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Thursday, February 2, 2012

Prospect Hill Plantation: A crumbling mansion searches for salvation

Story and Photos by Elodie Pritchartt


“My wound is geography. It is also my anchorage, my port of call.” ~ Pat Conroy



Andre de La Barre and I sat in his car at the fork in the road and tried to decide what to do.

“She didn’t say anything about a fork,” said Andre. We looked at each other and laughed.

“Can you call?”

Andre looked at his cell phone. No signal.

“Aw, heck,” I said. “Go right.”

We were in Lorman, Mississippi, thirty miles north of Natchez on a gravel road looking for a house a friend had told us was for sale: 1854 Greek-revival, raised cottage-style mansion on 3.3 acres for around $20,000. Needs a lot of work.

I had posted it on my Facebook page and was surprised at how quickly Andre sent me a message.

“We’ve got to go see this place! Can you go this weekend?”

Then he sent me a link to a book on Amazon called Mississippi in Africa by Mississippi author Alan Huffman. Huffman’s book tells a tale spanning two continents and two centuries, and had all the elements of a Shakespearean tragedy—wealth, greed, war, family, murder, redemption, sorrow and hope—the story of Prospect Hill Plantation.

And what a story it is.



Prospect Hill was built by Isaac Ross, a Revolutionary War veteran who moved to Mississippi in 1808. Extremely wealthy, Ross had over two hundred slaves with whom he operated a successful cotton plantation.  He was known for seeing to the comfort, wellbeing and education of his slaves.

Ross knew slavery wouldn’t last, and had heard about the American Colonization Society, which hoped to repatriate freed slaves to the African country of Liberia. When he died in 1836, his will stipulated that upon the death of his daughter, Margaret Reed, the plantation should be sold and the proceeds used to pay passage for those of his slaves who wanted to go to Liberia.

But Ross’s grandson, Isaac Ross Wade, contested the will and although Margaret Reed would die only two years later, the case was held up in the court system for a decade with suits and countersuits, the slaves’ side being aided by the Colonization Society.



In 1845, a handful of slaves decided they couldn’t wait any longer. The cook drugged the coffee, and after everyone had gone to bed, the house was set afire. Everyone but a six-year-old little girl was rescued. After the uprising a vigilante committee hanged eleven slaves in the big white oak tree behind the ruins of the house.

Even so the will was eventually upheld and the slaves who chose to go to Africa were allowed to do so, establishing a colony called Mississippi in Africa. These educated blacks were prosperous. They operated plantations on which they built large homes reminiscent of the antebellum homes of their former masters, and battled with the native tribes, a cultural conflict that continues even now.  

After learning about the story, I remembered finding an old family tree tucked away in a forgotten drawer at home and discovered that I was, in fact, a descendant of the Wades of Mississippi. I also found an old family album from the 1800s with several pages devoted to Wades. Unfortunately nearly every Wade-identified page had been stripped of its photo, only one intact, and not a direct descendant.

So our journey was a bit more than idle curiosity—I was exploring a heretofore unknown chapter in my family heritage while Andre hoped to find a way to help save the house—built after the fire that destroyed the first one, completed in 1854.

  "The present dwelling at Prospect Hill was built by the current owner, Judge Isaac Ross Wade, who received the plantation as a fee for nine years service as the only qualified executor of the estate of his grandfather, Captain Isaac Ross of the American Revolution.
   The house was started in June 1853. That is, the brick were burned in kilns near the site of the house, in what was part of the orchard for the plantation. The water for mixing the clay for the brick was brought from nearby Turkabee Spring named for an old Choctaw Indian Chief. Two Negro slave boys, Nick and Zack, brought the water in pails carried on their heads. They were sometimes aided by other boys and girls when the plantation work was not pressing.
   The contractor was named Mattingly and the chief mechanic was Ephriam Boyce. The house was a splendid piece of work when it was finished, April 30, 1854. In those eleven months, the beautiful home was finished complete with two fine outbuildings on brick foundations; one had two rooms and a wide front gallery and was used for a kitchen and storeroom. The other had two rooms for yard servants, a wide front gallery, and under the end room, a brick room used for ironing or a laundry room. These in later years were used for a loom or weaving room. There were two fine arched cisterns, one for the house or family use was twenty six feet deep and fourteen feet in diameter. The other, not so large, was used for the kitchen and laundry and servants about the yard. Both were bricked and heavily cemented throughout. Yard and garden fences had been made and painted or white washed, the entire premises were ready to be occupied and the keys handed to Judge Wade.
   The Judge moved his family in on the second day of May, 1854." ~ Jennie Allison Wade Killingsworth, daughter of Isaac Ross Wade. Jennie was born May 2, 1854, the day her family moved into Prospect Hill.

