The true identity of Natchez, Mississippi lies not in its antebellum past, but in a modern mix of colorful characters and locals.
Natchez is my seductive mistress. She set her hooks in me the first time I visited, and I am baffled by my failure to shake her. I am not unique. For almost three centuries, this town’s mystique has lulled curious travelers and converted many of them to Natchezians. (Yes, those who dwell here call themselves Na-CHEEZ-ians.)
I first thought the landscape defined her allure. The mighty Mississippi, the most powerful river in the country, bends toward her banks and rushes on. Gnarled live oaks, like aging centurions, stand draped with loosely spooled Spanish moss. Flourishing azaleas hem lawns and houses of worship. Downtown, wrought iron balconies and clopping horse-drawn carriages reveal a French Quarter feel. Grande dame antebellum homes, with dramatic approaches and column-lined porches, anchor this place like rooks on chessboard corners.
The more steps I walk here, though, I realize the scenery merely serves as backdrop. The true fabric of Natchez is woven with her people, stitched by her personalities. They are Natchez. They are the town’s claim-stakers, pledging fierce loyalty. A few recently arrived to sow new seeds. Most live root-bound by previous generations. All are gracious hosts who love telling fascinating stories to total strangers. They are like players taking center stage in a production called Natchez. Enter the wizened, comedic shoe shiner; the bartender who resembles Robert E. Lee; or the dapper antiques magnate, for starters. Ask one question of any resident, especially the ones I encountered, and find yourself pulled into the show. Give yourself over to Natchez. When she calls you to return, you’ll be sure to answer.
CHEF, HIGH COTTON
"People come in, see a few houses, and they leave. You never have any idea what is really in Natchez until you spend some time.”
Since moving here five years ago, Doug and Karry Hosford have helped with the commercial resurgence on Main Street, introducing new flavors to this town and infusing it with a youthful energy. Step inside High Cotton, their kitchen accessories shop and headquarters for their booming catering business. Doug had roots here, so he knew well the Natchez magic.
Ask about: The ghost named Miss Violet who used to inhabit their home or how Buzz Harper prefers his steak.
EDUCATOR, TOUR GUIDE, AND SOCIAL ACTIVIST
“I’m a sixth-generation Natchezian, and I’m sure there were a few horse thieves in my line.”
Mary Jane may convince you to move to Natchez while she’s tending her flowers on the northern end of the river’s bluff. “You don’t know how many people have done that―moved here―because they saw me out working in the yard,” she says. The gardening conversation might easily grow to include all of the city’s history. “Natchez is the merging of three great races of people―Native American, African, and European―that left their indelible marks on the town.”
Ask about: Her tulips or the out-of-town Civil Rights workers she hosted during the Movement in the 1960s.
“Too much is a great place to start.”
Lunch at The Castle Restaurant, and you may spy a distinguished gentleman gliding in gracefully with a cane. His three-piece suit will be buttoned, fingers weighted by bejeweled rings, and white hair pulled tight into a ponytail. Meet Buzz Harper, a world-traveling bon vivant. He says things like “I’m receptive to ghosts” offhandedly, the way one divulges a shellfish allergy. He is equally charismatic and sensitive, charming and insightful.
Ask about: His friendship with novelist Anne Rice or his interior design masterpiece: The restoration of The Prentiss Club, a 1903 former gentlemen’s club located downtown.
DIRECTOR, NATCHEZ CITY CEMETERY
"Cemeteries are emotional places. I am respectful. I try not to call them graves. They are burial spaces.”
You can tell a lot about a town by its cemetery. Even more when you talk to its keeper. In a place where many define themselves by their forebears, Danny’s job transcends mere maintenance. He keeps all 100 acres of this beautifully reverent destination―from spartan Civil War headstones to patined angel statues to ornate mausoleums―pristine. Natchez was literally built by those memorialized here. Danny will greet your coasting car with a brochure map to help you navigate the maze of narrow paths.
Ask about: Louise The Unfortunate, a prostitute who received a proper burial by prominent Natchezians.
PROPRIETOR, THE PIG OUT INN BARBEQUE
“People like to talk to visitors in Natchez. You’ll probably hear more than you ever wanted to know.”
First, order the ribs. By the time you tear into them, you’ll spot Anne. She’ll be darting around Canal Street’s Pig Out Inn, her eye shadow likely chosen to match her shirt. Everyone digs her ’cue, so she keeps track of the town’s goings-on. Anne inherited that from her dad, who followed local politics and worked as a circuit clerk. Her family tree supports gilded branches, including Don Jose Vidal, the 18th-century Spanish governor of this territory. (Vidalia, Louisiana, sitting on the oppo¬site side of the river, owes its name to him.)
Ask about: Her ancestors’ connection to Louise The Unfortunate.
“I admit that sometimes we can be a little ridiculous about traditions, but I love all the history of Natchez!”
Ruthie’s grandmother helped start the Natchez Pilgrimage Tours in 1932; they’re the most significant biannual events in town. She, in turn, takes seriously her responsibility of preserving that lineage. Ruthie illuminates the historical side of the city by donning a period dress and telling the stories of her home, Bontura, when it’s featured on the tours. Look for the 1851 brick house when walking down Broadway, and you may also see Ruthie. She likes her front-porch view of the Mississippi River in the mornings.
Ask about: Her childhood homeplace, Green Leaves, which also is part of the Pilgrimage and has been owned by her family since 1849.
“From this corner, I see the past, the present, and the future of Natchez.”
If Unk doesn’t know the news, then it’s not worth telling. He shines shoes in a white cinder-block building at one of the busiest intersections in town, where U.S. 61 (Jefferson Street) meets Martin Luther King, Jr., Boulevard. Unk likes to joke with his customers and probably knows just about everything happening in Natchez. A shine runs you easily less than $10. As for the gossip, you get what you pay for.
Ask about: The escalating prices of polish or the last city elections.
HEAD BARTENDER, UNDER THE HILL SALOON
“I was the lead leprechaun in the third largest St. Patty’s Day parade in Mississippi.”
Silver Street drops from the bluff all the way down to the river. Down here, you are officially Under the Hill, and the best thing to do is order a drink at the Under the Hill Saloon. At the moment when the night is perfectly seasoned, John David stands on a chair to belt his bring-the-bar-down version of “House of the Rising Sun.” He’s a natural entertainer, the icon of the town’s iconic watering hole. He’s 4-foot-and-change, yet his respected stature lifts him taller than anyone else slugging longnecks. He’ll stroke his billy goat scruff of a beard while pouring rounds for the voracious and varied congregation of blue collars, button-downs, and medical scrubs.
Ask about: Why people call him Mr. Miyagi. Or the history of the bar. (The building opened in the 1830s and Mark Twain slept there.)
Huge crowds come to town March 7-April 11 for the annual Spring Pilgrimage featuring more than 25 historic homes open for tours. For more information call the Natchez Convention and Visitors Bureau at 1-800-647-6724, or visit www.natchezpilgrimage.com.