Touring in the slow lane

Published 12:00 am Sunday, February 24, 2008

For many people the morning commute to the office is a mad dash.

Speeding and fighting traffic are all part of the ritual of getting to work on time.

For Jack McElwee and Cecil Folds the morning commute is a bit different.

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They travel to work at less than 2 mph and their office is a street corner.

McElwee and Folds can be seen almost any morning on the corner of Canal and State streets.

They drive horse drawn carriages that chauffer tourists and locals all over downtown Natchez.

While McElwee has been driving the carriages for the last five years, Folds has been running the reins on downtown’s streets for the past 20 years.

“I like this job,” Folds said.

But the drivers work strictly on commission, so if they are not giving rides they’re not making money.

“We really like the good times,” he said.

Folds said no matter how slow business gets in January and February he can always count on one thing.

“You always know you have Spring Pilgrimage,” he said. “That’s always a really good time for us.”

And it’s in that busiest time of year that the two carriage drivers see their most diverse faces.

“They really do come from all over the world,” McElwee said. “Most are Europeans but they come from all over.”

McElwee said while many of his fares speak English it’s not uncommon to find a few who don’t.

And for those who don’t speak English, and cannot get the full benefit of McElwee’s tour commentary, he has a solution.

“They get the ‘see tour’,” he said. “Look see this, see that,” he says pointing in the sky pretending to point to landmarks.

Folds said those who don’t speak the language actually are not missing out.

“Natchez speaks for itself,” he said. “There is so much here that some of it does not need words.”

Folds said his favorite part of the tour is the ride past Stanton Hall.

“It’s such a beautiful place,” he said.

But in all the trips around the city there is one group that makes the tours as successful as they are — the horses.

“We can’t do any tours without them,” McElwee said.

Folds said they are currently running tours using a pool of about a dozen horses.

“This is not hard work for them,” he said. “The carriage is light and we’re close to the barn.”

And Folds said since the horses are not overworked it is not unheard of to get 15 or 20 years of service from one animal.

And a life of service is nothing new to the horses the carriage drivers use.

McElwee said many of the horses they use have been bought from Amish families in Indiana.

Since the horses are used to pulling and used to being harnessed to a carriage they are ideal candidates for downtown service McElwee said.

Folds said the horses are almost constantly in use by the Amish, as a primary means of transportation, their service in Natchez is light by comparison.

But a lighter workload does not make them more cooperative.

“You can tell in about 30 minutes if a horse is going to be easy to work with,” he said. “Sometimes they give you some trouble.”

Folds said the ideal horse is one that is not easily distracted and must have an even temperament.

But even tempered might not be the best descriptor for the carriage-pulling horses — smart, might be a better word.

Folds said that after years of repetition the horses actually memorize the 1.25-mile route around the city.

“It’s actually pretty amazing,” he said. “After a while they know all the stops.”

The smarter the horse the faster they learn.

“Over time they just get used to it,” he said.

Rodney, a horse of about 18 has had plenty of time to get used to the route.

For 13 years Rodney has been pulling a carriage around Natchez.

“That’s a good horse,” McElwee said. “But he used to be so rambunctious.”

In fact Rodney has become so well behaved he is used in weddings and other ceremonies.

“When you get down, you know he’s not going anywhere,” he said. “You know what he’s going to do.”

And while Rodney might not go anywhere the whole carriage operation might have to.

Directly across the street from the bench where Folds and McElwee spend much of their day a condo is going up.

“There is a lot of change going on all over,” Folds said. “And this is a part of that change.”

The horses spend much of their downtime in front of the condo.

It is not likely they will be able to stay there once residences occupy the building.

Folds said he has heard that the city’s aldermen have been asked to relocate the carriage operation.

“Every nail they put in that place is one closer to us maybe having to leave,” he said.

But Folds said even if they do lose their spot on the corner he won’t give up his job as a driver.

“I like this,” he said. “I’m not going anywhere anytime soon.”