Travel Tuesday – Home Town Edition

Welcome to Travel Tuesday! It’s good to be back. Today I’m going to share about a trip I made related to HGTV’s Home Town, which is set in Laurel, Mississippi. But first, for some background.

Home Town is one of many renovation shows on HGTV, but it really is a standout. When it first premiered a few years ago, I was aware of it and watched here and there, and by just this slight exposure, I wasn’t carried away with the show. However, my mom started watching it a couple of years ago and highly recommended it because of the historical aspect of many of the renovations. Seeing the first season on Hulu, I decided to give it another try.

And I’m so glad I did! The show is led by Erin Napier, who trained as an artist, and Ben Napier, who has a history degree. There’s a lot going on, but it fits together so well. First, there is the renovation aspect, and you can tell that as far as the contracting work goes, no corners are cut. I learned a lot from the show.

Then you have Erin with a special talent for choosing colors and art. She is unashamedly a maximalist with her design style—there are rugs and chairs and baskets, and pictures, and coats on pegs, and boots by the door. She calls it real life, basically. And she’s right, of course. Erin has a love of old things and antiques and leans into a very unique Southern design style that is so appealing. 

Then there’s Ben, who gets it historically and brings a lot of strength to the renovations. He is actually very funny, with perfect comic timing. A carpenter, he designs beautiful things for all of the houses they do.

The show has a lot of heart. Its focus is on community, and they dig into the love and wholesomeness of small towns. It’s a celebration, really, of what goes on every day in towns across America that we all cherish so much: people helping each other and living mostly in harmony. I occasionally look in on Erin and Ben on Twitter, and Erin a few months ago retweeted a comment by a viewer that rings so true about the show, something to the effect of: “While all we see on TV is division and disunion, Home Town highlights that in actuality, in the real lives of Americans, we live our lives with love for our neighbors.” That resonated for me, and I imagine it will for a lot of you as well.

So between Hulu and the HGTV app, I watched all of the seasons and was even inspired for a few things in my house! In the South, we have a great tradition of making something out of what we have. One might almost say we thrive in limited circumstances where a touch of innovation can bring about remarkable effects. For instance, Erin, discovering that a basket light would cost hundreds of dollars, bought a five-dollar light kit and a big old basket and made one herself. As for me, that made my wheels start spinning. I have a room in my house for my nieces and nephew that is inspired by old nurseries of historic houses. I was wanting a checkerboard for them to play with when they get older. Walking through an antique store, I found a wooden wall hanging featuring a very unique design with a checkerboard and bought it for about eight dollars. At home, I popped the hanging kit out of the back, bought a set of wooden checkers from Amazon, and voila! Here is my creation:

My mom and her friend Beverly, both fans of the show, were planning a trip to Laurel last October and asked if I would like to go—and of course, I said, “Yes!” And here begins the travel portion of this Travel Tuesday post!

So obviously, from Middle Tennessee to the southern portion of Mississippi is a bit of a haul (six hours). We left around lunch time and arrived in time for supper, which we enjoyed at the Bird Dog Cafe. The restaurant was one of the Home Town projects, a dream of two brothers that was brought to life by transforming an old house into a really cool spot. Here are some pictures:

It was here that we had our first Home Town sighting: one of the owners that I recognized from the episode was there and spoke with us. The atmosphere was very cool. Particularly, I loved a Hemingway-eque library they have created as a hangout. And all of the old features that were preserved were really cool. 

The next day, we swung by the Laurel Mercantile, which is owned by the Napiers and some friends who appear in the show. It was a neat little store. I bought two prints by local artist Adam Trest (whose house the Napiers renovated and whose artwork appears in many episodes). Beverly bought a print of one of Erin’s paintings for her kitchen. Here are my pieces, which I love:

We next visited Ben’s workshop. If you watch the show, you know it’s a massive concrete warehouse near the train tracks. Inside, they have the workshop area glassed off so you can watch them working. We spotted Randy, who works with Ben in the workshop and also is very funny with excellent timing. I have to say, we were a little disappointed with the gift shop area which, given that it is the giftshop of a carpentry shop, we expected to have a few token items customers could buy that were made in the back, but there weren’t any. My recommendation: some cheeseboards or cutting boards would go over very well!

Moving on, we went to a lot of the boutiques, visited many of the town’s murals, and drove around its revitalized streets. At the end of the day, while there are some truly neat and pretty things, it’s still a small town; seeing it doesn’t knock your socks off or anything. But the atmosphere of hope and kindness in this town really does. 

I had wondered how the town was coping with the attention and tourism the show brings and wondered if it was all welcome to them or not. One could imagine a certain bitterness or sense of invasion of privacy, or the mere tolerance of vacationers a lot of tourist towns settle into. But in Laurel, I sensed only gratitude and welcome. The business owners (many of whom I swear we were getting to know during our short time there) are thrilled that you are there. They are happy to chat with you about the show and want to know about your own hometown.

The restaurant scene was really exceptional for such a small town. One that stands out is Pearl’s Diner, which is featured on the show. This is a family-owned business that serves a really excellent country cooking/soul food spread, the kind you get around grandma’s Sunday dinner table. There was a queue forming at the door before it even opened, and it was still going strong when we left. So as you can imagine, it was that good!

At the gift shop I mentioned, one of the employees, upon finding out that we were from near Nashville, said jokingly, “The real stars live here.” There is a lot of pride in the town and a true sense of community. One can easily imagine why people move there looking for that from all over the country. 

And as for us, did we see any more of the stars? We did spot Ben’s friend, Josh, who is a regular on the show, going into the workshop as we drove through going to supper. We didn’t happen to see Ben and Erin, but we did have one really cool sighting.

My mom and Beverly wanted to stop in a children’s boutique to shop for their grandkids, and we found a really cute one, Lollybells. The owner introduced us to her little teacup dog, who slept in a bed on the counter. While we were there, a man came in with a Great Dane named Zeus (it stuck with me because my cousins once had a dog by the same name). Apparently Zeus and the teacup dog are great friends, and Zeus’s dad brings him in to see his friend often. And so this horse-sized dog and this little bitty dog lit up with delight to see each other and interacted so sweetly. It was cute. We left some things to be monogrammed and got to see Zeus again when we returned. And then…Zeus’s dad got his own episode on Home Town this season. I was so delighted to see the big dog again. It is Season 6, Episode 11 (“Architect’s Linear Loft”).

