Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Natchez Historic Cemetery and Tableau

The Natchez City Cemetery is quite beautiful in springtime.  Large live oaks line the lanes of the garden-like park.  Blooming rows of azalea bushes mark a stark contrast to the white gravestones.
 We chose to make the Natchez City Cemetery one of our stops while in the area because of the “Turning Angel”, she is pictured below.  
 She does not physically turn under the power of some mechanical device, which was what I had imagined. Rather, when I walked under the gaze of her eyes, they seemed to follow me.  The angel is placed in a section of the cemetery where victims of the 1908 Natchez gas explosion are buried, and I believe that some of those who died were children. The cemetery, established in 1822, has buried in it the remains of people from as far back as the late 1700s.  Those people were moved from churches and private plantation burial grounds.  While strolling around  the cemetery we noticed a section for the Civil War soldiers, dotted with small  Confederate flags.  There were also Jewish and German sections.  And we looked for evidence of 19th century iron and marble work, which is a notable feature of the burial ground.
Saturday evening we attended The Historic Natchez Tableau.  I believe this is the first time that John and I have ever seen this form of entertainment.  It is a representation of a certain theme (in this case the history of Natchez) by people or groups of people in costume who pose silently.  The tableau depicted the presence of Indians in the Natchez area, followed by the coming of the French and then the British.  Sounds a bit boring, right?  However, the period costumes and musical offerings certainly made for a very entertaining evening.  There was a demonstration of the Virginia Reel and a Maypole Dance.  Riverboat entertainers included performances by actresses representing singer Jenny Lind and ballet dancer Fanny Elser.  The showboat era also had its share of bawdy dancers, as seen in the picture below.  The tableau ended with a soiree depicting southern belles sending their Confederate boyfriends off to war.  We are now driving back to St.Louis where we will be parked for about a month.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Natchez Trails

Natchez has a system of 5 trails, three of which wind through the downtown area.  There is also a nature trail and a bluff trail along the Mississippi River.  John and I felt that we did not have time to take any one particular trail, but instead we wandered around several of the historical streets using as our guide street-side interpretive panels.  This "museum of streets" gave us a good feel for the culture and character of the people of Natchez over the years.  The architectural treasures in this town are amazing, Glen Auburn is one example.  According to the interpretive sign it is "Mississippi's grandest example of French Second Empire style know for its distinctive Mansard roof".  Built in the 1870s, it was owned by one of the town's merchants.
Even more impressive is Stanton Hall, built in 1857.  It is a magnificent Greek Revival mansion with five levels which include a nearly seventeen feet tall first-floor hallway. It was difficult to get an adequate picture showing its immensity because of the trees in front of the house.  Unfortunately we did not tour this one.
We also enjoyed the beautiful gardens surrounding the homes.  The front yard of the home of the Peter Isler house, built in 1818, showcases this quite well.
We took a break from wandering the streets of Natchez to step inside the First Presbyterian Church, built in 1829.  Here we happened to cross the paths of two sweet southern belles, decked out in period garb. They informed us that they just wanted to get into the spirit of the Natchez Spring Pilgrimage.
The rear of the church has an addition, built in1901, which houses an extensive exhibit of historic Natchez photographs from the Civil War era to World War ll.  The portraits show people of all ages and backgrounds,  and their lives while both at work and play.  There are also pictures of the riverboats and river life.  It is the work of three of the town's photographers and certainly added an important dimension to our tour of Natchez.  After seeing the town we drove to its cemetery, which will be in the next posting.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Melrose Estate, Natchez

