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natchez: A town with a thousand stories.

In its first days as an American town, almost all of Natchez was located at the foot of its distinctive bluffs. Soon, though, its wealthier residents realized that higher turf offered safety from floods--to say nothing of stunning views.

That left the lower neighborhood to a poorer, looser crowd. Under-the-Hill, as it's known, became a famous haven for river pirates and gamblers, its dirt roads lined with slapdash cabins and raucous saloons.

The river erodes its banks, and much of that old neighborhood has been lost. What remains has been classed up: the riverfront landing is now home to two of my favorite Natchez restaurants--Magnolia Grill and The Camp. This spring--as whenever I visit Natchez--I made Under-the-Hill my first stop. Fresh catfish tacos and good company at The Camp, a stylish-but-casual modern eatery; sitting and watching the rolling river: there's no better way to wile away a few hours of an afternoon.

It's also home to Silver Street Gifts & Gallery, a fine boutique with an eclectic selection of gifts. It even keeps a pair of binoculars available to wildlife-seeking visitors.

But you can still conjure wild, old Natchez here. The simple brick buildings retain their frontier character; the walls inside the Under-the-Hill Saloon teem with enough nautical knickknacks to qualify as a river-rat museum. (Legend has it that Mark Twain once slept upstairs; this is the sort of place you would not be surprised to encounter his witty ghost.)

One of the most visited events in Natchez the Spring Pilgrimage attracts thousands every March to tour over 30 antebellum homes, most of which are national historic markers. The six-week event is such a great attraction, a smaller pilgrimage was created for the fall as well. Part of the Spring Pilgrimage is the Historic Natchez Tableaux. Presented by the Natchez Garden Club, this has been a can't-miss show since 1932. Throughout the multiple dates it's shown, the Tableaux provides a peek into Natchez history.

Natchez can claim quite a few superlatives. It's the oldest town in Mississippi--indeed, the oldest along the river--and the state's first capital. Its bluffs are the highest on the river below St. Louis. Natchez is the only town in Mississippi with regularly scheduled open-air double-decker bus tours.

Much of its tourism is centered around one more record: in the mid-19th century, more wealth was concentrated here than anywhere else in the United States. Today, as a result, if you want to tour grand old antebellum homes there is no better town in the South. I would recommend, too, a stop at Sharp Designs. Owner Stella Sharp has amassed a stunning collection of period silver and porcelain that once bedecked Natchez's old homes, and thanks to her fervent knowledge, the shop doubles as a kind of museum.

But--as the rowdy history down Under-the-Hill at tests--there is much more to the Natchez story. Natchez, after all, was a way-station on a long frontier journey. Here the Natchez Trace, an old Indian trail that became a kind of proto-interstate, intersected with the river.

One of the best ways to get a broad view of Natchez is to visit the historic photography gallery on the second floor of the First Presbyterian Church. Mostly the work of a local photographer named Henry C. Norman, who documented the town throughout the second half of the 19th century, the collection includes portraits of local, wealthy citizens next to the scenes of laborers reshaping the mighty river.

The biggest challenges when visiting Natchez is to select from the endless list of lodging options. What clinched my own decision was the chance to watch the sun set across the river--so I opted for the Clifton House, part of the "campus" of properties run by Starling's Rest. The 1904 mansion sits in a neighborhood built by Jewish merchants in the 1880s. As the sky turned purple, streams of runners poured past on the bluff path.

The next morning, I enjoyed the antebellum architecture by following the sidewalk markers of the Natchez Trails. These create a 5.6 mile-long "museum of the streets" that is, in my opinion, the best available overview of Natchez's moneyed history. Placards every few blocks explain the story and architecture of the homes.

I found Randy Laird on the corner of Canal and State streets, which is the launching point for his Southern Carriage Tours. In a deep drawl, and with disarming friendliness, Laird launched into a whirlwind recap of Natchez's three-century history. "We have a thousand stories," he said--and he seems to know them all.

The Natchez were the last of the powerful chiefdoms that ruled the swamps along the Mississippi River. Their predecessors had lived in complex societies for thousands of years--though we've mostly forgotten that history now. At Laird's suggestion, I drove to the Natchez Grand Village, an oasis of green amidst the Natchez suburbs. Despite its peaceful current landscape--I took a relaxing walk amongst the ancient ceremonial mounds--this was once the power center from which the Natchez launched their final struggle against the invading French.