My advice to take the right fork was wrong, but after about twenty minutes and a few missteps, we finally found the entrance, manned by Jessica Crawford, a tiny slip of a girl who had promised to meet us. We followed her SUV as she led us through the backwoods of Lorman, over old logging roads and under modern power lines into an opening in the trees.

Jessica had driven nearly four hours to meet us from her home in Marks, Mississippi, where she serves as southeast regional director at the New Mexico-based Archeological Conservancy. She helps acquire archeological sites for the Conservancy, usually Indian mounds or villages, Civil War sites, some Colonial forts.

“Normally we try to avoid any kind of structures,” she said. “We’re set up to manage what’s under the ground. On top of the ground is what my boss calls ‘the money pit.’”

The Conservancy hopes to stabilize the structure until they can find someone to buy and restore it while retaining an archeological easement so they can continue to study those artifacts still below ground.

The sight of the ancient, crumbling mansion with its bare wooden façade and tall chimneys rising above the tree line was beautiful and sad and amazing.

“Be careful where you step,” cautioned Jessica. “I’ve gotten the yard cleared for the first time in years, but there are stumps, so watch where you walk.”

She’d done much of the work herself, coming frequently and often alone to this remote spot to rescue it from the encroaching jungle. It was clear she loved it and wanted to save it.

An ancient brick staircase covered in lichen, rose gracefully from what had once been the main entrance to the plantation, framed by large cedar trees. Old-growth garden plants punctuated the grounds—camellia, crape myrtle, wisteria, dogwood, all dripping Spanish moss.

The front porch hung at a crazy angle, having lost many of its graceful, fluted columns. The stairway threatened to collapse altogether. An elegant doorway stood trimmed with dentil moulding, jib windows opened onto the porch, the façade still showing traces of the plaster and scoring over wood once used for grander houses.

In the backyard the same white oak that had borne the bodies of eleven slaves had fallen in a storm and taken off the back of the house and part of the second floor. A fireplace hung high over our heads hugging the side of the house. A set of shelves on the remaining back wall still held bottles, all tilting toward oblivion. A peacock sat among the flotsam, quiet and proud.

“That’s Isaac,” said Jessica. “He’s been here seven years. We named him after Isaac Ross.”

“How long since anyone’s lived here?” asked Andre.

“I’ve found mail in there from 2007, but I know the front porch roof had fallen down as early as 2000,” said Jessica.

The previous owner loved the house fiercely, but a string of bad luck and tragedy had forced him to finally move.

We explored the basement rooms crammed halfway to the ceiling with furniture, pianos, farm implements, and the junk of a thousand years: three pianos in the basement, alone, another upstairs, all in ruinous condition and far past help; a kitchen area with sink, refrigerator, stove, etc. Permeating the air was the smell of funk and decay, mildew and something else….possibly the droppings of raccoons and other wild animals that had taken up residence.

Upstairs, we stepped carefully around rotten floorboards and decaying furnishings, books, mattresses and clothes, all left by the previous owner, and saw what a beautiful place it had once been. I was amazed that the mirror in the dining room had not been stolen. A lone bat kept Isaac company inside, hanging from the molding in a back room while Isaac roosted at night on the top of a bedroom door.

We walked to the family cemetery behind the house. Like coming onto a secret garden among the trees, vines and thorns, the cemetery stood anchored by a massive columned monument—its beauty and size difficult to describe. According to Huffman’s book, the monument was commissioned in 1838 by the Mississippi Colonization Society for the astronomical price of $25,000 and bears the following inscription:

“His last will is graced with as magnificent provisions as any over which philanthropy has ever rejoiced and by it will be erected on the shores of Africa a monument more glorious than marble and more enduring than time.”

The remains of a wrought-iron fence enveloped the headstones and crypts, many damaged by a falling tree in another storm. 

