The Retirees in the South East USA – Sailing into history – Vicksburg

The following day we went to Vicksburg, the scene of a major battle in the American Civil War and a turning point when Vicksburg capitulated to the Union Army.

(May 18 – July 4, 1863) was the final major military action in the Vicksburg Campaign of the American Civil War. Vicksburg was the last major Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi River. After holding out for more than forty days, with their reinforcement and supplies nearly gone, the garrison finally surrendered on July 4.

We had no desire to walk the battlefields so we boarded the hop on hop off bus to visit the town. The old town was quite attractive and going through a rejuvenation with apartments being developed in the major street of the central business district.

We strolled down Washington St stopping when we came across Biendenharn Candy Co building. Herman, and Uncle Henry, founded a retail confectionary business known as Biedenharn and Brother. In 1890, Herman’s son Joe and his father built a two-story brick building at 1107 Washington Street which served as Joe’s wholesale candy company on one side and his father’s shoe store on the other. Joe eventually took over the operation of the candy business and it became the Biedenharn Candy Company. It was here that Cocoa Cola was bottled for the first time. Up till then Coke was sold by the glass from soda fountains. Joe bottled the Coke and sent 6 bottles to the manufacturer who then licenced the company to bottle Coke. The Biedenharns bottled Coca-Cola here and in other locations in downtown Vicksburg until 1938 when the new Coca-Cola plant was constructed at 2133 Washington Street. The building was sold out of the family and used for a variety of commercial purposes.  In 1979, the family repurchased the building and began a rehabilitation using historic photographs to restore the building’s major spaces and to install exhibits interpreting the Biedenharn’s Coca-Cola heritage. The family then donated the building to the Vicksburg foundation for Historic Preservation.

After enjoying a bottle of Sprite, we crossed the road to Yesterdays Children Doll and Boys Toys Museum over 1,000 dolls dating back to 1843 in an historic setting. We encountered a Popeye doll, every kind of Barbie GI Joe and Cabbage Patch dolls even Laurel and Hardy.

Further down Washington St we found the Museum of the River. The Army Corp of Engineers has been tasked to maintain the waterways of the USA. This is the museum of the engineers achievements and the setback they have overcome. Attached to the building is a retired riverboat designed as the floating HQ for the Corp. The museum described how the Corp has kept the waterway open and managed the disasters created through flooding and most recently improved the river environment. From there we walked down to the river to the old rail station now a storybook for model trains and the civil war naval engagements and the Battle of Vicksburg. One of the tasks for the Corp is too build levees and walls along the river to protect townships from flooding.

Vicksburg has turned their levee walls into a picture book of its history. Here are a few photos of the sights of Vicksburg.

The Retirees in the South East USA – Onboard the PSS American Queen

When fronting at the Pursers desk to book our spot on the Hop on Hop off bus, all spots were gone. We were not beaten yet. So we left the boat after it had landed found a cab and for USD $8 we got a trip into up town Natchez with a guided tour by our cab driver.

Once we arrived up town we were dropped off at one of the hop on hop off bus stops and joined the tour. We decided not to await the bus but start our own tour by visiting the major church in town (catholic so nicely dressed up) then we walked to Magnolia Hall – see the feature photo above. Magnolia Hall was built by Thomas Henderson, a wealthy merchant, planter and cotton broker. The home is one of the finest examples in Natchez of the Greek Revival style. It is an antebellum home and during a bombardment of Natchez by the Union gunboat Essex, a shell hit the soup tureen in Magnolia Hall’s kitchen.

The Natchez Garden Club has restored Magnolia Hall. Rooms on the main floor are filled with mid-nineteenth century antiques, while rooms on the upper floors contain a costume collection.

Note the picture of the plate warmer.

After the Hall we move onto the home of William Johnson. William T. Johnson (1809 – June 17, 1851) was a free African American barber of biracial parentage, who lived in Natchez, Mississippi. He was born into slavery but his owner, also named William Johnson and thought to be his father, emancipated him in 1820. His mother, Amy, had been freed in 1814 and his sister Adelia in 1818. Johnson trained with his brother-in-law James Miller as a barber, and began working in Port Gibson, Mississippi. He returned to Natchez, becoming a successful entrepreneur with a barbershop, bath house, bookstore, and land holdings. Though a former slave, William Johnson went on to own sixteen slaves himself. He began a diary in 1835, which he continued through the remainder of his life. In 1835, he married Ann Battle, a free woman of colour with a similar background to his, and they had eleven children. Johnson loaned money to many people, including the governor of Mississippi who had signed his emancipation papers.

