State Fire Marshal expected Tuesday to investigate cause of historic Hope Farm fire

Published 4:25 pm Monday, March 27, 2023

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NATCHEZ — Not much is known about what caused one of the oldest historic houses in Natchez and the region to go up in flames on Friday evening.

The fire consumed a large part of Hope Farm, constructed between 1780 and 1792, and took with it centuries of history and a beloved member of the Natchez community Ethel Banta.

Natchez Fire Chief Robert Arrington said what caused the fire remains under investigation. Because of the loss of life, the State Fire Marshal’s office will be aiding in the investigation.

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“The local fire marshal was there over the weekend and the state fire marshal is due here (Tuesday),” Arrington said. “They will have investigators on scene and it takes up to 45 days to get a comprehensive report.”

Arrington said because of the age of the house, it was a difficult fire for local responders.

One firefighter sustained minor injuries as part of the roof on the structure collapsed on him. He was taken by ambulance to the hospital andis doing fine — as are other responders who endured at least five hours of heat and debris fighting the flames.

“Everybody’s doing fine,” Arrington said Monday.

As for those coping with the loss, Historic Natchez Foundation Director Carter Burns said the family is “as well as they can be.”

By those who knew and loved Banta, she has been described as a “beautiful lady” and a “rare Natchez jewel.” She owned and operated Hope Farm and hosted tours there during Pilgrimage up until recent years when she finally retired.

Prior to Banta owning Hope Farm, it belonged to Katherine Grafton Miller and her husband, J. Balfour Miller who bought and restored the house in the 1920s. Katherine Miller is credited with helping to found Natchez Pilgrimage and its success by her promotion of it during the Great Depression.

The silver lining, Burns said, “We feel hopeful the house can be saved.”

Amid the smoke and flame, it appeared that the most damaged part of the house, and possibly the oldest part, was in the rear wing.

However, much of the bottom story appears to still be intact. Upon returning to the house Saturday, Burns said, “It’s honestly not as bad as I thought. I was expecting the back wing to be completely destroyed.”

“We’ve been working with the family, offering assistance and salvaging some items from the house,” he said.

While none of the items are original to the home when it was built in the late 1700s, among the furnishings are many antiques that belonged to the Millers themselves, he said.

“There were a lot of the unique and important items that could be saved,” Burns said. “A lot of it dates to the Miller ownership and is important for that reason as well.”