Hoop skirts bid adieu

Published 12:17 am Sunday, April 12, 2009

NATCHEZ — Just a few minutes after the last group of tourists left her house, Ethel Banta traded in the pearls and hoop skirt for more comfortable attire.

The moss green elastic waist pants are a far cry from the intricate light green and ivory hoop skirted dress Banta was wearing just a few moments before.

For Banta, and the rest of the Spring Pilgrimage hosts and hostesses, Saturday was the last day they will don the period costumes — for at least a few months.

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Banta, owner of historic Hope Farm, said the end of Pilgrimage couldn’t come at a better time.

“I would never stop touring,” Banta said. “But after five weeks it is time to return a normal life.”

A normal life for Banta means resuming a routine that includes frequent trips to the gym and regular book club meetings.

“During Pilgrimage, everything gets put aside,” Banta said. “You don’t have time for a life outside of touring.”

But don’t think Banta is complaining. She understands the importance of a successful Pilgrimage season as much as anyone. Her home was once the home of Katherine Miller — one of the founders of Natchez’s Pilgrimage in 1932.

Banta said that while she enjoys greeting guests on the front porch of her Homochitto Street home, there are a few occupational hazards that accompany Spring Pilgrimage.

“After a while the hoop makes my back hurt,” she said. “Now I take an Aleve before the tours start. I never take Aleve except during Pilgrimage.”

After the hoop skirt is off, Banta gets to work returning the rest of her home to its pre-Pilgrimage look. That, in part means, putting away the displayed pieces of Old Paris china, crystal and silver that adorn the dinning room table.

Homeowners aren’t the only people who put their lives on hold for five weeks to lead tourists through the rooms of Natchez’s historic homes. Dozens of other hostesses give up their time to point out the antique chairs and describe the intricacies of the chandeliers.

Much is the same at Hope Farm, where Gail Healy has been receiving guests for years.

Healy, is also a hostess at Elgin and Hawthorne, said her real life comes to a halt once Spring Pilgrimage starts, but the change in routine is something she welcomes each year.

“I love meeting the people that come to the houses each day,” Healy said. “We have such a diverse group of people come here from all over and they are all so complementary of the town and people.”

Healy said once the tourists have cleared out of Hope Farm, she will get in her car, still dressed in her hoop skirt — “It is just easier that way,” she said. — and get on with her life.

She will carefully hang her skirt and blouse in a closet and grab her gardening gloves.

“I’ll get to work on my garden,” she said. “Since I’ve been receiving, I have not even had time to go get plants.”

But in 11 months, Banta and Healy will both be at it again. The lifelong friends said they can’t image giving up receiving during Pilgrimage.

“The only way I could stop is if I got a job or I died,” Healy said with a laugh

Banta agreed.

“If I stopped, I think Katherine Miller herself would come down from heaven,” she said.