"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Garden Parties, The Deep South, And Pilgrimage Balls

Pilgrimage is an event held in many towns in the Deep South to celebrate the antebellum period of cavalier manners, graceful elegance, and spacious homes.  It is time for the owners of these homes to show them to the public, and romantics from Maine to Michigan come down for the experience the recreated life of a plantation.  The houses are indeed grand, and most of them have been restored with patience and meticulous care by owners who want to preserve Southern or American history, descendants of the plantation owners who lived there and wanted to relive a part of their past, or simply those who loved old houses, antiques, and historical appointments.

                               Madewood Plantation, Napoleonville, LA (circa 1846)

At each of the houses open for Pilgrimage, local Southern girls dress up in antebellum finery and take visitors through the formal gardens, men’s and women’s sitting rooms, formal dining rooms, conservatories, balconies, and children’s rooms.

Many of these antebellum residences have been furnished and appointed not only with furniture and accessories from the period but original to the house itself.  A tour through one of these homes is truly a trip into the past.

The Auburn Garden Club is the organization in charge of the Fall and Spring Pilgrimages.  On an extended trip to one of the East Mississippi towns that was known not only for its antebellum houses, but for the ceremonies arranged to complement the historical events.  The Pilgrimage Ball, for example, was a high-society affair attended only by the wealth landowners out on the prairie, the descendants of the plantation owners of the pre-war period.  The Ball was a costume affair and a sumptuous dinner prepared by a chef from one of New Orleans’s best restaurants. He was given the menu, meticulously researched by the organizers of the Ball, and the banquet he prepared could have been served in 1850.

An old friend from Baltimore with whom I was staying was the owner of The Brook, an antebellum house that she had converted into a B&B.  Sarah told me that Mrs. Dorothea Corning, the President of Pilgrimage was coming to tea on Thursday, and would I like to join. Shortly after Sarah had taken ownership of The Brook, Mrs. Corning paid her a visit. Mrs. Corning said that she had seen contractor trucks in the driveway, and knowing that Sarah and her husband were settled in, felt that it was time to say hello. She soon found out that she had come on on behalf of the Club, with the express purpose of encouraging Sarah – pressuring, really -  to stop any renovation of The Brook – alterations which would “destroy the integrity of the house and interrupt the unspoiled history of the city”.

I had seen pictures of Mrs. Corning in picture books – not the Mrs. Corning, but a hundred ladies of a certain age in floral hats and long gloves seated in the ornate gardens of Southern homes. I had thought that these ladies had long left Natchez and other towns and turned over ownership to buyers from New Orleans and the New York; but she and her family had never left. White Oak, one of the premier houses of the city, was hers – all fifteen bedrooms, vast formal dining room, a parlor and two living rooms; sunroom, conservatory, library, two kitchens, portico, and thirty-two feet Ionic columns. Having the house on the Historic Registry and on the Pilgrimage meant that the house had not changed since 1854 and never would.

The Brook was on the Historic Registry, but not on the Pilgrimage Tour, and for Mrs. Corning that was all the difference in the world. It might not have mattered so much if her grand uncle had not owned the property in 1880. An important part of her lineage had passed through the house, and her family would not be complete until The Brook became a true part of the community. I soon found out that every white-gloved, floral-hatted matron in the town was is related to Mrs.Corning one way or another, and that The Brook was not just any historic antebellum home.

The Brook simply had to be on the Pilgrimage Tour,said Mrs. Corning, and to do that it had to conform to Auburn’s code. While no one at the Garden Club would object to an odd Victorian piece here or there, the house had to be appointed with the furnishings of the period, and as importantly painted the colors that had been prominent and popular at that time. The previous owner had refused to change the bright yellow of the kitchen to a ferny green and her rejection had become a cause celebre. The fact that the minimum standards for a house on the Historic Registry were far more lenient than those of Auburn made no difference at all. A non-conforming house was like a loose board on a porch: you had to fix it.

When Mrs. Corning heard that not only was Sarah going to keep the color scheme of the kitchen, but she was going to bang out the back wall and extend it ten feet into the garden, she stammered and spluttered, “Why, you can’t….I mean you shouldn’t… the house has always been….” Painting the kitchen yellow was nothing compared to this…desecration.

