For more than 60 years,
a publication centered on life in Mississippi.
Today is October 15, 2018

Mississippi Seen

Mississippi still holds surprises

Mississippi still holds surprises

The meeting house at Granly has been restored to its mid-1930s look and feel. It is often used nowadays for weddings as well as the annual day-after-Christmas gathering for the descendants. The original Danish community settled here about the time of the Great Depression and built this building in 1936. Photo: Walt Grayson

It happens every once in a while. After years running around Mississippi doing articles, writing a few books and producing a few thousand television stories, I run across something totally surprising.

Probably the most striking example of that happened several years ago. Jo and I were staying overnight at The Burn Bed and Breakfast in Natchez. Bridget Green and her husband own The Burn. Bridget said she knew of a little country church south of town that I might like to see. St. Mary’s Episcopal Chapel at Laurel Hill Plantation. Her daughter was to be married there soon.

I didn’t think too much of it until Bridget told us her daughter wanted an exotic wedding and had even toyed with the idea of going to Tibet for the ceremony. Bridget said she told her if that’s what she wanted, then do it. But first, she should see this church. And after she saw it she forgot Tibet. St. Mary’s Chapel was much more intriguing.

Now, I figured we weren’t going to a one-room, wood-framed country church with two doors on the front, four windows down each wall and another door behind the pulpit area. My expectation bar was set high. And the imposing 160-ish-year-old stone and iron Gothic building protruding from the woods, with its high spires and burials under the floor, completely surpassed anything I imagined I might be going to the country to see.

Well, the same sort of thing happened again the other day. I am working with a friend on a tourism project for the Gulf Coast counties documenting some of the ethnic and cultural groups who have migrated here over time. We hit the obvious, the French who landed in 1699 and the Native Americans who helped them off the boat. The Croatians have a surprisingly deeply rooted legacy in shipbuilding on the coast. The Vietnamese community is strongly entrenched in fishing. There’s a bunch more groups.

But my big surprise came when we went to the Hurley area in Jackson County to Granly to visit the once-thriving Danish community there. Else Martin is the daughter of one of the original Danish settlers. They came during the Dust Bowl from the upper Midwest in answer to advertisements for cut-over forestlands, excellent for farming.

One of the first buildings constructed in the mid-1930s was their Forsamlingshus, or meeting house. It served as sort of a community center as well as Bethany Lutheran Church. The building has been restored to its original look complete with the original hand-made pews, pulpit and altar area. The communion set is still there, as well as a hand-me-down figure of Jesus from another church that was enlarging its sanctuary and needed a bigger version.

The meeting house is not nearly as ornate at St. Mary’s Chapel, across the state in the woods at Natchez. But this building at Granly is still the center of the Danish community, although there is no such visible community anymore. Descendents of the original Borgesens and Christensens and Knudsens have long since assimilated into other South Mississippi families. But the kids and grandkids still come back to this place and this building, especially on Dec. 26 for a Christmas celebration highlighted by a circle dance around the Christmas tree.

The building at Granly is interesting in and of itself. But the fact that the Danish community still gravitates back to it and thinks of it as “home” is even more fascinating. Especially in a society where many people have drifted away from their roots altogether.

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.

Site designed by Marketing Alliance, Inc.