March 17, 2012 3:53:04 PM
BY JAN SWOOPE
Flames danced in Temple Heights' kitchen house fireplace Wednesday, in spite of wilting temperatures outside. A heavy, black pot of greens hung on an iron swivel arm, soon to bubble above the open fire.
An errant ember rolled onto the hearth, settling near sweet potatoes and cornbread destined for dinner. Lois Lett-Swindle quickly pushed it back to the hot ashes, using a tool typical of what a Columbus smithy might have forged more than 150 years ago.
This plain one-room structure is dwarfed by the grand four-story antebellum home only a dozen steps away, but it retains a rustic character. It once was a hub of activity and intense labor, where meals were prepared for those living and working at Temple Heights.
During the 72nd Columbus Spring Pilgrimage March 26 through April 7, 13 impressive homes will be the belles of the ball. But, for the curious pilgrim there are nuggets of the past to be discovered, too, off the beaten path, in outbuildings -- like the kitchen house -- that are open for tour or viewing.
"We'll have cooking going on here in the kitchen house during our candlelight tours," said Butler, who is preparing for her 43rd consecutive Pilgrimage. She explained the current structure is the "new, modern" kitchen, built in 1850. The house is circa 1837. Most large homes of the period had kitchens built separately from the house, primarily to reduce the risk of fire, but also odors, heat and noise.
Butler noted clues from the past. The smaller size of the fireplace indicates the probable presence of a pot-bellied stove, eliminating the need for a massive fireplace to handle all the cooking. The building was also at one time used as an office.
After Butler and her late husband, Carl, began restoring Temple Heights in the late 1960s, the kitchen house was repaired and furnished to look as it might have done in its past lives. Now, it offers a glimpse into time, before the age of running water and microwaves.
"Whenever I do things in the kitchen house, I'm reminded of how easy it is for us to run out and get anything we want," said Lett-Swindle, who conducts tours of the home, kitchen and gardens. "We can do in a few minutes what it would have taken someone then all day to do."
Another slice of the past
"There are so many wonderful stories in some of these old buildings, like the kitchens, the coach houses and smokehouses that have been preserved," said Nancy Carpenter, executive director of the Columbus Lowndes Convention and Visitors Bureau and Columbus Cultural Heritage Foundation, which present the Pilgrimage.
"There are approximately 13 outbuildings at various tour homes, which is very unique," she added. "A few were moved here, but the majority are original to the properties, and some are available to tour."
When Waverley Mansion was constructed, it stood in the middle of thousands of acres of cotton and farmland northwest of Columbus. Visitors to this, one of the most photographed homes in the South, are encouraged to take a closer look, and step into the separate "old cotton office" that predates the 1852 dwelling by several years.
"The bricks were actually made by George Hampton Young, who built Waverley, in a kiln here on the property," said Jimmy Denning, who conducts tours and is well-versed in the home's history. After the Robert Snow family purchased the house in 1962, they found evidence of ledgers, and even ammunition stores, in the small building that has since been transformed into an antique shop.
Closer to the center of Columbus, Rosewood Manor had been completed in 1835. But it was when current owners Dewitt and Grayce Hicks came across a diminutive, weathered chapel that a finishing touch was added to the property.
"The roof was gone, the ceiling was falling in, it was eaten up by varmints -- but the stained glass windows were intact and that was what made it," shared Grayce Hicks, describing her first sight of the little building.
Now restored and furnished with accouterment any rector would be proud of, the near 135-year-old chapel boasts its original alter rail and pews (seating 20 to 24 people). And the cherished windows -- with crosses that appear gold from the interior and black from the outside -- were all preserved.
"So many people want to be married in this tiny chapel; we've had 15 weddings," smiled Hicks.
At Keith and Chrissy Heard's Bryn Bella in northern Lowndes County, pilgrims get a literal taste of Southern hospitality at the smokehouse. Keith's brother, Tiny Heard of Brooksville, cooks succulent meats on a wood stove for visitors to sample. He explains how the crucial smoking process worked in 1848, when the home was being completed.
Most large antebellum properties had some form of carriage house. The one at Whitehall (circa 1843) on Third Street South has been preserved, and homeowners Dr. Joe and Carol Boggess hope it will soon house, as it once did, Mrs. T.W. Hardy's carriage used to transport President William H. Taft around Columbus on his Nov. 2, 1909, visit.
A few blocks away, Rachel Baskerville George is diligently restoring Baskerville Manor (formerly Hamilton Hall) on Third Avenue North. That includes the "only standing coach house in Lowndes County," George said.
The back of the home, built around 1830, was a tavern and coach stop for travelers on Military Road. The front of the home was added later, circa 1860. The house and outbuilding will be open for architectural tours during Pilgrimage.
"In the coach house, there was a grooms' room, which is now going to be a bathroom, and a stable for horses, now a bedroom," George stated.
"I love this house, and I love Pilgrimage," she said, echoing the sentiment of other homeowners. "I've done Pilgrimage every year since I was 19 months old, in a dress!" she laughed, remembering how she served as a host alongside her mother and father.
"Without the wonderful homeowners and the gracious volunteers who help host, there would be no Pilgrimage," said Carpenter. "There is no way to thank them adequately."
She continued, "We're thrilled to welcome visitors from so many different states and foreign countries to Columbus, and we encourage every resident of the Golden Triangle to become a 'tourist' themselves if they haven't been on a tour in recent years. There's just so much to see and do."
And while discovering, consider the past that may require a second glance, a pause to imagine the flow of life in humbler structures beyond the main house. Sometimes, the "hidden" history waits in plain sight.
Editor's note: For a schedule of tours and other Pilgrimage events, contact the Columbus Cultural Heritage Foundation at 800-920-3533, visit columbus-ms.org, or pick up a brochure at the Tennessee Williams Welcome Center or at retail locations in the Golden Triangle.
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.