Lifelong interest in Indians leads to retiree’s garden project

Published 12:00 am Monday, September 18, 2000

On a narrow asphalt road that seems to loop back over itself in places, a hand-painted wooden sign peeks out from the shade trees over a white board fence — Glen’s Critter Ranch.

If the rare passing motorist overlooks the sign, it’s because he or she is slowing to look at the assortment of American Indian figures and monuments displayed near the road’s edge.

And, chances are, the display’s creator, Glen Blackwell, is somewhere nearby.

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When Blackwell retired from International Paper’s Natchez plant after almost 40 years, he chose to stay active, and much of that activity centers around his Selma Estates property, the &uot;critter ranch.&uot;

&uot;If I couldn’t come out here every day, I guess I’d have to have some kind of pill,&uot; 75-year-old Blackwell said, laughing.

Growing up in Natchez, Blackwell said he has always been intrigued by the area’s American Indian history.

&uot;I’ve always admired the Indians,&uot; he said. &uot;I know they were savage, but they were only doing what they thought was right.&uot;

On an IP business trip in the 1970s, Blackwell visited a plant in Oregon.

Many of the plant’s employees were of Native American ancestry and had built a large totem pole, which was displayed in the plant’s courtyard.

&uot;That just stuck and wouldn’t get out of my head,&uot; Blackwell said.

But, it wasn’t until about a year and a half ago that Blackwell decided to transfer the lingering memory into a &uot;tribute garden&uot; for all American Indians, especially the Natchez tribe.

The garden is a collection of statues, memorials and cacti enclosed within a pebble-surfaced area formed into the shape of a giant arrowhead.

Three flagpoles stand at the arrowhead’s base: the Mississippi state flag, the City of Natchez flag and the Stars and Stripes emblazoned with the bust of an American Indian chief.

The garden’s centerpiece is a custom-made totem pole representing the Natchez tribe.

Blackwell said the colorful pole was made by a man in Texas who does business on the Internet.

Oddly, when Blackwell contacted the man, he found out his wife was an expert on Natchez Indians.

Since acquiring the totem pole, Blackwell has personalized it further with painted symbols of the tribe’s religious beliefs, including the sun, moon, stars, a rainbow and a deer.

&uot;They had no scripture, but they knew there was a divine Being,&uot; Blackwell said.

The totem pole is not the only garden piece with a story. Two hand-painted tributes to the Natchez war chief, the Tattooed Serpent, and the sun god flank the garden’s center.

Both are made of cypress wood Blackwell recycled from pieces used to build boats in Natchez in the 1930s.

The tributes are protected from the elements by wooden shelters crafted by Blackwell. The plaques bearing the war chief and sun god’s names are also recycled from the original steps leading to the pulpit in the First Baptist Church.

Through his travels in Texas and the Southwest, Blackwell has collected more items for his garden.

&uot;When we go out there, I excuse myself and start loafing, looking for Indian things,&uot; Blackwell said.

&uot;If it’s appropriate, I’ll find a place for it,&uot; he said.

Friends and family have also contributed to the collection, and Blackwell said more and more people ask him about his garden each day.

This summer, students from Pleasant Acre Day School visited the garden and critter ranch.

&uot;We had the best time that day,&uot; Blackwell said.

The field trip’s success spurred several ideas, Blackwell said. In the near future, Blackwell said he hopes to have professional photographs of his garden taken and made into post cards to be sold in gift shops along the Natchez Trace Parkway, with the proceeds going to local charities.

Blackwell also plans to contact area schools and offer his garden and property as a field trip destination.

&uot;There’s the Grand Village, but other than that, there’s really not a good place for field trips around here,&uot; he said.

Blackwell said modern Americans can learn much from the American Indians, and he is pleased by the recognition American Indians have received in recent years.

An example of the revived interest in American Indians is the state’s plan to extend the Trace Parkway into Natchez city limits.

Ironically, Blackwell learned two weeks ago that his home on Laurel Avenue is in the path of the extension.

But, Blackwell has chosen not to let the forced displacement affect his outlook on American Indians or life in general.

&uot;We didn’t roll over and play dead,&uot; Blackwell said cheerfully of he and his wife, Nell.

In fact, the task of packing up 46 years worth of memories for the move to a new home has turned out to be fun, Blackwell said.

&uot;We just got busy to cope with it,&uot; he said. &uot;That’s the only thing you can do just make the best of it.&uot;