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Today is October 4, 2022

Mississippi Seen

Tourism dollars saved many historic homes from ruin

Tourism dollars saved many historic homes from ruin

The Walter Place in Holly Springs played host to Gen. Grant's wife during the Civil War while Grant was in the process of wrecking the homeowner’s railroad. By the way, the Holly Springs Pilgrimage is April 12-14 this year. Photo: Walt Grayson

    Now that a bunch of early bloomers have already blossomed out, we are moving into the time of year when they really should have bloomed in the first place.
    In the middle of February I drove past Johnny Baker’s house out west of Port Gibson and the row of azaleas I’m used to seeing bloom about mid to late March were open a month ahead of time.
    Jeanette Feltus, who owns the antebellum home Linden in Natchez, was telling me that people plan their trips to the Natchez Spring Pilgrimage to try to be there when the azaleas are in full bloom. She was hoping they wouldn’t all be bloomed out by the time Pilgrimage starts March 9.
    We are observing the 150th anniversary of the Civil War in America until 2015. This month 150 years ago, Union Gen. Grant was getting his army ready to invade Mississippi south of Vicksburg (he crossed the Mississippi River April 30, 1863). Col. Benjamin Grierson was hatching plans to do a daring raid down the middle of Mississippi to divert attention from Grant’s army so they could cross with as little resistance as possible.
    I guess it worked. Grant had no resistance until midnight the next night. His army was marching toward Port Gibson, about to pass the front yard of the Schaifer House, when Confederate skirmishers exchanged shots with the Union vanguard.
    I have kiddingly said that the first big push of tourists who came to the Deep South were Union soldiers in the Civil War. And just as pilgrims today love to flock to our antebellum homes, so did they, but for entirely different purposes.
    Harvey Washington Walter owned the Mississippi Central Railroad and had his home, the Walter Place, built in Holly Springs in 1859. His first long-stay house guest turned out to be Gen. Grant’s wife, Julia, and her servant after Grant took the town and commandeered the house as quarters for his wife. Ironically, the reason Grant was even remotely interested in this part of the country was to attack Mr. Walter’s railroad.
    Many of the old homes in Mississippi that made it through the war were used as headquarters for generals or as hospitals, or both. That’s the reason a bunch of them survived. Gen. Sherman used a number of other old Mississippi mansions as a literal warm-up for his later March to the Sea across Georgia. But “War is Hell,” as Sherman was quoted saying. (He may have uttered those famous words in Jackson, by the way, as he watched a team of mules and a cannon tumble into the Pearl River off a makeshift pontoon bridge.)
    For decades after the Civil War the homes that were left struggled to survive. The money to maintain them properly was gone. Then in the 1930s came the idea to open up the homes’ gardens to tourists who might like to see the magnificent flowers that burst into profuse bloom every spring.
    The garden tours worked well until 1932 when there was a town full of tourists in Natchez and a late freeze killed all the flowers. Not wanting to leave the visitors empty handed, the owners of the homes opened the doors and invited the tourists inside to take a look. And the pilgrims have been coming to see the inside of the mansions every year since then.
    So I suppose it really doesn’t matter whether the flowers have already bloomed out early or not this year; most of the tourists will be indoors at the various spring pilgrimages around our state anyway.

    Walt Grayson is the host of “Mississippi Roads” on Mississippi Public Broadcasting television, and the author of two “Looking Around Mississippi” books and “Oh! That Reminds Me: More Mississippi Homegrown Stories.” Contact Grayson at walt@waltgrayson.com.

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