Home Town has begun to spin off beyond its original roots. There is a series called Home Town Takeover, in which HGTV and Discovery and all sorts of companies teamed up with the Napiers to do a quick reno in a small town chosen from many entrants. Wetumpka, Alabama was chosen, and it was very heartwarming to watch that community, as well as famous designers and such from all over the country, find the good in the town and elevate it.

A funny story about Wetumpka… We took a family trip to Florida last July, and I happened to be riding home in the car with my mom and dad when we hit some really bad construction work. We could sit there for hours, or we could take an alternate route a little out of the way and keep moving. Looking at the map, I told my dad, “You know, if we go the alternate route, we will go through Wetumpka. There was this show…” And so we did. We got to see the Big Fish house that they renovated. Here is a picture:

Big Fish House

Wetumpka is neat, but it is obviously still struggling, highlighting the importance of these projects and the little bit of work that is done here and there when it can be.

HGTV had so many applicants for the Takeover show that they have run another series called Home Town Kickstart, where HGTV stars go to six small towns and do just enough to hopefully get momentum going. They go to Buffalo, Wyoming; Winslow, Arizona; Cornwall, New York; LaGrange, Kentucky; Thomaston, Georgia; and Minden, Louisiana. 

I am not a sentimental person generally, but in all of these shows, I usually sit there weeping like a really sappy person. I think it’s because I’m from a small town, and it is so endearing and gratifying to watch all that is best in a small town be highlighted—the support and community and love. And there is a note that rings true to it all; no one is showing off or posturing. While there are many living situations that work for different people, the small town life holds meaning for many, from all walks of life and in every season of life. It always hits home also just how great the need is in most small towns, especially those that have fallen on hard times. But to see their people keep persevering because they love what they have built will resonate for so many.

In some of my posts, I’m fairly hard on the television/film industry for certain art/literary choices they make. Here (while this is a little different) I want to note that HGTV and everyone involved in these projects deserve a great deal of credit. They are making a real difference in people’s lives. Small towns are the backbone of the country, and they are highlighting everything that is good in them. They shine a light on role models who open their homes to at-risk youth, who kept first responders’ children free of charge during the pandemic, who run shelters in their homes for victims of domestic violence, who serve their communities selflessly as police officers, who encourage art, who foster a sense of community with their businesses, who are beloved by their neighbors but have suffered in their own personal lives, and who just get up every day and love their families and neighbors.

In a world where division is the narrative, these shows show a stark contrast and highlight just the opposite. Watching these shows, it always makes me think of the Bible verse: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” And surely that is worth preserving.

Newport, RI Mansion #5

Our final house museum tour while we were in Newport was Chateau-sur-Mer. We’ll take a look at this interesting house, and I will also give you some insight into some other things my sister and I got into in Rhode Island!

5. Chateau-sur-Mer

Chateau-sur-Mer was different from any of the other Newport houses we had toured in that it was built decades before any of the other fabulous cottages. It actually was not a part of the cottage fad except to the extent it was remodeled to add a few grand touches. It is “High Victorian,” which means it’s kind of heavy – dark rooms, oppressive wallpaper, dark wood paneling… I kind of thought of it as a Gothic architectural style, which was definitely a change from the opulent, bright, and sunny cottages. There were things that were really cool about Chateau-sur-Mer, though.

One was the fact that you could stand in the foyer and look up and see level after level of balconies until you reached the roof. Here is a picture. It really doesn’t convey how cool this architectural technique is, but you can get an idea.

George and Edith Wetmore hired Richard Morris Hunt to redesign the house in the Second Empire French style during the 1870s, which is why, I would imagine, there are several opulent touches. And yet, there are still some High Victorian remnants. Here are a few pictures in which you can see the attention to detail and the blending of 19th century design trends:

Here is a of picture of the exterior:

It was good to visit Chateau-sur-Mer to remind us that Newport had a rich and intricate history before the Gilded Age. Speaking of… Let’s talk about a few more things you can do in Newport!

First, just driving around is a treat. You can go to one part of town and see numerous colonial-era or colonial-inspired buildings that would fit in perfectly in Colonial Williamsburg. There are also lots of Victorian houses where less wealthy, but still rich people once lived, and those are beautiful, too. Of course, there’s no denying that Bellevue Avenue, where all of the mansions are, is really spectacular. There is shopping on the Avenue, too, and you can just picture the carriages going down the streets in summers past.

There is generally good shopping in Newport – lots of boutiques, and both chain and local stores. For groceries, there is a more traditional grocery store as well as a smaller, completely organic store, where prices are actually reasonable. Newport is also the sailing capital of the world. We had intended to go sailing but ran out of time. You can see some of the boats in the pictures behind us here, though:

This was our first experience with New England food, and so we might not be the best judges. Some was wonderful, while some was…not so much. Annie’s is famous for their breakfasts, and it was fine, but we weren’t overwhelmed. Again, this could just be because we were used to a more Southern-style breakfast.

We ate at La Forge Casino Restaurant because of the history of the tennis club in the building. We dined outside, and it was cool to have an experience similar to what it would have been in the Gilded Age. Again, the food was just okay.

We went twice to Griswold’s Tavern, which was our favorite place. I got the Veggie Nachos once, which were delicious. The real upside of Newport food was that there are usually healthy and vegetarian options at most places.

We love seafood, and there was plenty of that. We had been used to a certain style of doing seafood from the beach towns of the Gulf of Mexico, so this was quite different from that. Whereas in Florida, Alabama, or Mississippi, the emphasis is on mahi mahi, grouper, and salmon, in Newport, you have lobster, scallops, and lots of cod. We went to three seafood places. We really loved the scallops at The Lobster Bar. Flo’s Clam Shack was a more traditional beachy place with plenty of fried food and a line of people waiting to get in backed out the door. We also went to The Landing, which was my sister’s favorite! Just a note: if you’re going to a beachy type place, wear whatever you want; if you’re going to a more upscale restaurant, they kind of dress up in Newport. We saw one restaurant where people were going in wearing evening gowns and tuxedos. Never fear, though; you don’t have to go too fancy at most of the restaurants – just dress like you would kind of dress up for a date night.

