Hostesses find tourists’ stories keep Pilgrimage routine fresh

Published 12:10 am Friday, March 23, 2012

LAUREN WOOD / THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT — Hostess Mary Jane Hartman, left, points out family photos to May O’Keeffe, right, during a tour of Green Leaves Thursday afternoon during Spring Pilgrimage. O’Keeffe and her husband Howard are visiting from the town of Dartmouth in England.

NATCHEZ — Ever since Ruthie Coy fit in a child-sized hoop skirt, she has been opening the grandfather clock in the Green Leaves hallway to tell the same story about her ancestors hiding her great grandmother in the clock to keep her safe from the Union troops that shelled Natchez in 1862.

“I’ve been telling the story about the baby and the clock since I was a little girl,” Coy said dismissively, just after wrapping it up for a crowd.

The antebellum anecdotes are played out for Pilgrimage players, Coy admitted.

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But every time they’re told, those same old stories get gasps, chuckles and nods from an ever-changing group of camera-clutching strangers.

For the locals beneath the hoop skirts, the thing that keeps the routine fresh year after year is the same thing that keeps Pilgrimage alive — the tourists.

And though they’re easy to peg by the cameras, the maps and eyes hungry for furniture and flowers, each tourist can add to the experience by sharing their own stories, Coy said, which can sometimes trump tales of the baby-in-the-clock variety.

While Coy quoted the of dates of family heirlooms, she said she doubted dates sounded too old to a set of tourists from England who stopped by Friday on the Blue Tour.

“The house we lived in was 400 years old,” said spring pilgrim Howard O’Keeffe.

LAUREN WOOD / THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT — Hostess Judy Day, left, ties a hoop skirt onto O’Keeffe on the porch of Green Leaves.

O’Keeffe and his wife May, who live in southern England, were in Natchez Friday on their first tour of the U.S. South.

Howard and May both retired last year as college educators in England.

They now live in Dartmouth, but their former house near London was built well before some of the fancy trappings at the circa 1838 Green Leaves.

“I think indigenous people were here (when his house was built),” Howard said.

It’s meeting people like the O’Keeffes, and watching the joy May got from trying on a hoop skirt over her spring-weather day clothes that makes each repetitive tour fresh for the hostesses, Coy said.

Coy said she often learns more about the furnishings and historical artifacts at Green Leaves from tourists with a special interest in guns, the Civil War or curios.

Some time ago, it was a tourist who pointed out a lamp at Green Leaves was made by Alfred Carriere Belleuse, and now that tidbit of information has been added to the tour.

During the Peach Tour at Elgin last Friday, owner Ruth Ellen Calhoun learned a lot from a tourist that hit close to home for both of them.

During the tour, Janice Skipper, a Washington, D.C., resident, had a special interest in the house.

Calhoun learned that Skipper was a descendent of a slave at Elgin Plantation.

Skipper’s great-great grandfather, Henry Williams, and her great-great grandmother, Narcissa Ellis Williams, were buried at the historic black cemetery at Elgin with more of her ancestors.

Skipper, who Calhoun learned is assistant attorney general for Washington, D.C., came to Natchez with her daughter, Janell Holloway, to celebrate Holloway’s 21st birthday.

Holloway is a junior at Harvard University, where she studies chemistry, and her spring break and birthday coincided with Spring Pilgrimage.

Skipper said she had visited the graveyard before and has kept up with her family in Natchez, where she used to go each summer to “Camp Grandma.” But Friday was Skipper’s first time inside the Elgin and her daughter’s first visit to the site.

“It was very emotional for me, and I believe my daughter feels the same way,” Skipper said.

Skipper said she was told during the tour that the tulip poplar floors were the plantation’s original floors.

“It was a very kind of awesome, overwhelming experience to think that my relative had been there, served there; to think that they had walked (on the same floor) and what they must have endured during that time,” Skipper said.

At 8 a.m. Saturday morning the mother-daughter duo left town, Calhoun — sans her hoop skirt and a tour schedule — invited Skipper and Holloway to the graveyard, where they found Williams’ grave together.

Skipper said she took lots of pictures.

“I had the feeling that I’d like to lay in the grass and embrace the moment,” Skipper recalled. “But I resisted,” she laughed.

Calhoun said meeting the women was a wonderful experience for her, and she and Skipper traded contact information to keep in touch.

“She was lovely, and her daughter was lovely too,” Calhoun said.

Skipper said she felt the same.

“It was just wonderful because Mrs. Calhoun is so open and friendly and outgoing,” Skipper said.

Skipper said during the visit, she wished her ancestors could have been at Elgin that day to see the changes that have occurred and how far they’d come.

And just as the tourists enrich the experience for the hostesses, Skipper said Calhoun’s support of her quest to learn more about her ancestors made her experience that much more more meaningful.

“It made me feel that we had a stake in what had gone on there,” Skipper said.