Tuesday, February 22, 2011
After posting Facebook pictures of the purple wildflowers that currently blanket the fields around Holly Grove, my home in rural Mississippi, a friend asked me their name. I’m sure any self-respecting naturalist would recognize them immediately, because they’re common, but I’ve never heard anyone call them anything and I didn’t find them in my grandmother’s dog-eared Golden Nature Guide to Familiar American Wildflowers, the reference to which is about as deep in that vein as I typically go. It was several weeks before the subject came up in conversation and two friends simultaneously blurted out "henbit." As in hen + bit.
I’ve seen what I now know to be henbit before – they’re weeds, more or less, but never in such profusion, and there’s a touch of magical realism in their magnificent, unexpected flowering this spring. One day it’s bleak and wintry; the next, a landscape painter’s dream, or a really good trip on acid. It would be possible to glance out a car window and see only a stereotypical, calendar-worthy scene, but I can also imagine the flowering as a prop in some old-time legend -- how the world turned lavender around some noteworthy event. The individual plants look a little like mint, and the flowers themselves appear insignificant up close, exerting their presence only en masse, when their color may change from purple to pink or blue, depending on the light.
If you’re prone to such musings, as I obviously am, it’s reasonable to consider this proliferation in scientific terms, perhaps even as an outgrowth of climate change -- of a specific set of meteorological circumstances that enabled the plants to flower on such a grand scale, at the expense of something else that normally consumes their space. The weather has undoubtedly been unusual of late. First there was last summer’s relentless drought, when the temperatures were in the hundreds for two months straight, followed by an unusually, enduringly hot autumn that collapsed into a notably sustained and bitter winter, which deposited snow and ice seven or eight times in a region that normally sees it only once every five years or so. We’ve been in the grips of a climatic free-for-all for the last year that illustrates, more graphically than usual, the shifting tides of temperature-mixing on our wobbly planet.
Continuing in that tend, the infamous winter receded in mid February as abruptly as it had begun, like a retreating jet stream tsunami, and the world once again turned unusually warm, and has remained so for a suspiciously long period. A sustained south wind at first brought slightly warmer yet still cool air that had previously been driven toward the equator, and after that came the familiar, muggy air of the Gulf of Mexico. It is logical to envision tornadoes ahead, as accompanied the abrupt transition from autumn to winter, and to suspect that cold still lurks in the wings, waiting for its unwitting victims to grow complacent and plant tomatoes. But for now, we have the caress of deserved warmth, and the unexpected majesty of purple fields.
Friday, February 11, 2011
In the late seventies, on a remote road in the Mississippi Delta, I came upon an old dowager of a house standing in a cottonfield that must have stretched over a thousand acres. The rambling, one-story structure, with four tall chimneys, was almost hidden within a grove of formal gardens that had long since gone wild. It looked like a verdant island in a sea of dirt.
Beyond the house the paved road surmounted the Mississippi River levee and turned to gravel. It was a seldom-traveled route, even by the standards of Issaquena County, which holds the distinction of not having a single traffic light within its boundaries. Issaquena is the most sparsely populated county in the state, with only 1,500 residents, and is so isolated and quiet that you could practically picnic in the middle of the levee road without worrying about passing cars. Houses are few and far between, so the old one near the levee exerted a stronger presence than it might have elsewhere, assuming anyone noticed it there, enshrouded in greenery.
The area where the house stood is known as Brunswick, though the name is found only on old maps. There is no sign, no place of business nor any of the other markers of a conventional community. It would be easy to pass through Brunswick and not know you’d been there, just as it would be easy to pass the old house without seeing it. Outwardly, Brunswick is just another forgotten corner of the lowest region of the low-lying Delta. Tangled forests of willow and cottonwood form a ragged cushion between the levee and the river, while on the protected side, broad, empty fields stretch unbroken for miles, bordered only by the distant tree line of Steele Bayou.