You can visit the beach, too. We met some very friendly seagulls while we were there, I remember. It was a little too chilly for us to wade in, even in August, but some brave souls tried it!

But the real crown jewel, the do-not-miss activity in Newport, is the Cliff Walk. There’s nothing like the beauty of the ocean on one side of you and mansions on the other. And bonus: it’s totally free! Here are a few pictures:

If you ever have the opportunity to visit Newport, do not miss it! It is one of our favorite places, and we do not regret going one bit!

Newport, RI Mansion #4

The fourth house museum stop for our Newport, RI trip was The Elms.  Get ready for some beautiful gardens and general splendor!

4. The Elms

The Elms was our next stop, and it did not disappoint. Welcome to the foyer!

I really liked the scheme of the house: white, gold, marble, and black iron. The inspiration was the 18th Century Chateau d’Asnieres in France. Sarah and Edward Julius Berwind, of the coal fortune, built The Elms in 1901 so that they could host on a larger scale.

The Elms is famous for its gardens, so let’s have a look at those first:

I really loved that bench, and there were fountains, pavilions, and statues galore.

There was what I call a “sunroom” to bring the outside indoors. This included possibly the word’s plushest lawnchair.

The inside was equally lovely. Here are a few of the rooms, which definitely give you the impression of French grandeur (except for the green library, which was more homey). Look at those gorgeous ceiling medallions!

Did you spot both pianos?

I seemed to have collected pictures of a lot of different bedrooms, so I’m thinking there may have been more rooms available for viewing at the house than at the other houses. Here are a few of the bedrooms. (Never mind my sister gazing dreamily at that fainting couch.)

Oddly enough, I remember the portraits acquired by this house the most. This portrait of Elizabeth Wharton Drexel Dahlgren Lehr is quite famous. My sister bought a jewelry dish with this portrait on it while we were in Newport. Elizabeth’s first husband was the son of the famous Admiral Dahlgren (who, as a side note, is discussed by Shannon and her father in Northern Fire!) Her first husband died young. I remember her sad story of her second husband telling her on their wedding night that he had only married her for her money. (Note, this is not the owner of the house. I can’t remember why her portrait is at The Elms – maybe she is a relative?)

Another notable portrait at the house is that of Maria Cosway, an Englishwoman who had, shall we say, a more than casual acquaintance with Thomas Jefferson while he was Minister to Paris. This portrait was painted by Cosway’s husband. I’m not sure how the Elms acquired this original either. Here it is:

Does anyone remember how the Elms acquired either of these fascinating paintings? Comment below if you do!

Stop back by next week for our final mansion. I’ll also talk about some of the other stuff (including a lot of eating) that we did in Newport!

Photo of Maria Cosway: The Preservation Society of Newport County, https://www.newportmansions.org/learn/collections/fine-and-decorative-arts/paintings.
All other photos: Tara Cowan or Hannah Cowan Jones

Newport, RI Mansion #3

The tour of Newport continues with Rosecliff today!

3. Rosecliff

On the third day of our trip, we went to Rosecliff, which is perhaps less famous than The Breakers and Marble House (even though it has been in several movies!). But I think it is actually my favorite of the Grand Dames along Bellevue Avenue because Rosecliff is *slightly* understated in comparison to the two houses we discussed previously.

Of course, it all started with an heiress. Theresa “Tessie” Fair was the daughter of an Irish immigrant who had hit it big in Nevada silver.  She met her future husband, Hermann Oelrichs, playing tennis in Newport.  (We actually had lunch one day at this tennis club/casino, which is still there!)  He was pretty wealthy himself, and together they purchased the property along the Cliff Walk and built Rosecliff.  [Just as a side note, Tessie’s sister married Alva Vanderbilt’s son (Alva, of the Marble House fame).]

Tessie couldn’t wait to start giving lavish parties at Rosecliff, and she certainly had the ballroom for it.  This is probably my favorite room in all of Newport.

One of the things I loved about Rosecliff is that it relies on artistry more than flash.  You can see that the ballroom walls are just white, but look at the ornate plaster and molding.  And the mural on the ceiling isn’t garish in the least; it is just the sky, like you’re looking through a glass ceiling.

Take a look at the art encapsulated in this fireplace in another room.

Here are a few more rooms.

The exterior was very elegant.  It puts you in mind of Marble House and the White House a bit.  It was fashioned after the Grand Trianon at Versailles.

I’ll leave a few more pictures below.  Spot the circular library table with books, and the modern bathroom.  I loved those.  Also, the staircase – wow! Enjoy!

All photos: Tara Cowan or Hannah Cowan Jones

Newport, RI Mansion #2

Continuing our virtual vacation of Newport, RI, this week we’re stopping at the home of Alva Vanderbilt herself, Marble House. So sit back on your (expensive) lawn chair, grab something cool to drink, and enjoy the history.

2. Marble House

Marble House was built by William K. Vanderbilt, another grandson of the famed Cornelius, and a brother to Cornelius Vanderbilt, II.  You may remember Cornelius II as the owner of The Breakers, where we stopped last week.  I seem to remember that there was some sister-in-law rivalry during the design of the two houses. Richard Morris Hunt was the architect of the Versailles-inspired Marble House. He did a fabulous job, as usual, but Alva Vanderbilt’s stamp is all over it.  Mostly, that stamp takes the form of marble.

There is marble everywhere.  Just take a look at the dining room, the foyer, random halls…

Anything you can put marble on, Alva tried it.  Marble House was magnificent in the sense that you really got that feeling of European royalty.  Which, I believe, was one of Alva’s aims, given that she ultimately arranged a marriage between her daughter and the Duke of Marlborough.  This is the room where they most likely became engaged:

Called the Gothic Room, this one really stood out to me.  It had the solemn feeling of a church and duplicated the old history of some castles in Europe particularly well.  Even though the marriage of Consuelo Vanderbilt and Sonny was doomed to failure, I couldn’t help thinking that this was a great place to get engaged!

Here are some other neat tidbits.  Does anyone else love library stairs?

What about fancy servants’ stairs?

Resplendent sitting rooms?

Or bedrooms fit for a queen?

At most of the Newport houses, they also do a great job of interpreting the lives of the servants.  You definitely get Downton Abbey vibes, for any lovers of Mrs. Patmore and Mrs. Hughes out there!

