Friday, March 25, 2011
It was something like a Google Earth image, circa 1840: A bird’s eye schematic of Nitta Yuma Plantation, in the Mississippi Delta, showing the arrangement of two neighborhoods of slave quarters, cabin by cabin, as well as barns, cemeteries, roads, stream crossings and the all-important cotton fields, each of which was hatch-marked to indicate the direction the long rows ran.
The map, undated but obviously drawn before the Civil War, had been discovered by consultants surveying historical sites that lay in the path of a project to four-lane U.S. 61. It delineated the physical world of antebellum Nitta Yuma in a way that was both illuminating and bewildering. Seeing it projected onto a screen in the Old Capitol museum, during the Mississippi Historical Society’s recent annual meeting, I found myself wanting to zoom in on that line of slave cabins to see who and what was there.
The map predated the construction of the big house, so it was clear that its fields, footpaths and slave cabins constituted the original core of what is now the community of Nitta Yuma. The Delta was wild country before the Civil War, with most of the development taking place along remote lakes, bayous and rivers. The cabins of Nitta Yuma, all of the same size and configuration, were surrounded by sprawling fields, beyond which lay wilderness marked as “heavy timber” or canebrakes, which were the province of alligators, panthers and bear. Planters and their families typically maintained primary residences elsewhere, to avoid fevers and pestilent mosquitoes, but the slaves who lived in those little sketched squares weren’t so lucky. They had to learn to make do. Unfortunately, much of how they went about making do, along with the typically rudimentary and ephemeral evidence of their lives, has been lost to history. The majority of what was recorded and preserved relates to the master class. For that reason my first thought, upon seeing the map, was to wonder what might be left of the world it described.
As it turns out, there are a good many reminders of the past in present-day Nitta Yuma – enough, in fact, to fill several museums. Among them is one survivor from the map’s epoch: A log slave quarters on the banks of Deer Creek, in the vicinity of what was designated therein as the “lower quarters.” The cabin, like seemingly everything else in and around Nitta Yuma today, is owned by the Phelps family, descendants of the original owners, who apparently have not parted with much of anything they’ve ever owned.
I visited Nitta Yuma before a talk in nearby Rolling Fork about my book Sultana, which was part of a series of programs organized by a group known as the Lower Delta Partnership. Meg Cooper, who leads the group, had offered to show me around, and brought with us her daughter Ashley, local resident Lynne Moses, and my old friend Melissa Darden, who’s from the Delta and also works with the partnership, which is trying to find new ways to develop the largely depressed local economy, including capitalizing on its history and musical traditions.
The area, which encompasses communities and towns with such romantic names as Onward, Anguilla, Nitta Yuma, Rolling Fork and Panther Burn, has its share of remarkable historic buildings, and was the setting for President Theodore Roosevelt’s famous bear hunt, in 1902, which led to the creation of the teddy bear.
It was also the birthplace of blues musician Muddy Waters, aka
Our first stop on the day’s tour was Mont Helena, a Colonial Revival mansion that stands on an Indian mound north of Rolling Fork, which is owned by Drick Rodgers, a descendant of the builder who farms the adjacent land.
Mont Helena is an archetypal wedding cake of a house, built around 1900, commanding an impressive view of its 5,000-acre plantation, and is now the focus of an innovative effort by a group known as the Friends of Mont Helena to fund its complete restoration through dinner theater productions.
Mont Helena was built by a woman named Helen Johnstone Harris (known in local lore as the Bride of Annandale) and her husband. It is most often portrayed as her house, because she was one of those larger-than-life southern characters whose personal history is perfectly suited for the kind of stage drama the Friends have put together. Helen, who grew up in the hill country east of the Delta, appears to have led a charmed life before her betrothed (of the Vick family, which founded Vicksburg) was killed in a duel a few days before their intended wedding. As the story goes, the flowers and victuals shipped upriver from New Orleans for the wedding were instead used for Vick’s funeral.
Following her disappointing first engagement, Helen married an Episcopal reverend who was the rector at her family’s church, and moved from Annandale to the Johnstones’ Delta plantation, known as “the Helen Place.” There she made her mark upon the land through Mont Helena, which became not only a showplace (and, considering its site atop a sacred mound, perhaps a temptation to fate) but a notable destination for Delta socializing. The existing house is the second on the site, the first having been lost to fire just before its completion, in the 1890s.
After its heyday, the current structure was converted to apartments, then abandoned, and was very nearly lost to decay. In 1993, Drick began sinking a small fortune into it, not because he wanted to live there but because he felt it was an important icon of local history that should be preserved. By the time he began his restoration, the fourth-floor widow’s walk had collapsed, channeling water and rot through the center of the house, all the way to the basement, and trees had taken root in the walls of some of the rooms. He set about stabilizing the structure and restoring its exterior, after which Mont Helena looked great from a distance, though inside it was a very impressive husk, with all but a few of its interior spaces unfinished; it was possible to walk from room to room through the open, studded walls.