What a difference several days makes when we are on the road!  We were seeing advertisements for tacos and tamales, and now it is all about muffalettas and boiled crawfish.  Friday, heading northwest out of Texas and coming into Mississippi, we soon were driving through swampland.  We are now parked by the Mississippi River, in Vidalia Louisiana.  Near our park is a bridge over the river, which takes us into Natchez.  Our day Saturday started with a stop at the Grand Village of the Nachez Indianas.  The village was the ceremonial mound center and chief settlement of the Natchez Indians.  After the tribe attacked a French fort in 1729, the French retaliated and destroyed the village.  Now the only reminder of the tribe's presence are a few mounds.  The state park has reconstructed a Natchez house and granary.
For a small town (population around 20,000) Natchez has many antebellum homes, approximately 500.  During the Civil War the town experienced only one shelling ,  it is probably one of the reasons why the older buildings are still intact.  It is a wonderful town to explore by foot.  While wandering around its streets we certainly felt as though we had stepped back into the 19th century when cotton was king and Natchez was an important river port.
There are fourteen 19th-century antebellum houses, some of which are only open for tours during the spring and fall Natchez Pilgrimage Tours.  We had time to visit only one, the Melrose- pictured above.  It is part of the Natchez National Historical Park.  It was built in 1845 by John McMurran a lawyer and land-owner of 5 plantations.  He and his wife Mary Louise were avid readers of Sir Walter Scott.  In one of his works Scott wrote about Melrose Abbey, located in Scotland.  That is how the town estate of  the McMurrans received its name.  We had a tour guide for the main house who was quite the historian on 19th century Natchez.  She claimed that about 85%  of the furnishings of Melrose came from the original family.  Pictured below is the dining room where above the table is a large mahogany "punkah".  When operated by slaves it shooed the flies away from the food and also cooled the diners.  From 1841-1861 the estate employed 8 to twenty five slaves.  Even though this was not a plantation, slaves were needed to tend vegetable gardens and livestock, also to drive the master and mistress in carriages around town (which was located 3 miles away).
Another interesting feature of the house was a sofa, pictured below. The center table can be removed for additional seating.
This is wonderful time of the year here in Natchez; when the camellias and azaleas are still blooming, and wisteria as well as many spring flowers are starting to make their appearance.  All of them can be seen on the grounds of Melrose.  However, for me it is the majestic live oaks which dominate the landscaping.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Spring Wildflowers of Central Texas

 The Texas Department of Transportation is to be commended for the landscaping they have done on the more than 700,00 acres of highway right of way. It was an overcast day Wednesday, but that did not matter at all, our drive on the wildflower trail (FM 390) was a wonderful experience.  We saw many bluebonnets, as well as a variety of other wildflowers as the black-eyed susan, coreopsis,  and a variety of daisies.  The Indian paintbrush could also be seen sprinkled among the bluebonnets.  There were not many of them, except for the patch which is pictured below.
Adding to the beauty of our drive were the verdant rolling hills of prairies and oak woods.  Grazing herds of cattle, goats or sheep completed the bucolic scenery.  It was also a day for us to take in a bit of Texas history.  The end point of our wildflower trail was Independence, Texas where we stopped at Old Baylor Park to see the ruins of Baylor Female Academy.  Only the original columns of the school can now be seen.  The town, founded in 1835, was once a wealthy community surrounded by cotton plantations.  It was also a Baptist stronghold, and the church began building the university in the town in 1845.  In 1886 the university moved to Waco, Texas, where it remains to this day.  Also located in Independence is the home of Sam Houston.  The house, pictured below, was built in the mid-1850s.
We returned to Brenham by late afternoon and decided to stop at Toubin city park to look at an old cistern.  We discovered, by reading interpretive signs located around that park, that the cistern played an important part in Brenham's history.  After the Civil War, in 1866, Union soldiers burned the town- the reasons why they did that are a bit too involved to get into here.  Suffice it for me to say that the town was not happy with the occupation of the Union army and tempers were running hot.  There were limited resources of water to stop the town's buildings from completely burning to the ground, so from 1867-77 the town's fathers had cisterns 7 built for public use.  John was interested in finding the park and the cistern, however, I was still on the hunt for another wildflower which is blooming now, the Indian blanket.  To our surprise, there was a patch of those same flowers near where we parked our car on a street by Toubin Park!