The landscape appears uniformly flat to the untrained eye, but stop the car, peer down the long, straight cotton rows, and it’s possible to detect subtle changes in elevation. The land rises and falls a foot or two over the course of perhaps a mile, like the gentle swelling of a placid sea, and those rises and falls are crucial when high water comes, which happens often. High water is both the bane of local residents and the reason they’re there: Seasonal overflows invade homes and submerge crops while depositing the nutrient-rich sediments that are responsible for the remarkably high fertility of the soil. That’s what Issaquena County is known for, really: Rich dirt, and floods. The water may come from above or below, dispersed by rivers and bayous that can flow in either direction, from the hills of north Mississippi, drained by the Yazoo River, or from Pennsylvania or Minnesota, via the Mississippi.
It would be logical to think that the most flood-prone land would be there beside the big river, where the old house stood, but the opposite is true. Before protective levees were built the floods dumped their load of sand and sediment just beyond the overtopped riverbanks, where the currents spread out and slowed. Over eons, the deposits formed what locals refer to, without a touch of irony, as ridges, where the topsoil may be as much as 60 feet deep. During all but the most catastrophic floods, the old house would have stood atop an actual low island in an actual, temporary inland sea. No doubt it had provided refuge for many people – from floods, from the blistering sun and heat, from the labor of others, including the slaves who toiled in the fields, and from the myriad incursions and erosive forces of time.
I spent a lot of time in Issaquena County when I was growing up, visiting my grandparents’ house on Steele Bayou, which doubled as the clubhouse for the Ten Point Deer Club. Their house stood only about 15 miles from Brunswick, but culturally was much farther away. Back then, reaching Ten Point was an adventure in our family station wagon, requiring us to traverse a series of narrow washboard roads and to cross the Yazoo on a ferry that consisted of a small barge pushed by a single-engine johnboat, where our tires splashed in the edge of the river on either side. Once we crossed the river the road turned to dirt, or mud, and presented two choices: Turn right, into the wilderness, where my grandparents lived, or left, toward the open, comparatively high country bordered by Eagle Lake and the Mississippi River levee – the only region in the United States still identified in atlases as having a solely plantation-based economy. Brunswick had always been, and was still, firmly rooted in the latter world.
My grandmother grew up in the plantation culture of the upper Delta, but she and my grandfather were drawn to wild places and chose to live in a stilted house on the banks of the swampy bayou, where frequent inundation had its benefits, in that it prevented the land from being cleared, preserving its primeval forests of impenetrable canebrakes and towering, moss-draped trees, and with them, the wildlife that once characterized all of the Delta, including alligators, panthers and bear. When high water came, as it did every year, and sometimes more than once a year, the only way to come and go was by boat. They lived that way until they were old, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers condemned their property for a new levee and floodgate, both of which were designed – unsuccessfully, as it turned out – to enable the drainage and clearing of the remaining lowlands for agriculture. Large scale farming was the great source of power in the Delta back then, and had been for more than a century.
My family never traveled in the direction of Brunswick on our weekend jeep and boat rides, choosing instead to explore the wilderness, which seemed to go on forever. So on that day back in the seventies when I got my first glimpse of the old house by the levee, I was entering new territory. By then a new highway had been built, with modern bridges, to replace the ferry and the network of circuitous roads. Traveling along it, I passed through the remnants of the old, forested lowlands and observed thousands of acres of massive trees that had been pushed into windrows that were, at that moment, being burned. It reminded me of pictures I’d seen of the clearing of rain forests in South America. The priceless, old-growth timber had not even been salvaged, which represented a staggering waste, especially considering that so much of the newly cleared land remained too flood-prone to successfully farm, and in the years since has been replanted in trees. But that is the Delta for you. Its history is exploitive, and in a sense the recent destruction of the old house at Brunswick is a manifestation of that. Here and there a few historic houses have been meticulously preserved, and small natural preserves survive intact, but the Delta’s history is largely about taking what you can and getting out. In the days of slavery, and later sharecropping, great wealth was produced there, counterbalanced by stunning poverty. Now the whole place is dying. Large chunks of vacant land are owned by absentee landlords.
