New book focuses on people, architecture of Wilkinson County
When Ernesto Caldeira moved to Woodville in 1971 to restore Rosemont Plantation, the former soap opera producer found himself surrounded by stories that could easily be made for television.
“I was very much in a make-believe world and story-telling world that examined people and their motives because that’s what soap operas are all about,” said Caldeira, who grew up in New England and now lives in Woodville and New Orleans’ historic French Quarter. “And as soon as I moved down to Woodville and got involved with all these people associated with plantations, I realized they had these amazing stories.”
The people, plantations and architecture of Wilkinson County eventually wound up being the focus of a book on which Caldeira would spend nearly eight years — “The Plantation World of Wilkinson County, Mississippi — 1792-2012.”
The hard cover, 312-page book includes details of the area that was once part of the early Mississippi Territory and was the center of a sophisticated plantation culture in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
The book tells the stories of 50 plantations and highlights many others as they are in present time.
“We wanted to make a book that someone 100 years from now could look back and get a good snapshot of where the plantation world is now,” Caldeira said. “We didn’t want to presume we could reconstruct the 19th century or tell anyone what it was like in 1840.
“We’d rather tell you what it was like in 2012 and 2013.”
Caldeira, who has listed and sold many plantations from Natchez to New Orleans as a Realtor for 25 years with Dorian Bennett Sotheby’s International Realty, worked on the project with Stella M. Pitts, a native of Clarksdale and a former news reporter and features writer for The Times-Picayune in New Orleans.
Caldeira said the idea for the book came from being a part of the Woodville Civic Club — a preservation group that has restored two landmark buildings on the courthouse square in Woodville — and seeing the group’s push to document as much of the area’s history as possible.
“We’ve done journals on cemetery records to marriage records to an index on the 240 buildings on the historic register,” Caldeira said. “Through the years, we had talked about creating one on the plantations in the area.
“Right after Hurricane Katrina, I spoke to Stella Pitts and asked her if she’d be interested.”
The authors spent nearly three years laying down the foundation for the book.
“About two or three years into the project, we changed the name of the book to encompass more than just the plantations,” Caldeira said. “We realized we might have narrowed the focus because indeed it is about the plantations, but it’s about a lot more than that.”
One of the main objectives Caldeira and Pitts attempted to achieve with the book was telling the untold stories of the plantations and their inhabitants.
“We didn’t want to repeat any information in this book that had already been printed in other books,” Caldeira said. “Therefore, we tried to attack it from a different vantage point each time.”
James Alexander Ventress, for example, was born at La Grange plantation near Woodville.
An influential figure in Mississippi history, Ventress eventually chaired the educational finance committee in the House of Representatives and in 1840 introduced a bill to create the University of Mississippi.
La Grange planation burned at the turn of the century, Caldeira said, but Ventress family members still own the property — including several pieces of original furniture and portrait paintings that once hung on the walls inside the house.
“We have drawings of the original house and all those kinds of things in the book,” Caldeira said. “Those things are what we wanted to include instead of repeating the same information again.”
The book includes 450-500 photos and illustrations including many portraits of prominent early Wilkinson County citizens, including Confederate President Jefferson Davis, three early Mississippi governors and General James Wilkinson.
The Woodville Civic Club sponsored the book and all of the proceeds will benefit the preservation efforts of the group.
The book, which costs $65, will be available at local bookstores starting Monday, online at historicwoodville.com or by contacting the club at 601-888-7151.