The thing I most remember about Marble House is Alva.  She was a complicated, fascinating woman.  She undoubtedly pushed her daughter into marriage for social gain—and then, in order for her daughter to divorce and be happy, she testified before a court that she compelled her daughter to marry.  She was the victim of her husband’s adultery—and then divorced him, married his best friend, and moved across the street.  She was a champion of women’s suffrage and of art.  On the whole, she was a woman ahead of her time. 

So whom do I think won the sister-in-law rivalry?  Well, if you remember, Alice had those stunning verandas.  Then again, Alva had 500,000 cubic feet of marble.  Plus, she caught the Duke.  So you tell me.

Below, this happened to be my favorite photo from Marble House.  It reminds me of Alva and speaks to her strength—and to how she was (just a tad!) over-the top:

Photo Credits: Tara Cowan or Hannah Cowan Jones

Newport, RI Mansions Tour

Since many of us couldn’t take a summer vacation this year, I thought it would be fun to take you on a tour of Newport Rhode Island by recounting my trip there in August of 2017.  My sister and I, both history fans, bought tickets from The Preservation Society of Newport County, which allowed us to tour five different Newport “cottages.”  There will be five posts, mostly dedicated to individual mansions, but I’ll give you details of some other stuff we got into, as well.  Here we go!  Buckle up; the ride starts in Atlanta, Georgia.

Cottage #1: The Breakers

As the plane touched down in Rhode Island, we could feel the cool air from the window.  It had been ninety-eight degrees when we had left the South. We looked at each other, thinking, “This is going to be a very good trip.”  And that premonition proved very true!

It had all started when my sister and I had, through various media (Downton Abbey, the book, To Marry an English Lord, numerous novels) become interested in seeing the “cottages” where these Robber Barons—ahem, American Royalty—had summered during the height of their wealth and prestige.  For those unacquainted with Newport, it is a beautiful coastal town in Rhode Island.  It has Revolutionary War history (there are lots of Colonial structures), and it had been a sort of resort town for Southern gentry before the Civil War. Flash forward twenty years after that, and an unprecedented level of American wealth had been created in a few families (the Vanderbilts, Morgans, Carnegies, Astors, etc.) by such industries as railroads, steel, oil, and finance.  It was royal-level wealth—more than that, in some cases.  And one place they decided to display that new money was in Newport.

An entire Newport season developed when the wealthy would retreat there during the summer.  For more information on this brief but vibrant era, I would highly recommend To Marry an English Lord by Carol McD. Wallace and Gail MacColl.  Newport is where the Duke of Marlborough courted Consuelo Vanderbilt, just to give you an idea of the match-making shenanigans you are in for!

For us, the journey started with one of those miserable bouts with TSA in the Atlanta airport.  Pat-down completed for me, we boarded and settled in for the flight to Providence.

It was about sixty-five degrees when we touched down.  In August.  We got into our rental, a Ford Escape we dubbed “Penn” (on account of its Pennsylvania tags), and drove the short distance to Newport.  We were staying on the third floor of a beautifully renovated Victorian home, which we loved immediately. 

After checking the condo out, we drove toward Cliff Walk, which is a walking/running path directly on the coastline of cliffs. It spans pretty much the entire distance of the city, the mansions behind you, the bay in front of you. It is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen in my life.  We got out of our car near Salve Regina University (right there on the beautiful cliffs!) and just looked across the water.  We got cold.  And we were in sweaters or long sleeves.  Maybe you would have to be from the South to understand how remarkable this was!

Here are a couple of pictures from this moment:

For the first tour, we decided to go for gold: The Breakers, which is the grandest of the Newport mansions. It was built by Cornelius Vanderbilt II, and I think it is most known for its beautiful verandas which overlook the bay.

Here is a picture of the back of the house:

And the side of the house:

We really wanted to see the views.  And that gate:

At all of the Newport Mansions, the tour is self-guided with a headset.  Headsets are a germaphobe’s worse nightmare, but they carefully clean them as soon as you return them.  I also remember only a couple of times that having the headset on was key to understanding anything.  You can leave them off and just enjoy the general splendor and put them on at the points where something sparks your interest.

Here is a picture of my sister with the headset on, listening to the story:

I will post a few collages of pictures from The Breakers so that you can see the general splendor, the minute attention to detail, and the vast fortune spent on this house.  Some of the highlights for me were the sweeping lawn overlooking the bay, the massive double staircase (with a fountain under it), and the molding and trim work everywhere you turn.  The house is supposedly an Italian Renaissance style palazzo.  I saw some of those touches.  But make no mistake: the main architectural style of this house was splendor, in every aspect.  The goal, I think, must have been to show the world that the Vanderbilts had arrived. 

Enjoy the pictures below!  Take in all of the exquisite details. And stop back next time as we continue our journey through Newport’s mansions!

Cover photo credit: The Preservation Society of Newport County: https://www.newportmansions.org/explore/the-breakers

All other photos: Tara Cowan or Hannah Cowan Jones

Of Ryan Reynolds and House Museums…

I recently read Ryan Reynolds’s statement about his deep remorse for holding his wedding at Boone Hall Plantation in South Carolina.  The actor related that he saw a pretty venue on Pinterest but that, in reality, it was a place with a tragic past.  He felt that he had really made a huge misstep that perpetuated division.  I’ve read a few articles on the subject that seem to agree with him: that getting married on a plantation is a horrible thing to do.  One author called it “promot[ing] a whitewashing of history atop crimes against humanity.”[1]  The commentary on the subject shows that this is a really hot-button issue. 

As always, I do not wish to delve into political topics, and my desire is for this to be a respectful forum for all.  I can definitely see Reynold’s point: that having a happy-go-lucky wedding on top of soil that was once the sight of enslavement feels incongruous.  In addition, I have this weird (frustrating, to those around me!) ability to see both sides to almost every issue which arises. So I’m not writing this article from any desire to join this argument—just from a desire to be useful on a topic about which I can see that there is some confusion.

I have visited countless historic homes, in the North and South.  Like my modern heroine, Adeline, my real love is for old things and for architectural history.  Therefore, I’m looking mostly at weird antiques and interesting windows or cupolas while I’m touring (nerd alert!).  But I do think that I have learned a few things from these many tours that might be helpful to people who haven’t been on them, so I thought I would share. 

