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LEGENDS | Culture & Arts from the Cradle of American Music

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Monmouth Plantation

 

Photography by MARIANNE TODD

 

Sitting serenely at the top of a hill, and encompassing 26 acres of manicured grounds and wooded areas, Monmouth Historic Inn and Gardens feels somewhat removed from downtown Natchez, though the historic home is less than two miles from the Mississippi River and the city’s historic bluff. 

 

The estate features two ponds stocked with fish, croquet courts, birding, walking trails, fine and casual dining, and a complimentary breakfast for guests who stay in one of 30 rooms – in the main house and in several cottages located around the grounds – each partially hidden from one another behind azalea, sweet olive, cypress, and oak trees. 

 

Natchez postmaster John Hankinson constructed the home in 1818, naming it after Monmouth County, where he grew up in New Jersey. The original iteration looks much different from how Monmouth stands today. Hankinson built the home with red brick and in the Federalist Style. Later, the home’s second owner, famed Mexican-American War veteran and eventual Mississippi Governor John Quitman, updated the home to a Greek revival style. He and his wife Eliza purchased the property following Hankinson’s death in 1824 and after adding striking white square columns, painted over the original brick, scoring white plaster to give Monmouth the appearance it maintains today. 

 

Quitman came to Natchez via Ohio and met his wife after a year in the South, eventually signing one of the first prenuptial agreements in Mississippi to earn her hand in marriage. The couple had between 12-15 children, though only six reached adulthood and many died in infancy. They also had at least 50 slaves, some of whom lived above the kitchen, a red brick outbuilding that now serves as Monmouth’s gift shop with rooms for guests above in slaves’ former quarters. 

“Both Eliza and John Quitman passed within a year of one another in the late 1850s, leaving the property to three of their daughters and their husbands, whom the women sent off to war when the South seceded,” says Laura Kracek, tour guide at Monmouth. When Natchez surrendered to the union in 1862, many of Monmouth’s slaves ran away or joined the Union army. Some returned after the war demanding  back wages, which the Quitman daughters paid. They also sold off land and possessions to former slaves to supplement their former income. Like many antebellum elites, they lost much of their wealth during the war, and the family’s descendants eventually sold the property to a widower named Annie Gwin in 1924. Some of Monmouth’s slaves’ descendants continued to live nearby on parcels of the home’s original 32 acres, now closer to the current 26. 

“Annie and her daughters operated the home as a dairy farm and as a boarding house, which is how they kept it open,” says Kracek. “She eventually married the man around the corner at another antebellum home, Arlington. She left the property to her daughters, and at this point Monmouth had developed a sort of reputation for being owned by women. First Eliza, then the Quitman daughters, then Annie and her daughters.”

 

Around the Depression era, the home began to fall into disrepair. Vagrants and animals moved in, and decades passed as desperate temporary occupants pried marble fireplaces from the walls and tried to remove anything of value from the home. In 1978, a visiting couple from California toured the property and fell in love despite years of neglect. They also loved Natchez, and the views of the river from the bluffs. 

 

“Ronald and Lani Riches purchased the property and painstakingly restored it,” says Kracek. “They hired an archaeologist to perform a dig and discover where the original outbuildings stood and they later rebuilt them. The cottage alongside our ponds stands where the original schoolhouse was constructed.”

 

The restoration process also revealed artifacts original to Monmouth around the home and grounds. “They found one of the marble fireplaces in the woods near the edge of the property line, damaged but largely intact,” says Kracek. “They also found a blanket believed to belong to the Quitman children with a log cabin design popular during the era, which is now framed upstairs.” The home’s marble fireplace has been returned to the parlor where it stood originally. 

“When the Riches reached retirement age, they returned to California, and the home passed to Nancy and Warren Reuther,” says Kracek. “They’ve continued to elevate the property, but also maintain the historical elements that make Monmouth special.” 

 

Nancy spends a considerable amount of time at Monmouth, something she wasn’t anticipating before purchasing the property. “We are from New Orleans, and you know we have The Grand and several other Mississippi properties, and I just imagined I’d continue doing things from there. But, you really have to be here with a home like this. It’s always a work in progress with a building this old and these grounds.” 

 

Nancy purchases period art and antebellum antiques to supplement the original materials as well as the significant restoration work done by the Riches. Items original to the home include wedding portraits of Eliza and John, Eliza’s antebellum china, silver dinner goblets, crystal chandeliers and several personal items of John Quitman’s including his traveling bar, wooden desk, and king size canopy bed. It’s where he died, and also where guests sleep who stay in the Quitman suite, above John’s study. 

 

John’s desk and bar sit in the Quitman study, where guests at Monmouth enjoy complimentary hors d'oeuvres from 5-7 each day adjacent to the Quitman lounge, which offers a full bar as well as casual and fine dining options. 

 

Guests (and visitors to the estate), looking to dine inside the main house opt for Restaurant 1818, which does require reservations. Parties larger than eight can sit inside the original dining room, where Eliza’s china is on display as well as antebellum clocks and other fine antiques. The menu is a mixture of New American cuisine with French Creole inspiration. Appetizers include fried green tomatoes with lump crab and remoulade and a mushroom toast with toasted baguette, local mushrooms, and a creamy madeira sauce. There is also gumbo, duck, seasonal Gulf fish, and a tender filet with a dark, mushroom pan jus. Bread pudding and a bourbon pecan pie with chocolate ganache round out the menu. 

 

In the morning, guests get the pleasure of Ms. Mary’s breakfast. She has cooked at Monmouth for 30 years. “When we bought the home from the Riches, everything changed over at midnight, and we kept the entire staff,” says Nancy. “It’s part of what makes it so authentic here. Roosevelt (server and bartender) has also been here for almost 30 years. Everyone who visits loves them.” 

Between Monmouth’s garden rooms, where guests eat breakfast, and the main house, manicured herb and rose gardens surround paths that weave around the grounds. There are stones with moss between the cracks, and a wooden bridge overlooking water where turtles and ducks make their way through cypress knees and tangled roots. 

 

Out front, giant cypresses planted hundreds of years ago frame the house, draped with Spanish moss and fronting blooming gardenias. “This is the perfect time of year to visit, with the gardenias and the wisteria blooming,” says Nancy. “It’s gorgeous, and on top of that Natchez is the most romantic city on the Mississippi.” 

 

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