A good day at Jefferson College with snowcones
History has a smell, my husband tells me as we climb our third set of heart-pine stairs. I agree, adding that it is a musty one, and it grows in intensity as we reach the attic of Jefferson College’s West Wing. The novelty of being allowed in the restricted space, with its falling plaster and missing floor planks, is not lost on our group of 12 pre-registered visitors.
“We do two or three tours up here a year,” Director Robin Person shares, showing us signatures on the walls made by students more than 150 years ago. She alludes to lingering mysteries in the buildings encased in hand-made brick. Why the archway in that odd spot? And what was the thinking behind that 6-foot wide door? In another attic in the East Wing (built in 1819), Person points out her favorite tangible blast from the past – a target-shooting spot on a far wall. You can still see spent rounds in the wooden boards.
Jefferson College, located just outside of Natchez in Washington, abounds with such delights and is commonly recognized as a crown jewel among Mississippi’s Department of Archives and History holdings. Those who enjoy studying the past know that when the school began in 1802, it became the Mississippi territory’s first chartered institution of higher learning. More serious buffs understand the site has even further acclaim as the birthplace of Mississippi’s statehood. That’s because our original constitution was signed in a long-gone building on the campus in the summer of 1817. Appropriately, Jefferson College is scheduled to host a grand birthday party on its grounds as part of Mississippi’s bicentennial celebrations in 2017.
On this Saturday, though, our group of Brookhaven homeschoolers has made the hour-long trek to take part in a special event on the current year’s calendar called “Reveille.” Designed to highlight the rich history of this former military school, Reveille’s roster of activities includes live music, lectures, behind-the-scene tours and even a soap-making class.
In the visitors center we read that naturalist John James Audubon sent two of his sons to this school. Jefferson Davis attended as a 10-year-old. But when we walk through a replica dorm room, it is a less famous cadet – Jose Martinez – who captures my attention. He is smiling at me from a page in the 1961 yearbook. Strangely enough, he is from Jinotepe, Nicaragua.
I notice Martinez is joined on adjacent pages by cadets representing Venezuela, Mexico, El Salvador, Cuba and Honduras. When I question a staff historian, I learn that wealthy families in coup-ridden Latin America were fond of sending their sons to this Mississippi prep school. A cadet from 1964 who just happens to be part of the tour adds that he remembers “it helped them get into American universities.”
After cruising the interior spaces, our students hit the nature trail and a few croquet balls. “The Adventures of Huck Finn,” filmed on campus and starring a young Elijah Wood, plays in Raymond Hall. My husband talks fact and fiction with an actor in character as dueling Vice-Pres Aaron Burr.
“I still think he was a scoundrel,” my husband later says, in spite of the fellow’s best efforts to convince him otherwise.
We eat our lunch under a huge Live oak draped in Spanish moss. I hear a bit of trivia from a fellow field-tripper: when the mini-series “North and South” was filmed here in the 1980s, the crew removed all traces of Spanish moss from the scene.
“It was supposed to be West Point,” he explains. “Doesn’t grow in New York.”
We nod our heads and pass the grapes. All the while the Cane Grinders, a quintet of fiddlers and strummers, are treating us to a smorgasbord of period music. It is the toe-tapping kind, and my sideline participation drives our teenager crazy.
I act like I don’t hear her.
Compromise comes in the form of a strawberry-flavored snow cone (there’s a vendor behind us). As her lips take on a rosy hue, I try to imagine 15-year-olds like her who studied chemistry in that room across the way, back when its Bunsens were burning and the floor-to-14-foot-ceiling cabinets were new. I wonder who looked out the third-story windows while they were supposed to be reciting Latin declensions. I try to picture young cadets standing at attention at the flag pole as world wars were fought.
Spanish moss lends itself to such thoughts, I suppose. I might add that a banjo in the background doesn’t hurt much, either.
Wesson resident Kim Henderson is a freelance writer who writes for The Daily Leader. Contact her at email@example.com.