Ignoring the real possibility of rattlesnakes, I crawled underneath the house where ancient farm equipment waited as though expecting to be used again. Jessica pointed out a beam overhead with handwriting on it in chalk. I could make out the word “Jefferson” and the date “1872.”

“This is where the workers would come to practice their penmanship,” said Jessica.

On our next visit in November to a fundraiser Jessica had organized to finance stabilization of the roof, I was stunned at how much work had been done. The basement had been cleared, the porch removed and temporary stairs erected to allow visitors ingress. That wasn’t all.

“We have discovered foundations in the back of several buildings,” she said. “…what we think is probably a kitchen, a laundry and a smokehouse and also a brick structure that was possibly for the house slaves. We think we have the cotton gin down the hill by the creek.”

I was excited. Alan Huffman was there, along with descendants of the Rosses, the Wades, and the slaves, some of whom were recent refugees from the conflict in Liberia. They had driven down from Washington, D.C. to attend this gathering. Alan had traveled to Liberia when writing his book, a risk I would have been too cowardly to take. I could only imagine what this meeting meant for him.

We heard stories about the plantation from Jessica, Alan, local historian Ann Brown, and James Belton, a descendant of the slaves from McComb, Mississippi who told us stories that had been passed down to him through the generations. It was an amazing experience.

We shared a meal together—all these many years later—descendants of master and slave. We told stories and asked questions and crossed the barriers of time and place and culture. It was a good day and I trust that good things will come of it, not the least of which are the future prospects of a house with a story in Jefferson County, Mississippi.

The mirror, furnishings and trash have all been cleaned out in order to show the house.  So far, the Conservancy had one individual who is seriously interested in purchasing the property. Those who want more information or wish to help with the stabilization efforts can send contributions to or contact The Archaeological Conservancy’s Southeast Regional Office, P.O. Box 270, Marks, MS 38643, tacsoutheast@cableone.net or visit their website at americanarchaeology.org.

To read more on Prospect Hill, visit Alan Huffman's blog where he has several posts pertaining to the history and the house.



11 comments:

Teddi14 said...

What an interesting read!

Anonymous said...

Loved this post. Most informative and interesting. Made me want to drive there and look around.

Anonymous said...

I loved reading about this. When I was a small child, my father took me all around Jefferson and Claiborne Counties to view many of the old homes that were in peril. He wanted someone to remember, and I distinctly remember going to Prospect Hill and his stories about it.

Thank you for sharing this. Thank you for caring. I live away from Mississippi now, but I hope to return someday and not simply to rest with my loved ones at Wintergreen.

ed said...

Where is it?
Holubfilm at gmail

Shantybellum said...

It's in Lorman, MS. One of those places that are off Highway 61, down a paved road til you get to the church, down another paved road for a couple miles til you get to the curve, down a gravel road that forks (take the left fork) until you come to the nondescript green iron gate on the left.

In other words, it's impossible to describe.

Shantybellum said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
SD said...

I just read Huffman's book 'Mississippi in Africa' and some further google searching brought me here. A great book, and now that I can see photographs of the building, I feel sad that it's in such a decrepit state. In Huffman's book, which was written in the early 2000s, a man called McCarter owned the place. Does he still own it, or has he sold it off?
As midlife creeps upon me, history, be it local or on a grand scale, seems to occupy a greater part of my interests.

Shantybellum said...

SD, he no longer owns it. The Archeological Conservancy bought it from him in the hopes of finding a buyer for it. I think they're only asking $30,000 for the house and several acres.

Jessica Crawford has her heart and soul invested in saving it. I really hope it happens soon.

I know what you mean about history suddenly becoming more important. I moved back to Mississippi after living in Los Angeles almost 30 years. Being among family that's been here since the early 1800s and my own encroaching mortality has sent me on more than one search for ancestral, cultural and factual history. It's a journey worth taking.

Carolyn39574 said...

Just saw this on PBS Mississippi Roads tonight. Said that there is going to be a restoration. ♥ Oh and I always enjoy reading your stories.

Carolyn39574 said...

Just saw this place tonight on Mississippi Roads and remembered your story about it. I always enjoy your stories ♥

Anonymous said...

I am one of the many descendants and live in Dallas. I would love to attend any fundraising events. I grew up hearing the stories about Prospect Hill and hope to visit it in the next year ( if we can find it). Thank you for your poignant descriptions and photographs.