherine, is one of Natchez’s most colorful characters. And although he lives in the country in a house with ancestral portraits on the wall, more often than not you’ll find him wearing a wife-beater t-shirt with a do-rag on his head, driving his tractor all over the property, happily pushing things around, stopping to eat a can of sardines, an onion, and a slice of bread. He spends his days feeding the deer, dogs, cats, birds, squirrels and other assorted animals that call his place home.

From left:  Howard Pritchartt and Joe Remondet, circa 1979

And like his aunt Katherine, he's loved (and loathed) in fairly equal measure, but no one laughs louder or longer at Howard Pritchartt than Howard, himself.

And so, at last, with all that being said, I now offer you his original poem about Natchez, making no excuses for the portions of it that are politically and socially incorrect.

If you doubts your social fame, 

git an old house and give it a name. 

If you still lacks social position,
git it put in the Pink Edition. 

If your position is still not clear,
git it decorated by a Natchez queer.

But, really, the mostest important of all
Is finagle your brat into the Pilgrimage Ball.
But really the mostest, most ultimate thing
Is finagle the brat into Queen or King.

We're all aware of the social mystique
that sticks to the gal with the finest antique.
So, ladies, ladies, let’s hold a quorum,
to see who’ll rule the Antiques Forum. 

To us this is now our holiest cause, 

since we’s all well into menopause.

So you give a luncheon and I’ll give a tea. 

And I’ll snub you and you snub me.
And when it’s all over, we’ll make our amends,
pretending to be the closest of friends.

What makes it all so goddamned funny
Is all it takes is a little money.
And when it’s all over, we’ll have to admit
The whole damned thing is a big pile of…
old furniture.

~~ Howard Pritchartt, Jr.
circa 1985

Story by Elodie Pritchartt

Monday, October 8, 2012

The Lost Clifton

Windsor Ruins near Port Gibson, MS  Photo by Elodie Pritchart
The following is an excerpt from the book In Old Natchez by Catherine Van Court, published in 1937 by Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc.

One hundred years ago, a distinguished New Englander made the entire trip to Natchez by boat, and the beauty of the country seemed to strike him with particular force.  He wrote a fascinating record of his impressions and among other things said:

The town, Natchez, is mantled with a rich, green foliage, like a garment.  A noble esplanade runs parallel with the river; at the northern extremity of this esplanade, upon an eminence, gradually yet roundly swelling away, stands Clifton.  Its lofty colonnades glance in the sun, and a magnificent garden spreads out around it.  This garden is diversified with avenues and terraces, and adorned with grottoes and summer-houses.

Clifton was old when the the Civil War began.  It was built for Samuel Postlethwaite, about 1820.  Later, Mr. Frank Surget owned it.  His wife was Mrs. Charlotte Linton, who was wealthy in her own right.  Clifton was her ancestral home, built by her parents.

The grounds were landscaped by European artists, and exotic plants rioted in a cloud of fragrant bloom.  A commanding view of the Mississippi River and the fertile plains of Louisiana lent peculiar picturesqueness to the entire setting.

Such was the fairylike Clifton when, at the close of that historic siege, Vicksburg fell.  Natchez was then placed under military rule with six hundred Union soldiers garrisoned there.  Mr. Surget invited a number of these officers to dine at Clifton but, by some oversight, failed to ask the chief engineer.  In speaking of the matter later, Mr. Surget said:

"It was not an intentional slight on my part."

The next day, a peremptory order came to the Surgets to vacate their house.  The order said that it was necessary to erect fortifications where Clifton stood.

It seemed strange to Mr. Surget that no other site could be found.  "Natchez is a fallen city!" he expostulated.  "There is no reason to fortify the place!"  But the chief engineer was obdurate.

In their astonishment and excitement, the Surgets only found time to gather up the family silver and a few personal belongings before Clifton was blown to atoms.  The detonation of the explosion was heard for miles; not one brick was left upon another.  Even the gardens were demolished; the greenhouses, grottoes and pavilions were leveled to a mass of debris.

The loss of their beloved house, treasures and keepsakes weighed heavily upon the hearts of these gentlefolk, and as soon as peace was declared they prepared to depart for France to make their home.  But Mr. Surget did not live long; he died in America before they could sail, though his wife continued living in Bordeaux to a ripe old age.