My memory of the house in Brunswick is hazy, like a Google Earth image that grows less sharp as you zoom in, so that the closer you get the more frustratingly indistinct it becomes. I knew from the architecture that it was very old, and I wanted to see it up close, but something about its setting – the shroud of greenery, the presence of the farm complex beside it -- deterred me from further investigation.
The grove in which the house stood was a bramble of cherry laurels and crepe myrtles beneath a canopy of old magnolias and oaks. In memory, or perhaps in my imagination (the two have become well acquainted over time, and occasionally exchange stories), there was an old Buick Electra in the carport out back -- one of the vehicles of choice for the requisite old ladies who were usually the last to call such places home. You encountered similar scenes all over the Delta back then – unpretentious yet commodious country houses occupied by aging women with lovely accents who’d grown up in a world of relative privilege, who were close to their help yet always kept them in their place, who traveled to Europe or New England in summer, who thought nothing of driving 30 miles on gravel roads to a party that lasted for three days, and who eventually ended up living alone, amid their finery, in the middle of nowhere. There was a certain romance to this, though it no doubt looked far different from the tenant-house side.
I didn’t know it then, but the old house by the levee anchored what was known as Altorf Plantation, the name an apparent allusion to a French town, in Alsace, the connection with which I do not know. The house had been added onto many times, and had galleries facing in many directions – one, toward what was once the Mississippi River, the others, toward the fields. By the time I saw it, it was visually dwarfed by the agribusiness complex beside it, and in fact it was destined to be trounced by it.
Owing to the vagaries of commerce and history, Brunswick has become more remote and marginal over time, even as transportation routes have improved. Everything has gotten bigger, faster and less local. Anyone who lives in the Delta is accustomed to relative isolation, but the increasing closure of stores and the abandonment of homes and churches and even entire small towns has had the effect of lengthening distances. Perhaps as a consequence, when the last old lady died or moved out of Altorf, no one else moved in.
I had forgotten about the old house until my friend Chad Coutch took me there, recently, to salvage an old smokehouse. By then the old lady, her gardens and the house itself were gone. The physical structure and its verdant setting had been the last to go, having been bulldozed only a few months before – shockingly late, considering the heightened value of historic places today, and given that the house was both architecturally distinct and structurally sound. I later found that it had been razed by a descendant of the original builder, whose grandmother and mother had occupied it, and who had himself lived in it for a time.
Few people outside the immediate environs know about Altorf now. It was fully hidden toward the end, right up to the moment that its owner presided over its hurried destruction. It is not even documented among the hundreds of old-house files at the state Department of Archives and History. When I queried my historic preservation sources, none had heard of it. One of them said she had passed that way many times – recently, in fact, and was unaware the house was there. Not surprisingly, considering all that, there was no outcry when the landowner decided to tear the place down, which is not to say that no one lamented its passing.
“I walked through it not that long ago,” observed Lou Parker, who has lived perhaps a half-mile away from Altorf all his life, and whose mother Melba, at 90, lives in a neighboring house that was built in the 1840s and has been moved twice to save it from the encroaching Mississippi River. “The thing I noticed,” Parker said, “is that it didn’t have one leak in it, nowhere. The floors were solid. The foundation was good. All it needed was some work on the porches.”
The salvagers from Jackson who were called in to haul away Altorf’s 32 doors and its windows and shutters also noted the soundness of the structure, as did the man who operated the track-hoe used to knock it down. Both the salvagers and the track-hoe operator were moved to snap photos of the house before the end. No doubt other photos are tucked away in a trunk in someone’s attic, but for an interested passerby the deathbed scenes are all that’s left to augment hazy memories and unsatisfying aerial photographs, to evoke what turns out to be a storied past.
