This week we stepped away from our ordinary routine to get away for our 4th wedding anniversary. We took a delightful little trip to Natchez, Mississippi to stay at the romantic Monmouth Historic Inn. We had the best time taking a relaxing step back in time in this wonderful little town, still so rich and alive with history. But the best part about it to us was that on less than one tank of gas, and about two and half hours from home (New Orleans) we felt like we had been to a whole other place on vacation! As soon as we arrived, we were taken in not only by the lush elegance of the well-manicured grounds of the property, but also by the charm of the staff. It was as if southern charm was oozing from every fiber of this place. We were given a rundown of the property by Mr. Dan, a staffer who was quite a charming character. “Now, isn’t it just a beautiful day?” he queried with an enthusiastic drawl every time he saw us. We decided that his cheerful demeanor would probably even lead him to ask that on a rainy day. Nonetheless, he showed us to our room in the pond house, which was, as the name implies, situated near the pond. My mind was still reeling from leaving New Orleans, and leaving unfinished work behind, but once we fell into the quietness and solitude of this place that still seemed mired in bygone days, I began to unwind and the tension began draining away. Of course, sipping a vodka tonic while rocking on the front porch of the pond house might have helped out, as well. There was even a property cat that came and played with my feet to make us feel right at home.
After a wonderful night’s rest, we spent the whole next day exploring Natchez, touring some of the magnificent antebellum homes and shopping. Our first stop was to Longwood, a 30,000 square foot, 6 story mansion that would have been beautiful had it been finished. However, construction was halted by the Civil War, and it was never completed. The family lived in the basement of the house, which was the only part that was ever completed. The remaining floors of the home still remain unfinished, and sit, frozen in time. It is both eerie and fascinating all at the same time. I couldn’t help but feel a sense of sorrow for the family that must have had such high hopes of living in a place of such stature and elegance, only to have those dreams cut short by the tragedy of the war. The family cemetery is on the grounds of the property, and we took the time to visit. I felt a sense of peace for those souls buried there and prayed that I was right.The next home we visited was Stanton-Hall, the complete opposite of Longwood. Stanton Hall was beautiful, elegant and well preserved in the glory of its original grandeur. The house was beautifully appointed with rich draperies and fine furnishings, some which were original to the house that had been donated back by the original family members. Although the original builder, Frederick Stanton, only lived for one month after the home was completed, his family lived there for many years, including during the Civil War. The carriage house has been turned into a restaurant, where we enjoyed a delicious lunch that included such authentic southern fare as seafood gumbo and fried oyster salad. Being a little leery of the tomato aspic that was served with the salad (what is that?!!) our server was kind enough to bring us a sample. “It’s like a congealed bloody Mary,” she stated. That’s a perfect description!We spent the rest of the afternoon walking around downtown Natchez, taking in the sights of all the beautiful homes in this area, visiting the magnificent St. Mary’s Basilica, and perusing the quaint little shops on Main Street. We returned to Monmouth that evening and had a most romantic anniversary dinner in their onsite restaurant, Restaurant 1818. We got a definite feel for what life might have been like in 1818, as the dining room is situated in what were the men’s and ladies’ parlors of the original house. Given that I am one who rates a restaurant first on ambiance, second on food, I was not disappointed. We were overall very happy with our dining experience and would definitely recommend it.On Friday morning, we toured Monmouth before we headed back home and learned the fascinating story of John Quitman, one of the home’s most prominent residents. John was a lawyer, decorated war hero and general, the governor of Mississippi, and also served in the Mississippi state legislature and the U.S. Congress, but it was the stories of his deep and obvious love for his wife Eliza that resonated stronger with me above all else. Many of John and Eliza’s personal affects still remain in the home including the family bible, his writing desk and a red handkerchief that he used to rally his troops. Also on the wall hangs a love letter written from John to Eliza that states, “You are my polar star and my heart ever points to you.” There was just something about seeing those personal words written in Quitman’s own handwriting that made his spirit seem very alive and present in the home for me. It elevated the Quitman family, in my mind, from a story the tour guide was telling to real people who felt real emotions in this place. Those real people experienced a lot of joy in that house, and tragically, like so many in the Natchez area, the Civil War brought a lot of heartache to so many in that house, as well.
