Sunday, July 27, 2008

A trace of Natchez

Greetings from a city which is three years older than New Orleans and wherein is found the largest concentration of antebellum mansions in the country. I have spent several tranquil days in Natchez, the terminus of the famed Natchez Trace and a place steeped in early American history. There is a tendency here to take things a little too easy, to get caught up in the slow-moving and staid qualities of this picturesque place. For a harried New Orleanian to take time out to explore a picture gallery at a Presbyterian church, for example, would definitely seem out of place. But the picture gallery - a photographic representation of two major photographers' work - was one of the best experiences and on the same level as one would expect at the Smithsonian or other top-grade museum. There was a significant Jewish influence in Natchez that sprang up early in its history. Many of the city's top merchants were Jewish and the hotel at which I stayed, the Eola, was founded by the Levy family, who owned a retail outlet next door to the hotel on North Pearl Street. Sadly, only ten Jewish families are left to maintain one of the oldest Jewish congregations in the South, Temple B'nai Israel. (More on that tomorrow.) A ride in a horse-drawn carriage is something that I usually think of as low priority, but I must admit that the guides in Natchez seem to be on top of their game. The 40-minute tour was informative, humorous and relaxing. Food in Natchez is, well, okay. I haven't been knocked out by the kitchens here or by any chef doing superlative work, but it has been palatable. Servers are pleasant and they do make the meal go smoothly. They try very hard, even those serving breakfast in the Eola Hotel. The Natchez Trace affords several incredible opportunities for exploring including Emerald Mound, the second largest Indian mound in the U.S. Used for ceremonies and games, the very tall plateau with two hills on either side resembles a modern day football or lacrosse configuration. There are lots of things to see along the Trace, although I didn't have a lot of time to do more than see Emerald Mound and Mount Locust, one of the inns where travelers stayed while hiking along the path that led back to Pittsburgh. There are many antebellum mansions to see here including the Stanton Manor and Melrose, but the place I chose to visit yesterday was the William Johnson House maintained by the National Parks Service. Johnson was a freed slave who was known as the "barber of Natchez." He not only owned sizeable real estate holdings, but also owned a plantation with slaves, something that was not as unusual as one might expect. In any event, that home was quite revealing because of Johnson's diaries, which were presented to give an insight into life in Nineteenth Century Natchez. It's all part of the sleepy charm of this quaint city.

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