By Kara Martinez Bachman
Photography by Marianne Todd
In Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales,” the idea of a pilgrimage – a trek for spiritual purposes – was dramatized in a way that solidified it as an important act for the devoted. As Chaucer’s collection of stories and verse unfolds, so too, do the fictional stories of its pilgrims, en route from London to pay homage at the shrine of Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral.
Today, the concept of pilgrimage has broadened to include not only religious sites, but other places for which the devoted certainly have a similar fervor.
The idea of pilgrimage in Mississippi is most evident in the devotion many have to the beautiful Southern homes that have stood the test of time. From antebellum mansions that survived the ravages of the Civil War to Victorian palaces that conjure feelings of small town America, the South has a love affair with its heritage that, by all accounts, seems infectious.
“I think the romanticism of the old South is just a draw for people,” said Tish Summerlin, co-chairman of the Holly Springs Pilgrimage, put on each spring in the small north Mississippi town not far from Memphis. This year, it happens April 21 through 23.
Summerlin said the 79-year-old event – which for 2017 will feature tours of five antebellum homes, three churches and several museums – draws anywhere from 750 to 850 “pilgrims” each spring.
“We get people from Montana,” she said. “We constantly have new people from Memphis. We have people from England.”
Summerlin herself grew up in one of the old homes that was on the tour slate for many years. Hosting visitors has always been her thing, and she said during the spring tours, it becomes Holly Springs’ thing as well.
“We have upped our game in the last years,” she said, adding the city now offers visitors B&Bs, a range of restaurants, antique shopping and more.
Perhaps the grande dame of all such events is the Natchez Spring Pilgrimage, an effort vital to the culture of the city that somehow survived the worst of the Civil War. Natchez offers tours year-round and has a Fall Pilgrimage, but the spring event, running March 18 through April 18, really is the apex of local tourism. It includes tours, concerts, presentations, dinners and more.
According to Lynn Smith, director of sales for Natchez Pilgrimage Tours, the popularity of pilgrimages to Natchez is due to the “realness” of what the city offers.
“We have real live people living in homes their ancestors built,” she said. Many homes on the tour aren’t museums; they’re living, breathing, opulent residences that may contain “8th generation” people.
Smith said there are several new features this year, including the Foster’s Mound Tour, which includes the history of the Natchez Indians and the story of African-Americans in Natchez. Wrapped into it is the narrative of Abdul Rahman Ibrahima, an African prince who was enslaved and brought to Natchez.
Another equally-significant pilgrimage but perhaps better-kept secret - happens in Columbus, Mississippi, where the 77th Annual Spring Pilgrimage - takes place March 30 through April 8. The tours include a whopping 650 National Register of Historic Places properties and three National Register Historic Districts. Some home tours feature recreations of life in the 1800s with elaborate costumes and other accoutrements of deep South antebellum life.
“We normally have guests from every state in the U.S., and from 15 to 19 countries,” said Nancy Carpenter, executive director of the Columbus CVB. “The homes, with the exception of one, are all owned and maintained by individual families.”
Carpenter said in the last two years, Columbus has significantly increased its pilgrimage-related offerings.
A tour highlight is Mint Juleps at Whitehall, a celebratory nod to short-story writer, novelist and photographer Eudora Welty. Before she became famous, Welty collected stories and old recipes for the Federal Writers Project, “America Eats.” Her recipe, offered by T.C. Billups of Columbus, is posted on the official visitor’s website at visitcolumbus.org. The Mint Juleps are served to guests as they browse the exquisite gardens and grounds at Whitehall, one of Columbus’ favorite homes.
The pilgrimage kicks off with a welcoming crawfish and shrimp boil served up to live music on the grounds of the famed Tennessee Williams home as visitors enter town.
Additionally, the city lays out the red carpet for traveling “pilgrims” at 135 restaurants and an array of B&Bs and hotels.
“There is a certain mystique of living in the South,” Carpenter said. “Really, it’s about the stories, and about the people who lived there.”
Further south, the Mississippi Gulf Coast Council of Garden Club’s Spring Pilgrimage happens April 9-12. The 65th pilgrimage draws heavy crowds to the historic homes – and notable newer places – on the tour that spans three coastal counties. Its popularity? The tours are free.
Although Mississippi really “owns” the spring pilgrimage concept, nearby states have adopted similar tour slates for spring. There are smaller versions that take place in places such as Selma, Alabama, where the 42nd Annual Historic Selma Pilgrimage happens March 17 through 18, and in Eufaula, Alabama, where visitors may enjoy notable local homes March 31 through April 2.
In southeastern Louisiana, the 46th annual Audubon Pilgrimage – happening March 17 through 19 – showcases Louisiana’s English Plantation Country. Sponsored by the West Feliciana Historical Society, the tours show off the grandeur of Louisiana’s historic architecture but also commemorate the visit of artist and naturalist John James Audubon, who painted a number of his bird studies from Oakley Plantation, a major property of the tour. Also included are tours of notable homes such as The Myrtles Plantation.
Helen Williams of the West Feliciana Historical Society, said the best thing about the local pilgrimage is that’s it’s well-executed and comprehensive – and done by local volunteer efforts.
“We spend an entire year in planning, building upon more than four decades of experience to ensure an enjoyable and educational experience for all ages of visitors,” she said, “from the wagon rides and old-timey crafts to the elegant 1820s costumes which have won awards and recognition for their authenticity.
“It shows them who we are and where we have come from, with living history re-enactments and historic architecture,” she said. “The Audubon Pilgrimage is particularly proud of our Rural Homestead, demonstrating the simple skills of daily living, not necessarily on the big plantations, but on the country homesteads.”
Representing a diversity of historic lifestyles is good for a tradition that has seen its share of controversy. In recent decades, the notion of “antebellum tourism” has taken heat for not representing the plight of those who suffered to make viable the plush lifestyles pilgrimages represent. There are those who feel pilgrimage tours celebrate the worst times of the South.
It is for this reason that many antebellum hosts see increasing need to tell the whole story.
“We can’t change our history, but we can certainly learn from it,” Williams said, of how St. Francisville addresses it. “We can foster an understanding of the skills possessed by many of the plantation slaves who were expert carpenters and craftsmen, horticulturists, hunters, seamstresses, weavers, cooks, nurses.
“We have had African-American demonstrators here at the Rural Homestead, shoeing horses, quilting, making baskets,” she said. “The plantation outbuildings lend themselves to a discussion of the difficulty of life for the slaves, many of whom in this area remained at the plantation homes after the Civil War.”
For Smith, the new Natchez tour reflects the changing face of antebellum tourism. Pilgrimage visitors are seeking more than they did in the past, she said.
“They’re not looking for the painted-over glamorous South any more,” she said. The Foster’s Mound Tour is one of many additions to the schedule that, in recent years, aims to present a diverse, comprehensive portrait of real life during antebellum times.
“These homes were built on the backs of slaves. This is a new era, and Natchez is telling the whole truth.”
The journey that takes seekers past the uncomfortable realities of history may still be twisty and filled with beautiful diversions, but that path is growing a little straighter every day. At its end lies the opulent, lush, truly impressive homes that are icons of the American South.