From the village, I drove to Museum of African-American History and Culture. Darrell White, the director of cultural heritage tourism, gave a detailed talk about the successful struggle for civil rights in town. During Reconstruction, local minister Hiram Revels became the first African-American to be elected to U.S. Congress; another man, John Roy Lynch, became the first African-American to serve as the speaker of the Mississippi House of Representatives.

Of course, I took some time away from the history to wander downtown. The old merchant district is still peppered with shops, though of a more current fashion: there are fashionable boutiques like A Gallerie and contemporary galleries like Natchez Architectural and Art Discoveries, my favorite find of this trip, well-curated with local art and salvaged materials. And, if you get a hankering for something sweet, Darby's Gift and Fudge is the perfect place to go. The friendly staff has been serving up delicious--and famous--fudge for over 20 years.

Antiques fans should focus their time on Franklin Street, which is also known as Antique Row. Here you can find H. Hal Garner Antiques, which has been around since 1983 and has since expanded into three buildings-worth of antiquarian finds. And, if you need a caffeine boost, Steampunk Espresso Bar, housed in a tidy 19thcentury brick cabin near the bluff, is perhaps my favorite "coffee shop" in the state.

My last stop was at King's Tavern, which may be the oldest building in town. Erected in the late eighteenth century, the building has wood siding that was stripped from old riverboats, since there was not yet a sawmill in town. The taproom once offered welcome shelter for weary travelers who arrived at the end of the Trace. They would warm themselves and tell their stories from the road--bandits and ghosts and narrow escapes.

As I dug into homemade hummus and wood-fired brisket-topped flatbread, I had to figure those early travelers didn't eat so well. But somehow in that basement dining room's flickering candlelight, all their stories seem to echo still.

