Thursday, March 11, 2010
Georgiana is an empty husk of a house, a modern ruin that could easily be mistaken for an abandoned barn. It’s been stripped of all its furnishings and adornment, it’s overgrown with vines, and it’s barely visible from a seldom-traveled road in the sparsely populated Mississippi Delta.
But as Charles Prine observes while brushing cockleburs and beggar’s lice from his horse’s tail in a corral in front of the house, there’s more to the place than meets the eye. “There’s some kinda story,” he says, then adds, a bit sardonically, “Somebody died.” Which is pretty much shorthand for… everything.
My friend Chad and I have arrived at Georgiana on an early spring day when the broad, flat fields of the Delta are teeming with gargantuan tractors hitched to 20-foot-wide plows. The landscape is being laid bare and the air is filled with the scent of fecund dirt. We’ve taken off from working on our own old houses to scout the Delta’s back roads for interesting, old, and (typically) abandoned buildings, as well as for stands of ancient trees and anything else that speaks to the strange continuum of time. It’s how we roll.
I first saw Georgiana about 15 years ago when I was visiting friends who live in the area, and occasional return visits have charted a slow, inexorable and escalating decline that’s sadly typical of historic buildings across the rural South, and particularly the Delta. The landmarks of the past are literally falling by the wayside, which makes them especially attractive to people like Chad and me. I’m not sure why that’s the case, but there’s something intensely romantic about fate. There’s something about wandering the empty rooms of an abandoned house and coming upon the one book that got left behind, the one ragged, velvet chair that’s being gnawed away by squirrels, the wisteria vine blooming in the shattered parlor window, the exposed mortise-and-tenon joints and heart pine planks and rusty square nails, the letter summoning lost love that’s been carried into a rat’s nest, and the worn rail where generations long gone steadied themselves coming down the stair. You can’t help wanting to know more, to piece the story together, to see how it unfolded and how it ended. It says something important about life in any time. Plus, there's just such beauty in the construction, which far surpasses most of what's built today in quality and craftsmanship. I fell in love with my own house, Holly Grove, when it was in ruins, and determined to save it only after the process of romantic dissolution tipped and it became clear that evocative wooden ruins don’t last forever.
I’m the kind of person who googles just about anything, so when we return from our Delta outing I will research Georgiana online, but as Chad and I navigate the loose strands of rusty barbed wire that surround the house we don’t know much other than that it was a slave plantation visited by Union gunboats during the Civil War. That, of course, is a pretty compelling start for a story, and even without those enticing tidbits, it would be evident to an untrained eye that the hulking, weather-beaten ruin on the banks of Deer Creek offers a dark and alluring window into the past.
Georgiana is an early house by the standards of the Mississippi Delta, which was primarily settled in the late 19th century. The really old places in the area tend to date to the 1830s and ’40s, and always face bayous, rivers and lakes that were the only transportation routes through the swampy country back then. This is true of Georgiana: It faces Deer Creek, its back to the more modern road.
The house is two-and-a-half stories, with a brick first floor that elevates the main, second floor above occasional high water in the flood-prone Delta. The second floor is built of milled logs and the top story is frame. Two massive double chimneys that rose perhaps 60 feet from the ground floor to the peak of the roof have long since collapsed in a heap inside the lower level rooms. Otherwise the house seems sturdy and – for now -- stable, the one clear danger coming from the death-trap of an underground cistern in the first floor breezeway. Someone has tried, ineffectively, to cover the hole, which forms the mouth of a wider, water-filled chamber perhaps 20 feet deep; it’s spooky just to peer into the mysterious and menacing darkness below, from which it would be impossible to climb out.
As he climbs over the mound of collapsed bricks to check out the framework joinery, Chad allows as how a great many people have no doubt died in and around Georgiana, owing to the sheer force of years, but the truth is the place feels momentous, like some roadside portal between life and death. Prine’s report of a noteworthy death is not at all surprising.
Until about a decade ago the owners of Georgiana, some of whom live nearby, tried to ensure that the portal survived, that the husk of the house was preserved, mostly by keeping a good metal roof on it and blocking the gaping window openings with sheets of tin. But in recent years ill winds have peeled back the protective tin here and there, allowing rain to enter, which spells disaster for a wooden building, even one constructed of close-grain, old-growth cypress, as is the case with Georgiana.
From all appearances Georgina has endured abandonment for longer than it was occupied. I’m guessing it’s been empty for the better part of a century, because there’s nothing that even hints at the 20th century -- no electrical wiring, no plumbing, no later alterations -- but it’s really starting to hurt now.
Portals tend to open both ways, and Georgiana offers a glimpse of both the Delta’s past and its future. Locals are fond of saying that the land along Deer Creek encompasses some of the best farmland in the world – “the most fertile land this side of the Valley Nile,” as Big Daddy described the Delta in Tennessee Williams’ play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. William Faulkner’s short story “The Bear” chronicled an earlier history, when the Delta represented North America’s most productive wilderness. The truth is the Delta’s entire history is all about richness, exploitation, and conflict.
A new story is unfolding today, in which productivity is measured on corporate agribusiness ledger sheets, and the region’s cultural history plays an ever-diminishing role, if it comes into play at all. The landscape of the Delta is characterized by a daunting parade of abandoned houses, mobile homes, stores, schools, churches and even entire towns. It’s amazing to see a place collapse so fundamentally, almost effortlessly.
