Grand Homes Of Cotton Kings     

Darn that hoop skirt. It wouldn't fit into my suitcase.

The old-fashioned Southern belle attire at first seemed so "perfect" to wear in Natchez, the heart of the old Southern cotton kingdom. Contemplating a mint julep, I was thankful that I'd opted for more modern dress.

Natchez is a romantic and tragic old town, and it takes a good deal of walking to discover its charms. A good time to visit is during the Spring Pilgrimage tour of public and private homes.

A lady suspended inside yards of imported French brocade would "nevah" be able to hike down the steep grade and then climb up on a bar stool at the infamous Natchez Under the Hill Saloon, once frequented by rough-and-tumble flatboat crews.

Whalebone corsets just would not do for an evening of Mississippi blues at the crowded Biscuits & Blues restaurant.

And how could she ever have even managed the stairs of Natchez's antebellum homes, an impressive collection of pre-Civil War mansions that escaped being plundered into oblivion during "the War of Northern Aggression"?

Jeans and tennis shoes are much more appropriate for a place where you can't turn a corner without tripping over a National Historic Landmark.

The town, settled in 1716, is billed as the oldest European settlement on the Mississippi River. Its buckled sidewalks and long, lazy pathways lead up to about a dozen mansions that are open for year-round tours.

You, too, can walk through the palaces of the cotton kings and see — in most homes — the original Italian marble, Irish crystal, French porcelain and English silver (retrieved from where it was buried in the garden during the war).

These mansions are so emblematic of the Old South that more than one has been used as the backdrop for period films, including "Huckleberry Finn," "Show Boat" and the TV miniseries "North and South."

Visit the villa named Longwood and you'll see a vacant octagon-shaped brick home. Construction stopped in 1861 when Northern workers dropped their hammers to pick up guns. The family of Haller and Julia Nutt lived in the basement during the war while their uncompleted five-story dream loomed above them.

Haller Nutt had dreamed of a day when he could climb the staircase to a rooftop observation deck perched beneath a Byzantine-Moorish dome and gaze out at the lowland Louisiana fields where cotton was grown — and is to this day. Instead, he died of pneumonia in his basement before the war was through.

In a town eager to revamp old treasures, Longwood still stands uncompleted.

"Leave it as a monument to the heart-rending break of the War Between the States. Let it mark the end of an era," says the Natchez community group that maintains the structure.

Head over to Stanton Hall to see the Greek Revival style of architecture so popular in the antebellum South that the white homes with massive columns became known as Southern Colonial. (Ironically, they look a great deal like the grand house that is the epitome of federalism — the White House.)

Stanton Hall's doors open to an entry hall more than 70 feet long and to parlors decorated in the curvy, fainting-couch-style of the French rococo era. Frederick Stanton emigrated from Ireland, became a cotton magnate on the Mississippi, and died of yellow fever in 1859, just two years after completing his palace.

"Many visitors ask about buying antique items in the houses, but nothing in the homes is for sale, unless you buy the whole house," says Irvin Garrett of Magnolias & Memories, an antique store downtown.

One such Natchez house on the market is an 8,000-square-foot, two-story Greek Revival home built in 1840. Antique furnishings are included. The six-bedroom, five-bathroom home sits on seven acres with walking trails and ponds and has an asking price of $1.8 million.

These homes are open year-round, and during Natchez's Spring and Fall Pilgrimages visitors can even gain entry to some private homes.

Besides tours, the only other way inside these elegant old villas is to stay at one of Natchez's 40-plus bed-and-breakfast inns, some of them at antebellum homes.

Beyond the elegant houses, besides the cotton fields and tasty gumbos, one of the nicest things to do in Natchez is go for strolls that carry you back in history.

One evening I walked the bluff above the Mississippi. Below me, the paddle-wheel steamboat the American Queen pulled away from the dock at Natchez. The boat's calliope piped a tune and the Louisiana lowlands glowed in the gathering color of sundown as the steamboat slid quietly down its river path back to New Orleans.

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