Johnson was murdered in 1851 after an adjudicated boundary dispute, by a mixed-race neighbour named Baylor Winn, in front of his son, a free black apprentice, and a slave. Winn was held in prison for two years and brought to trial twice; Johnson was such a well-respected businessman that the outrage over his murder caused the trial to be held in a neighbouring town. In that town no one knew Winn, so they didn’t know that he was half-black. Since Mississippi law forbade blacks from testifying against whites in criminal cases, Winn’s defence was that he was half-white and half-Native American, making him white by law. The defence worked, none of the (black) witnesses could testify, and Winn escaped conviction. Johnson’s diary was rediscovered in 1938 and published in 1951. It reveals much of the daily life of a 19th-century Mississippi businessman, including the fact that he was himself later a slaveholder. His papers are archived at Louisiana State University.

Through an act of Congress, the home of William Johnson became a part of the Natchez National Historical Park in 1990.

Here is a photo of the Johnson house and next door the Adams County Jail (Goal to us).

Natchez grew up in two parts Natchez below the Hill which provided for the boatmen and the handling of cargo and Natchez above the Hill which was built by the Spanish on the high ground for a fort and township not affected by the river. Our next stop was to visit the few remaining buildings forming Lower Natchez then return to the boat for lunch. Parked nearby was the American Duchess a sister boat of the American Queen.

In the afternoon we had booked to see a historic plantation with original slave quarters church cookhouse gin etc. Frogmore Plantation and Gin contrasts a working cotton plantation of the early 1800’s with a modern cotton plantation and gin of today. Our tour started with a drive through the present-day gin -1800 acre cotton plantation with a computerized 900 bales-per-day cotton gin, then through the fields to the church where we heard songs from the fields from locals who had experienced this life. We listened to the slave customs, secret music, and their surprising relationships with the master, mistress, and overseer. We then walked through authentically furnished slave quarters, a relic of a rare steam gin, and other plantation dependencies.

Our day ended with a bus ride back to the American Queen a grand dinner in the dining room then the show. Tough life.

The Retirees in the South East USA – All aboard the American Queen – the Mississippi River, Nottoway Plantation and St Francisville

The following morning, we caught the bus from the hotel to the American Queen Steamboat – a distance of 200 metres. We knew it was nearby but not that close. So we boarded the boat (not a ship because its on the river) using our boarding cards obtained when we registered at the Hotel and then found our way to our cabin on floor 4. Although an internal cabin, it looked to the chart room and out across the bow deck – an excellent position and a large cabin.

We took a stroll around the boat. Starting at the top on the 5th floor there are the wheel house and the exclusive cabins, swimming pool and gyms. Fourth floor is the chartroom where the Riverlorian Jerry hides out, cabins, the front patio and one of the only decks allowing you to circumnavigate the boat. Third floor is cabins, and the front patio which is the smorgasbord all day dining. The front patio is an undercover patio deck with access to the engine room and the engine room bar. Second floor has the Purser, the Tour director and gift shop. It also includes the gentlemen’s card room the ladies parlour and the library. First floor has the main dining room and the theatre where evening performances delight.

When registering onto the boat we selected our tours but in addition we could register daily (if quick enough) for the hop on hop off bus tours of our daily stops. The boat set sail (nautical term – there are no sails on a steam powered paddle boat). We made our way up river to our first port of call – a stop at “Nottoway Plantation” – an antebellum plantation home.

The boat landed by running onto the bank. this was an exercise that the crew would go through many times. Two unfortunates had to get into the water and receive the ropes then find the anchor spots under the water in the bull rushes to tie up the boat. On this occasion they used a tree to tie up at the stern. Then a walkway was lowered onto the bank and we walked over to the levee (nearly the length of the river has levee banks) up and over the levee to the entry of Nottoway.