The Brunswick community name shows up on historic and contemporary topographic maps, as does the abandoned Brunswick cemetery and the abandoned Brunswick Landing on the abandoned Mississippi River channel, which later changed course and moved away. On most maps the name is placed directly over the site of the Altorf house, which initially led me to conclude that it had anchored Brunswick Plantation. Since so little was known about it, I might have persisted in that belief were it not for Lou Parker, whose mother’s house (known locally as the old Gwin place) had starred in that particular role. Brunswick, the house and plantation, was originally owned by a Revolutionary War veteran named James Gwin, along with three of his sons, one of whom went on to become the first U.S. senator for California. The house, like Altorf, was visited by Union soldiers during the Civil War. While the Parkers and their antecedents have doggedly protected the Gwin place, there’s now nothing left of Altorf other than scattered debris, the last of which was, when Chad and I were there, waiting to be loaded into a truck and hauled to the dump. The scorched earth of the house site was too saturated with rain for the equipment to operate, which bought us a little time.
Chad and I, who share a particular love of old buildings, arrived at Altorf on a winter day when a cold north wind howled, unchecked, across the wide open fields. Chad said the track-hoe operator, a friend of his, had told him that he’d walked through the vacant rooms of the old house, presumably to judge its stress points, while waiting for the salvagers to haul away what they could, given the landowner’s impatience to have the house gone. Perhaps some of the older residents of the area had seen the trucks hauling away the darkened beams and architectural ornaments and thought: Well, there something else goes.
Having seen Altorf only briefly, and obliquely, back in the seventies, and being curious about it, I felt both saddened and provoked by its destruction. For that matter, I felt saddened and provoked by the fact that I was saddened and provoked. Wasn’t there enough to worry about, without pining over a house with which I had no connection, which was irrevocably gone? Why, I wondered, did I so quickly become obsessed with peering into the past, at a house that wasn’t there?
While driving with Chad on another recent old-house outing, to the near-ruins of a place known as Prospect Hill Plantation, I had wondered aloud why people like us care so much about old houses and barns, about where some sunken old trace road had originally run. In response, Chad just shook his head and said he sometimes asks himself the same question, as does his wife. We’re hopelessly attracted to the visuals of the past, to the binding of so much human energy in physical structures, and to the stories those structures have hosted over time.
In the case of Prospect Hill, the old house alluded to a saga about a Revolutionary veteran who had freed his slaves in his will, stipulating that the plantation be sold and the money used to pay the way for those among them who chose to immigrate to a freed slave colony on the west coast of Africa, in Liberia, 30 years before American emancipation. The heirs had contested the will, not wanting to give up the largesse of human chattel, much less the proceeds of a lucrative plantation, and during a decade of litigation a slave uprising had led to the burning of the original Prospect Hill house, the death of a young girl and the lynching of about a dozen slaves. Remarkably, the Mississippi Supreme Court eventually affirmed the will, and more than 300 freed slaves immigrated to Liberia, where, more than a century later, the subjugation of the indigenous tribes resulted in a bloody civil war. So it was that my love of old houses, old artifacts and old stories landed me in the middle of an African civil war, searching for clues to how the past and present are intertwined. I found them, too, and the result was my second book, Mississippi in Africa. In short, my interest in such places, and the stories they embody, is more than passing.
Even a seemingly forgotten place harbors such telling clues about life in any time, and as time passes, they are often all we have. Perhaps that’s part of why growing old is such a challenge: You watch the clues you’ve discovered during a lifetime begin to fade, and wonder what clues you may have missed that are now gone, which is why written and physical records matter.
I sometimes wish I didn’t care so much about such things. I live in a house cluttered with the mementoes of two hundred years of family history, having descended from a line of people who love to tell stories, who find props useful, and who generally don’t get rid of anything. My grandparents on both sides had sheds and attics full of things from their grandparents’ sheds and attics, and I have followed suit. With this has developed a feeling of responsibility even for the unseen houses of dead people whom I never knew. I occasionally fantasize about living a less fettered life, perhaps in an austere, modern dwelling, acquiring nothing that could not be easily replaced, where I might drift like a neutral particle through the chaotic collection and dispersal of energy that we call life. It sounds intriguing until I see something of value that’s threatened with destruction and feel the familiar, inevitable urge to save it. Meaninglessness may hold certain charms, and beauty may be found inside sparsely furnished rooms and in empty Delta fields, but once you know what once was there, it’s hard to see the emptiness as romantic or, for that matter, unfettered. It feels like an affront. Even if it were possible for me to shed my sense of responsibility for the past, I hope I wouldn’t confuse freedom with a license to be reckless, or thoughtless, which is how I have come to characterize the destruction of Altorf. For all I know the landowner is a decent guy, but from the vantage point of the ravaged site he appears to be an agent of the destruction and dispersal of a great deal of collected energy from the past.
