by Ron Parlato

Pilgrimage is an event held in many towns in the Deep South to celebrate the antebellum period of cavalier manners, graceful elegance, and spacious homes. It is a time for the owners of these homes to show them to the public, and romantics from Maine to Michigan come down to experience the recreated life of a plantation. The houses are indeed grand, and most of them have been restored with patience and meticulous care by owners who want to preserve Southern or American history, descendants of the plantation owners who lived there and wanted to relive a part of their past, or simply those who loved old houses, antiques, and historical appointments.

At each of the houses open for Pilgrimage, local Southern girls dress up in antebellum finery and take visitors through the formal gardens, men’s and women’s sitting rooms, formal dining rooms, conservatories, balconies, and children’s rooms.

Many of these antebellum residences have been furnished and appointed not only with furniture and accessories from the period, but original to the house itself. A tour through one of these homes is truly a trip into the past.

The Arden Garden Club is the organization in charge of the Fall and Spring Pilgrimages. The Pilgrimage Ball, for example, was a high-society affair attended only by the wealthy landowners out on the prairie, the descendants of the plantation owners of the pre-war period. The Ball was a costume affair and a sumptuous dinner prepared by a chef from one of New Orleans’ best restaurants. He was given the menu, meticulously researched by the organizers of the Ball, and the banquet he prepared could have been served in 1850.

Mrs. Dorothea Corning was President of Pilgrimage. I had seen pictures of Mrs. Corning in picture books – not the Mrs. Corning, but a hundred ladies of a certain age in floral hats and long gloves seated in the ornate gardens of Southern homes. I had thought that these ladies had long left Natchez and other towns and turned over ownership to buyers from New Orleans and New York; but she and her family had never left. Green Pine Plantation, one of the premier houses of the city, was hers – all fifteen bedrooms, vast formal dining room, a parlor and two living rooms, sunroom, conservatory, library, two kitchens, portico, and thirty-two-foot Ionic columns. Having the house on the Historic Registry and on the Pilgrimage meant that the house had not changed since 1854, and never would.

Despite her love of Green Pine, Mrs. Corning had her eye on Rose Manor, perhaps the best and most glorious example of antebellum architecture and appointments in the South; but the old woman who lived there had always refused admission, had rejected invitations to show the house every year that Mrs. Corning could remember, and then some.

Leora Wentworth had lived in Rose Manor for 94 years. She had been wet-nursed and brought up by a black mammy, went to a girl’s finishing school in Natchez, and married the son of one of the best families of the city. She rarely traveled outside her hometown and never out of Mississippi. She was an active member of the Arden Garden Club and a proud member of the Daughters of the Old South.

She survived her husband and three children, lived alone, and had long ago closed off all ten bedrooms, the formal dining room, men’s and women’s parlor, conservatory, library, sitting room, and study. She lived in what had been the maid’s quarters. That and the kitchen were the only functioning parts of the house. A woman from Social Welfare came in once a week to bring provisions – TV dinners, milk, sugar, and tea.

Mrs. Wentworth was worth a fortune, but she parceled out her money like a miser, refused to consider a live-in companion or nurse’s aide, and kept to her routine of knitting, daytime television, and microwaving turkey tetrazzini, the dinner she had every night. It was easier for the lady from Social Welfare to pull out a frosty load of them from the back of the freezer case at Kroger than to vary the menu.

When she saw that stocks were running low, she asked the supermarket to reorder. When the supplier was late and she had to substitute chicken à la king, Mrs. Wentworth didn’t seem to notice. The tetrazzini was finally restocked, but Clea Barrow, the woman from Social Welfare, decided to stick with the chicken because she didn’t have to stick her hands so far back in the freezer chest. “Clea treats me so well,” said Mrs. Wentworth. “She makes me something different every night.”

Despite the fact that Mrs. Wentworth was a recluse and was becoming dottier by the day, and that Rose Manor had been a musty crypt for decades, Dorothea Corning finally convinced her to show the house. She propped Mrs. Wentworth up behind her tea service, gave a brief history of the house, and led the guests on a tour of the rooms. Because the windows of the house were never opened, and nothing stirred within, there was surprisingly little dust in the closed rooms; but the house had a funereal air, and visitors never raised their voices above a whisper.

After that first year, Mrs. Corning realized that, despite its renown, Rose Manor would have to be taken off the tour. Too many visitors had written critically about the place, and even though it was the grandest house on the tour and the one with the longest and most storied, history, word had already gotten to New York and Michigan, and fewer and fewer people bought tickets to see it. “Lovely home, but something very creepy about it,” said one comment left in the Guest Book. “Definitely spooky,” said another.

Mrs. Corning had to admit that despite its grand exterior – Georgian columns, 200-year-old oaks and magnolia trees, spacious lawn and gardens – there was something a bit off about the interior rooms. The “White Room,” for example, was a ballroom that had been painted and decorated completely in white – white floors, white walls, white ceiling, and white chintz curtains. The white chairs were arrayed along the walls, and Mrs. Corning couldn’t shake the feeling that all the dead members of the Wentworth gathered there at night and did a ghostly dance.

