Remaining Spring Pilgrimage founder turns 107
Natchez has changed since 1932 when Mary Louise Shields and other members of the Pilgrimage Garden Club opened the first Natchez Pilgrimage Tour, known in the first year as Garden Pilgrimage Week.
But the one thing that has remained constant through the multiple generations of garden club members and houses on tour has been Shields — who will celebrate her 107th birthday Sept 21.
“I think now we’re on the third generation of ladies from those who first started the tours, but (Shields) has been the pin that holds all of it together,” Ruthie Coy said. “Even in the last few years, she would still come to the meetings on occasion to correct us on how it was supposed to be done or offer some good advice.”
Coy, whose family owns Green Leaves and who is a member of the Pilgrimage Garden Club, said she’s known Shields since the day Coy was born.
“She was a close friend of my grandmother, and she told me several years ago that she actually came to see me in the hospital the day I was born,” Coy said. “She’s just remained a family friend ever since then.”
Shields is the last representative of the garden club members who rolled up their sleeves and brought visitors to Natchez for the first Pilgrimage.
Shields, who at the time was Mary Louise Kendall and married to Natchez businessman and civic leader William Kendall, was pivotal in creating the first Pilgrimage and remained an active member of the club years after.
“She’s someone I think we all admire and certainly respect for the work she did to get us where we are today,” said Marsha Colson, who previously served as NPT executive director. “I’ve always admired her and looked up to her.”
The first year Colson served as executive director, Shields came to the first meeting to show her support of the newest director.
“She was well over 100 at that point and the stairs at Stanton (Hall) make everyone huff and puff when they get up there,” Colson said. “The first board meeting I presided over, she walked up those stairs to show support for me, which meant so much.”
Colson said Shields even attended a few meetings after that to give her two cents on matters she didn’t think were handled properly.
“She came to another board meeting a few years ago and said, ‘I know I came to the first board meeting and supported you, but I want you to know I’m not happy with what you’ve done,’” Colson said. “I really appreciated her support and respected her frankness and openness in speaking her mind no matter what.
“It really showed me what a sharp lady she was.”
But Shields had other qualities, such as a being a strong businesswoman, that Colson also appreciated.
Shields began working for Coca-Cola when her husband’s family purchased the franchise.
“She worked for years in the Coca-Cola bottling company and was very involved in running that,” Colson said. “She was a very sharp businesswoman, which made me respect her even more.”
Apart from business, Shields also enjoyed and became involved in politics. For 12 years, she served as Mississippi’s National Democratic Party committeewoman.
Shields met several presidents including Woodrow Wilson, attended presidential inaugurations and White House functions and even hosted two first ladies — Eleanor Roosevelt and Lady Bird Johnson — in Natchez.
Shields began greeting visitors to her home, Montaigne, in the 1930s and later embraced the nickname “the mistress of Montaigne.”
In the antebellum house built in 1855, Shields would often host weekly bridge games for her close friends and family.
“We used to play bridge every Tuesday afternoon, and she was a very good player,” Kate Don Green, who owns Oakland, said. “She and her husband used to play bridge with my mother and father, and I’ve always just been so fond of her.”
But as for any particular stories or conversations around the table during a bridge game, Green couldn’t recall any.
“She was pretty serious about playing bridge, so we didn’t do much talking,” Green said, laughing. “She was very competitive.”