Chad had learned of the razing from the track-hoe operator, by which point the house was already gone, though a few hand-hewn beams had been left behind and the remaining outbuildings were scheduled to be bulldozed and so were available. Chad is in the process of restoring an old house of his own, as well as a sharecropper cabin nearby, and has completed the renovation of the old smokehouse. He also has plans for the empty commissary building, and has his eyes on an 1840s cottage a few miles away that will likely fall to neglect unless he hires house-movers to transport it to his place. He therefore jumped at the chance to dismantle and reconstruct the weathered smokehouse at Altorf, after which he turned his attention to the outbuilding beside it, which appeared to be a combination carriage house and livery stable.
I share Chad’s penchant for performing architectural triage and occasional donor transplants, having dismantled, moved and reconstructed my own house, which was originally built in 1832, to save it from falling in. I also dismantled and rebuilt a slave quarters that was slated to be torn down, as well as a log corncrib from the same era that faced the same fate. Such endeavors are rooted in more than the appreciation for rare, ancient wood, or lost craftsmanship, or architecture, or even the stories the buildings evoke. It’s also about trying to exert a measure of control over that process of collecting and dispersing energy, and of wanting to be aligned with the positive forces against the countervailing trends. Whether cause or effect, people like Chad and me are prone to judge those whom we see as representing the countervailing forces. As we pried loose the old heart-cypress boards from the smokehouse at Altorf, our conversation frequently turned to the subject of the landowner -- at once our nemesis and our provider -- and why he’d interrupted a story that had been unfolding for 160 years and might have continued to unfold for decades, even centuries more. I suppose we could have found out, but I had no desire to call the guy. It didn’t really matter now, anyway.
The destruction of Altorf was an oddly defiant gesture, considering there’s so little money in farming today and that the house was historic and in sound condition. Perhaps the landowner was tired of watching the house deteriorate, and didn’t want to spend the money to repair it. Perhaps he’d have rather had the money derived from selling the salvage, and from opening a half-acre more land to cultivation. Perhaps he saw Altorf as an attractive nuisance, which could result in a lawsuit. None of which seemed to justify its destruction. But then, I was raised a Baptist, as was Chad, which means that no matter how far we may stray from our religious upbringings, we will always tote that formative, self-righteous zeal inside us. It was none of our business, obviously – the house belonged to someone else who had a right to do with it as he wished, but it concerned us just the same, because he had broken the chain. As a result, in addition to helping save what was left, I felt obliged to piece together Altorf’s history, to at least compile a documentary record of what had been and never more would be. During my quest to uncover the identity of the house that I now know was Altorf, I also pieced together the remarkable history of the Gwin place, basically, by mistake.
Altorf was not the sort of grand mansion typically featured in tourist brochures. It was a spacious, airy and somewhat quirky country house that had evolved over time, its architecture tending toward the vernacular, as the architectural historians say. There were three different types of cypress siding, the result of additions over the years, and among the thousands of bricks that were strewn about the crime scene, a mixture of soft, orange, slave-made bricks and newer, harder, manufactured ones. Despite the hodgepodge of materials, the house represented a single, organic structure whose narrative had unfolded over many years, during a single family’s occupation, which had ended suddenly, and, to my thinking, unsatisfactorily.
By the time Chad and I arrived, what was left of Altorf was up for grabs, and whatever we didn’t get was going to be lost. Everything, including the stumps and roots of the oaks, magnolias and crepe myrtle trees, was going to be unceremoniously hauled away. So for two days Chad, his father, another friend and I dismantled the two remaining structures, during which I took advantage of every spare moment to poke around the debris piles and cleared ground for relics and clues.
