Courtesy Natchez Pilgrimage Tours
A tour with Natchez Pilgrimage Tours shows the power of women armed with hoes and trowels.
In Natchez, it was local garden club ladies who in 1932 launched the annual home and garden tour, the Pilgrimage, which brings 700,000 people to town each year. And, it was garden clubbers who created Natchez Pilgrimage Tours in the 1980s to promote the annual event.
Garden club members still serve as tour guides, and although the company’s services go beyond the pilgrimage, tours of Natchez remain its heart.
“Most of the guides are retired schoolteachers, and they are fantastic,” said Emily Edwards, group coordinator for the company.
Among the guides is Lucianne Wood, who, having lived in Natchez only 50 years, can’t quite call herself a local. Still, she is well versed in the story of how the garden club became the force behind the Pilgrimage tour and ultimately the preservation of Natchez.
In the early 1930s, Natchez was to host the state garden club meeting, Wood said. Natchez women were upset because their town had become so shabby. “Their dresses were worn; no one had any money.” Then, two weeks before the tour, a freeze ruined spring blooms.
“They cried, they took to their beds,” said Wood. “They were mortified that people were going to find out how poor they were.”
One member kept her head. “She told them, ‘Get up, get in the attic, pull out your old dresses, shine the silver and polish the plates,’” said Wood.
The visitors who attended the meeting in Natchez were enthralled by its homes and the history pulled out of storage. “It seemed like time had stood still,” said Wood.
Another guide, Natchez native Bee Byrnes, said her favorite place for tours is the cemetery, where “stories just abound.” Among the most memorable is the grave of a 10-year-old girl who died of yellow fever. The child feared the dark, and so her mother had a stairway built down to grave level. A pane of glass was added to the casket to let light in.
“The mother would go there and sit on the steps and read to her daughter,” said Byrnes.