by Nicholas Elder, Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science
As I walk up the stairs from the street I crane my neck to admire the towering house as it radiates in the setting sun. Candles and torches are just being lit around the grounds while I walk up the steps, warped beneath the weight of years of Mississippi summers. The air is heavy with the sharp-sweet scent of wisteria, azaleas, and kerosene. I make my way to the front door and have to bend down to reach the doorknob before turning the ancient latch and pushing the door open. Some aspects of the antebellum home of Temple Heights do not make themselves conducive to men over six-foot tall wearing coat-tails and an ascot. Once inside I straighten my jacket and glance around, skimming through the ruffles and hoop-skirts for Mrs. Butler, the owner of the house. She asks if I can do garden tours tonight and get her a shawl. I oblige on both accounts.
I have been volunteering at the antebellum home in Columbus, Mississippi, for a little over a week now, giving tours to the visitors that flock to the historic gem during Pilgrimage in early April. I have memorized the stories of owners long past and told them as my own and I have enough facts about the house in my back pocket to last an entire evening. It’s Tuesday night, and the tours are off to a slow start. The garden is the last part of the house they see before returning to their cars and driving back to the twenty-first century. I waste some time by walking the grounds on the brick path laid in 1853. A slow trickle of water whispers from the original 27-foot deep well as I stroll past. In the back of the formal garden is a marble statue of a nude bather, illuminated by a solitary candle. I nod in her direction – we are old acquaintances by now. I pass behind the kitchen and skirt the edge of a marble drinking fountain that has been moved from the center of Main Street. The tiki-torches lend just enough light to make out the name T. Harris, a previous owner of the house. Up a small flight of stairs is where I take a break in my stroll to simply admire the house. High above the street, framed by tall oaks, candles, lanterns, torches, and wisteria, the view from this southeastern corner allows me to see Mrs. Butler at the front door greeting visitors and a silhouette of a girl, a fellow volunteering classmate in the open door of the second-story balcony. I head along the south side of the house, past the arcade, and again stop to examine the small tombstone in the bed of flowers. It’s unmarked except for three letters: C.S.A.: Confederate States of America. This is the final resting place of an unknown soldier from the Civil War. Still no visitors.
As I head inside, I pass the wisteria and feel its silence. The bumble-bees that had been jostling for a position at the fragrant flower buds when I arrived at dusk have receded with the daylight. At the front door, I stop again. Carved in a glass pane next to the door, in practiced cursive, is the name Annie Fontaine – a mark left from a little girl that lived in the house over a century ago. Twelve candles line the candle board above the front door, a beacon for visitors. Inside, I take time to glance around the foyer and formal dining room. The deep blue foyer walls contrast with the light wood-grain color of the door, dark pine floor, and black and white images of influential figures of the 18th and 19th centuries. The yellow dining room is set with furniture and food, and flickering candles shed light from mantles and tables and walls. I stand at the foot of the stairs in the foyer, hands clasped behind my back, chin up, trying to blend in as much as possible. After waiting a few slow minutes, and realizing that the tour groups in the house are still a few rooms from the garden, I head up stairs to see my friend that I spotted from the garden. She points out how difficult it is to sit in a hoop skirt before I can even fidget with my ascot. She takes me into one of the bedrooms and raises up a corner of a mattress, pointing out that it rests on a net of ropes. “They would tighten the ropes at night before bed. So now you know where the phrase ‘sleep tight’ comes from!”
After my small history lesson upstairs, I head downstairs, to the informal dining room on the bottom level of the house. Another friend is practicing her script one last time before a group comes. I am her practice dummy. She points out the air vents in the walls to take cold air up to the formal dining room above us, the hand-hewn pine beams that are inches above my head, and the boards above those, which are the floorboards of the dining room above us. We hear footsteps on the stairs and she shoos me out. Finally, a tour!
I head to the kitchen, a separate building, to bring news that a group is on their way. I’m asked to throw a log on the fire, and I do, before admiring the furnishings in the small building. The fire and a dozen candles provide the light illuminating the small cherry drop-leaf table set with Staffordshire ceramic plates. A bed and a cupboard are on one wall, along with a spinning wheel. Antlers are mounted on the other wall. Again, I’m rushed out as the tour group comes. I show them the gardens right after the kitchen. As I wait, I glance toward the Brown house, the original kitchen and slave quarters (the other one is the “modern” one built in 1850), and ponder what it must have been like to sleep in the attic of the building in the Mississippi summer. I begin to sweat at the thought of it. Finally, the visitors step out of the kitchen and head my way. I put on a smile and begin:
“Hello, and welcome to the gardens of Temple Heights…..”
Categories: Historic Preservation