Maggie the Cat, Amanda Wingfield, Blanche DuBois and her sister Stella-electrifying women characters whose words and personas will resonate forever in American theatre. The playwright who created these female icons knew something about remarkable women, having grown up in a place where the nation's first state-supported university for women was established and where a group of dedicated ladies paid their respects to the departed with such grace and dignity their ritual became a national holiday.
The truth is, around here you won't find many tin roofs where a real cat can land, although there are plenty of roofs that Southern belles like Maggie or Amanda could have called home. Mansards, A-lines, slates and shakes sitting atop well-turned columns and pediments, welcoming porticoes and charming front porches. These are the elements of style in the Black Prairie region that once hosted the capital of Confederate Mississippi and that today boasts not only rich history of all kinds, including African American, but also the sort of come-hither beauty that keeps visitors talking long after they've gone.
Earth, wind and water were the first elements to shape the Black Prairie region of the Mississippi Hills. Black Prairie soil, chalky and calcium-rich, heaped with alluvial deposits, could grow just about anything, especially cotton. It was the Tombigbee River that first brought those alluvial deposits, as later it would bring the steamboats that could carry the cotton down to Mobile to be shipped to northern markets. Rail lines came as well; fortunes were made. Soon, fine European furnishings were being shipped in on the steamboats to decorate the planters' homes.
Macon: Capitol grounds.
But first the ownership had to be relinquished for some of the other residences already in the area. One was a 2-story, 4-room log home in Moshulaville, near Macon. The home belonged to Choctaw District Chief Moshulatubbee, who lived there with his two wives and many children. Although he was reportedly opposed to it, Moshulatubbee signed the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek, which authorized the final removal of Choctaws from the area, swapping 11 million acres of their Mississippi lands for 15 million acres in the Oklahoma territory. While Greenwood Leflore, the leader who had actively promoted the treaty, stayed behind in Mississippi on plantation lands he had negotiated for himself, Moshulatubbee sold his home for $100 and made the trek west with the majority of his tribe.
Later when the Mississippi state government found itself dispossessed after Union soldiers torched the state capitol and most of the rest of Jackson, the government re-established itself here in Macon in the facilities of the Calhoun Institute, a private school for girls.
Today, several self-guided driving tours are available to help you wind your way through the Noxubee County Historical Trail, and at the Noxubee County Historical Society Museum, you can delve into the area's Choctaw history and explore an early post office. Macon also offers a parade of beautiful antebellum residences, each with its own story and style. But after you've satisfied your architectural yen, be sure to head out to Noxubee National Wildlife Refuge for a real bird's-eye view of home. Through the use of innovative "insert nesting boxes," the Refuge's nationally-acclaimed management program is now helping to save the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker from extinction.
From the Refuge, head north where the nests get larger and finer, but where a playwright once lived whose most famous character faced a situation very much like that of the Refuge's residents: a delicate and endangered bird, she too depended on the kindness of strangers.
The write stuff in Columbus.
"I want magic!" --Blanche DuBois, from Streetcar Named Desire
Columbus' first act offers plenty of magic: the boyhood home of playwright Tennessee Williams, which now serves as the city's welcome center. America's premier playwright was born in Columbus in 1911 and spent his early years in this yellow and gray Victorian festooned with gingerbread, which was then the rectory for St. Paul's Episcopal Church where Williams' maternal grandfather, the Reverend Walker Dakin, served.
Williams' classic plays, like Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Glass Menagerie, were often steeped in longing for home and memories of grand residences like Belle Reeve, Blanche DuBois' ancestral home. In the early twentieth century there were hundreds of striking prototypes for that mythical mansion right here in Columbus; today more than 200 antebellum homes still grace the streets of this charming city, where every year during Spring Pilgrimage horse-drawn carriages add to the delight. Surely the playwright who so loved beautiful things would appreciate the city's annual Tennessee Williams Tribute Weekend and Victorian Home Tour, where both playwright and place are celebrated.
Please note that it's not necessary to wait for the Tennessee Williams weekend or Pilgrimage for an inside peek; many of these beauties are open every day. Also, please note that like Williams' famous heroines, these elegant homes offer more than pretty faces; many have historic and social significance.
First in class.
With its extensive collection of Civil War artifacts, the Stephen D. Lee Home and Museum takes you inside the time and place of the man who was in command at Fort Sumter when those first fateful shots were fired, and who after his service to the Confederacy went on to become the first president of Mississippi A & M College, now Mississippi State University.
The plantation home Waverly, with its unusual octagonal cupola, also offers a unique window into the past. Built in 1852, the mansion was once the hub of a self-sustaining community with its own lumber mill, leather tannery and hat manufacturing operation. The nation's first foxhunt association was formed in the mansion's library in 1893, and some believe that the first American-made saddle blankets were produced on the plantation.
But there were other important firsts in this area as well. In 1884, the nation's first state-supported college dedicated to the education of women opened here, and today Mississippi University for Women continues to thrive as a top-rated institution of higher learning with an environment where heritage and architectural character have been carefully preserved. Nearly two dozen buildings on this scenic campus are listed on the National Register for Historic Places. Although it is now a co-ed school, "The W," as it was affectionately known, provided a stimulating learning environment for generations of women. The mothers of both Tennessee Williams and William Faulkner attended The W, as did Pulitzer Prize-winner Eudora Welty, and every year the University's Welty Weekend brings noted writers and leaders to the campus for symposiums and celebration.