do

ANNUAL EVENTS

Angels on the Bluff-October

Christmas in Natchez-December

Great Mississippi River Balloon Race-October

Natchez Festival of Music-May

Natchez Food and Wine Festival-August

Natchez Historic Tableaux-Spring

Natchez Literary and Cinema Celebration-February

Spring and Fall Pilgrimage

ENJOY THE OUTDOORS

Bluff Park

Giles Island

Miss-Lou Tours

Natchez Trace Parkway

Natchez Trails and Walking Tour

Quapaw Canoe Company-Natchez Outpost

VISIT MUSEUMS

Delta Music Museum

Natchez in Historic Photographs at First Presbyterian Church

Forks of the Road

Fort Rosalie

Grand Village of the Natchez Indians

Museum of African-American History and Culture

Natchez National Historic Park

Rhythm Night Club Memorial Museum

VISIT HISTORIC CEMETERIES

Natchez City Cemetery

Natchez National Cemetery

Watkins Street Cemetery

VISIT HISTORIC HOMES

SEE HISTORIC CHURCHES

shop

A Gallerie

The Art Center

ArtsNatchez Gallery

As You Like It Silver Shop

Bee's Boutique

Bowie Outfitters

Brodeur Gallery

Conner Burns Studio

Consign & Design

Crafted Gallery & Art Supply

Darby's Gifts & Fudge

D1 Evereaux Sauces

Eccentricities

ETC Variety Store

H. Hal Garner Antiques & Interiors

Franklin Street Antique Mall & General Store

Katie's Apparel

Lower Lodge Antiques

Magnolia Mariee Bridal

Morton's Flowerland

Mrs. Holder's Antiques

My Shoe Kloset

Natchez Antiques

Natchez Architectural & Art Discoveries

Natchez Pottery Studios

Natchez Fine Framing & Art Gallery

Nest

Netterville Jewelry

Old South Trading Post

One of Kind Gifts

Pampered Soul

Sharp Designs

Silver Street Gallery & Gifts

Soiree Boutique

The Towers Collection

Turning Pages Book & More

Uniquely Yours

eat

Bandsaw Buffet

BB's Grill

Bear's BBQ

Bellemont Shake Shop

Biscuits & Blues

The Bluffs Bistro

Bowie's Tavern

Buckles Pancake & Waffle House

The Camp Restaurant

The Carriage House Restaurant

The Castle Restaurant & Pub

Cotton Alley Cafe

The Donut Shop

El Potro

Fat Mama's Tamales

The Fish House

Johnny's Pizza

Jughead's Fish Fry

King's Tavern

La Fiesta Grande

Lil' Dago's Cafe

Little Tokyo Japanese Steakhouse

Magnolia Grill

The Malt Shop

Mammy's Cupboard

Moo's Barn & Grill

Natchez Coffee Company

Paddlewheel Seafood & Grill

Pearl Street Pasta

Pig Out Inn

The Pilot House

Planet Thailand

Prime Cut Steakhouse

Restaurant 1818

Slick Rick's Cafe

Rolling River Bistro

Soda Pops

South China Restaurant

Southern Style Restaurant, Catering & Bar

Steampunk Espresso Bar

Taste of Chicago

Tasting the Best

Uptown Grocery

stay

1835 Oak Hill Inn

1835 Wilkins Town House

1888 Wensel House

Another Padre's Inn

Aunt Clara's Cottage

Bisland House Bed & Breakfast

Bluff Top

Brandon Hall Plantation

The Briars B&B

The Burn

Cedar Grove Plantation

Cedars Plantation

Choctaw Hall

Clermont Bluffs B&B

Concord Quarters

Devereaux Shields House

The Dr's In

Dunleith Historic Inn

Elgin Plantation

The Elms

Garden Song B&B

Glenfield Plantation

Greenlea

The Guest House

Hamilton Guest House

Holly Hedges B&B

Hope Farm

Hotel Vue

Linden

Locust Alley Guesthouse

Magnolia Cottage

Magnolia Vale Guest Cottages

Marcia's Cottages

Mark Twain Guest House

Monmouth Historic Inn & Gardens

Natchez Grand Hotel

Natchez Manor

The Natchez Pearl

Pleasant Hill

Rising Sun

River Edge Guest Suites

Riverside

Shanty Bellum Guest House

Shanty Bellum Too

Starling's Rest

Stone House Musical B&B

The Towers

Twin Oaks

Weymouth Hall

White Turpin House

Caption: CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: A system of trails along the river and through downtown offers an excellent history of Natchez. The Grand Village of the Natchez Indians, which includes a small museum, includes three platform mounds and a ceremonial plaza. Natchez is home to more than 1,000 structures on the National Register of Historic Places, and a horse-drawn carriage is the perfect mode of transportation to enjoy them. A sign outside of Fat Mama's Tamales indicates the distance to other tourism cities. Natchez City Cemetery is dotted with fine sculptures and comes alive every autumn during the presentation of Angels on the Bluff. Longwood, composed of more than 750,000 bricks and an incomplete interior, draws more than 60,000 annual visitors. The speciality roasts at Steampunk Espresso Bar make for some of the best cups of coffee in the state. CENTER: Every October Natchez is the place to be for its annual Mississippi River Balloon Race.

Caption: CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Edelweiss is home to renowned author and Natchez native, Greg lies. The First Presbyterian Church is a fine example of Federal-style architecture and offers a gallery of historic photography on its second floor. Legendary King's Tavern is the oldest building in Natchez. Ann Faillace, a member of ArtsNatchez, works on a rendition of Longwood. Mike Wagner owns The Camp, a casual eatery with excellent views of the river. Natchez is filled with fine boutiques, such as Silver Street Gallery and Gifts.

Caption: CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Turning Pages offers plenty of good reading, including books of local interest. At the Natchez Museum of African American History and Culture, exhibits tell a story that spans continents and centuries. The Pig Out Inn is a great spot for incredible barbecue. The William Johnson House, managed by the National Park Service, was owned by a successful African-American barber.

Caption: CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Dunleith is one of Natchez' most prized mansions. Everyone with a sweet tooth should stop by Darby's for a piece of its legendary fudge. Mary Blair Johnson, daughter of Julie and Forrest Johnson, stands on the grounds of Longwood where she will participate in Tableaux, part of the spring pilgrimage season. Former White House florist, Natchez native, and renowned floral designer John Grady Burns' store Nest is a popular spot. Don't leave without enjoying a sunset from the city's bluffs. Stanton Hall, completed in 1859 and soon after occupied by Union troops, is now owned by the Pilgrimage Garden Club and offers daily tours.

Caption: TOP TO BOTTOM: Fat Mama's Tamales has built a national reputation for their quick and hearty Mississippi food. The antique shops on Franklin Street offer a wide selection, such as these handmade soaps at the Antique Mall. Jim Smith recently opened Natchez Architectural and Art Discoveries, a unique gallery and salvage shop that doubles as an event space.
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Title Annotation:TRAVEL & ADVENTURE Small-town Spotlight
Author:Upholt, Boyce
Publication:Mississippi Magazine
Date:May 1, 2018
Words:2139
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