Welcome, Pilgrims: Columbus Air Force Base volunteers join in annual spring rite

March 19, 2011 5:47:00 PM

Jan Swoope - [email protected]


"We had probably been here only hours before someone was telling us about Pilgrimage," smiled Nancy Seguin Tuesday, the bell-shaped skirt of her emerald green gown swaying gently as she moved gracefully through the high-ceilinged parlor of Whitehall. "It''s one of the things people not just in town, but on the base, too, wanted to tell us about as soon as we moved here." 


The Seguins came to Columbus in July 2010, when Col. Barre R. Seguin, Nancy''s husband, became commander of the 14th Flying Training Wing at Columbus Air Force Base.  


Only eight months later, Nancy and the Seguin children -- Marie, 13, Sonia, 10, and Barre, 8 -- are outfitted and excited about serving as hosts when the portal to Columbus'' antebellum past opens for the 71st Spring Pilgrimage March 28 through April 9. They are among the 75 to 100 CAFB spouses, personnel and their children expected to help greet visitors from every part of the nation, even the globe during this annual rite of spring. 


"Columbus Air Force Base will be represented at every home and at every garden on the Pilgrimage tour," said Nancy Carpenter, interim director of the Columbus-Lowndes County Convention and Visitors Bureau. "The Air Base has been such a special part of Columbus since 1940, and we are most grateful to them for taking such an interest in our history and the future of our city." 


For the Seguins, Mississippi was a stark change of scenery. For the 14 months prior to moving, Col. Seguin had been stationed in South Korea. Nancy and the children were living in Belgium. Except for an 11-month posting in Montgomery, Ala., where Sonia was born, this is the family''s only experience in the deep South. 


"The people have been so warm and welcoming to us, and their support of the base is amazing," said Seguin, who has also lived in Italy, Germany, Arizona and Virginia, among other locales.  




A bullet and a belle 


At Whitehall, the 1843 antebellum home of Dr. Joe and Carol Boggess on Third Street South, the Seguins pay close attention as the lady of the house shares stories of the pillared mansion that has been owned and occupied by only two families in its 168 years.  


Marie, Sonia and Barre are captivated when shown a large bullet dating back to the later 1800s. 


"We dug this out of the woodwork around the front door during renovation in 2006," says Carol, looking every inch a Southern belle in a pale lavender gown. She tells the children of a post-Civil War incident when a rowdy contingent went riding, shooting and burning in Columbus. One of the buildings lost to fire was the beautiful stable of Whitehall.  


"Joe likes to say this is proof we were the first ride-by shooting in Columbus," Carol smiles, holding the dented slug. And then, there is the window pane upstairs, where a young Ida Billups long ago scratched her name. Or the treble clef-shaped newel post on the main staircase, the "signature" of architect James Lull, who designed several of the city''s historic homes. These are only a few of Whitehall''s highlights. Every home on tour has their own, offering a glimpse into another place in time. 


Like other Pilgrimage homeowners, Boggess is grateful for the willing hostesses and hosts from CAFB. 


"This is volunteerism at its finest," she stressed. "Their whole lives are about serving, so it''s no surprise they volunteer. They make it possible for us to present these homes to the public. Without them, it couldn''t be done." 




Dress the part 


The first requisite for a Pilgrimage hostess is, of course, the ruffles, lace and hoop skirts typical of the antebellum period. Thanks to a generous contribution of dresses by Ambassador Robert Pugh and his wife, Thelma, and other donors, the CAFB volunteers have the luxury of visiting the "dress shop" on base for their finery. 


This space in the "old post office" has temporarily given way to racks of dresses, voluminous skirts and petticoats. The well-oiled process of finding and fitting hostesses works thanks to people like Marti Ross, who served in several homes last year with her husband, Vice Commander Col. George Ross. Chris Stater also helps coordinate the operation. 


"When someone contacts us that they''re interested in volunteering, we set up a time they came come in. When it gets busy, sometimes those hoop skirts go flying," she laughed. "And we would be lost without people like Patricia Wilson, who sews and refurbishes the dresses, and Crystal Branco, who''s been very heavily involved." 






The elegant centerpieces of Pilgrimage are, of course, the homes. Eleven of them, along with the gardens of four homes, join three churches on tours.  


"There is absolutely no way we can adequately thank the homeowners for their gift to the community," said Carpenter. "The small stipend they receive doesn''t begin to cover their preparation. The city owes them gratitude for the great benefits they bring. Already, we have tours from Nashville, Mobile and Birmingham, and have received requests from virtually across the United States."  


Pilgrimage visitors spend multiple nights in local hotels and bed and breakfasts, shop in our stores and enjoy local cuisine, Carpenter stated, adding thanks to shop owners, restaurants and other businesses for the "sprucing up" that impresses pilgrims. 


The final week of preparation will bring on a flurry of check lists for the city, the Cultural Heritage Foundation, Convention and Visitors Bureau, businesses, homeowners, hostesses and hosts. The last silver will be polished and lace added to the dresses. To produce a successful Pilgrimage, it truly does take a village -- and that includes the many willing volunteers, like the Seguins. 


"I''ve never encountered anything like this before -- it''s very special and it''s an honor to be able to do this," said Seguin. "Small towns can have a lot of character, a lot of special places, tucked away in them; Columbus certainly has that. When you discover those special places, you discover the town."  




Pilgrimage highlights

Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.