Eventually even the maintenance of the exterior became overwhelming, which is when the Friends of Mont Helena formed and began staging theatrical productions of Harris’s life story, along with dinners in the restored dining room, to raise funds to complete the restoration and put the house to work for a variety of events, including weddings and other formal gatherings. I haven’t attended one of the productions, but from what I hear they are anything but the hackneyed fare of typical dinner-theater. Both the play and the accompanying feast are said to be top-notch. The script was written by Rolling Fork resident Leslie Miller, with a cast that includes three Helens – young Helen, older Helen and dead Helen; all of the actors and understudies are locals. Every event quickly sells out, including all of this year's productions. The maximum capacity is 40 people, each of whom pays $50 plus change. The Friends also offer guided tours of the house, with the option of a boxed lunch or a sit-down dinner. As a side benefit of all the attention being focused on the house, the group has begun conducting tours of other historic sites in the area, and Drick has undertaken the stabilization of an adjacent Africa Methodist Episcopal church, built by Helen for the plantation’s workers.
Drick is an old friend of mine, and Mont Helena has long been one of my stops when I’m in the area, but it was especially nice to see it coming back to life. From Mont Helena we headed north to the community of Nitta Yuma, a collection of historic buildings straddling Highway 61. Most noticeable is the rambling, Greek Revival plantation house known as Cameta, which was moved to its current site by the Phelps matriarch, who had long admired it, wanted to add it to her collection of historic buildings, and oversaw its relocation in 1977, on the day Elvis died. Henry Phelps, whose mother remains the matriarch at 99, showed us around.
No one seemed to think it odd that moving the house had no real purpose other than preserving it, in that the Phelps family already owned the nearby Nitta Yuma Plantation house, which overlooks Deer Creek, as well as three 19th century commissaries (one of which contains a preposterously large collection of dolls) and several other historic buildings, including a carriage repair shop and a cotton gin, all of which are unused.
Just down the creek, there are more historic buildings -- an old cypress barn, the log slave quarters facing the creek, and the impressive ruins of what’s known as Mrs. Crump’s house, which was a peer of Mont Helena before a tree crashed through it during a 1973 storm, and whose survival as a ruin for going-on 40 years is a testament to both the quality of its construction and the durability of cypress wood.
On the day we visited Nitta Yuma, the route of the highway widening project was marked by orange flags and earth movers were digging into the deep alluvial soil on the opposite side of Deer Creek, bisecting the terrain described in the old map. The log slave cabin is presumably the only landmark from the map that remains, though it’s hard to say, in that many of the buildings aren’t documented.
Melissa also showed me an old African American church, now abandoned, the construction date of which is unknown, sagging and hollow-eyed, across from its stark, modern successor. Both churches are known as the Chapel of the Cross – the same name given to the church that Helen Johnstone Harris’s family built at Annandale. Likewise, Henry Phelps’s son is named Vick, in reference to the family’s Vick predecessors, offering one more indication that local history in the south Delta is an intricate, closely-contained web of relations.
It’s almost too much to take in, strolling through the musty rooms. But one impression is clear and resounding: This is a family that has been acquiring things for a very long time, and rarely lets anything go. And you know what? Good for them. So much has been lost elsewhere.
“It was hot as blazes that day,” Lynne recalled, adding that Mrs. Phelps was nonetheless dressed in the full regalia of a southern lady of the era, including various unmentionable structural components that Lynne went ahead and mentioned, and that while everyone else was sweating profusely, she appeared to perspire not one drop. She was a product of a world that has all but vanished, Lynne said, but she did her part to preserve its reminders, even in cases where the reminders were awkward.
As we were touring the commissary, Lynne asked Henry Phelps about a pair of slave shackles she remembered seeing there, and he said they were in a drawer somewhere. He seemed not to want to delve into the subject, but after thinking it over for a moment, added, “What’s really sad is that one pair is small – it was for children.”
Continuing on our walking tour of Nitta Yuma, Phelps said he hopes the buildings can eventually be a part of the historical tours being developed by the Lower Delta Partnership. It’s a pretty good tour, as it is. As we stood before the ruins of the old Crump house, I commented on its surprising integrity, considering its condition, which prompted a local farmer to nod and say, “It’s still hanging in there,” which is something you could say about the south Delta in general, and, for better or worse, about the world described in that old, hand-drawn map.
It should be said that the Lower Delta Partnership’s efforts are decidedly inclusive, and that the Sultana talk at the local library that night was well attended, and by every demographic of the area – black, white, wealthy, poor and middle class, young and old. Looking out at that diverse group, greater Rolling Fork seemed a remarkable community. I wish them the best in holding it together.