Women of vision planted tourism roots

Published 12:00 am Thursday, March 22, 2001

Ordinary or extraordinary? Both, really. That is how you would have to describe the spunky garden club members who decided in the midst of a deep economic depression to invite the world to one of the most remote spots in the Deep South to see old houses and less-than-perfect gardens.

Imagine for a moment that you are in 1932 and you consider a trip to Natchez, Mississippi. It’s hard enough to find our little town today, leaving the interstate highways and taking state roads from whichever direction you approach. At least today, though, there are bridges crossing between Natchez and Louisiana. In 1932, those traveling from the west had two choices: take the ferry from Vidalia or go north or south to cross at another place on the river where a bridge existed then.

Rail lines came into Natchez then but there were no regular passenger trains at the time. And an occasional steamboat still might be seen on the Mississippi, but the golden days of the paddlewheels had long ceased to exist.

Yet this handful of determined Natchez ladies believed fervently that history buffs from around the world would fall in love with Natchez if only they would come the first time to see the architectural and other treasures remaining from a long-ago era.

Garden Pilgrimage Week in 1932 launched what is today the Natchez Spring Pilgrimage. Hundreds, not thousands, responded to the invitation to come to the little river city that year. Numbers would grow, however, and predictions for the 2001 season are for many thousands to attend.

It is fitting to remember those pioneers in tourism during the Pilgrimage season and to pay tribute to their vision. Only one of the group is alive today, and she is as devoted to the cause of tourism and as gracious in greeting visitors as ever she was.

She was Mary Louise Kendall when she greeted visitors to her home, Montaigne, in the 1930s. She and her husband, along with her mother-in-law, were among the most influential of Natchez boosters. Like others opening their homes to visitors, the Kendalls also were participants in other economic development activities, helping to woo some of the earliest of the big Natchez industries to set up shop in town.

Now Mary Louise Shields, the mistress of Montaigne is the quintessential Natchez lady and woman. Not only has she spent 65 years keeping house at Montaigne, rearing a family and graciously opening her doors to outsiders; she also has been a businesswoman, operating for many years the family owned Natchez Coca-Cola Bottling Company, and a political activist, serving Mississippi in the mid-20th century as its Democratic Party committeewoman.

In her 95th year of life, she has about her a charm and beauty that any woman would envy. Her eyes sparkle with genuine pleasure when she greets Pilgrimage visitors as they come from the house tour onto the back gallery.

&uot;I hope you really are enjoying everything,&uot; she tells them, rising to her feet to shake hands and often to pose for photographs. &uot;It’s such a pleasure to have you; it’s a joy to share everything with you.&uot;

Indeed, sharing Natchez in all its abundance of history and beauty continues in the life of Mrs. Shields, who carries on in a long and storied tradition as the model of her generation, the Pilgrimage founders. She sets a standard for all who would follow.

Joan Gandy, special projects director, can be reached at 445-3549 or via e-mail at joan.gandy@natchezdemocrat.com