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Cotton Gins and Ice Cream

It was an overcast day Wednesday when headed out to Burton,Texas.  Our basic plan, after a cotton gin tour there, was to take a road north of Burton where reportedly there are fields of wildflowers. We then would end our day at the Blue Bell creamery back in the Brenham, where our home is now parked.  The cotton gin which we toured operated from the years 1914-1974.  Our guide was quite thorough in explaining the whole process and showing us all the equipment involved in ginning cotton.  We first saw the 1925 "Lady B" internal combustion engine which powers the drive shaft of the gin.  It is the only engine of its vintage still operating in America.  In a couple of weeks it will be fired up for the Annual Burton Cotton Gin Festival.  On our tour we also saw the 1883 air system which vacuums the seed cotton from the farmer's wagon and brings it up into the cotton gin.  By the way, the yardman who did that job was the lowest paid worker at the gin- he was called a "sucker".   On the second floor of the building are 5 Lummus 5/80 gins which separate the cotton seed from the lint.  The lint is then packed into are large box from which it is later removed after it was further compressed and metal straps tied around it.  The whole process for one bale took about 12 minutes. Most of the bales averaged a weight of 500 pounds.  At 20 cents a pound in 1920, a bale could bring in about $100.00 for the cotton farmer.  Nothing was wasted in the process- the husk of the cotton boll could be mulched up, some of the seed was used for next year's planting and also set aside as a supplement for cattle feed.  Our guide gave us a handful of the cotton lint as well as some seed.  He encouraged me to plant the seed and gave specific instructions how to care for the plant.  After hearing how involved that process is, I doubt that I will be growing cotton anytime soon!   Cotton is a cousin of hibiscus and okra.
 We left Burton and then pursued our wildflower trail, I will discuss that part of the day in the next posting. 
 Fortunately the rain held off until we arrived at the Blue Bell plant in Brenham. 

The above statue can be found at the creamery, it is one of the trademarks of Blue Bell.  The company has two other plants, I believe in Alabama and Oklahoma.  However, this one in Brenham is its largest and employs about 800 people.  We got in on the last tour of the day.  We toured large rooms of the plant were the milk was piped in from trucks then homogenized and pasteurized.  The cream is then placed in large mixing containers where flavorings are added.  From there the cream is moved into another area where fruits and nuts are mixed.  Blue Bell has 55 different flavors of ice cream.  What was most fascinating to me was to see the slushy cream poured into one-gallon containers, after which the ice cream is placed on another conveyor belt to have its lids dropped in place.  If I remember correctly, 52 half gallon containers of ice cream are packed per minute.  The factory operates five working days a week, the ice cream is mainly sold in our southern states-  who eats all that ice cream???  During the tour our guide commented that one of her favorite slogans of the company is "we eat all we can and sell the rest".  Employees are allowed to snack on the frozen treat free of charge while they are at work. At the end of the tour we received a serving of ice cream.  Guess I know a few people who eat the stuff- including me!

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Ruins of Kreische Brewery on Monument Hill

It is easy to understand why German immigrants as Heinrich Kreische chose this area of Texas to live.  It is reminiscent of the Rhine River valley, as is the area around Herman, Missouri where other Germans settled.  From Monument Hill John and I hiked down a path to an overlook where we were able to view the ruins of the brewery which Kreische built in the mid 1800s.  He placed the brewery astride a small stream fed by a spring.  He manipulated the natural flow of the spring water through the brewery, letting gravity to do the work of moving the processed liquids from one level to the next.
I asked a park ranger whether Kreische grew his own hops and barley for his brew.  He informed me that in some of the man's correspondence there is indication that he ordered out of state for his hops.  However, the ranger added, there is a wafer ash tree grown here, which also is called a hop tree.  Its  round fruit is papery-like and tastes similar to hops.  By the middle of the Civil War "Kreische's Bluff Beer" was being produced on a commercial scale.  Mr. Kreische was not only a gifted brew master, but also a master stone mason.  His house is still standing, and looks sturdy enough to stand for another 150 years!  He constructed numerous other buildings in the county.
He built the left side of the house first in 1846, one of those rooms are of German fachwerk construction.  The large framing timbers are filled with small sun-dried adobe bricks.  Board and batten construction is present on the outside stairwells and other small areas.  He and his wife raised six children in this house.
Unfortunately the house is currently locked up and tours of it are not available.