We were greeted by our tour guides in costume of the time of building before the American Civil War. Our guides toured the house giving us its history of its first owners and the impact of the American Civil war.  In 1855 John Hampden Randolph purchased 400 acres (1.6 km2) of highland, and 620 acres (2.5 km2) of swamp and Mississippi River-front land to grow sugar cane and where he sought to build a prestigious home that he named “Nottoway,” after Nottoway County in the part of Virginia where he was born. The plantation house is a Greek Revival and Italianate-styled mansion built by John Hampden Randolph in 1859, and is the largest extant antebellum plantation house in the South with 53,000 square feet (4,900 m2) of floor space.

Soon after the house was completed the Civil War began. Randolph did not support secession from the Union, but once the war began, backed the war financially and sent his three sons to fight for the Confederacy, losing his oldest son, Algernon Sidney Randolph, at the Battle of Vicksburg. With the war coming ever closer to Nottoway, it was decided that Randolph would take 200 slaves to Texas and grow cotton there while his wife, Emily, stayed at Nottoway with the youngest children, hoping that their presence would save it from destruction. The plantation was occupied by both Union and Confederate troops and though the grounds were damaged and the animals plundered, Nottoway survived the war with only a single grapeshot to the far left column that did not fall out until 1971.

With the emancipation of the slaves, John Randolph contracted with 53 of his former slaves to continue working as paid laborers; when he returned to Nottoway after the Civil War, most chose to return with him. The sugar business was not as profitable after the war and by 1875, Nottoway was reduced to 800 acres (3.2 km2). John Randolph died at Nottoway on September 8, 1883, leaving the plantation to his wife.

Emily Randolph sold the plantation in 1889 for $50,000, which she divided equally among her nine surviving children and herself. She died in Baton Rouge in 1904. Nottoway has become a resort destination.

We returned to the boat for lunch whilst the boat moved further up river to St Francisville where we caught the hop on hop off bus to Louisiana and the plantation “Myrtles” which was an unscheduled stop on the hop on hop off tour that day. Generally, the hop on tours were disappointing (the towns are rural mid-western towns like any Queensland rural town providing a centre for the rural communities surrounding it). This was interesting because it claims to be the most haunted place in USA and has documented proof of its ghosts.

The Myrtles has 22 rooms spread over two floors. The Myrtles Plantation was built in 1796 by General David Bradford on 600 acres and was named “Laurel Grove.” Bradford lived there alone for several years, until President John Adams pardoned him for his role in the Pennsylvania Whiskey Rebellion in 1799. In 1834, the plantation, the land, and its slaves were sold to Ruffin Gray Stirling. Stirling and his wife changed the mane of the plantation to “The Myrtles” after the crepe myrtles that grew in the vicinity.

The Myrtles survived the American Civil War, though robbed of its fine furnishings and expensive accessories. In 1865, Mary Cobb Stirling hired William Drew Winter to help manage the plantation as her lawyer and agent. Winter was married to Stirling’s daughter, Sarah, and they went on to have six children, one of whom (Kate Winter) died from typhoid at the age of three. In 1871, William Winter was killed on the porch of the house, possibly by a man named E.S. Webber. After being shot, he staggered inside the house and died trying to climb the stairs. He died on the 17th step of the stairs. Visitors, as well as employees in the home, still hear his dying footsteps. Touted as “one of America’s most haunted homes”, the plantation is supposedly the home of at least 12 ghosts, historically only Winter’s death has been recorded. Our tour guide maintains that Mrs Winter and two of her children were poisoned by a negro maid who had her ear cut off by Winter for eaves dropping and ejected from the house to work with the field slaves. To try and ingratiate herself in the household again she intended to make the children sick but she poisoned all three and in turn was killed by the other slaves fearing reprisals from the master. The one eared ghost steals visitors earrings as evidenced by the large number of single earrings found in the house. National Geographic are said to have sent an investigator who captured photos of the spirit and the ghosts of the two children and these are on display at the house. The rest of the town was rather unexciting. We visited the local Presbyterian Church (the usual unadorned interior for this religion) and then across the road passed the court house after which we returned to the boat.