Driving to and from Altorf, I’d been struck by how rapidly the physical reminders of the Delta’s conflicted history are falling by the wayside – the slave and tenant cabins, the plantation houses from both the 19th and 20th centuries, the country stores, churches and juke joints, any one of which could have served as the set for a Faulkner novel or a Tennessee Williams play. There are people like Chad and me who will move such structures to save them, but first someone has to know about them and their endangerment, which was not the case with Altorf. The world is always in flux, and the level of acceptability of whatever change is taking place is naturally subjective. But the ability to accept a change is related to its degree, pace and scale, and it’s hard to see any needless destruction in a positive light. On the road to Brunswick we passed a few substantial houses from the 1970s that had been abandoned, with high water marks on their walls, illustrating a change that was no doubt lamented by some, but which made a kind of sense; clearly, those houses should have never been built where they were. Then we crossed the bridge over the eroded banks of Steele Bayou, where the very site of my grandparents’ house had washed away as a result of the Corps of Engineers’ alterations to the flow of water. Further west, on the higher ground near Eagle Lake, we passed scores of occupied houses, mostly second homes used by weekend hunters and fishermen, but almost all of the historic cabins, which served as reminders of African American history, for better or worse, were gone. No doubt many were glad to see the shacks go, but without them we have only a few photos, and conjecture about the lives of the people who occupied them -- what someone says someone else said. Meanwhile, the Eagle Lake cotton gin had closed, and just across the road, loggers were at work harvesting the massive trees from the remaining woods. Near the Mississippi River levee stood the ugly, unkempt agricultural complex of the modern Altorf farm, alongside the old house site, which looked like the scraped and wounded surface of the past.
Though Chad and I were energized by the need to save what we could of the remaining Altorf outbuildings, the graphic evidence of loss was sobering – the broken bricks, the broken sticks of antique tables and chairs, the broken china, broken bottles, rusty hinges and knives, the scattered magnolia branches and twisted trunks of uprooted crepe myrtles, the crushed swing set. I managed to acquire a few souvenirs, as is my habit, and after I returned home, laid a walkway at my back gate using Altorf bricks, on either side of which I planted perennial bulbs that had been scraped up by the bulldozer on the Altorf lawn. That night I searched the Internet for any information I could find. There wasn’t much, but what was there was intriguing, and the process of cataloguing it lent purpose to my dismay.
I found that a man named Fielding Davis had originally owned Altorf Plantation, which lies partly in Issaquena County and partly in neighboring Warren County. An account posted on an Issaquena County historical site noted that Davis had been born in Kentucky around 1800, had moved with his family to Wilkinson County, Mississippi at a young age, and had bought the land that became Altorf in the 1850s. Davis was a wealthy slave owner and planter in the lower Mississippi River valley, owning property both in the Delta and near Natchez, and had married three times. His first wife was related to Wade Hampton, a Confederate general who owned plantations both in South Carolina and in Issaquena County, where he, along with Davis, was listed among the largest slaveholders. Human slavery is unavoidably an intensively exploitive enterprise, and was a particular source of hardship in the Delta, owing to the vastness of the plantations and the hostility of the environment. On the eve of the Civil War, Issaquena had the highest concentration of slaves of any county in the U.S. -- an astonishing 92.5 percent of its population. More than 7,200 slaves were owned by 587 whites. Of those, Fielding Davis owned 91; Wade Hampton, 249, in addition to 51 listed in Warren County, according to the 1860 census.
Davis, who had been sheriff of Wilkinson County from 1829 to 1834, represented Issaquena County in the state legislature in the 1850s, and had been appointed a U.S. marshal by President Zachary Taylor, who was a personal friend. He was also a colonel in the Mississippi militia. According to the website, he had purchased another large Issaquena County plantation, known as Dunbarton, around 1850, but later lost it to taxes, during Reconstruction. He managed to hold on to Altorf. If I had to guess, I’d say that Altorf was originally a much smaller house, and that it had been greatly enlarged after the Civil War, after Dunbarton was lost, and the Davises made it their primary home.