First of all, I will kind of explain the field that house museums fall into: Public History.  It’s an old field that relatively recently has begun to be treated as a discipline or wing of academic history. Public History encompasses archival documentation, museums, historic preservation, curatorial work, educational tours, and a few other fields.  It’s a really important field for all of us.  If these people didn’t exist, we would literally only know oral and archeological history.  Historians would have no documents to research, no buildings to visit, and no antiques to examine. 

In addition, Public Historians are the people with boots on the ground, so to speak, who make it their business to educate the public.  They give cemetery tours at Halloween.  They are the docents when we see the dinosaurs in the museums.  They are the ladies dressed up in Victorian garb who help schoolchildren learn to make candles.  They translate handwritten recipes for us to buy in cookbook format.  They are the men who sit in tights literally all day long in Williamsburg to show us how an eighteenth-century blacksmith wielded his hammer.  Academic Historians do their work for other historians and for the field.  Public Historians work so that all people will know the importance of history. (Shout out to my sister!)

So what does that have to do with this controversy?  A lot.  You see, unless a museum, house museum, or plantation is very underfunded, it is generally run by Public Historians.  One person, when speaking about the Reynolds wedding, commented on an article with a view that plantation house museums are built around a business model that perpetuates a rosy view of the past.  This may have been that person’s experience, and I’m sure that at one time in history, that was true.  However, that has not been my experience. 

The people who work at these historic sites, generally speaking, are not the fan club of or apologists for the families who owned them or for horrific things that may have happened there.  They are highly-trained academics who know that the history they are interpreting is problematic, and they are trained to address those topics. 

So far from brushing things under the rug, I have known docents to take a sort of macabre pride in laying out the nitty gritty details of the past for visitors.  I remember one instance in Savannah, Georgia, where the docent got so frank about the violence of slavery that I was glancing nervously at the children in our group, afraid they would have nightmares (luckily, the kids spoke only French!).  At Carnton Plantation in Franklin, Tennessee, they shove back the furniture to show you huge blood spots on the wooden floors where men died during the Civil War (so much for romanticizing battles!).   At most plantations, you are shown just how small slave cabins were and how many families were forced to live in them.  There’s nothing like stepping into one of them for yourself to evoke poignant and painful knowledge of just how things really were for those who lived there.

I have learned a lot about slavery by touring Southern plantations and house museums—more, I think than I have learned in all of my academic studies. It was at McLeod Plantation in South Carolina that I learned from the docent that saying “enslaved people” instead of “slaves” was an effort on the part of Public History to remind us that the people who were held in bondage were just that: people.  They had lives and stories, and not all of them are lost to history if we look for them in the right places.  Almost all of the tour at McLeod is devoted to individual enslaved people whose lives the historians there have meticulously researched.  We learned who they were and what a typical day would look like for them.  I had always thought that enslaved people’s individual stories had been tragically lost.  For me, this excellent piece of Public History showed me that this was not true.

Again, if those I saw responding to the articles about the Reynolds wedding have had a bad experience at a house museum, that is truly a shame.  My guess is that, when it does happen that history is whitewashed in museums, it would likely be from a lack of training and funding, although, of course, there may be certain people who have, or had in the past, specific goals in mind when doing so.

You may be wondering what touring a house museum has to do with hosting a wedding there.  The argument could be made that the first is merely history, which is good for people to learn, and the second is a celebration of a personal event at a place of troubled history. Some may feel they chose a plantation venue for the wrong reasons.

But I have known of people to get married at plantations for a variety of reasons which include no cause for judgment or blame.  One was a girl who couldn’t find another venue in a rural area to take the burden of hosting off her family. One was an African American woman whose decision to marry at a plantation could only have held profound meaning for her family that I can’t even begin to understand.

And I could have taken this wrong, but I think Reynolds and the commentators weren’t just talking about the wedding: they were implicitly extending their feelings to house museums and plantations operating for business in any capacity.  That is to say, I think they felt they should all be closed for business.

And I think that belief misunderstands the nature and purpose of house museums as they operate today. Yes, we are dealing with humans who sometimes tell the wrong story or have the wrong beliefs, just like in any aspect of life.  But we are also dealing with a field that provides one of the few forums communicating directly to the public about the lives of people who were enslaved.

And to lose this forum would be a loss to all of us.


[1] https://www.themarysue.com/boone-hall-plantation-responds-weakly-to-ryan-reynolds-remorse-for-getting-married-there/

Southern Road Trip #5: Colonial Williamsburg

Well, Road Trip Enthusiasts, we have made it to our final (for now) December Girls’ Trip. The following details our trip to Williamsburg, VA in December of 2018. Enjoy!

    5. Colonial Williamsburg (December 2018)

After having to forego touring Colonial Williamsburg on our first trip to Virginia in 2013, we decided this state of affairs simply wouldn’t do and buckled up for a trip back across Virginia! In my post on our first trip to Virginia, I mentioned our love for Michie Tavern in Charlottesville near Monticello. Coming from Tennessee, there were two routes we could take to get to the coast, and knowing that Michie Tavern lay along the trail of one of them made that decision easy! We wheeled in there first and ate some delicious grub. It was this stop at Michie where we saw a beautiful French family with many children. (They were speaking French, so we assumed France, but they could have hailed from anywhere, of course.) We predicted they had come all of that way to tour Monticello, which was pretty cool!

But Monticello wasn’t on our agenda this time since we had already been. I made the last-minute suggestion, however, that we drop by the neighboring James Monroe’s Highland. In 2016, a huge discovery had been made at Highland. During an archaeological dig, the foundation for a much larger house was uncovered. The more modest house, which was thought for many years to be Monroe’s home, was actually just a guest house. You can find a fabulous article detailing this historic find here: https://www.history.com/news/major-discovery-at-james-monroes-historic-virginia-home.