Dinner was great. We found ourselves seated with Jim and Jacqui both retired teachers from Chesapeake Bay Maryland. We struck up a great rapport with them and can count them amongst “our new best friends”. The dinner was superb, and the evening show followed. The performers were excellent but we made the mistake of not booking our hop on hop off tour for Natchez the next day.

The Retirees in the South East USA – Antoines on Mother’s day

This was our last full day in New Orleans and it was Mothers’ Day. Veronica had managed to book a table in Antoines for the event. We arrived early along with a few others and even though it was barely 10.00 am the girls were into the sparkly and orange juice. Most of the restaurant is styled in a Rococo architecture and very ornate as can be seen in the pictures. The Maitre de showed us to our table and here we thought we had hit the jackpot as the jazz band was set up in this dining room. However they were like strolling minstrels going to each dining room after finishing a set.

After salivating over the menu, my oysters were served followed by my veal steak then the bombe Alaska. Washed down with wine and serenaded by the jazz trio.

Antoine’s is a Louisiana Creole cuisine restaurant located in the French Quarter. It has the distinction of being one of the oldest family-run restaurants in the United States, having been established in 1840 by Antoine Alciatore. Antoine’s Cookbook, compiled by Roy F. Guste (the fifth-generation proprietor) features hundreds of recipes from the Antoine’s tradition. The restaurant is also known for its VIP patrons including several U.S. presidents and Pope John Paul II.

Antoine’s features a 25,000 bottle capacity wine storage and 15 dining rooms of varying sizes and themes, with several featuring Mardi Gras krewe memorabilia. The lengthy menu (originally only in French, now in French and English) features classic French-Creole dishes. By tradition, Antoine’s is closed to the general public on Thanksgiving, Christmas and Mardi Gras. The restaurant can be reserved for private parties on these “Closed Days”. My photos below include the menu and the dishes. Fabulous lunch leaving us gluttonously full. The restaurant is also a museum with each dining room filled with historic items. For instance a photo of Madam Veuve Cilcquot, and old menus of the restaurant. We revisited Bourbon st to see if it was any better – afraid not.

Following lunch it was time for us to move to the Hilton Hotel from which we would embark on the American Queen up the Mississippi River to Memphis. The hotel is immediately across the road from Hurrahs Casino and we could not miss out on that. So, after a cat nap we showered dressed and crossed to the casino. Being minor punters we invested USD $20 and soon showed a profit on the investment and relying on our experience and intuition we lost the profit all bar USD $1.50 walking away with our investment and enough to buy a padded bag envelope from the US postal service. A big day!

The Retirees in the South East USA – Cemeteries, Parks and Rooftops of New Orleans

The following morning, we rose early to catch the city tour. We travelled by tram to the city, then caught the riverside tram back to where we were last night but this time to catch the bus. The tour started travelling through the French Quarter where we saw a sign saying “300 NOLA” . New Orleans Louisiana (NOLA) is 300 years old this year and the signs are erected to remind everyone. We then passed Jackson Sq. named after General Jackson who liberated New Orleans from the British, passed a monument to the workmen who died in the Blue Horizon tragedy, passed a typical American settlers home (a “shotgun” home due to it having a hall from front to back), a typical Creole home (pitched roof and wooden shutters) a restored plantation home and a multi – coloured home (9 colours) finishing with their own style craftsman home.

The cemeteries of New Orleans are full of crypts. New Orleans is surrounded by and has formerly been part of the swamps forming most parts of Florida. So the appearance of many crypts in the cemeteries raised the question why not bury the dead in the ground? Some one suggested to us that they bury their dead above ground because the water table is so high. However the bus driver/tour guide disagreed. He explained that this habit was about recycling rather than water tables and pointed out one crypt which contains over 250 Augustinian nuns and 1 priest – is that heaven or hell? During the yellow fever epidemic it was believed that the fever was spread by the dead so they developed some half way houses to hold the dead until it was considered safe to open the crypt. One of the effects of yellow fever is a comatose type state which lead to people being buried alive in some cases. How do they know? The frantic scratching on the underside of the coffin lid told the story.