In addition to being an ambitious man who profited from slave labor, Davis was involved in three duels, in each of which he killed his opponent, according to the website, which identified the doomed rivals as “a Mr. Lee, a lawyer, who attacked Col. Davis with a sword cane; Dr. Moore, Mr. Lee’s brother-in-law; and a Mr. Leigh, the eldest son of Benjamin Watkins Leigh, of Virginia.” The post included several testimonials on Davis’s behalf, including one claiming that he was “as peaceable a man as could be found, and enjoyed a reputation for an amiable temper and affectionate disposition both to friends and relatives, but the fashion of the times and day in which he lived embroiled him in three different duels in which he killed his opponents….” The author of that testimonial noted that no blame was ever “attached” to Davis” because it was generally conceded that he had been forced into the “unfortunate affairs.”
Regarding the shooting of the brother-in-law, which was not technically a duel, a New Orleans attorney, Samuel W. Brandon, wrote that Davis had been attacked during an altercation over the grand jury indictment of a man “for gambling at cards” and had shot Lee after he came at him with the cane-sword. Afterward, Brandon added, cryptically: “Dr. Moore, a brother-in-law of Lee, was for some cause challenged by Fielding Davis.” Thus ensued the next contest, a rifle duel in which Brandon’s father served as Davis’s second. Davis shot Moore just above the left hip, severing a femoral artery, according to Brandon, who wrote of Davis: “He was a gentleman of the old school. I never saw him wear other than a ruffled bosom shirt. He was not only genial, but jovial. He was full of life and a great practical joker, but when he gave offense was prompt to make ‘intent cordial,’ so much so that he was regarded as timid; but when occasion demanded he was glorious.”
The Civil War later brought Davis down a few notches, not only because his side lost and his fortunes evaporated, but because the house at Altorf was looted by Union troops. Lou Parker recounted how “the lady of the house,” whose name he did not recall, was home alone when the soldiers arrived, during what was known as the Bayou Expeditions, part of the famous (or infamous, depending on which side you were on) Vicksburg Campaign, which was among the most crucial and dramatic episodes of the war. Vicksburg commanded a high bluff overlooking a horseshoe bend of the Mississippi River, which meant that its cannons could fire on enemy vessels repeatedly as they twice passed before the city. Vicksburg was considered impregnable, and its Confederate fortifications had brought commerce and Union troop transports to a standstill along the river. Among his many efforts to capture the city, Union Gen. U.S. Grant undertook the failed Bayou Expeditions, whereby he planned to approach Vicksburg from the labyrinth of swamps on its Delta side. Because Brunswick Landing, on what was then known as Eagle Bend, offered an easy access point to the Delta just upriver from Vicksburg, Altorf and other local plantations were overrun by Union troops numerous times during the winter of 1862 and 1863 and the following spring. According to Parker, the woman at Altorf had watched helplessly as the Yankees “stole all the chickens and everything they could put their hands on,” yet she managed to pull the posts of one of her four-poster beds from a bonfire the soldiers had built, which she later had repaired and returned to the bedroom. Parker recalled seeing the bed and said it still bore burn marks from the fire.
Parker does not know what became of the bed, but he observed that the family removed the remaining furnishings from the house before it was taken down. He said the house itself had been modernized very little, aside from early additions – something borne out by photographs taken by Anthony Jones, who works for the Jackson salvage company that hastily stripped Altorf of its doors and windows. The house had not been continuously occupied for decades, though Parker said the current landowner had lived there for a year or so after he got out of law school, and that his mother had maintained it as a weekend retreat after her own mother, the last full-time resident, died. Parker remembered the house as having once been owned by a man named Hampton Davis, a descendant of Fielding’s.
A few more details began to emerge in the days after. I went by the salvage company where Anthony Jones works and looked over the doors, shutters and windows, which he said were all they could get because they had only four or five hours before the house was coming down. This struck him as odd, because so much valuable material was subsequently destroyed. Anthony said he saw water marks on a doorway from the great flood of 1927 -- something the track-hoe operator also mentioned, which indicated the house wasn’t elevated quite high enough for that epic overflow. He said he was told that the woman who lived there, known only as Mrs. Davis, and who was apparently the last full-time resident, had climbed onto a piece of furniture to stay above the water, which was waist-deep in the house, and waited several days before being rescued by boat. Later she had the house cleaned out and repaired, and moved back in. Chad said his father knew a cattle buyer who frequently visited Altorf on business years ago and said Mrs. Davis was extremely hospitable, always insisting that he stay for lunch.
