‘She was Hope Farm and Hope Farm was Ethel Banta’: Friends, city leaders reflect on Natchez home owner who died in fire

Published 9:02 pm Friday, March 24, 2023

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“A gem” and “a true Natchez jewel.”

That’s how friends describe Ethel Banta, the 89-year-old icon who died in a fire Friday evening at historic Hope Farm.

“She was Hope Farm, and Hope Farm was Ethel Banta,” said Tanya Biglane, who served in the Pilgrimage Garden Club for 30 years with Banta. “She was a gem. A true Southern charm.”

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Banta owned and operated Hope Farm, one of Natchez’s oldest historic properties. Built by Carlos de Grand Pre’ from 1780 to 1792, the architecture of the house merges both Spanish and English styles. In 1926, it became the home of Katherine Grafton Miller and her husband, J. Balfour Miller. Katherine Miller helped found the Natchez Pilgrimage and was instrumental in promoting Natchez as a tourist destination.

Carter Burns, executive director of the Historic Natchez Foundation, said Hope Farm was one of the oldest homes in Natchez and in the region.

“When (the Millers) passed away, the house was sold to Ethel Banta, and it had all their furnishings and everything” in it, Burns said. “So not only is it a very early Natchez house, but it has all of the history from the Millers and Pilgrimage in there as well.”

Natchez Mayor Dan Gibson, who is traveling in Washington D.C. this week, said Hope Farm and Ethel Banta have been incredibly important in Natchez.

“There’s not a tour I give of Natchez – and I give tours a lot to potential investors or individuals – that I don’t come by Hope Farm and tell them not only the story of Hope Farm but the story of Ethel Banta, as well. She is a Natchez institution and was loved by everyone who knew her …

“She was one of those rare Natchez jewels.”

Both Banta and Hope Farm were central to the annual pilgrimage events in Natchez. Banta retired from opening Hope Farm for Pilgrimage in 2018. In a 2019 article in The Natchez Democrat, she talked about her 35 years of involvement with Pilgrimage.

“I loved showing off this wonderful house,” Banta said. “It is a beautiful place.”

Gibson recalled checking on Banta in 2021 when an ice storm left her property without power for several days. “I called her every day and asked her to let me come pick her up and bring her to my house,” he said. “She told me she was in her ski suit, and it was the same suit she’d worn for years when she’d gone to Colorado. She was sitting in her chair and was just fine …

“I told her, ‘Ethel, they just don’t make them like you anymore.’”

He said Banta’s unique ability to see the joy in every day will be remembered fondly. “Her wit, her strength, her charm … they will live with everyone who knew her.”

Sally Durkin, a tour guide who stood among the crowd gathered near the property Friday evening, is one of those people. She watched crews battle the blaze at Hope Farm with tears in her eyes. “She was one of those people I’d known my whole life.”

Diane Davis, Banta’s caregiver for the past year, described her as “a beautiful lady.”

“Her son was here (from Virginia) yesterday,” Davis said. “I’m so glad she got to spend some time with him. She loved her children. … I wasn’t ready for her to die. She had a lot of life in her.”

Sabrina Robertson contributed to this article.