I had been following this story fairly closely, as well as viewing pictures of their rare (and extremely cute) breed of sheep, so I thought it would be a good idea to swing by for a tour. There were good things about Highland: the staff was really laid-back and friendly, the grounds were pretty, and the story of James Monroe is not well-known but is certainly worth hearing. But there were some downsides, too: the archaeological find is amazing, but the sad fact is that the huge house Monroe had lived in isn’t there, so the tour is still limited to the guest house. There were Monroe family antiques in there, and it is a neat house in its own right, but it’s not a stimulating visual experience. In addition, Highland still gives the impression of being fairly new as a house museum. It’s not a well-oiled machine like Monticello, and, frankly, for a Presidential Home, I was a bit surprised at the lack of funds which had been allotted to it. As a personal grievance, the sheep were nowhere to be found (it was cold that day, so I assume they had retired to shelter, and this was no one’s fault). But still, I would recommend going to Highland to get a feel for the Monroe family and for the amazing discoveries being made there every day.

And then: on to Williamsburg! There is nowhere quite so cozy as Colonial Williamsburg at Christmastime. Colonial-style decorations fill every window and door. My mom actually bought a book which showed how to make the decorations, and we tried it this past Christmas with some success! We bought our tickets in advance, so we just drove to the parking lot of the visitor center, where they give you a bracelet and bus you into the park. It’s so cool, getting out and stepping right onto the grounds of the Governor’s Palace.

We toured the Palace first. I pointed at the rippled windows and said, “Those are really old.” The first thing the docent said when she began our tour was, “I’m sorry to tell you that the Governor’s Palace is entirely new construction.” And that’s the wonder of Colonial Williamsburg. They do good work. Everything there is built with 18th Century tools in 18th Century style (quite possibly while wearing 18th Century stockings). So it was a bit of a bummer to find out that the Palace had been reconstructed, but it is an excellent reconstruction. I particularly remember the ballroom and the stage the docent set for a Colonial ball while we were there. You can really imagine the hosting that would have taken place in the Royal Governor’s home.

Then we walked around the shops within the “park.” My sister bought an 18th Century-style straw hat, which is just as wearable on the beach as it would be for a costume. You get to see how all sorts of Colonial trades worked (blacksmithing, weaving, etc.). We visited the courthouse, which is an original building that has been used in several films.

The Capitol building was really fabulous (again, I’ve spotted it in several historical films). We got to watch the docent manufacture and carry through a trial with actors plucked from our tour group. The tour groups are huge, but this one was great because you got to fill up the parliamentary room. And of course, since most things are reconstructed, they are not persnickety about letting you sit on or touch things that look like historical gems. Except at the George Wythe House.

George Wythe was a philosopher and professor during the Colonial and Young Republic periods, and his original house stands within the “park” of Colonial Williamsburg. DO NOT EVEN TRY to chew gum in the George Wythe House. My mom got busted, to the amusement of her daughters. It was a bit like whip-lash to go from the “prop your feet up” mentality of all of the reconstructed buildings to the strict reverence for this historical house, but as long as you are forewarned, you will be alright.

There is a calendar of events for each day in the “park.” You can get a handheld copy at the visitor center, but I highly recommend downloading the app, which gives daily updates and neat tidbits you would otherwise miss. We saw on the app that there was a Fife and Drum assembly and presented ourselves at the proper time. And lo! Down the street come scores of irritated middle schoolers dressed in Colonial garb and marching to the beat of drums. They lined up and took off to the music of the flutes and drums they were playing, and it was neat to watch that visual history. I think there is another group you can see that consists of adults, but honestly, the kids were very talented.

One really great thing about Colonial Williamsburg is the food. The King’s Arms Tavern serves up Colonial fare and is quite tasty. There was a fantastic restaurant on Merchant’s Square, the street that kind of marks the end of the “park” area and the beginning of the regular town. (Don’t worry, everything is still very Colonial in Merchant’s Square. There was even ice skating.)

Speaking of Merchant’s Square, some of the shops were truly amazing. We finally got to go in Scotland House, and I bought a great necklace with the Colquhoun (pronounced Cuh-hoon or Calhoun, or, by my family wing, Cowan) crest. I also now have a scarf in the Colquhoun tartan, which my sister bought me there on a recent trip, so you can find great stuff if you have some Scottish or Scots-Irish family history and know your clan! We also bought some Christmas ornaments at some of the other shops. The quality is fantastic.

The one thing I will say is that Christmas seems to be a bit of a tricky time for Colonial Williamsburg. Summer is obviously their big season, but they expect (and have) many tourists at Christmas. However, I believe they are also preparing to go into maintenance mode in January. Therefore, some of the shops weren’t open, and not everything was quite fully staffed. For instance, we had been planning to go to a musical recital at Bruton Parish Episcopal Church (a fabulous building which is three centuries old and which hosted many historical figures), but we, and the others lining up, were told that they would only have the performance if they could get at least two volunteer interpreters to come into work. Why put it on the schedule if it’s not going to happen, we wondered?

I should also mention something that first-time visitors might not know: Not everything Williamsburg does is covered in your admission ticket. There are some things, such as dinner with Thomas Jefferson, certain theatricals, etc. which sound really great but that you have to book (and pay for) separately. And book in advance if you want to do them. All of the extras were entirely booked by the time we got there. Still, there is a lot to do under a general admission ticket.

One thing that was super convenient was that the bus picks you up at various stops throughout Colonial Williamsburg, so you don’t have to kill yourself to walk back to your original stop. Just keep up with your map to locate all of the stops, and you’ll be set.

Outside of the park, we took a drive out to Newport News, since we had never seen it. It totally wasn’t worth it because of a torrential downpour. We came back and decided to go to the movies because of said torrential downpour and ended up at Movie Tavern (everything is a “tavern” in Williamsburg!), where they bring you a menu, and you order your supper during the movie. Our movie happened to be Mary Poppins Returns. We really enjoyed that.

It’s also worth driving by the (quite expensive) Williamsburg Inn to see the gentleman in full Colonial garb waiting to assist the lodgers as they drive up.

Also, we drove out to Yorktown, which is just a gorgeous little town – so picturesque!  That ended up being one of our favorite parts of the trip.

On the way home, we decided to take the second of the two routes for a change of scenery. This involved going quite near to Appomattox Court House National Historic Park, a Civil War stop on a decidedly Colonial trip. We decided we would drive in, even though we knew the Park was closed due to the government shut down during that time. That sounds like a bummer, doesn’t it, not to be able to actually go in and see the buildings? And it was. But there was a silver lining: we got to see the cite of Lee’s surrender to Grant totally devoid of tourists from high on a field nearby. We could see the entire little town with houses and the courthouse, and there was just something special about the peace and tranquility of the scene that we wouldn’t have gotten if the Park had been open. (By the way, if you want the same experience, the Park is currently closed again due to the quarantine.)

