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Three Getaways for 2016

Natchez, Miss., is celebrating its 300-year history this year in a big way.
BY PATRICK MARTIN

Natchez might be the liveliest 300-year-old in the South, or anywhere else, for that matter. The Mississippi River town has an extra hop in its step in 2016 as it celebrates – and sometimes soberly acknowledges – its three centuries of multi-cultural heritage, struggles, and triumphs.

Stanton Hall

Above: Left: Visitors admiring Stanton Hall.

Title left: Sunset on the Mississippi River.

Title center: Carriage tours showcase the city's rich history.

Title right: Under-the-Hill Saloon, the oldest bar in town, sparkles with fun and congeniality. Visit Natchez

Below: Tours of the 32-room octagonal Longwood showcase upper floors that were never completed. Visit Natchez

Longwood

The yearlong tricentennial for the Mississippi town of 15,000 is built on a foundation of history, but also will have significant salutes to music, art, cuisine, and a renewed sense of community.

A long history along the river

An outsider with only a passing familiarity of Natchez might presume the Civil War to be the main pillar of its past. The conflict is more of a midpoint than a centerpiece because the town's history extends as far back before the war as it does after it.

Founded by the French, Natchez was a natural choice for a settlement. It was handy to the river but protected by cliffs that reach 200 feet above the east side of the Mississippi River, with a commanding view upstream and down. From a military standpoint, it was a perfect spot from which to control the river.

So the French built Fort Rosalie, completing it on Aug. 3, 1716. The town's name followed shortly thereafter, derived from the Native American tribe that lived there – the Natchez. Over the next 90 years, Natchez grew as a trading post, not just due to its prime river location, but because it also was the southern terminus of a migratory trail of Native Americans, trappers, and boatmen.

Today the National Park Service maintains that corridor, now a 444-mile, two-lane scenic road to Nashville, Tenn., known as the Natchez Trace.

For the balance of the 18th century, Natchez got a good grounding in multiculturalism, growing under French, British, and Spanish flags. It formally was transferred to the United States in 1798 and served as territorial capital. Natchez was Mississippi's first capital when it was admitted to the Union in 1817.

When the Civil War broke out and Southern states rushed to a secession vote, Mississippi voted to secede but Adams County (and Natchez) voted not to. That was duly noted when the Union took the area in 1863 and there was no widespread burning and destruction.

Many of Natchez’ buildings and plantations – including partially built Longwood – survived. Some were lost to redevelopment, but a local sense of history and preservation, which gained momentum in the 1930s, saved many more. That was critical in preserving the base for what would become the town's No. 1 industry: tourism.

Natchez has cultivated that business just as carefully as its residents tend their genteel gardens. It became even more important after most of the town's industrial base dried up in the mid-1900s.

The total picture

The town has had its shares of tragedies, such as the 1940 nightclub fire that took 209 lives and forever changed fire code regulations in the United States. That horrific loss, along with the civil rights struggles of the next three decades, are somberly noted in the tricentennial timeline, an admirably honest look at all significant events in local history.

Jennifer Ogden Combs, a Natchez native, is the executive director of the Natchez Tricentennial Commission. For nearly two years, Combs, a Hollywood producer, has worked in a Natchez office with an entire wall covered with calendars, individual events, notes, lists of artists and musicians, and suggestions that have evolved into “The Plan.”

“It works for putting together a movie,” she said. “There are so many parts and you try to get them to all come together.”

Throughout the planning, there has been a dual purpose of not only putting on a large-scale celebration for residents and visitors, but also reinvigorating and reintroducing Natchez to itself.

“Natchez has its garden clubs, for example, and its musicians and artists and its restaurants,” Combs said. “They haven’t always necessarily intersected. We’d like to see that happen more.”

Memorable attractions and events

There will be ample opportunity. As of mid-January, the commission had events scheduled on almost every day of the yearlong commemoration.

In addition to the special events, there are the old standbys like carriage tours or visits to magnificent antebellum homes, including Stanton Hall, Dunleith, Melrose, and Rosalie. Among those not to miss is the unfinished plantation, Longwood.

Haller Nutt, a well-heeled planter, wanted a one-of-a-kind home. His architect designed a six-story, 32-room octagonal mansion with 26 fireplaces and 30,000 square feet of living space. Construction began in 1859 and the exterior was completed using more than 1 million bricks molded and fired on site.

Construction stopped abruptly with the outbreak of the Civil War in April 1861. Nutt died in 1864, and his wife and children lived in the few rooms that were finished on the lower floors.

“Nutt's Folly” became a local curiosity as succeeding generations lived there. The upper floors were (and still are) littered with workers’ tools and building supplies from 150 years ago.

The home was deeded to the Pilgrimage Garden Club of Natchez in 1970 with the agreement that the home never be finished. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1971.

Thirty-minute tours of Longwood cost $15 for adults and run daily from 9 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. It's a fascinating, if eerie, time capsule.

Two more don’t-miss outings: WalkNatchez! is a self-guided walking tour that includes the spectacular path along the bluff. Save time for a visit to Natchez “Under the Hill,” the riverfront area once frequented by river pirates and women of questionable virtue. Today, residents and tourists come to the area for its restaurants, bars, and music venues.

Visitors during the tricentennial year are encouraged to make their plans early. In addition to its hotels, Natchez has more than 40 bed and breakfasts, most of them in historical buildings. They provide an unusually wide array of accommodations for a town its size, but rooms are expected to be scarce.

Natchez usually moves with a slow, Southern grace. If you like a bit quicker pace, this may be the year to visit.

Patrick Martin is a contributor from St. Louis, Mo.

March/April 2016 Issue

BEFORE YOU GO

The best way for visitors to check out artists, musicians, exhibits, and events that may interest them is at the tricentennial website, www.Natchezms300.com. Visitor information is available through Visit Natchez, (800) 647-6724,

To visit Natchez, first stop by your nearest AAA service office for maps, reservations, TripTiks® and TourBook® guides.


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