From the cemetery we travelled to the City Park and its sculpture gardens. Along the way we passed New Orleans’s oldest oak tree (800+ years). The park is immense and contains the second oldest tree as well – surprised? The sculpture garden is very interesting with its tower of violins, a magically suspended window with its escape ladder (or is someone breaking in?), elongated spiders and hollow horses and the ever – present oak trees draped in Spanish moss. This moss is not a moss but feeds from moisture in the air. It has been used in the past as mattress stuffing, but it must be treated (washed or boiled) before doing so otherwise the small creatures living in the moss bite (hence sleep tight and don’t let the bed bugs bite).

There ended the tour and the bus raced back to the city. I have had better tours but it gave us a better understanding of how valuable our tram passes were. We decided to walk back to St Charles Ave tram and in doing so passed through Jackson Sq and the artists all trying to flog their wares. There is that blue dog again. We saw one in the sculpture gardens. This led us to walk the back streets spotting restored apartments with gardens on their balconies. A quick decision we decided we would return to city park in the afternoon.

Back on the trams again.

The trip on the tram took a lot longer than we anticipated. There are two trams that run in that direction – the Cemeteries tram and the City Park tram. The Cemeteries trams out numbered City park trams two to one. The trip dragged but we made it to City Park – end of the line. City Park, a 1,300-acre (5.3 km2) public park, is approximately 50% larger than Central Park in New York City, and holds the world’s largest collection of mature live oak trees, some older than 600 years in age. It also has rows of Crepe Myrtle trees planted as a result of Hurricane Katrina’s damage to the existing trees. It also has the Issac Delgardo Museum of Art now the New Orleans Museum of Art which our tour driver had said was free to enter. What he did not say that it was free for residents of New Orleans on Wednesdays only. So we skipped the museum and decided to visit the sculpture gardens again and  then the gardens which included the Temple of the Twin Sisters which turned out to be a hot house for tropical plants.

Quite surprising was the model railway tucked away in one corner. We rejoined David and Veronica and made our way to the tram stop.

We managed to catch the tram almost immediately and enjoyed a much faster ride home. After appropriately dressing for the evening to walk through Bourbon St, we boarded the tram once again. The tram terminates across the road from Bourbon St and even though it was late afternoon/early evening the sun shone brightly showing up the seediness of Bourbon St. Brash bands playing in filthy bars, strip clubs, hookers standing in doorways awaiting their next customer, filth in the street – not the scene expected. Where were the jazz bands and the juke joints we had heard about. So after walking a number of blocks we determined to move over onto Royal St. via St Louis St in the French Quarter past our restaurant for tomorrow night. Cleaner but still no juke joints or jazz bands but rather art galleries reflecting the neighbourhood the Supreme Court of Louisiana and antiques shops. We found another Café Beignet with a guitar player serenading it patrons so we pulled in for dinner. We all ordered omelettes of different kinds and no one was really happy with the meals but the music was enjoyable and we sat around for up to an hour enjoying the music.

We finally returned to our tram stop for the journey home. I am reminded of a funny incident whilst travelling back to our hotel. To return to our hotel we had to pass through a round – about with a garden and memorial in the centre. It seems a regular hangout for the homeless and the down and out residents. This evening in question, a fellow boarded the tram dressed in jeans blue underpants barely covered by the jeans and a T shirt with some voodoo cartoon on it. He looked dirty and unsteady on his feet. The tram slows to pass through the roundabout and our fellow traveller strikes up a very loud conversation with one of the fellows lounging under a street light in the park. The conversation goes along until the park resident says, “Are you all comin’ to pick up your bag?” Tram rider says “You all got my bag?” Park resident “yeah you all want your bag?” The tram rider became agitated, rang the bell, hitched his pants up, and pushed to the front of the tram. As the tram slowed the driver opened the door and the now excited tram rider does not wait for the doors to open fully (when the door opens a step extends to make the departure or entrance to the tram easier) and he steps out falling flat on his face on the ground. There was murmuring throughout the tram as that would have hurt, but whatever substance he had taken and whatever was in the bag seemed to fortify him against feeling pain as he pulled himself up hitched his britches once again and strode away. I was astounded as I thought for sure we would be waiting for an ambulance to collect the fallen rider.

