Natchez, Mississippi escaped the Civil War almost entirely unscathed. Some say they capitulated, but ‘some’ apparently didn’t realize that almost everyone in town was either A) at Vicksburg or B) they’d made their money on Wall Street and in the north and were, therefore, not what you’d call sympathetic to the Confederacy. So the Union army arrived to fire one shot from a gunboat on the river, and were then invited to tea. Pretty much the whole story, right there. One child, playing where the warning shot was fired, was killed completely unintentionally. Check out Vicksburg about their casualties. Natchez was indefensible and they knew it. So… smart, or capitulation. I suspect that what you call it depends on where you live. I was raised in the west and north, and therefore my feelings about the ‘romance of the Old South’ go straight into the seething, ranting heebeejeebees without so much as an introduction.
During their ‘Pilgrimage’ month, from mid-March to mid-April, the people of Natchez open their historic homes to tours. They are as gracious as they could possibly be and then some. The houses run the gamut from beautifully preserved to badly rundown.
This last week my parents, husband, son, and mother-in-law, stayed at the absolutely beautiful Elgin Plantation in Natchez. Ruth Ellen Calhoun and her husband Bill made us entirely welcome, and Lizzy, whose last name I shamefully do not know, teased my son like she was a member of our family. They are spectacular people.
My family used to own Elgin. My great grandfather bought it in 1915, after the boll weevil had decimated the area’s agriculture.
My mother remembers Elgin as the place she rode on her charming and charismatic grandfather’s shoulders. Where her parents were social movers and shakers. It’s the place she was born. The place she said her first word. ‘Camellia’, for the bushes her grandfather, Poppop, planted. Her beloved Poppop took her around to introduce her to each of them. From his shoulders she could reach down and pick flowers from the tops of the bushes. They’ve grown into thirty foot tall specimens of botanical glory while she was away.
Poppop took out a loan against the plantation with the Federal Land Bank to build a pecan shelling plant in Natchez, hoping to bring a new economic life to the town. He took out that loan in 1928. My grandfather, Hoddy we called him, came home from college to run Elgin when his father became ill. Like basically everyone else, he worshiped his father. Poppop died not many years later, after a long illness. Hoddy found himself 25 years old and struggling to hold onto Elgin in the teeth of the Great Depression. The bank, which might have extended more time to a known business man, wouldn’t extend the same to a man of my grandfather’s more tender years who hadn’t even graduated college. My grandfather lost Elgin. To the day he died, Hoddy was still trying in some way to make up for it. Elgin was the place that broke his heart.
I listened to Hoddy’s stories of Elgin. He could describe every stick of every building. About gigging frogs when he was a boy. How he’d helped take off a badly added-on room on the upper porch. Of my mother learning to walk on the veranda. Of the people he’d grown up with, and the friends he’d had there.
Hoddy talked about leaving Natchez in a train car packed with livestock. He couldn’t afford a train ticket for himself, so he rode with the animals up into a Wisconsin winter. He’d have frozen to death without the animals to keep him warm. He talked of the hobo who got into the car part way, who shared a sandwich with my grandfather. Because the hobo had one and my grandfather didn’t. Every time, Hoddy teared up and wondered what had become of that man who’d shared the last bit of food he had with a total stranger.
My mother adores Elgin because it’s her home. Where she came from. She still loves camellias.
But it broke Hoddy’s heart.
Hoddy bought the ‘hobby’ farm in Wisconsin from the family and made it a successful dairy farm because he and the University of Wisconsin came up with the innovation of importing Holstein bulls from Canada before they were known in the US. He built it up and sold that place and the business there for enough to retire to Arizona, buy a boat, and spend the rest of his life doing what he pleased. Still, he’d speak of Elgin with quiet longing.
The owners before the Calhouns subdivided the land and sold off the cattle pastures and the pecan groves, but when you’re at Elgin you could swear there are no neighbors for miles. It’s amazingly beautiful. The camellias were in bloom. Azaleas that some heathen planted tumbled themselves into gorgeous drifts of pink blossoms across the place where Poppop’s sacred tennis court had been. Mason bees, who have no sting, bumbled in the wisteria that sweetly scented the air.
How do I feel about Elgin now that I’ve been there and seen it? It’s gloriously beautiful. My mother will always remember it as the home she had to leave, that in a way she’s always wanted to go back to. Her grandfather loved it and shared that love with her. Elgin is beautiful, peaceful, and in the hands of people who revere it for its beauty. I was glad for the chance to visit, and I treasure the stories my mother told me while we were there. Elgin itself? Elgin has broken everyone who ever owned it, except for the Calhouns. I may go back again, some day, simply to be in that gentle spring and glory in a lovely place. But… in spite of the beauty, in spite of the kind people, in spite of my mother’s love of the place, I suspect I’ll always think of it as the place that broke my grandfather’s heart.