As a side-note, we also passed quite near Jefferson’s second home, Poplar Forest. I was game but decided not to harass my fellow-travelers, who bear with my historical enthusiasm admirably, and who were at this point exhausted.

And then…the really long drive home!

I hope you have enjoyed this Southern Road Trips series! I’m sure there will be more in the future, but that winds up our series of 5 December girls’ trips. Thanks for following us on the ride!

Southern Road Trip #4: Charleston, SC

We’re continuing our road trip through the South! In December 2016, it was my sister’s turn to choose and plan our girls’ trip, and she put together an awesome itinerary for a trip to Charleston, South Carolina.

  1. Charleston, South Carolina (December 2016)

Starting with our trip to Natchez, we began making fairly elaborate itineraries for our December girls’ trips. I don’t recommend strict itineraries if you are going on a relaxing vacation or a rambling road trip, but I do highly recommend them when there are several things you want to see and limited time. You save the time you would spend searching for a restaurant or tourist attraction and are able to put that much time back into exploring and taking in the culture. My sister compiled a beautiful itinerary for Charleston that started with, “Please do not blame Hannah for any problems that may arise.” This was our fourth trip, and by now, we had a catalogue of funny stories from things that went wrong, and she isn’t the sister of two lawyers for nothing.

On Day 1, we departed and drove to the Hampton Inn in West Ashley, a suburb of Charleston. Hannah was careful to put even the address of the hotel on the itinerary, which is another time-saver. We went up the road for dinner at a barbecue place and then just drove around the city. That might seem like wasted time, but it is actually what I remember most, seeing the Battery at night. Charleston abounds with beautiful mansions, and they know how to show them off with lights and fountains, etc. at night. It was one of those situations where someone is yelling, “Look over there! Oh, my gosh, this one is so pretty!” so much that you get whiplash.

On Day 2, we had breakfast at the hotel and then drove to Middleton Place for a tour. I will just warn you: the price was a nosebleed that left us standing there stunned for a few minutes before finally deciding it was worth it. The gardens there are extensive, and you get to ramble through them before you tour the house. Middleton Place is rather famous for its grass stairs leading down to the Ashley River. It looks like something you would see at a European castle. When we were planning the itinerary and narrowing down the house museums that we would tour, the moment I saw a picture of those grass stairs, I knew we had to go. And then…we promptly forgot to look at the stairs. Yes, I’m not kidding. We were afterwards so mad at ourselves for this that we still talk about it (jokingly, of course, sort of) as one of our life’s greatest regrets. But anyway, we enjoyed the gardens. The house tour was actually just a tour of what they call a “flanker” in Charleston. Charlestonian architecture often consisted of a main house in the center flanked by two long, separate wings. The main house and flanker were burned during the Civil War when the Union broke through the Confederate lines in the Spring of 1865. Therefore, the house tour wasn’t the most awe-inspiring I have ever experienced, but there were some pretty neat things about it, such as, for instance, the family had converted the flanker into a house once their lands were returned to them by the federal government, and they produced a very talented female artist in the family. (Side-note: I half-fictionalize this family and house in the Torn Asunder Series.)

Next stop was Edmonston-Alston House on the Battery. (Another side-note: I used this house as partial inspiration for the Ravenel-Thompson House which Adeline is restoring in the Torn Asunder series.) Edmonston-Alston is, in contrast to Middleton Place, a town house overlooking the Charleston Battery, so it has a very different vibe. My favorite room was the very unusual library. In contrast to most libraries of its time, it has white bookshelves and a very sunny feel. The balconies which look out over the harbor are absolutely magnificent. The residents stood on them and watched the Battle of Fort Sumter. The house is actually connected by family to Middleton Place, so these tours are great to do back-to-back.

From there, we went to Poogan’s Porch, where we had lunch. The house special that day were sweet potato dumplings with collard greens. It was to-die-for. I should mention that Charleston cuisine is “fancy.” It is a mix of French, Gullah-Geechee, and Southern cooking. It takes you just a moment to get used to it, and then you’re ready to try all sorts of new things. They have many world-renowned chefs in Charleston, so you may try many creative and delicious dishes, or you can just stick with the city special: shrimp and grits.

The Charleston City Market was next on the itinerary. We had to mark it off the list because we ran out of time, but I went on a subsequent trip, so I can highly recommend it. You’ll find local crafts, including the famous seagrass baskets. When my sister and I went in 2019, we struck up a conversation with a brother-sister duo with a Gullah-Geechee family history of making baskets. We told them about our family history of making split oak baskets in Woodbury, Tennessee, and they were very interested and told us we should come sell them at the Market, since no one sells split oak there. Not a horrible idea, if only we knew how to make them!

Next stop: Drayton Hall! This house was THE inspiration for Santarella, so if you visit, you will pretty much know what Shannon’s country house looked like! (Note: Drayton is on the Ashley River, and I placed Santarella on the Sea Islands, so there is a slight difference there.) The house is still owned by descendants (as is Edmonston-Alston), and they still have get-togethers there. I can’t remember if this is the reason there is no furniture in the house or if it’s because they have placed a real emphasis on preserving the bones of the house. And they have done an exceptional job of that. There is a colonial vibe in the house, since it is that old, and the double staircase really made my sister freak out. There is even an emphasis on preserving the old trees and vegetation surrounding the house, so you really get the feeling that the property is in good hands. Like Middleton, there used to be two flankers surrounding Drayton, but now, only the main structure stands.

Finally for that day, we had dinner at the West Ashley Crab Shack, which was delicious. And that was the close of an extremely busy day!

We slept soundly that night and woke up the next morning and had breakfast at the hotel again. Then we drove out to Boone Hall. You may know it from its appearances on movies and shows, particularly from North and South, where it was used as Orry Main’s family plantation – help me here, Mont Royal? Anyway, for that reason, it is probably the most touristy of the house museums in Charleston, featuring wagon rides over the property and fun activities like that for families. We were given a house tour by an extremely charismatic gentleman in a period-appropriate costume. Our Tennessee accents came up again since he needed help conceptualizing the Southern accent for the rest of the large tour group, most of whom weren’t from the South.