Hearing such stories, I wished for more about Altorf’s later history, but the best remaining source – Melba Parker – is losing her memory, according to her son. “She knows everything about that house,” he said. “She could tell you if you caught her on a good day.” Which is something I hope to be able to do. Melba Parker, for that matter, has her own stories to tell, not only about her family’s historic home, but about living on the unprotected side of the Mississippi River levee, and having taught in a one-room schoolhouse on nearby Australia Island, where she picked up all eight grades in her pickup truck and also cooked them lunch.
But for now, I was focused on Altorf. Trudging through the mud of the house site, I found mostly rudimentary clues to what had been there -- rusty door locks, bits of broken slate, a shred of wallpaper, an old, busted Stetson hat, a large, rusty knife. When I eventually satisfied myself that I had found everything that could be easily found, Chad and I loaded a few relics and the building components aboard his trailer and headed home.
Along the way we passed an antebellum mansion facing Eagle Lake that is said to have been used as a Union hospital during the war, and which had been carefully restored, as well as the lakeside home of the former actor Jan-Michael Vincent, whose life went tragically off the rails long ago as a result of substance abuse, and who had somehow found his way there. A great many interesting stories had transpired, and continue to transpire, in the area, but the evidence of one of the more interesting ones was now gone.
In service to my obsession with chronicling the history of the lost house, I later found a few letters posted on a genealogical site, as well as a brief item in the Oct. 27, 1910, Vicksburg Evening Post which announced, grandly, “Hampton Davis, Brunswick planter, is in the city.” In one of the letters, dated Feb. 7, 1882, from Altorf Plantation, a woman named Lettie Davis wrote to her sister: “I have my home on my plantation, & so we lead rather a quiet life…” She noted that her son Hampton was managing the plantation, and that he was “a good & dutiful son, a noble man, & a great comfort to me…” Reading that, I wondered what Lettie Davis would think of the destruction of her beloved home, and by one of her descendants, no less.
A friend in Vicksburg whose son introduced her to Altorf many years ago, during a brief trespassing episode, said the value of such places sometimes extends beyond those who are directly related to them. Altorf may have been an abandoned house in an overgrown grove of trees, but it summoned something in the salvager and the track-hoe operator, in Chad and me, and in my Vicksburg friend, Charley Gholson, who said she visited the house only that one time, during a period when her son and his friends occasionally went to parties there. The place was locked up that day and she had to resign herself to peering through the windows on her tiptoes. Charley is not above sneaking into vacant buildings, owing to her compelling interest, and told me that back when she lived in Texas she used the same line over and over if she got caught someplace where she wasn’t supposed to be: “I’m looking for the entrance to the Laguna Art Museum. Can you help me find it?” She conceded the line probably would not have worked at Altorf, but in hindsight it seems unlikely that anyone would have cared, either way. The house at that time was sparsely furnished, Charley said. “This was years ago, and I don’t think anybody went out there much. It wasn’t a particularly fancy house, but it was a real interesting house.”
And indeed, it was.
In the end, it’s not possible to preserve everything. Precious little of what we treasure today will be around in a thousand years. But we’re all part of a continuum, passing things along, sharing our cumulative memory of events that are, if we’re lucky, linked to things that we can see, touch and smell, even if those things have to be observed or felt on tiptoe, while trespassing on someone else’s land. Without the physical evidence, we’re reduced to passing through a lonely landscape without a trace, with nothing to illustrate what came before us, and which might instruct us on what lies ahead.
A traveler on the road through Brunswick today would notice nothing noteworthy, other than an expanse of thousand-acre farm fields, including one that’s punctuated by a few broken bricks, and includes a half-acre of open land that wasn’t there before.
Photo courtesy Anthony Jones. For more photos of Altorf: www.alanhuffman.tumblr.com