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Traveling Around - Natchez, Mississippi - Cotton City On The River
Natchez is a sprawling, modern town located about 175 miles north of the Gulf of Mexico on the Mississippi River. The population of the once prosperous town continues to dwindle. From about 20,000 people in 1990, it has fallen to about 14,000 currently. Major industry that included the International Paper Plant, Armstrong Tire and Johns Manville have left the town. It is, however, home to sprawling estates on the outskirts and the downtown area has mansions that were constructed as far back as the 1700's by the cotton barons.
We began our visit by going to the Visitors' Center which happened to be directly across the street from our hotel. Because we anticipated driving elsewhere from there, we drove the car. In the Visitors' Center. There are large mural like displays on one wall while the opposite wall is glass and gives a magnificent view of the Mississippi River. On the side of the large room where the murals appear are a series of informational windows where knowledgeable personnel answer questions and provide tickets for various tours throughout town. One of the activities at the Center is the showing of a video about the history of Natchez in a 65 seat theater. The movie runs for 20 minutes and there is a small charge to view it.
After looking through the exhibits, we attended the motion picture which was interesting. We made reservations for an afternoon tour at 2:30 of the downtown area's homes. The tour was to be in an open air jitney about the size of a large golf cart.
Our Looking Around
We drove to the downtown area - probably a mile from the Visitors' Center and visited a couple sites.
Our first visit was to the WiIliam Johnson home. An extensive history of the man can be found on line. Briefly, he was a Negro man freed from slavery when a boy. He became a barber and because of his industriousness and ambition, he purchased the shop where he practiced the craft. He and his family (there were 11 children) lived in the building. Pictured is a model of the home which appears to be a duplex. He was also able to purchase a 2,000 acre plantation south of Natchez and, despite being a free Negro, he purchased 16 slaves to work the plantation. In 1851 he was killed in a boundary dispute with a neighbor.
We took a self-guided tour of the home. The downstairs is devoted mainly to his personal diary in which he wrote daily for 16 years, providing an important insight into the Negro community of Natchez.
Up the street a couple blocks is the magnificent Presbyterian Church. It was built in 1830. Immediately behind the church is the Stratton Annex which was constructed in 1901. Housed in the Annex is an extensive collection of early photographs of Natchez and the population There are over 500 photos in the collection some taken as early as 1840.
Dr. Joseph B. Stratton, for whom the annex was named was pastor of the church for 51 years until he retired at 79. He was born in 1815 and died in 1903.
Both the Johnson home and the Stratton Annex Exhibit are free and open to the public.
We went back to our hotel for some rest before the afternoon tour. At 2:30 we went to the Visitors' Center and along with another couple boarded the vehicle. While not cold, the sun had disappeared and we were happy that we had coats with us.
The tour took about an hour. The guide told us many stories about the architecture that we were seeing and the people who had built them. It seemed as if our guide knew everyone that was on the street. She waved to everyone and if they were close enough, she spoke to them by name. A couple times we stopped in the middle of the street so she could carry on a conversation. She was very knowledgeable about the town and had not only stories about old time inhabitants but about the current crop as well.
One interesting story was about the Episcopal Church. It is the oldest religious building in Natchez. It was built in 1823. Actually the Presbyterian Church opened earlier but a fire destroyed the first building and the church reopened in 1825. The Episcopal Church had many hours of overtime in its successful effort to be built first and be the oldest church.
There were many stories about the natural causes of death to builders before they could get moved in. And a story or two about duels claiming the participants before they could occupy their dream homes.
Natchez is a great city to tour and soak up historical architecture. Several days could be spend in this activity. Most of the plantations and mansions that are open for tours charge admission. Some of them are significant and can run $20 per person. There is a thorough discussion of tours, mansions that are open, and prices at the website. Click the "what to do" button and there'll be a self explanatory drop down series of boxes.