Every room had something unearthly about it. The mannequins in the sitting room were dressed to the nines in antebellum finery but had no eyes and stood alone “‘looking” out the balcony window. On the porch swings sat child-size dolls, also with no eyes, and the wind from the river rocked them gently on creaky hinges. There were no floral bouquets usually displayed in the foyer, on the landings, and on the Empire furniture. 

Rumor had it that Mrs. Wentworth had kept every bouquet and nosegay given to her by lovers and suitors, pressed or dried them, and displayed them throughout the house. Sprays of dried Fall marigolds, heather, or marsh reeds have the color, natural feel, and classic decoration that add warmth and character to rooms; but the dried bouquets of Mrs. Wentworth added to the funereal and ghostly feel of Rose Manor. Perhaps, if they had been displayed along with some other mementos – leather-bound books, for example, or pipe stands, silver tea services, or Wedgewood china – they might have lost their spooky feel; but Mrs. Wentworth had obviously gone out of her way to display them individually, alone in a spare room, or held by one of the mannequins or clutched in the hands of the child-dolls on the swing.

The problem wasn’t only that Mrs. Wentworth wouldn’t die; but that even if she did, who would buy this old, antiquated ark? She hated to use such harsh terms; she was enough of a realist to understand the dynamics of the marketplace. Few Southerners, or even Yankees, would invest in such a property in need of repairs inside and out, or spend the time necessary to purchase the furniture and appointments that would assure recertification as a Historic Site. 

River’s Bow, a grand and incomparable antebellum mansion in Greenwood had been on the market for over five years, with nary a nibble. Mavis Blessing, the current owner, finally had had enough, and sold it to the Church Glorious and Resplendent, which had plans to gut it and turn it into a meditation and survival center for its growing confederation of faithful.

“If only she’d get rid of those mannequins,” Mrs. Corning thought to herself when she considered what it would take to keep Rosewood on the tour. She had already talked to Miss Bowers, a woman of Mrs. Wentworth’s age who was an antique dealer in Eupora, who agreed to loan some of her Empire furniture for Pilgrimage if Mrs. Corning and Pilgrimage would pay the round-trip freight. As good an idea as this was, the Arden Garden Club’s coffers were near empty.

Many homes on cheaper Pilgrimage tours in the South billed themselves as “haunted,” and attracted the lower end of the tourist trade – black families from Memphis and Houston who wanted to expose their children to the realities of slavery, but who liked a little levity as well. One owner in Indianola actually stooped to rattling chains in the old wine cellar, but Mrs. Corning could never see herself approving even a slightly exaggerated story.

Actually, one house had a rather suspicious history, although Mrs. Corning never completely believed the story. Apparently, Constance Biggers lured her tipsy and wayward husband to the narrow third floor landing of Jasmine Valley and elbowed him down the narrow mahogany staircase built by a Florentine craftsman in 1841. He cracked his skull on the Venetian marble statue of Marcus Aurelius, which stood at the foot of the stairs, and lay bleeding while Constance stood over him cursing him like a sailor.

All well and good – this kind of thing happens in the best of families, and one of America’s greatest playwrights, Eugene O’Neill wrote of incest, murder, and the foulest play in a well-to-do New England family – but what happened next is what gave Mrs. Corning her idea.

Mr. Biggers, the story goes, appears on the top balcony of Magnolia Green on certain nights of the winter as a foggy wraith, howling and bemoaning his fate and consignment to Hell. If one were to believe the legend, Biggers was indeed an unrepentant philanderer who caused his wife untold misery and so deserved the hellish fate he received

The saddest part of all in this saga is that Pilgrimage itself was under attack. Newly black-majority towns were passing ordinances left and right to outlaw “any and all veneration of the slave-owning, plantation South.” This meant no more Pilgrimage Balls unless they were transformed into multi-cultural events where chitlins and fatback were served along with oysters and roast beef, and where Nat Turner was celebrated along with J. Hargrove Wentworth III. Black city councils reluctantly allowed the home tours to continue but insisted that a ‘Visit to Squirrel Town” be included in the offerings.

Mrs. Wentworth did indeed die and left Rose Manor to her Social Services aide, Clea. She left no explanatory note, although her will was legally tight and uncontested. Clea wanted no part of the old ark, and sold it lock, stock, and barrel to a Philadelphia dealer who cared nothing about the house itself but the treasure trove of historic, vintage antiques that graced every room. In one fell swoop, the majestic Rose Manor went off the tour, off the market, and still stands as an empty relic to former days.

There are still marvelous homes to visit, unsullied and resistant to diversity pressures; one or two Pilgrimage Balls still exist, where wealthy families from the prairie come into town to celebrate their heritage. The balls are now few and far between, and Pilgrimage has become a Disneyworld Pirate Ship adventure, but, as Parker Lloyd, a Southern historian has noted, “You can’t understand American history unless you understand Southern history.”  He could have added “unless you go to Pilgrimage.”

A visit to Rose Manor would have been the icing on the antebellum cake, adding a bit of Southern Gothic to the more staid, elegant, sumptuous homes on the tour.