“All these dried out, blue-haired old Natchez crones should go shrivel up in a corner”, said Sarah.

Dorothea Wentworth had lived in her mansion, Rosewood, for ninety-four years. She had been wet-nursed and brought up by a black mammy, went to a girls finishing school in Natchez, and married the son of one of the best families of the city. She rarely travelled outside her home town and never out of Mississippi. She was an active member of the Auburn Garden Club and a proud member of the Daughters of the Confederacy.

She survived her husband and three children, lived alone, and had long ago closed off all ten bedrooms, the formal dining room, men’s and women’s parlor, conservatory, library, sitting room, and study. She lived in what had been the maid’s quarters. That and the kitchen were the only functioning parts of the house. A woman from Social Welfare came in once a week to buy provisions - TV dinners, milk, sugar, and tea. Mrs. Wentworth was worth a fortune, but she parceled out her money like a pauper, refused to consider a live-in companion or nurse’s aide, and kept to her routine of knitting, daytime television, and microwaving turkey tetrazzini, the dinner she had every night. It was easier for the lady from Social Welfare to pull out a frosty load of them from the back of the freezer case at Kroger’s than to vary the menu.

When she saw that stocks were running low, she asked the supermarket to reorder. When the supplier was late and she had to substitute chicken à la king, Mrs. Wentworth didn’t seem to notice. The tetrazzini was finally restocked, but Clea Barrow, the woman from Social Welfare, decided to stick with the chicken because she didn’t have to stick her hands so far back in the freezer chest. “Clea treats me so well”, said Mrs. Wentworth. “She makes me something different every night”.

Despite the fact that Mrs. Wentworth was a recluse and was becoming dottier by the day, and that Rosewood had been a musty crypt for decades, Dorothea Corning insisted that it be opened for the Pilgrimage tours. Every year she propped Mrs. Wentworth up behind her tea service, gave a brief history of the house, and led the guests on a tour of the rooms. Because the windows of the house were never opened, and nothing stirred within, there was surprisingly little dust in the closed rooms; but the house had a funereal air, and visitors never raised their voices above a whisper.

Mrs. Corning had finally come to the conclusion that Rosewood had to go, and that she was going to remove it from the Pilgrimage tour this year.  Too many visitors wrote critically about the place, and even though it was the grandest house on the tour and the one with the longest and most storied, history, word had already gotten to New York and Michigan, and fewer and fewer people bought tickets to see it. “Lovely home, but something very creepy about it”, said one comment left in the Guest Book.  “Definitely spooky”, said another.

Mrs. Corning had to admit that despite its grand exterior – Georgian columns, 200 year old oaks and magnolia trees, spacious lawn and gardens – there was something a bit off about the interior rooms.  The ‘White Room’ for example was a ball room that had been painted and decorated completely in white – white floors, white walls, white ceiling, and white chintz curtains.  The white chairs were arrayed along the walls, and Mrs. Corning couldn’t shake the feeling that all the dead members of the Wentworth gathered there at night and did a ghostly dance.

Every room had something unearthly about it.  The mannequins in the sitting room were dressed to the nines in antebellum finery but had no eyes and stood alone ‘looking’ out the balcony window.  On the porch swings sat child-size dolls also with no eyes, and the wind from the river rocked them gently on creaky hinges.  There were no floral bouquets usually displayed in the foyer, on the landings, and on the Empire furniture. 

Rumor had it that Mrs. Wentworth had kept every bouquet and nosegay given to her by lovers and suitors, pressed or dried them, and displayed them throughout the house. Sprays of dried Fall marigolds, heather, or marsh reeds have the color, natural feel, and classic decoration that add warmth and character to rooms; but the dried bouquets of Mrs. Wentworth added to the funereal and ghostly feel to Rosewood. Perhaps if they had been displayed along with some other mementos – leather-bound books, for example; or pipe stands, silver tea services, or Wedgewood china – they might have lost their spooky feel; but Mrs. Wentworth had obviously gone out of her way to display them individually, alone in a spare room, or held by one of the mannequins or clutched in the hands of the child-dolls on the swing.

