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Birney Imes: Behind the scenes at Whitehall


Birney Imes



Friday morning at 8:30 Carol Boggess is wiping down the front porch of her antebellum home with an old towel. It is the third day of Columbus'' 71st annual Pilgrimage and in 30 minutes company will be coming. 


In the past 24 hours Boggess has mowed, pulled weeds, run a leaf blower and baked dozens of chocolate chip cookies for the 40 or so friends and volunteers who will serve as hostesses in the antebellum home she lives in with her husband, Joe. 


This is the fifth year the Boggesses have opened Whitehall to pilgrimage visitors. They acquired the house in 2004 and then spent two years giving it a loving restoration. In February 2006 they moved in and two months later opened their doors to pilgrims. 


Whitehall was Joe''s family home and his mother, Mary Frances, had the house on tour for many years. In fact, newlywed Carol got her Pilgrimage chops serving as hostess for her mother-in-law, about whom she speaks with deep affection. Joe, when he''s not helping Carol wipe down the porch or prune shrubs and trees in their expansive yard, moonlights as an otolaryngologist. In Joe''s father''s day they were called eye, ear and nose doctors, and Joe''s dad, Julian a.k.a. Juicy, was one, too. 


Barbara Walker of Possumtown Quilters pulls up in front of the house and begins unloading a quilting frame, folding chairs and a partially finished quilt. She and Annette Pennington will set up on the porch and quilt throughout the morning. 


As Walker unloads, the peripatetic editor of Genesis Press, Deborah Johnson, walks up, hoop skirt in hand. Deborah is the second of hostess to arrive, the first being Marrissa Alcantara, most recently of Seattle, Wash., and now of Columbus Air Force Base. She is one of about 20 women from CAFB who are helping Boggess. 


Alcantara, who has startlingly large brown eyes, is of Filipino and English parentage. "My mother is British, very British," she says. "Tea every afternoon." 


Alcantara has been in Columbus for six weeks and about her new home says, "It''s definitely different being down South. A lot more history." 


By now Carol, still in running shoes, leisure pants and a pink knit top, is inside perking up a floral arrangement on the dining room table with azaleas from her yard. Lane Pierrot, a friend, provided the flowers, just as family friend Dot McIntyre did for Carol''s mother-in-law years ago. 


She then moves to the kitchen arranging refreshments for her hostesses. Below the kitchen on the ground floor, women are changing into hoop skirts and the sound of their laughter drifts up the stairway. 


"The trick is to make it look like nobody does anything," Boggess explains, as she touches up a small mountain of cookies on a large round platter. She then wipes off the counter with her shirt sleeve and disappears. 


As the 9 o''clock hour approaches, the house slowly begins to fill with antimated women and beautiful children in long hooped dresses. It is all so odd, yet it seems perfectly normal. There is nothing stilted or pretentious about it. Everyone seems relaxed and to be enjoying themselves, and were it not for a large flat-screen TV mounted on the parlor wall, a visitor would be hard pressed to name the century he was visiting. 


Hostess Melanie Hintz is there with her three daughters, Guilia, Kathryn and Caroline. The youngest, Caroline, who is 5 and will be the ticket taker, possesses the wide-eyed charm of a child who is both beautiful and curious. 


At 9:10 the first guests, Margaret Dyer and her "good friend" Shannan Brown of Scotts Hill, TN., arrive. Ms. Brown is wearing a pink T-shirt with the word "Army" emblazoned on its front. The two women are greeted by Boggess who is now elegant head to toe in a frilly pink hoop-skirted dress and with a white silk shawl around her shoulders. If they had been inclined to speculate, the women from Tennessee might have assumed their greeter spent the previous hour drinking mint tea and engaged in idle chatter as she awaited their arrival. 


"The house was built in 1843 by James Walton Harris, a prominent attorney and planter, who made a fortune on cotton ... " Boggess begins. 


Her voice is soft, unhurried, assured. 


Putting one''s house on the pilgrimage is anything but leisurely. It is a lot of work, expense and could not be done without the kindness of friends and strangers. The efforts of these women bring into the community untold amounts of tourist dollars. 


Boggess keeps a Pilgrimage manual, a large three-ring binder filled with pages of carefully printed names of hostesses, friends who help and recipes, some of them dating generations back. She estimates she will spend as much as $1,500 on gifts and a luncheon for her hostesses. And then there is the care and feeding of a 150-year-old house. The Boggesses pressure washed and repainted their two-story mansion last year, an expense they might have delayed had they not been on the tour. 


It''s a labor of love, one that is routinely underappreciated. 


"It''s wonderful to be able to contribute to the community," Boggess says. She considers herself a caretaker more than a homeowner. "Everybody that walks through that front door is a new friend." 


Upon leaving, a guest stops to visit with Deborah Johnson, who is positioned in a room near the front door. Johnson, a writer, is a strikingly handsome woman, who before coming to Columbus, lived in Rome. She is African American and the guest asks her about the seemingly incongruity of a black woman serving in what is perceived by some as a celebration of the Old South. 


"The reason I do this," says Johnson, is that Carol is a good friend." 


This simple and disarming response makes further discussion of the subject unnecessary, and they move to another topic. 


By now more visitors are arriving. The women are smiling, the children laughing. 


As the guest leaves, Boggess, still on the front porch, shakes his hand. 


"In a way, we are all family," she tells him. "Now you are part of that family."


Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.


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Reader Comments

Article Comment sutter commented at 4/4/2011 3:08:00 PM:

Whitehall and the boggess family in my high school days with bill, bin, and beth boggess and paco and buddy parks...who all lived there...touch football games and spending the out of a novel hangout experience for us back then...what memories....and the neighborhood friends would make it even more fun! great stories bring back great memories! thanks! tom brown


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