By Rhetta Grimsely Johnson/Syndicated columnist
The Picayune Item
The first day of spring! My favorite month, April, is just around the corner. Now we just need one big gullywasher to get rid of the pine pollen.
Normally, spring gives me a strong sense of rebirth and renewal, but this spring I seem surrounded by moments crystallizing the passage of time.
It was a year ago, I walked up the porch to my mother’s home to box up her possessions following her funeral. The pine pollen on the front porch made the house seem like it was covered in ancient dust, as though years had passed since her death. So much has changed for this old orphan.
During spring break, I took my son John with me down to McComb where we inspected the major upgrade of our printing facility there. We had lunch at the Dinner Bell. I can vividly recall eating there when I was John’s age. It has not changed a lick with its big lazy susan full of Deep South dishes. (The eggplant was exquisite.)
On the way back, Charlie Dunigan, publisher emeritus of the McComb Enterprise-Journal, asked if we wanted to drive by the old newspaper building downtown.
The back door was open and we wandered in. My mind was flooded with memories as a child and later as an adult. I could hear the chugging of the old King press and smell the ink, indeed, the hot lead. Dozens of faces and voices flashed into my memory, most long since gone from my world.
All around me was ruin: decayed boards, splintered furniture, random faded papers from ancient files the contents of which, once important, were completely irrelevant to any living being.
I walked into the office of John Oliver Emmerich Sr. - patriarch of our family and founder of Emmerich Newspapers. I could see him regally seated behind his desk, his face lighting up with an avuncular smile as I walked in. How well I remembered the polished brick floor of his office.
He was a great man, a great journalist, successful in business, a writer of books and a sought out speaker. He sat on powerful boards and was a leader in his church. To me, his grandchild, he was larger than life itself.
I looked down at the bright green lichen that now covered the bricks. The roof provided the shade and the hole in the roof provided the moisture. It was lovely actually, like a perfect carpet from nature.
A few days later, with Ginny, Lawrence and Ruth still at the beach, I scratched my head for a good day trip for John’s remaining spring break. Then it hit me: the Ruins of Windsor and the Lost City of Rodney.
We headed down the old Port Gibson scenic roadway, which runs parallel to the Natchez Trace and just a mile or so to its north. It is a road which few ever traverse. We were barely able to find it. We drove along through thick sunlight constantly scattered by a dense canopy of huge trees.
John was driving and I was completely calm. His control of the car was relaxed and confident. I once wondered if he would ever drive. Silly me. How little faith.
We stopped at the Port Gibson First Presbyterian Church with its beautiful golden hand steeple pointing toward heaven. The church was open and John and I walked in and prayed. John opened the Bible to Luke Chapter 4, the temptation of Christ. He read verses 1 through 12 to me. I felt a shiver of wonder as he repeated the last line with a deep look: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”
In this day of tourism promotion, you’d think there would be big flashing signs pointing the way to the ruins of Windsor. Mercifully there was not. Even the GPS was no help. It was as I remembered it 20 years ago, hidden off an obscure back road.
We were alone, surrounded by 23 huge haunting columns. Corinthian in the classical revival style, John reminded me.
Windsor Plantation at one time covered 2,600 acres. Smith Coffee Daniell II, who was born in Mississippi in 1826, the son of an Indian fighter turned farmer and landowner, constructed the mansion itself in 1859-1861. In 1849 he married his cousin Catherine Freeland (1830–1903) by whom he had seven children, three of whom survived into adulthood. He died three months after it was completed.
Windsor cost $4.5 million to build in today’s dollars. It survived the Civil War during which it was used as a hospital. In 1890, a misplaced cigar brought the 25-room mansion to an end.
The ghost town of Rodney was even harder to find. We drove through the Alcorn campus, as instructed by locals, and tried several dirt roads until we found the right one. Five miles later, we were there. Once again, the GPS was useless.
Rodney was noted for its high level of culture, county fairs and business activity. Rodney once contained a bank, a newspaper, 1,000 people and 35 stores, artists, theater, lecture hall, schools, debating society, churches, jockey club and thespian groups. Cottonseed development, riverboat landings, taverns and high literacy made Rodney a leading river town. The river changed course and Rodney slowly died.
On another beautiful March day years ago, I went with friends to clear graves in Rodney for a reason I can’t recall. We ran into an old black man who was digging up palmetto roots. “To help with his young wife.” Intrigued, I asked the man to give me some roots and I brewed a big batch of palmetto tea. A few months later, I was engaged to Ginny. Eighteen years later, I was back in Rodney with John by my side.
We took the Trace back and stopped at an Indian mound. We watched the sun set as we sat next to beautiful blood red flowers that someone had placed atop the mass grave.