The route to Natchez, Miss. from I-55 is hilly with broad curves through rolling green countryside. An hour and a half pass before a left across the oncoming lanes onto a country road that crosses railroad tracks, makes a sharp right then narrows and turns a sharp left before disappearing into the forest. Following the 42-foot motor home we take our half out of the middle of the road and hope no traffic appears from the other direction.
Cresting a small rise the road descends and seems to disappear, becoming a dirt track carving a domed tunnel under overhanging trees. Narrow and low it is space enough to allow our passage at slow speed without scratching the rigs on low hanging branches.
Finally the track straightens and opens on a broad green lawn ringed with blooming wisteria exploding from thick vines clinging to century and a half old oaks. Azaleas bloom along the drive in pinks, whites and purple. We have arrived at Traveler’s Rest, the oldest working plantation in the county owned by the same family for eight generations. The track splits to form a loop driveway circling a bright green lawn passing in front of a 250-year-old low country house.
Traveler’s Rest’s current occupants, Windell Weeden and Stephen Cook are antique dealers, house restorers and a couple of 22 years. They have restored the house from an abandoned tumble down to much of its original glory and style. Windell and Steve appear in a Restore America segment with Bob Villa sharing the before and after of Traveler’s Rest.
From the house across the green lawn marches the welcoming committee, Windell, Steven, son Mark and two big dogs, Smiley and Curry. Smiley gives me a nosing, a good sniff and then, appropriately a smile. She is an old Southern girl, and graciously welcomes us all to her home.
The low country style house is wide and fronted with a gallery reached by broad plank steps. Edged by floor high hedges and furnished with chairs, side tables, potted plants, a hanging porch swing and dogs; lots of dogs, big dogs, small dogs, old dogs and even one crippled Chihuahua. Above the porch rises a metal roof broken by five deep dormers and topped with four brick chimneys venting 13 fireplaces.
Our dog Buckley quickly becomes part of a pack of eight mutts and is greeted by each before settling on one to dominate. He begins hours of chasing, mounting and generally annoying Coco, a wiry chocolate poodle, much to the amusement of Coco’s Dads who insist that Coco deserves the attention in return for just that sort of behavior directed at the other dogs daily.
Stepping across the threshold into the dogtrot is stepping into a museum furnished and accessorized like few antique stores. Immediately inside is a grand piano under the first of uncounted crystal chandeliers. There is a second chandelier over a marble topped table in the middle of the huge through house room and a third over a seating area on the far side facing mirroring sets of floor to ceiling doors.
Sideboards line the walls, each tastefully, copiously and elegantly filled with vases, photo frames, dishes, bowls, reticulated compotes, cornucopia, clocks, candelabra, statuary, figurines, an astral lamp and oil and gas lamps. The walls are covered with portraits and paintings. Oriental rugs set off areas and busts on pedestals stand positioned marking spaces against narrow walls between doorways. The effect is magical, surreal and elegant.
Moving into the room leads the eye to doorways, two on one side into bedrooms similarly furnished and appointed. A doorway into a sitting room reveals another doorway on its far side, equipped with eight foot high pocket doors, leading into a dining room. From the vantage point of the entry hall, through the sitting room, the dining room easily holds a dual triple leg pedestal dining table surrounded by 10 chairs, with room for more in a pinch. The sitting room and dining room are filled with furnishing and accessories. There seems no end for the eye and I remark that many stores are not so well stocked.
A fourth doorway from the entry hall opens into the kitchen where dinner is being prepared, filling the house and the outdoor gallery as well, with the delicious aromas of cooking. This kitchen is huge, just what one would expect of a plantation house kitchen, with a large island down the middle, counters and appliances along the outside wall and a brick fireplace on the inside. Above the wall lining counters are nine ceiling high, glass front and shelved lighted cabinets filled almost to overflowing with assorted clear and colorful, smooth, etched and cut stems and tumblers. The effect is beautiful and each guest is encouraged to select any vessel, which shall be their happy glass, the glass to be used throughout this visit and on any further visits.
Windell and Steve live in the old plantation house in perhaps the best style of any of it occupants over the centuries. Windell comments that one does not own a plantation house as the house survives generations of occupants whose task it to maintain it for the next. Some do it better than others and for gay men in Mississippi, plantation living provides a respite from local society and a place to gather, socialize and be open. Who better than gay couples to restore and maintain ancient country homes?
Dinner is served in the kitchen and carried into the dining room set for 10; make a plate and sit where you will. The menu is pork roast simmered in the oven for hours, gravy from its drippings, mashed potatoes I watched being made with sour cream, butter and milk, lima beans simmered in bacon fat, southern salad and broiled garlic bread. Fresh Key Lime pie and bread pudding that has been tempting my nostrils for hours is desert and pronounced perfect, as I pronounce my entire meal. Southern cooking is about quantity, family and taste with little or no consideration given to calories.
The evening, as the afternoon, cocktail hour and dinner, is filled with stories of the South, history, personalities, ancestors, old houses and antiques, Civil War and slavery, churches and those who attend them. As evening turns to morning leaving for bed seems a change not worth the cost. Sleep can be had anytime, becoming Southern is but a fleeting moment in time.
Ric and his partner John are on an epic five month RV tour of the U.S. Leaving Florida in March they are crossing the southern tier to the Grand Canyon. In May and June they will visit New Mexico, travel the Mountain West to Flathead Lake in Montana, continue east through Yellowstone to Mt. Rushmore before heading to Cheyenne, Denver and Hot Springs, Arkansas and will return to Florida in August.