Natchez Pilgrimage Tours showcases historic homes, landmarks and literary history each fall and spring.
Twice a year, when the weather turns downright pleasant, the friendly town on the bluffs of the Mighty Mississippi River travels back in time. Natchez revisits a time before “The War” when cotton was king and hoop skirts crowded the ballrooms. Owners of historic homes show off their infamous Southern hospitality by opening their doors to allow visitors an opportunity to experience the history that shaped this charming Mississippi city.
First settled in 1716, Natchez is preparing for its tricentennial celebration that will take place in 2016. The Antebellum period, a turning point for Southern culture, has been well preserved in the city. Natchez’s location on the Mississippi River has created a blend of African American, British, French, Native American and Spanish influences. This melting pot of cultures can be seen throughout the city in the architecture, music and food. Today, the city celebrates its rich history and culture during a multitude of festivals throughout the year.
The city of Natchez holds numerous titles and appears on many travel lists, such as friendliest city in the U.S., Life magazine’s “100 places to see in your lifetime,” bed and breakfast capital of the South and the delicious title of Biscuit Capital of the World. (Carriage House Restaurant makes silver dollar-sized biscuits that will easily convince guests of this claim.)
A trip to Natchez guarantees a belly full of good food, breath-taking scenery, countless lessons in history and a healthy dose of Southern hospitality. The relief from the oppressive heat that fall offers makes it the perfect time for Natchez to showcase its Antebellum history and Greek Revival architecture. The Fall Pilgrimage squeezes an amazing amount of history, culture and storytelling into a two-week period. The Pilgrimage, dating back to 1932, welcomes “pilgrims” to tour the beautiful historic homes guided by hosts in 19th century period costume. In addition to tours, Natchez’s gorgeous Antebellum homes are the focal point for theater performances, special presentations and live music. The Natchez Garden Club and Pilgrimage Garden Club work together to present the Pilgrimage, and traditions include a Confederate Pageant and Pilgrimage Queen and her court.
Magnolia Hall, run by the Natchez Garden Club, houses a costume museum that shows visitors Antebellum attire, dolls and Pilgrimage Queens gowns. The museum gives a detailed history of the Pilgrimage and explains the tradition of the Pilgrimage Queen and the Confederate Pageant, formerly known as the Confederate Ball.
Each year, the Fall Pilgrimage showcases 16 historic houses. Most of the homes on tour are owned by members of the local garden clubs or the garden clubs themselves. The tour guides include club members, the homeowners and their families. Costumed guides are often descendants of the home’s original owners, while tour guides give a thorough historical account of the house, its furniture and the families who have used them.
The diverse people involved with the Pilgrimage tours range from Natchez natives with a long family history in the homes to Southern transplants who chose Natchez as their home after retiring. Dressed in a top hat and 19th century suit, Clark Feiser greets guests on the front steps of Auburn Antebellum Home (pictured).
Feiser and his wife fell in love with the beauty and charm of Natchez while on a Mississippi River cruise. They retired from Pennsylvania to Natchez and are now Natchez locals who volunteer to educate tour groups and restore the Antebellum home. “I was a history major in college, and now I’m finally able to use that,” says Feiser, who also serves as president of the Auburn Antebellum Home. The home is a national historical landmark built in 1812 for Lyman Harding, the first Attorney General of Mississippi. It was the first architecturally planned home in Natchez and boasts a rare, free-standing spiral staircase. In 1911, the home and 210 acres were donated to the city, and the land is now known as Duncan Park.
Not all of the historic homes on tour are enormous mansions. “The Gardens” is the perfect example of an early planters’ cottage, common in the Lower Mississippi Valley. The cottage differs in style, but it holds just as much history as the grand mansions down the road. “The Gardens” was built in 1794 as a summer retreat for Spanish Territorial Governor Stephen Minor. The cottage sits between the Natchez City Cemetery and the Natchez National Cemetery. It was deeded to Louis Schleet, wife of Charles Daniel Schleet, in 1881 and has since been owned and occupied by the descendants of the family. Dr. Fred Emrick, the current owner, is the great great grandson of Charles and Louis Schleet.
From 1863-1864, “The Gardens” (pictured) served as a military hospital for Federal troops during the Civil War. Evidence of the occupation, such as ammunition, traces of brick ovens and a tarnished spoon dug up by Dr. Emrick’s mother, can be found in the home. For the Pilgrimage tours, Dr. Emrick dresses as a Union army surgeon and gives the history of occupation and Civil War medicine. Aided by replicas of 19th century surgical instruments, he explains the gory details of amputations during the war.
Many of the homes have a link to literary history, including “The Gardens.” Louise Purnell, relation of former owner Levi Purnell, authored a children’s book while visiting Natchez. Written under the pseudonym Louisa Pyrnelle, Diddie Dumps and Tot depicts childhood on a Southern plantation before the Civil War.
The J.N. Stone House, a bed and breakfast with origins as a private billiard hall styled as a Greek temple, boasts a personalized copy of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, along with a family keepsake: a photograph of Lee and her childhood friend Truman Capote. The owner, Joseph P. Stone, is a collector or rare books, maps and prints.
John Henderson, original owner of Pleasant Hill bed and breakfast in downtown Natchez, also has a place in literary history. A wealthy planter and merchant, Henderson was also an author. He penned the only known literary work written in Natchez prior to the American Period, The Paine Detected or Unreasonableness of Paine’s Age of Reason. Henderson also built another of Natchez’s homes, Magnolia Hall.
Whether guests drive down for the weekend or stay a week, the Pilgrimage will keep them busy. Natchez is home to more than 50 historic bed and breakfasts, a variety of local restaurants and views that will keep guests coming back for more. With a revolving list of homes on tour and something new to offer every spring and fall, the Natchez Pilgrimage could easily become a bi-annual tradition.
Six different tours are offered through October 13. For ticket prices and tour schedules, visit Natchez Pilgrimage online or the Natchez Visitor Center, open daily from 8:30 a.m.-6 p.m. A 3-House Ticket is $30 and a 6-House Pass is $60 (for any 6 houses on morning or afternoon tours). Museum House tours start at $12. Private guides are available.
Photo credit: Longwood at bottom by NPRO studio. Photos courtesy of Natchez Pilgrimage Tours; top featured photo is Stanton Hall.