The problem wasn’t only that Mrs. Wentworth wouldn’t die; but that even if she did, who would buy this old, antiquated ark?  She hated to use such harsh terms, she was enough of realist to understand the dynamics of the marketplace.  Few Southerners or even Yankees would invest in such a property, in need of repairs inside and out, or spend the time necessary to purchase the furniture and appointments which would assure recertification as a Historic Site.  River’s Edge, a grand and incomparable antebellum mansion in Greenwood had been on the market for over five years with nary a nibble.  Mavis Blessing, the current owner, apparently had had enough, and was about to sell it to the Church Glorious and Resplendent which had plans to gut it and turn it into a meditation and survival center for its growing confederation of faithful.

“If only she’d get rid of those mannequins”, Mrs. Corning thought to herself when she considered what it would take to keep Rosewood on the tour.  She had already talked to Miss Bowers, a woman of Mrs. Wentworth’s age who was an antique dealer in Eupora who agreed to loan some of her Empire furniture for Pilgrimage if Mrs. Corning and Pilgrimage would pay the round-trip freight.  A little like the rental car business, Miz Bowers told Dorothea. “Let the marks have a test drive, and they’re sure to buy”.  As good an idea as this was, the Auburn Club’s coffers were near empty.

Many homes on cheaper Pilgrimage tours in the South billed themselves as ‘haunted’; and attracted the lower end of the tourist trade – black families from Memphis and Houston who wanted to expose their children to the realities of slavery, but who liked a little levity as well  vacations. One owner in Indianola actually stooped to rattling chains in the old wine cellar; but Mrs. Corning could never see herself approving even a slightly exaggerated story.

Actually, one house had a rather suspicious history although Mrs. Corning never completely believed the story.  Apparently Constance Biggers lured her tipsy and wayward husband to the narrow third floor landing of Magnolia Green and elbowed him down the narrow mahogany staircase built by a Florentine craftsman in 1841.  He cracked his skull on the Venetian marble statue of Marcus Aurelius which stood at the foot of the stairs, and lay bleeding while Constance stood over him cursing him like a sailor.

All well and good – this kind of thing happens in the best of families, and one of America’s greatest playwrights, Eugene O’Neill wrote of incest, murder, and the foulest play in a well-to-do New England family – but what happened next is what gave Mrs. Corning her idea.

Mr. Biggers, the story goes, appears on the top balcony of Magnolia Green on certain nights of the winter as a foggy wraith, howling and bemoaning his fate and consignment to Hell.  If one were to believe the legend, Biggers was indeed an unrepentant pussy hound who caused his wife untold misery and so deserved the hellish fate he received; but as I have said, Mrs. Corning dismissed it as nonsense, and considered it only as a revenue-generating ploy.

As far as The Brook went, Mrs. Corning decided upon the counsel of her lawyer, not to bring my friend to court, for even according to loosely-worded Mississippi law, there were no loopholes on which to prosecute.  The up-to-date kitchens would have to stay and the home, residence to some of the most honored and revered members of the Corning family, would never again be the same.

The saddest part of all in this saga is that Pilgrimage itself was under attack.  Newly black majority towns were passing ordinances left and right to outlaw ‘any and all veneration of the slave-owning, plantation South’.  This meant no more Pilgrimage Balls unless they were transformed into multi-cultural events where chitlins and fatback were served along with oysters and roast beef and where Nat Turner was celebrated along with J. Hargrove Wentworth III.  Black city councils reluctantly allowed the home tours to continue, but insisted that a ‘Visit to Darktown’ be included in the offerings.

Mrs. Wentworth did indeed die and left Rosewood to her Social Services aide, Clea. She left no explanatory note, although her will was legally tight and uncontested.

I lost track of what happened to Clea, Mrs. Corning, Rosewood, or even my friend Sarah who couldn’t take the South and returned to Naugatuck where she eventually retired.

The South is a crazy place for Northerners, and I wasn’t surprised by Sarah’s capitulation and return home; but I still return to Mississippi and buy tickets to Pilgrimage every year.  There are still marvelous homes to visit, unsullied and resistant to ‘diversity’ pressures; and one or two Pilgrimage Balls still exist where wealthy families from the prairie come into town to celebrate their heritage.  The balls are now few and far between, and Pilgrimage has become a Disneyworld Pirate Ship adventure, so I don’t expect to return; but it was a good ride.  “You can’t understand American history”, a friend of mine once said, “unless you understand Southern history”, and Pilgrimage was certainly part of that long, unbroken tradition.

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