Monument Hill/ Kreische Brewery

I am currently writing this to the sound of heavy raindrops on our home.  What a novel and refreshing experience after spending a dry winter in the Rio Grande Valley!   Yesterday we headed northeast out of McAllen, hoping to see fields of bluebonnets around the town of Brenham.  Last night we parked at Coleto Creek Park, outside of Victoria, Texas.  Unexpectedly there we saw our first patch of that flower.
Coleto Park has a reservoir which was created from damming up the Guadalupe River. From our home it was a short walk to the lake where we could watch a variety of shore birds and ducks ( the species of ducks seemed to be mainly the blue-winged teal and coot).  Today I found a birding trail in the park where about 4 deer crossed my path.  Our goal today was to travel only as far a Brenham, Texas where we wanted to see the spring wildflowers.  It was a beautiful drive as we were on the edge of the hill country of Texas, located east of San Antonio.  We started seeing lush green vegetation on the hillsides, and many colorful wildflowers along the sides of the road.  We certainly have left the scrub brush and sandy flat landscape of the Valley!  We had no idea as what Monument Hill /Kreische Brewery State Park was all about, however ,we had time this afternoon to check it out as it was right on our way to Brenham. 
On a beautiful sandstone bluff overlooking the Colorado River is the tombstone of Texas Militia who died at the Dawson Creek Massacre and in the border town of Ciudad Mier in the winter of 1842/43.  Three hundred soldiers, to avenge the deaths at Dawson Creek (located outside of San Antonio), marched down to Ciudad Mier.  Two hundred and fifty were captured by the Mexicans and marched to Mexico City.  Of those men 181 escaped and 176 were forced to surrender.  Santa Anna wanted to kill all of those men, but urgent pleas from the United States and Great Britain brought about a compromise of the black bean lottery.  One hundred and fifty-nine white beans and seventeen black beans were placed in a pot- men who drew the back beans were executed.  In 1848 the Texas militia volunteers who died at Dawsons Creek and in Mexico were placed in a common tomb on Monument Hill.  In 1849 Heinrich Kreische purchased 172 acres on the bluff surrounding the monument, and maintained that monument until his death.  His home and ruins of his brewery are also located in the park- information on them will be in my next posting.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Our Last Day in McAllen

He is risen indeed, and we are most blessed to have the assurance that as Christ rose from the grave, so we too will rise to heavenly glory.  I took the above picture at Our Savior Lutheran church, the church which we have been attending during the past three months.  However, today I attended sunrise services at St.Paul Lutheran (the church of my childhood) with my brother Wayne.  After the sunrise service we stayed at St.Paul's church for a meal of breakfast tacos- certainly not the usual Easter breakfast for us!  John joined me later for a service at Our Savior.  He has been under the weather, but feeling better now.   This afternoon we were invited by Pastor Steve Herzberg and his wife to their house for an Easter luncheon, which was followed by the usual egg hunt for the younger children.  And John and I learned all about confetti eggs, which are quite popular down here; sold in many stores and by street vendors.  I understand that they are made in Mexico, but they are not a custom of that country.  Real eggs are emptied by opening one of the ends, the egg is filled with small colorful pieces of paper, and the opened end is sealed shut with tape.  The eggs are then hidden and, after the children find them, a merry chase ensues.  The children, with eggs in hand,  crack them open on unsuspecting heads and backs.  Soon everyone has confetti-littered hair, unless they are bald.  John and I walked through a city park later this afternoon, and saw many people there with confetti in their hair and on their clothes.  It seemed to be the fashion statement for the day!
It is our last day here in McAllen.  We will miss the new friends we have made and the flowering beauty which has surrounded us here.  The cactus pictured above is located several trailers down from our home.  I have watched it begin blooming a couple of months ago and now its flowers are fading.  There are a few trees here in the park still loaded with oranges, and they are starting to bloom with white flowers.  Sometimes during the late night hours or at sunrise the sweet scent of those blossoms fill the air.  There are many other trees down here with showy white blossoms, as the Texas wild olive tree.  Its flower and fruit are pictured below.   However, much as we like it here, we still cannot avoid the fact that the weather is getting warmer and it is  time to make our departure from the Valley.  We plan on leaving tomorrow, in search of the bluebonnets of Texas, before continuing our way north out of the state.