Once you take the majority of the people out of the equation and start deleting their noteworthy buildings, you’re on your way to creating an empty landscape where the evidence of the past – a particularly rich and complicated past, in this case -- is evoked mostly on historical markers. You can’t see much of anything for yourself. What’s left of the original architecture in the vicinity of Georgiana would have made for a very cool rural historic district, except that… everything, apparently, must go. Given the Delta’s history of exploitation, some people would no doubt be fine with wiping the slate clean, but I like knowing what happened before I came along, and some of the best clues are often found in physical remnants like Georgiana, as well as the exquisitely accomplished barn down the road that is being unraveled even more rapidly by storms, and the cluster of increasingly rare field-worker cabins that are, on the day we visit, being demolished by their owner for salvage wood. Also just down the road is a sprawling, abandoned 1920s mansion, surrounded by formal gardens of camellias and azaleas that have gone wild. Old trees, old buildings and other venerable sites are the elders of the architectural tribe, and around these parts they’re vanishing fast. Those that survive have the feel of abandoned stage sets that are finally being taken down, taking with them their stories of love and loss, of perseverance and betrayal, of human drama, for better or worse. It’s as if you can actually see the erosive power of time in slow-mo.
Prine, who has no connection to Georgiana other than that a friend of his leases the place for his horses and a colony of dogs chained to their personal houses on the lawn, feels the mysterious context of the place. He thinks maybe it was a Union soldier who died in the house, though when he offers this detail he gives us a look that says he really doesn’t know for sure. It’s like he picked up a discarded note from the ground and read it aloud to us. The guy we later meet who is demolishing the field cabins describes Georgiana as “the haunted house” and says there was once a sister house, built by the same builder in the 1820s, which his great aunt lived in but which was destroyed by a tornado in 1971. That would be the sum total of our knowledge, were it not for google.
Fortunately, some records survive, though they can only hint at the breadth of the story. First of all, the records indicate that Georgiana = George + Anna, as in: George and Anna Hunt, the original owners. Members of the Hunt family were large slaveholders in antebellum Mississippi – George’s father, David Hunt, a New Jersey native, reputedly owned 24 Mississippi plantations (some of which he received through Spanish land grants in the late 1700s) and 1,000 slaves; he was among a group of area slaveholders who participated in a repatriation project for freed slaves in the 1840s that led to the creation of the nation of Liberia, in West Africa, part of which is still known as Mississippi in Africa, which, coincidentally, is the subject of my second book.
George and Anna had several plantations of their own, one of which was Georgiana, where, during the Civil War, the noteworthy death occurred. According to the records, a large group of freed slaves banded together after the fall of Vicksburg in 1863 to seek vengeance against slaveholders, and moved up Deer Creek on their rampage. At Georgiana they murdered the plantation overseer, who is identified only as “Mr. Johnson,” which reportedly made it difficult for the Hunts to find another white overseer for years after. Apparently “the last one was murdered by angry former slaves” was not an attractive detail of the job posting. There is also a reference to “a slave trader Hunt frequently did business with” – a freighted phrase, if ever there was one, and a Works Progress Administration interview with a former slave, Cyrus Bellus, who said, “My father’s master was David Hunt. My father and mother both belonged to him. They had the same master… They belonged to the Hunts.” Reading this casts Georgiana in a different, glaring, light.
The house has had more than a minor role in the area’s history, and that history encompasses more than its venerable ruins: Behind Georgiana is a row of identical, 1970s-era worker houses lined up along the road like a later incarnation of slave quarters, most of which are likewise abandoned. In short, all the evidence of the area’s human history, conflicted as it is, is fading away.
Fortunately, there are exceptions. After departing Georgiana, Chad and I continue to Rolling Fork, where we visit Mont Helena, a later plantation house that is being restored by my friend Drick Rodgers, and which is the antidote to the Delta’s pervasive sense of ruin. Mont Helena is an over-the-top wedding cake of a mansion, built irreverently atop an Indian mound so that it commands a stunning view of its plantation fields, which encompass thousands of acres. You would never guess it now, but Mont Helena also descended into ruin -- its roof partially collapsed, with trees growing through the walls -- before Drick decided to reverse the process. He’s been working on it for a few decades now, sinking a bundle of money into it, ensuring that something of the past survives, though he has no desire to live in the house himself. Drick is also restoring an old African-American church not far from the house.
Another notable remnant has been preserved in the Delta National Forest, where a stand of ancient cypress trees at Sky Lake Brake is now a state natural area. The old trees, remnants of the Delta's original architecture, are also on our agenda today, though in the end we can't reach them because the water is too high. Climatologists have studied the cypresses of Sky Lake to determine ancient weather patterns, using core sample growth rings that indicate the oldest of them are 2,500 years old. I saw the old trees years ago, and marveled that they survived in a region where every arable acre has been cleared for agriculture for miles around. But like Mont Helena, Sky Lake's cypresses are only relics. Their preservation goes against the grain. And it's vulnerable, old Georgiana that sticks with Chad and me for the rest of the day, perhaps because it illustrates just what is being lost -- the fuller context of the story. Standing atop the widow’s walk of Mont Helena, four stories above the Indian mound, I ask Chad which house he’d want if he could choose between Mont Helena and Georgiana.
“No doubt about it,” he says. “I’d choose Georgiana.”