‘Return to its roots’: Historic Jefferson College hosts preservation field school

Published 6:55 pm Saturday, June 29, 2024

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NATCHEZ — Approximately 10 graduate students of the historic preservation program at Mississippi State University attended a field school this week on the campus of Historic Jefferson College.

Mississippi Department of Archives and History Director Katie Blount said it was the first of what MDAH hopes to be many classes held on the historic campus.

“It’s nice to return it to its roots as an educational institution,” Blount said. “This is just a pilot program we are doing in anticipation of the work already underway in restoring all of these historic buildings and using them mostly for the field school and also some exhibits in a sort of museum setting in a couple of the buildings. We’re steadily working toward those goals.”

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Initial funding was approved this year to begin the work of restoring the 80-acre campus for a preservation field school and interpretive center that will share stories of the rise and fall of Mississippi’s cotton kingdom era.

The campus has eight main buildings, the first of which was completed in 1820, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places for its architectural significance. It was Mississippi’s first institution of higher learning and operated for many years as a preparatory school and later as Jefferson Military College. It is also the birthplace of Mississippi statehood, where the state’s first constitution was written.

An open house event on Thursday celebrated the wrap of a week-long program at the college.

To lead the week-long field school, Barry White, deputy director of the Historic Preservation Division of MDAH said he enlisted Nick Conner, who is the contractor and owner of a custom woodwork company Conner Millworks based in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Students attended lectures on the history of millwork inside the gift shop of the college, as well as hands-on lessons that included studying the components of the historic buildings on campus and recreating those building styles in a modern workshop setting, Conner said.

Each student went through the 15 to 20-step process of making transom windows and cutting out custom molding knives from steel to mold the profile of the wooden frames.

“We have a great campus to walk through directly for specific site examples,” Conner said. “There is an energy and spirit about the place. I specified that all of our drafts needed to be done by hand the way they would’ve been done a long time ago and the students did a good job at that. I’m blown away by the quality of work that was produced here.”

Blount said this week’s program is a small step towards a greater vision that is years away from being finished.

“It will take years, but we’re really excited about it. It’s fun to have students on campus learning the skills that are needed in the workplace. We will develop a regular program of field school classes like this and initially house the students off campus. As soon as we can get the initial work done on the buildings, we will start housing them on campus, feed them here and let them work. We’re also exploring the possibility of having archeological field schools here.”

Exterior restoration is underway and the next focus will be on restoring the ground-level floors, she added.

“I want to thank our partners at the Historic Natchez Foundation and all of our funders (on the state and federal level) and we’re really grateful to Mississippi State for this partnership. I look forward to having students from all over here. Ultimately, we hope to have high-school students from Natchez and the community college here as well as other colleges and universities.”