Wednesday, June 28, 2017

The Natchez Trace Auto Hike

The Natchez Trace is an old trading route and historic forest trail that connects Natchez, Mississippi and Nashville, Tennessee. It stretches over 440 miles, about 710 kilometers.

The trail was blazed by Native Americans and later extended to become a full scale travel route for wagons. Today it is a parkway mostly for cars. Cycling is permitted and I did encounter some groups on bicycles. The parkway offers some stops at historical sites or hiking trails as well as some overlooks.

I took the trace from Natchez to a crossing shortly before the town of Carthage, Mississippi, which covered about 140 miles of the Trace. I passed through Jackson (the state capital) without noticing anything urban, apart from an increased traffic over a few miles. But as the parkway has only controlled access ramps and is not open to commercial traffic there was not much traffic out of Jackson.

In Germany we have the word "autowandern" which means that you drive through beautiful landscape, where you would usually go on foot as that will give you a more complex experience: the change of temperature when walking out of the sun into the shade and vice versa, the complex smells of vegetation, the sound of birds and insects, and the experience of slowly moving through the landscape which will allow your vision to absorb the surroundings much more thoroughly.

When on auto hike, you can sit in your air-conditioned car with your favorite radio station tuned in not noticing anything else than the beautiful landscape. I did roll down my windows once in a while – although it was hot – and stepped out of the car a few times to get some idea of the smells and the heat – and the mosquitoes.

You can even get rid of your trash without leaving the car; I took this photo for all the Germans who have never seen a drive-through garbage can.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Cotton Kingdom III

Finally I did get to see real cotton fields on the Frogmore Plantation in Louisiana. Frogmore Plantation has a long history and still grows and gins cotton today. I learned that the US are the third largest cotton producer in the world, only outpaced by China and India.

As I had not encountered any cotton farms in Alabama and Mississippi it was interesting to learn that Frogmore profited from its location: Until the 1950s the plantation was regularly flooded by the adjacent rivers: The Black River and the Mississippi. The flooding deposited rich silts on the ground, preventing the soil from depletion – something that happened in the Alabama Blackbelt in the 1930s when crops went down due to erosion. After the Corps of Engineers finished working on the Levees the flooding ended. Now fertilizers are in use as well as some crop rotation. Today most cotton in the US is grown in Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and California.

Right now the cotton plants were about 8 weeks old, they will soon start to blossom. I found some tiny blossoms close to the ground (an interesting fact: cotton blossoms and ripens close to the ground first and on top only later on). The blossom is first white and then turns pink and red. As cotton is a plant of the hibiscus family the blossoms look kind of familiar.

The cotton on Frogmore is harvested from September through November. As there is no handpicking anymore, the machine picks all the cotton at once, while back in old tenant farmer days each plant was picked multiple times, whenever some of the cotton bolls were ready. These are some of the bags cotton pickers would have used. They are put over the shoulder, filled with cotton and dragged along.

Walker Evans: Lucille Burroughs picking cotton,
Hale County, Alabama, summer 1936, courtesy

On display is an old cotton gin from the days of the steam-engine. In the gin the fiber is separated from the seeds and other parts of the plant that may have gotten in the bolls. Back in the days only 5% of the seeds were kept for the next year. Now all the seeds are used not only for planting but also for edible oil and other products. After the ginning the fibers are compressed and compacted into bales of 350 to 400 pounds back in the days and 500 pounds today.


On the plantation there are some of the old slave/tenant cabins on display. They are made from cypress wood that likes water (doesn't mind flooding) and is termite-resistant.

After the tour of the plantation one is allowed to drive through the modern ginning facility.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Sunset on the Mississippi

And just to please you with some more sugarcandy: here is the beautiful sunset over Louisiana which lies on the other side of the river.

I experienced this event in Natchez Under-the-Hill. The city itself is situated on the bluffs thus lying high above the river – with an excellent view. However, in the times of boat and steamboat traffic the town was situated directly on the river, therefore: under the hill.

This district became neglected with the arrival of railroad traffic. It became completely obsolete and ruinous when the ferry service to the other side was discontinued after the bridge was built in 1940.

However, today all the houses are bars and restaurants where the locals as well as tourists enjoy their Sunday evening.

Cotton Kingdom II

Thanks to the visitors' bureau multiple walking tours are offered and the well-disposed tourist may choose from a variety that caters to everyone's interests.

After I overdosed with the beautiful antebellum houses I decided to switch to another tour, the St. Catherine Street Trail, that takes the urban wayfarer to the backside of the town in the direction of the slave market. The riches of the people who lived in the nice houses close to the river were produced by the ancestors of the people who lived here before and who live here now. Here we find not only the rich history of slaves and former slaves, but that of free people of color, of mixed marriages that were not allowed but happened anyway, and of houses given to the dark-skinned offspring of white fathers. And of the Civil Rights Movement in Natchez and related events. Apart from that we find gas stations and pawn shops, churches and a women's hall of fame, small cabins and tract houses, and very friendly people who wave at the foreign tourist who is the only one walking in the area.

The path was packed with information boards – it seemed as if there was one in front of every other house – that I did not stop to read them all. I just gained an impression of the location and of the events unfolding throughout history.

The Forks of the Road is the end of the trail. Beyond there are no sidewalks.

Cotton Kingdom I

On a brief side trip into the time of cotton I am on my way to one of the few operating cotton plantations in the South. Before going there I stopped in Natchez, a town in the State of Mississippi on the Mississippi River, which once was the capital of the Cotton Kingdom. It was here that large numbers of cotton bales were loaded on steamboats to be transported to New Orleans. "[T]he city's forty most prominent families […] included the largest and wealthiest cotton planters in the entire South and some of the biggest slave owners in the world."

Natchez already celebrated its tricentennial in 2016, it is two years older than New Orleans. The name stems from the Native American Natchez people that lived in the area before the French came. Similar to New Orleans Natchez was founded by the French and was later ceded to Spain, who later ceded it to Great Britain before it became an American city.

As the city became very rich through the cotton trade there are multitudinous antebellum structures that are just beautiful. In the quiet streets it smells of magnolia and other – to me unknown – flowers and blossoms. It is beautiful, but, I have to admit, I overdosed. It is as if eating cotton candy: it looks great, but the minute you take the first bite it is just too sweet and has a terrible structure.

So I almost welcomed the familiar sight of inner city areas destroyed by the need to create parking space and by the ignorance of the value of historical structures that has plagued so many US cities since the 1950s and 60s.

And this is the oldest house that is still standing, it dates to the 18th century. King's Tavern was built before 1789 and served as a tavern, a stage stop, and a mail station at the end of the Natchez Trace.