When we left, we opted for the long way home and took the opportunity to travel 30 miles up the Natchez Trace. One day we’ll go back and finish the whole thing, but for now, 30 miles was plenty enough and we found some of the best entertainment of the whole trip here! We stopped in at milepost 15.5, Mount Locust Inn, and it was here that we met Park Ranger Mabry, another true southern character. She told us the story of the Mount Locust Inn in excited, breathy animation, that made us come to the conclusion that history is just really gossip … and Ranger Mabry recounted the rise and fall of Natchez and its elite characters like some really good gossip, ya hear y’all?! She also gave us a killer restaurant recommendation for the Old Country Store and pointed us in the direction of the Windsor Ruins.
As I mentioned above, I rate restaurants on ambiance first, food second, and The Old Country Store gets a five star rating on both accounts in my book. Immediately upon arrival we were greeted by the owner, Arthur Davis, or Mr. D, and welcomed in to his place, a bare bones general store where the walls are lined with shelf after shelf of thrift store fare. As he watched my eyes scan the rows of second-hand merchandise in mild bemusement, he shouted loudly to me that “Everything is for sale and is ON sale … now make me an offer”! We were then ushered back to the buffet area where a spread of some of the finest southern cooking around was laid out for the taking. We were reminded over and over that it was all you can eat. Weight Watcher’s be damned, as we stuffed ourselves with fried chicken, mac and cheese, collard greens, green beans, okra, and I know I’m leaving something out. When Mr. D observed me photographing the food, he flew across the room to be included in the photo and told us the story of how he started his restaurant. We ended our meal with the sweetest blackberry cobbler a la mode I’ve ever tasted, but the real treat was when Mr. D circled the restaurant singing an a cappella version of “I Can’t Help Myself,” changing the words to remind every woman in the room that “He,”as in their dining partner, loves you and nobody else. He even sang to one single diner’s Sugar Pie Honey Bunch via cell phone. How’s that for authentic? Upon leaving Mr. D gave us a reminder to send all of our friends so that they could be “spoiled” as well. So here’s your invite.
On our final trek back home, we stopped at The Windsor Ruins, which is what remains of the Windsor Plantation in Port Gibson, Mississippi. Like all tales of Natchez, this one had a rise and fall element, but the irony here is that the house survived the Civil War, including occupation by both Union and Confederate troops, only to be burned to the ground by a dropped cigarette on February 17, 1890. All that remains are 23 majestic Corinthian columns and some ironwork. The columns are roped off with warnings that they are unstable, but we were able to walk completely around them, which gave us a sense of the enormity and grandeur this property must have held in it’s heyday. Their was a haunting beauty about the ruins, and while we walked, thunder rumbled in the distance, enhancing the feeling of doom and sadness that loomed in the air.
We walked back to the car in silence, and then finally spoke about the overwhelming feeling of sadness we took away from this place. It was moving to say the least. That launched us into a conversation about Natchez as a whole, and it’s historical significance. Throughout our trip we heard tale after larger than life tale of cotton barons and plantation owners, wealth and society, brought to its knees by the Civil War. And then there were the subsequent stories of widows living on and making do without the man of the house, and figuring out remarkably resourceful ways to survive. They were all recounts of history told like stories of the best gossip you’ve ever heard! If I would have realized that history could be this juicy, I would have paid way more attention back in high school.
After we left the Windsor ruins, we crossed the Mississippi River and began making our way home via Vidalia, Louisiana. This was totally the long way home, and without a doubt the road less traveled, but it gave us time to adjust to the idea of getting back to our every day. We arrived in our driveway about three hours later with a quarter tank of gas still left in the car, feeling like we had been been on a complete vacation. We had a blast exploring so close to home, yet such a world away. This definitely won’t be our last one-tank trek, as there is still so much to do and see in our history rich area of the country.
Polly HittBeautifully written…. Loved reading the account of your weekend. We also just returned from Natchez. We, being 5 friends who graduated from high school together, years ago. This was our sixth Natchez trip… Since 2 of us live in Texas, 2 in the Montgomery area and 1in SanDestin it’s sort of midway for all of us. … But then so are a lot of other places. There is something special about Natchez that keeps us going back. The main thing is, you never feel like a tourist, but rather like an invited guest. We’re hooked! We always do lunch at Stanton Hall, always have a meal at Cotton Alley and never miss having Roosevelt’s mint juleps on the patio at Monmouth. And we’ve been serenaded by the biscuit king, Mr. D., and we’ve all read Greg Isles books. It is a magical place!