Southern writer Eudora Welty captured a fascinating world of characters and places in her native Mississippi.
“She talked about a sense of place, and Mississippi was her sense of place,” said Mary Current, group tour manager for the Jackson Convention and Visitors Bureau and an acquaintance of Welty’s before her death in 2001.
During a spring visit to the Magnolia State, I discovered some of the sense of place that captivated and inspired the Pulitzer Prize-winning Welty as I journeyed from her hometown of Jackson to the Mississippi River and the rich Delta region.
A Creative Space
There was no better place to start than the brown and tan Tudor Revival house in Jackson’s Belhaven neighborhood where Welty lived and wrote most of her life.
“I chose to live at home to do my writing in a familiar world and have never regretted it,” Welty said.
Welty would graciously greet fans who arrived unannounced at her door, and today, nearly 15 years after her death, people from around the world still come just to get a sense of the place.
“People come here just to walk on the sidewalk where she walked,” said Current.
The house is maintained the way it was when Welty died and is open for tours. The garden she and her mother lovingly tended has been restored and is also open to the public.
Welty was exposed to the people of rural Mississippi during the Depression, when she worked for the Works Progress Administration.
Writer William Maxwell noted, “Because of this job, she came to know the state of Mississippi by heart and could never come to the end of what she might want to write about.”
I was able to get a good feel for Mississippi’s rich rural heritage that Welty discovered at the Mississippi Agriculture and Forestry Museum in Jackson.
The 40-acre site is several museums in one. The state-of-the-art Heritage Center features informative displays that effectively capture the state’s agricultural and forestry industries.
“This part of the state is timber,” said Current as we stood in front of one of the center’s several lifelike dioramas depicting a lumberman sawing logs from a recently downed tree and as the motion-activated sounds of sawing, a man yelling “timber” and birds singing filled the air.
Also inside the center is the National Agriculture Aviation Museum, with several pioneer planes used to dust Mississippi cotton fields against the devastating boll weevil.
The site also includes Small Town Mississippi, a representative 1920s rural town; a 19th-century farmstead; a working sawmill; and a working cotton gin. Next door is the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum.
‘Keeper of the Crafts’
My next stop, the Mississippi Crafts Center in nearby Ridgeland, gave me a sense of Mississippi’s talented artists and crafters as I browsed beautiful handmade works ranging from quilts, baskets and wood-carved items to contemporary metal sculpture, fused glass and handcrafted jewelry.
“We are the keeper of the crafts,” said executive director Nancy Perkins.
All of the items are for sale, and there are studios where you can watch the crafters at work. Perkins said she will arrange hands-on experiences for groups, such as a sampler with three stations representing various crafts, “where they can make something to take home.”
A new walking trail linking the center with the nearby Natchez Trace Parkway should be completed by the end of the year.
I headed to Natchez on the two-lane parkway over the same path followed centuries ago first by buffalo, then by Native Americans and, finally, by Americans who had floated products down the Mississippi River, sold their boats and walked home over the well-worn path.
The parkway, managed by the National Park Service, is not only a scenic drive, it also instills a great sense of place for the history of this part of the state. Along the way, I stopped at a serene cypress tupelo swamp, Indian mounds and the last remaining tavern, or stand, on the trace and walked along an original part of the parkway worn several feet below ground level by tens of thousands of travelers.
Natchez’ location on the Mississippi River made it a prosperous shipping center for the region’s cotton plantations, whose owners built many large and opulent mansions in town. You get a great sense for this period of history throughout Natchez, which has more than 75 antebellum houses and buildings that survived the Civil War.
Several of the houses are open for tours year-round; several others are open during the annual spring and fall pilgrimages, with guides decked out as Southern belles.
The opulence of the era is strikingly demonstrated at Stanton Hall, which occupied an entire city block when cotton merchant Frederick Stanton built it in the late 1850s. The house, which also includes the Carriage Restaurant, has been restored to its antebellum splendor, with marble mantles from New York and 14-foot-tall mirrors imported from France.
Longwood, with its unusual octagon shape, would have rivaled Stanton Hall in opulence had the Civil War not intervened. The ornate exterior had been largely completed, but “when the Civil War started, the work stopped,” said Longwood guide Sandy Garrison. “The only place livable was in the basement. The upstairs was never finished.”
After the house’s builder, Haller Nutt, died in 1864, his wife, Julia, raised most of their eight children in the basement. Tours of the upstairs are a fascinating glimpse into the building techniques of the time.
“Stuff was just left laying around,” said Garrison. “That work bench has been there since 1860.”