After that, we had planned a carriage tour, but we were either exhausted or it rained, because we marked it off. We went instead to Jestine’s Kitchen, which featured excellent Southern cooking, Charleston-style.

Then we drove out to Sullivan’s Island, another memorable part of the trip. It was December, but warm enough we took a refreshing walk on the beach before going to a restaurant on the island called the Obstinate Daughter, a play on Charleston’s Revolutionary War roots. This was DELICIOUS. I had a cold shrimp sandwich and Geechee Frites, which were actually fries made of grits. The whole meal was a play on Charleston’s shrimp and grits theme. We also went to a gelato place called Beardcat’s next door, where I tried red velvet cookie dough gelato. Heavenly.

We drove around a neighboring island, Folly Beach, one of the days we were there. There was an excellent ice cream place there called Dolce Banana. Are you sensing a theme here? I blame my sister.

On Day 4, we woke up, had breakfast at the hotel again, and then drove out to James Island to tour McLeod Plantation. We argued the entire way there about how that would be pronounced. (It is pronounced Mick-Loud run together really fast so that you hear the word “cloud”. I think. My mom had guessed right, and I was wrong, for the record!) This was our first experience of a sea island plantation, so again, there was a very different feel from the others. The masters and their families spent very little time on their Sea Island plantations, so you can really feel the influences of the Gullah Geechee culture that were able to ripen on such plantations. This tour focused on the enslaved people who had once lived and worked on the island, and the curators had done a remarkable job finding names and stories of those people to share and bringing their experiences to life. There were descendants of those once enslaved living at McLeod all the way through the 1990’s. There is some fascinating history about the enslaved on the Sea Islands during the Civil War, but I won’t spoil it: you’ll have to go yourself to find out!

Go to this link to learn all about Edmonston-Alston and Middleton and to see those stairs at Middleton: https://www.edmondstonalston.org/about/

Alright, that’s a wrap! Next time: we’re going back to Virginia!

Southern Road Trip #3: Natchez, Mississippi

This post continues my Southern Road Trip Series, which are blogs I am posting for #traveltuesdays. The story continues with a girls’ trip to Vicksburg and Natchez, Mississippi, in December, 2015.

  1. Natchez, Mississippi

This week’s stop…Mississippi! Every year, we take turns planning the trips, and this year was my sister-in-law’s turn. She took us first to Vicksburg, where we hoped to see some fabulous history. Since it is a bit of a drive to Vicksburg, we went first to eat at a restaurant downtown and then hopped back in the car to go to the battlefield in the last hour of daylight we had. Normally, there would have been a charge to drive through, but since we made it so late, they waved us on through the gate – bonus!

I cannot say enough about how beautiful the Vicksburg National Military Park is. The views are breath-taking. The Union monuments were beautiful. Vicksburg is unexpectedly very hilly right there on the banks of the Mississippi River. You really get a feel for the siege and battle which took place, and, being a dork, I find things like that rather moving.

That night, we stayed in a Hampton Inn which featured a cannon on the front lawn. Try to beat that, history lovers! Then we took a drive through Vicksburg, hoping to find some historic homes to tour. Sadly, there are plenty of historic homes, but they are falling into disrepair and dilapidation. Calling all preservationists! Seriously, Vicksburg is a gem waiting to be discovered. Unfortunately, the historic buildings will either disintegrate beyond repair or be torn down if no money or care is put into them.  A rather sad fate for such an important city during the Civil War.

Okay, that’s my historic preservation pitch! Moving on, I was agog to see one of the caves which the citizens of Vicksburg had dug in order to protect themselves from the Union’s 47-day siege. They had fitted such caves out like houses, with furniture and cooking equipment, etc. (Lest you think this is cute, things got pretty rough in there – we’re talking rat-eating.) But when I asked at the Military Park where I could find one, they told me that they were all privately owned. However, the Park Museum did have a very good replica inside, so I was satisfied.

Onward to Natchez! From there, we slid on down to Natchez, which is one of the most fabulous Southern cities I have ever visited. It is positively teeming with beautifully preserved antebellum homes, has great food, and boasts sweeping vistas of the Mississippi River. Just be forewarned that all of the restaurants are closed on Mondays.

We toured Rosalie Plantation first, which was absolutely stunning with Greek Revival columns, a view of the Mississippi, and a great story.  From there, we toured Stanton Hall, a mansion all in white, which was one of my favorites due to its architecture and clean look.

Then, it was on to Longwood, one of the creepiest (and most fabulous) places I have ever toured. It was built in an octagon shape and had sooo many levels of floors, but on the inside, only the first/basement floor was completed before the war… And that’s all that was ever completed. So you walk into this massive and exquisite house to find that it’s largely a shell. It is the oldest incomplete home in America. This tour was very moving due to the story of the people, owner and enslaved, who lived there. (It is this blog’s feature picture.)

My sister-in-law had arranged for us to spend the night at Historic Monmouth Inn. It is an antebellum plantation turned bed and breakfast, and it was an extremely cozy experience. A bellhop meets you to help with your baggage and takes you to your rooms. Yes, the room where you spend the night looks straight out of a Civil War film. There are free appetizers right before suppertime, as well as cocktails for those who imbibe made by a man named Roosevelt, who has worked at Monmouth for many years and is apparently a legend. You have free range of the house at night, which is both wonderful and eerie. Also, the gift shop stays open late, so my sister and I slipped down and bought my mom a Christmas ornament since she collects them from our December trips.

The next morning included breakfast at a venue across the lawn, and I specifically remember a British family being there and taking great interest in our accents. Also included was a tour of Monmouth, during which I got inspiration for one of my novels from a letter the docent read us. Hint: I’ll tell you about it when we get to Book 3 of the Torn Asunder Series.

We wanted to tour Melrose Plantation and went there and took some fabulous pictures of it, but tours didn’t start until an hour later, so we had to hit the road back home. And I will just say that, with all of those house museums I have mentioned, we barely scratched the surface of all of the houses in Natchez. In addition, there is something distinct and lovely about Natchez which sticks with you – it’s a little bit New Orleans, a little bit Memphis, and a little bit pinky in the air posh.

We were sad to leave, but we hopped on the Natchez Trail…and nearly ran out of gas miles from anywhere. But we survived!

See you next time!

Stop #4 is…Charleston! You heard me. 😊