On returning to the hotel the others went up to the roof top whilst I went to the room gathered together the wine glasses and snacks and joined them on the roof top. A grand view of the stadium and central business district.

The Retirees in the South East USA – New Orleans

Well we made it. Returned the car to the airport stayed overnight at a new airport hotel and caught that bloody early flight to arrive in New Orleans and travel to our hotel in St Charles St. A city of jazz legend and mixed cultures of French/Spanish/American cultures visible in its architecture and its people. Our hotel in St Charles St is part of the Wyndham Group and has a pleasant old world New Orleans feel to it. It is only a one bedroom apartment so this time it was our turn on the settee.

St Charles St is one of the longest streets in NOLA (better get used to it – New Orleans Louisiana) and has a tram line running up the centre all the way to Bourbon St and out to City Park and the city cemeteries. You can see it from our apartment window. After registering and dumping our gear in the room we explored nearby and took a walk to Walgreen’s Chemist to purchase a tram pass for the next 3 days. In doing so we discovered the Avenue Pub – a local hangout in a building dating back to late 1800s and in some respects was probably unchanged.The exterior reflected the French influence of the earliest settlers and the pressed metal ceiling on the interior reflected its age. Despite the surrounding the offering was of considerable variety. David and I sampled local craft beers – the pub owner had inherited it when her father died and she moved out to NOLA to sell it but stayed and has won a number of awards as the best venue for craft beers. Kerry and Ron played it safe with a Pimms or so they thought. The local variety of Pimms here is mixed with Ginger Beer, horrifying Kerry but I did not hear too much complaint from Ron.

Having quenched our thirst we continued the sight seeing looking for Walgreens. From the Avenue we could take in the full effect of our hotel, the local Baptist Church and its neighbouring properties, which continued the architecture of NOLA. There is also a steel construction of a surprising kind. It was once a restaurant on the top tier of the Eiffel Tower. Unfortunately, the restaurant was too heavy and was causing damage to the tower floor resulting in it be dismantled and abandoned in 1981 and purchased for the NOLA Worlds Fair in 1984. It was not a success there either and ended up here in St Charles Ave where it remains an unsuccessful restaurant.

We purchased our 3 day passes (which were in expensive and enabled us to visit most parts of the town) in order to travel to the docks of the Mississippi. We had booked to dine on the steamboat Natchez (yes, a steamboat powered by a diesel fuelled steam engine). Uncertain of the travelling times we arrive 1 hour too early and decided to have a walk on the waterfront. Audubon’s Aquarium of the Americas was the first thing to greet us. The walk would be about 1 mile long, and we passed some interesting monuments including 1 to the “Immigrants”. We were still too early to board so we took a tram down to the French Quarter which as its name suggests it was the market place for the French when Louisiana was a French overseas colony. Nowadays it is a haunt for tourists and the junk they like to peddle to tourists so we moved quickly through this area up to Café du Monde where they serve the famous New Orleans beignet – a deep fried donut like cake smothered in icing sugar. We did not have time on this occasion to stop but we were able to take in some of the street scenes that are typical of NOLA including the Catholic church facing Jackson Square.

We returned in time to join the queue thronging to board the Natchez. Once on board they sat us down straight away to feast on the smorgasbord (the dinner is divided into two sittings and we chose the first sitting so that we could enjoy the sights and our meal). After dining (pretty average offering except for the desserts – bread pudding and bananas forster) we settled back to enjoy the cruise.  With New Orleans being over 100 miles from the mouth of the Mississippi we travelled generally south sissippi Riverviewing the industry along the river and learning about the need for levies along the banks. One of the more interesting sights was the two “RORO” (Roll on roll off) ships moored in the river. These are emergency US Navy transports on call 24 hours a day able to load and unload from the rear of the vessel in all conditions.

We passed the competition the Creole Queen (an imitation paddle steamer – diesel and screw propulsion), the national guard HQ for New Orleans and various other deep-water sea going freighters (the river is over 200 feet deep at this reach). We were also able to visit the engine room and view the boilers “Thelma and Louise” and view the pistons driving the paddle wheel. There was a beautiful sunset this evening and some dazzling lights from the Creole Queen, downtown New Orleans and the bridge over the Mississippi to cap off the day.