Natchez prepping for annual Pilgrimage tours

Published 12:00 am Monday, March 14, 2005

NATCHEZ &045;&045; Like a pageant queen, Natchez itself is dressing up to the nines to get ready for this year’s Spring Pilgrimage, which starts Saturday and lasts through April 16.

Bettye Jenkins, who has been involved with Pilgrimage since the 1950s, has been busy since early January cleaning and sprucing her antebellum house, Hawthorne, one of the first houses to open Saturday for the event.

&uot;We go room by room and wash the curtains, things like that,&uot; said Jenkins of Hawthorne, where some painting was still taking place earlier this week.

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Pilgrimage, she said, &uot;is something I’ve done for so long I’ve kind of gotten lost in it. Besides, it’s a chance to do some things around the house I wouldn’t normally do.&uot;

But Natchez itself is also doing some things to get its house in order, so to speak.

The city’s Public Works Department is busy mowing thoroughfares such as Seargent S. Prentiss, Liberty Road and the Main Street extension.

&uot;The rain has slowed us down somewhat, but we’ll get it done,&uot; Interim Public Works Director Reggie Carter said Wednesday.

The department is also using inmate and work-release crews to pick up litter downtown and on state rights-of-way, Carter said.

Spring Pilgrimage, featuring antebellum house tours and other entertainments, is one of Natchez’s biggest and longest-running tourism events. Along with the annual Fall Pilgrimage, it attracts thousands of tourists to the area each year.

Pilgrimage and other tourism events, long a large part of the area’s economy, have become even more so in recent years given plant closings and other economic woes.

&uot;It’s one of our biggest economic impact events of the year,&uot; Tourism Director Walter Tipton said.

The event is marketed heavily in Southern Living January through March, as well as in regional magazines throughout the South &045;&045; with a total circulation of 9 million &045;&045; and at a variety of travel trade shows, Tipton said.

The Convention and Visitors Bureau spends more than $38,000 advertising in those three months, with the vast majority of ads promoting Spring Pilgrimage.

Spring Pilgrimage includes ticketed tours of dozens of antebellum houses.

Another perennial mainstay of the Pilgrimage is a colorful pageant depicting scenes of antebellum days. Local singers, dancers and actors entertain hundreds at the City Auditorium for about two hours four nights a week.

Pilgrimage also includes two other evening entertainments, a play called &uot;Southern Exposure&uot; and a musical drama, &uot;The Southern Road to Freedom.&uot;

While declining to reveal specific figures, John Saleeby, marketing director for Natchez Pilgrimage Tours, said group tour bookings for Spring Pilgrimage are at about the same level as this time last year.

When the dust settled after last year’s event, Ticket sales for antebellum house tours during Spring Pilgrimage were up 7 percent from 2003. That includes group tour ticket sales, which NPT reported were up more than 25 percent.