PHOTO: Longwood Plantation
It was a leisurely, enjoyable, sight-seeing 24 hour trip up the Mississippi from the Houmas House landing in Louisiana to Natchez, Mississippi where we had ten hours to look around town, visit a plantation and still not miss any of the scintillating stories by historians Bill Wiemuth and Bertram Davis, great great grandson of the President of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis. Bertram is as precise, accurate and detailed about the Civil War as Bill is about the Mighty Mississippi and it was easy to get caught up in both their lecture styles, whether they were presenting a slide show in the Magnolia Lounge or the more intimate and casual conversations over wine in the Paddlewheel Lounge. Since the price of the cruise includes all the lectures and at least one sightseeing venture in each of the six ports we visited on our round trip to Vicksburg from New Orleans, I wanted to see it all. And the Longwood Plantation was another lesson in Southern history and another view into an entirely different plantation from the Houmas House we had already toured. For those who opted for a change of scenery, also included was a shuttle into the heart of Natchez and a visit to the city Visitor Center and other points of interest. But Longwood was too unique to be missed.
It’s a plantation like you could never imagine! Octagonal in shape, its construction was started in 1860, and then halted the following year as the Civil War was erupting and changing the nation forever. Described as an “Oriental Villa,” it features a huge onion shaped dome on top of three stories, each with a magnificent porch or balcony over the main entrance. What’s strange is construction was never begun again even after the war…or into the present day! The Haller Nutt family, part of the Natchez area planter elite, lived in the lowest level, what is lovingly called the basement of the house, for generations, outfitting it with exquisite décor, furnishings and furniture, but never completing the upper two levels. You get to understand why it’s also known as Nutt’s Folly! Today, the unfinished mansion is on the National Register of Historic Places and is a National Historic Landmark. It’s also the site of tours and events organized by the Pilgrimage Garden Club which owns it. Docents in period dress happily show you through the entire ‘basement’ then lead you upstairs to get a closer look at the unfinished upper floors. The nine finished rooms are magnificent, its dining room table resplendent and set for a sumptuous dinner; the remaining 23 rooms shown on the house plan will not ever be completed.
In contrast to Longwood, a few days later we visited Oak Alley Plantation, clearly one of the finest overall views and peeks into antebellum life anywhere in the South. Magnificent from its first glimpse from the boat America, docked just across the levee from the mansion, the home is reached after a quarter mile walk beneath the most stately three hundred year old Virginia Live Oak trees imaginable. Period dressed docents greet you in that warm southern smile and greeting that’s so easy to get used to, then lead you beneath the oaks, past the bulbs, crepe myrtles and azalea blooming in magnificent colors, and into the “big house” for a tour of the mansion that was a wedding gift from Jacques Roman to his bride Celina in 1837. Gorgeous as it is, and wonderful as the mint juleps offered at the end of the tour were, the live oaks deserve a story on their own. Each was planted in the early 1700s by some settler in the area at the time, and each is 80 feet apart down the path to the river, 28 in all. Historians know they are that old since when the Capuchin Fathers, an order of missionaries, established a settlement, St James Parish, in 1722, it was documented that the trees were already mature. The largest of these trees has a girth of 30 feet and its limb-spread is 127 feet. Since this species of tree can live to be 600 years, the 28 we saw on this trip are just about middle-aged with another few centuries to go.
Like many other trees in the South, many of these trees have Resurrection fern on the limbs and trunks. Like Spanish moss, this is an air plant that grows on the bark of the trees and is brilliant green when well watered by nature, and shrunken and brownish in color when dry. The fern can uncurl and reopen to the bright green color overnight after a rain storm, or live for long periods in a drought, hence the Resurrection name.
With the America scheduled to leave the dock during lunch, and with Capt. Tabor offering a view of the Pilot House and an explanation about the unique differences between piloting a paddle wheeler on the Mississippi and a lobster boat in Maine, or a family boat off the Outer Banks, we opted to bypass a walking tour of Oak Alley’s grounds, its sugar kettles, pecan trees, slavery residences and garconniere, the residences for young men between 15 years of age and their marriage; tradition had only children under 15 and married couples living in the Big House.
And we had also already been advised that both Davis and Wiemuth had some very exciting stories to tell about the battles and eventual siege of Vicksburg. Coupled with the promise of Laura Wiemuth presenting a program of Patsy Cline music that evening in Laura’s own peerless fashion, it was going to be another exciting few hours to enjoy.