The past is ever present in Natchez, Mississippi. There’s the history you see, like the majestic antebellum homes, then there’s the invisible, yet palpable history that permeates the air like ghosts. At more than 300 years old, this town has stories and secrets. But what’s just as fascinating, is the glimpses of the future you can also see.
It’s hard not to be enraptured by this southern belle of nearly 15,000 people that at one time had more millionaires per capita than some bigger cities. It’s a place where tradition still means something. You might want to put Natchez on your fall getaway list. Since 1932, in the fall and spring you can tour Natchez’s historic mansions. No need for a GPS. The tours are color-coded with signs leading visitors from house to house. Whichever you choose you’re in for a treat. Be ready to be greeted by someone on the steps in a hoop skirt from the Civil War era.
Each home is an adventure. Take for example, The Gardens, couched between the Natchez City Cemetery and the Natchez National Cemetery on 35 Cemetery Road. The home, which has been occupied by the same family since 1881, was built in 1794 as a summer retreat for Spanish Territorial Governor Stephen Minor. During the Civil War, it served as a federal hospital. Another favorite is Green Leaves. You’ll get a peek inside a family legacy. All the original furnishings and family memorabilia is there, including a huge collection of teddy bears, dolls and antiques. With all the wedding photos and painted family portraits, you’re drawn in, wondering who are these people? You are curious. The home, built in 1838 at 303 S. Rankin St., has been occupied by descendants of the Koontz-Beltzhoover family since 1849. It’s called Green Leaves for a reason. When you finish the tour, you’re captivated, caught up in all the stories you heard about the families, the war, and memories of all the finery, gold, crystal, silver, fine lace, elaborate canopy beds, beautiful rugs, chandeliers. The present is almost jarring.
That’s Natchez. It shakes you up. If you’re full after working your way through the history of the wealthy, take the African-American Heritage Tour. The Forks of the Road Slave Market is an intersection where slaves were brought from different parts of the country to be sold at market, which was the second largest in the South. It doesn’t take much to imagine the horror, especially after the tour guide lets you hold the heavy chains they wore and a whip. You don’t know what to say and worse, what to feel. But there’s more to the African-American story in Natchez. The tour recounts the stories of native author Richard Wright, Blacks who became doctors, lawyers, bankers, business owners and congressmen. Natchez was one of five cities to have a Black mayor during the Reconstruction period.
There are many tales along St. Catherine Street. Top off the tour with a visit to the African-American Museum of Culture and Heritage.
Natchez is for sure History 101, but it’s much, much more. It’s also very now, especially when it comes to all things cuisine. Just this summer Jarita Frazier King, along with her mother and grandmother opened the Natchez Heritage School of Cooking. Make sure you’re hungry. The menu changes, but you might find shrimp and grits with garlic toast, chicken and waffles, Cajun creole fried catfish and more.
Earlier this year chef Regina Charboneau opened, Regina’s Kitchen, which offers daily Southern cooking classes. There is also a weekend brunch class where you learn the art of biscuits and perfect eggs. Several evenings a week, Charboneau hosts special Southern cooking classes which includes dinner.
Then there’s the Natchez Bluffs and Under-the-Hill neighborhood that give you views of the Mississippi River. There are hip restaurants and bars. The Camp is a favorite with its legendary burgers, array of tacos, salads and stash of Southern brews. Don’t leave town without eating at King’s Tavern. Built in 1789, it’s the oldest standing building in Natchez. The master mixologist creates cocktails that are the talk of the town. There’s also talk about the other spirits that haunt the Tavern. But let nothing stop you from the delicacies of owner and chef Charboneau. You’ve never had a potpie like this. It’s baked in a wood-fired oven. Go for chicken or crawfish. The creamy sauce is full of mushrooms, carrots, green peas and corn topped with bacon-thyme biscuit crust and served with a small side salad. Finish your meal with housemade dark chocolate ice cream with caramel sauce and a touch of sea salt. There is no shortage of great dining options.
Little Natchez is home to the Old South Winery, Natchez Brewery and the Charboneau Rum Distillery.
A good way to see the town is the double decker Hop On Hop Off Tour. The bus takes you to sites like St. Mary Basilica, downtown shops, boutiques and restaurants, the Bridge of Sighs and more. One stop you’ll want to hop off at is the Natchez National Historical Park to see Melrose, an 1800s Greek revival-style mansion. It’s on 80 acres of lush landscape. A guided tour will give you a sense of what life was like pre-Civil War. Melrose has been the site for films like “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” and “Freedom Road.” When you’re ready to hear some music, check out Rolling River Bistro and Biscuit & Blues. The entire month of May there is a music festival.
As for where to stay, Natchez boasts a number of B&Bs, historic inns and homes like GardenSong B&B. This place is special. Owner and author Dan Gibson, an accomplished musician, plays the piano while you enjoy breakfast, a plate chef likely to be loaded with biscuits, grits, eggs, bacon or other goodies. The gardens are lovely, the host warm and welcoming. You’ll know what Southern hospitality means there and just about anywhere in Natchez.