The substance of style.
In education and elsewhere, leading by example has always been a defining character trait in Columbus, a trait you'll see richly documented in the city's African American heritage tour. African American culture has been a powerful force for this city since before the Civil War, and on the tour you'll see historic churches and homes as well as sites where commerce and culture intersected and flourished, sites like Catfish Alley where the smell of fried catfish mingled with the sounds of business deal-making, and the building site of the Queen City Hotel where notables like Louis Armstrong, Pearl Bailey, B. B. King, Duke Ellington, and James Brown all came to play.
In Friendship Cemetery in 1866, another display of Columbus character changed the nation. In decorating the graves of both Union and Confederate dead, and in showing such care, devotion and dignity to all-with the conflict only just ended-the ladies of Columbus set a stirring example that inspired a nation. Today the ritual those ladies began has become our national Memorial Day, and a stroll through Friendship Cemetery is still a moving occasion. The cemetery's most famous monument, a winsome girl with her head cradled against her arm, is an evocative favorite of photographers, professionals and amateurs alike. Bring your camera, you'll see-she always takes a perfect picture.
You'll probably want to bring your camera downtown, too, to take snaps as you take a break in this lovely historic district. Colorful storefronts, quaint cafes, a wealth of antiquing make this part of Columbus an exploration all its own. Want to make a splash? Head for the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, where miles of blue water stretch all the way to the far northeast corner of the Hills.
So take a float trip north-or take the highway. Either way, it's time to explore dozens more beautiful homes in a town with so much history it took five different districts to contain it all.
Aberdeen: Gold in the Hills.
It's probably no surprise that Aberdeen was founded by a Scotsman, Robert Gordon, who correctly foresaw a bright future for the spot on the hill just above the Tombigbee River. With cotton going out and steamboats coming in, in twelve short years from its founding Aberdeen became the second largest city in Mississippi. As the bustling river port met the thriving agricultural market, so too did the proud planter meet the upstanding merchant, and as fortunes expanded so did vanity. The collisions were unstoppable, the duels inevitable…Only, why shoot your rival when you can out-build him?
Today, those dueling mansions, with their outsized magnificence, stand as a testament to the fantastic fortunes made during those years, and while the Civil War dampened prospects for some, a second wave of prosperity hit the city at the turn of the century. What that means today is a spectrum of architectural styles that run the gamut from the four-square elegant Greek Revival to Queen Anne to intricately detailed Victorian, the style that dominates the city's "Silk Stocking Row." At the Magnolias, perhaps the most famous of the city's Greek Revival homes, the tri-level mahogany staircase is a sight in and of itself. To see a perfect specimen of Queen Ann style, look no farther than the Sanders Place, sheathed in clapboard and decorative shingles. One of only four surviving examples of Second Empire architecture in the state, Belle Vide is wrapped in Bohemian glass and topped by a three-story, thirty-five foot tower.
All these homes and dozens more can be seen on Aberdeen's "Search for the Gold" self-guided driving tour, which takes you through the city's five different historic districts, which include six historic churches, the massive Monroe County courthouse, the historic boulevard on Commerce Street, and two antebellum graveyards. The graveyard is the site for ghost stories during Spring Pilgrimage, when many of the homes open their doors to entertain grandly, with horse-drawn carriage rides, symposiums and high teas.
If the idea of high tea doesn't refresh you, there's more liquid ahead for you, at the Blue Bluff recreational area on the Tenn-Tom Waterway, where prized picnic spots put you high above the water on limestone cliffs. There are also white sand beaches here, and plenty of hiking trails.
When you're finished trekking, start north again, on the water or on the road, to a place where stars don't just bring light to the sky, they bring enlightenment to the children of the community.
Stars over Amory.
Amory was a planned city, established in 1888 as the exact midpoint between Memphis and Birmingham. It was named after the magnate Harcourt Amory who owned the railroad-the K.C.M. & B.-that did the planning, planning which is evident even today in the generous width of the city streets, where you can wander without ever feeling crowded.
While you're wandering, make sure you make a stop at the Amory Regional Museum, located in a former hospital, and now listed on the National Register of Historic Place. Exhibits here range from pre-historic artifacts dating from 9,000 BC to railroad history to medical instruments from the 19th century. There's also a passenger coach, the Pasadena Hills No. 1251.
The railroad heritage in Amory is woven through the culture as well as the landscape. Frisco Park, located in the heart of downtown, sums up the past with a statue and a steam engine. The statue is of a Confederate soldier, the steam engine is Frisco's Baldwin Steam locomotive built in 1929. This is the engine that pulled Franklin Delano Roosevelt's train through the South in 1933. At a time when the state's farm foreclosures stood at an all-time high, Roosevelt gave Mississippians hope-his visit was a bright spot in a dark time.
In more recent years, a bright spot has come courtesy of Hollywood super agent Sam Haskell, whose bi-annual "Stars over Mississippi" benefit concert brings some of the biggest stars in Hollywood to Amory for a kind of concert, confab and all around good time. The proceeds from the "Stars" go toward the Mary Kirkpatrick Haskell Scholarship Foundation, which since 1992 has raised more than $4 million to help educate more than 425 students from Amory and the Monroe County area.
But you don't have to wait for Hollywood to come calling before you make your visit here to Amory, Aberdeen, Columbus or Macon. Around this region, the stars are always out. Let the gazing-and the gossiping-begin!