War is always hideous, and Natchez fared better than most Southern Cities.  The memory of Clifton has faded, though a section of Natchez perpetuates the name of the beautiful house that was wantonly sacrificed to one man's petty animosity.

The inhabitants of Natchez today, these descendants of that gallant band who enjoyed the spacious life of the feudal days of Southern civilization, have little inclination to indulge in unhappy retrospection.  They love beauty, and it is around them in abundance.  The pink, white and cerise azalea, the japonica, the sweet olive and the cape jasmine are ever before them, tiny monuments to the beauty of a civilization that has died.

Needless to say, times have changed and the "feudal days of Southern civilization" are no longer referred to in such glowing terms.  One cannot dismiss, however, the beauty of the architecture that those "feudal days" made possible.  I love my little town unabashedly and am proud to call it home as it struggles (at times more successfully and at times less so) to acknowledge the realities of the past and embrace a future where one and all live in harmony.  

An interesting footnote:  

In 1900, my great grandfather built a house on the bluff where Clifton had once stood.  Back around 1982, I was at the house visiting my great aunt, Annet Pritchartt.  We were standing in the driveway when my husband looked down at the ground and suddenly exclaimed, "Wow.  Is that a Civil War bullet?"  He leaned down and plucked it up.  It was, indeed, a Civil War bullet.  Perhaps a relic of that fateful day at Clifton.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Cherry Grove

All around the old place,
the dead visit. The
day he opened up the trunk
of that sweetgum tree,
and before we saw the
horseshoe hanging inside,
something brushed against
my face. I heard a nickering

far away 

and the smell 
oiled leather and candlewax.

A few days later Lloyd
found an anvil half
buried in an oak tree, back
by the old barn. It was 

ten feet up  

and the color of storm clouds
when the air smells like metal
and electricity breaks it 

right in two. 

They say
a shipwright lived
there once. I know.
I've heard him hammering.
That was before the rumor 
of the slave revolt 

across the road. 

Nineteen men killed, 
tortured, all for the sake 
of a child's tale. 

A child named 

Obey. No excuses.

The crape myrtle we cleared
 from the back forty 
bled claret-colored sap, 
and stuck inside
one old, stubborn knot
was a skeleton key. 
The silver lying 

all around,

tarnished forks and bone-
china plates. Daddy said
she burnt that house a’purpose,
took  the train and 

left town. 

Ever saw her again.
But to be frank, I don't
believe it. 
I saw her walking 

in the fog

one morning, early. Picking 
bones, rearranging bricks,
breaking twigs over and over.

She saw me too.

We've been talking
back and forth, she and I,
between the branches.

*photos and post by Elodie Pritchartt

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Don't Try This at Home

Don't Try This at Home: Culinary Catastrophes by the World's Greatest Chefs edited by Kimberly Witherspoon and Andrew Friedman - Haven't you always wanted to start your own catering business? Open your own quaint little restaurant? I know, I know. You have visions of sitting around at the bar, sipping tea and creating delicacies that everyone will oooh and ahhh over. Everyone will love you. You will become beautiful and life will be perfect. Not! Trust me. I know this from experience. I had a restaurant once. It was nothing but a nonstop nightmare.

So when I ran across "Don't Try This at Home: Culinary Catastrophes from the World's Greatest Chefs," I thought maybe it would help me lick the wounds I'm still licking 30 years after I lost my little fantasy. And it did! This is the stuff of nightmares that everyone -- even those who don't cook for a living -- can enjoy. Grab a cup of tea with a nice side order of schadenfreude, and eat your heart out.

Chefs aren't always brilliant. Now, don't you feel better just knowing that? The book opens with a truly horrific tale of a chef who let the lobster spoil the night before catering a lobster dinner for 3,000 people. I almost had a panic attack, myself, just reading about how he had to scramble to try to salvage that disaster.

A story by Anthony Bourdain about a New Year's Eve dinner that flopped spectacularly had nearly the same effect on me. Then there was the one by former Good Morning America food correspondent Sara Moulton about cooking and flubbing her first Thanksgiving dinner after attending culinary school that was downright heartwarming. And the one by Gabrielle Hamilton, who, worried about being politically incorrect, hired a blind line cook...with disastrous results.

There are plenty more tales of woe, tender and tough, and I recommend this highly to anyone who's ever had to pass off store-bought pecan pie as homemade to a busload of tourists who just have to have real Southern cooking because someone forgot to write it down. Who me? Never.