One of the exhibits at Beauvoir, in Biloxi, Mississippi, the last home of Jefferson Davis, calls him “America’s son.” This is more than a little jarring to a Yankee because Davis was president of the Confederacy, leading the South’s effort to secede from the union and, after his defeat, was imprisoned as a traitor.
But here, where some refer to the Civil War as the War of Northern Aggression, and where there is a lot of defensive explanation that it was about states rights, not slavery, Davis is a hero.
Across the south, there are numerous restored plantations preserving and celebrating the opulent history of excess and privilege of the white owners. The Whitney Plantation is the only one that tells the story from the viewpoint of the enslaved people who worked there. The plantation, which cultivated and processed sugar, is less than an hour from New Orleans on historic River Road in Wallace, Louisiana. Its French Creole raised-style main house built in 1803 is described as one of the finest surviving examples in Louisiana. Many of the original slaves on the plantation came from the Senegambia region of West Africa and are honored on memorial walls. Our guide showed us the slave quarters and described the work of a sugar plantation, a dangerous operation that used sharp machetes to chop the cane and huge pots to boil it down to crystals. Slaves who were cut or burned, which happened frequently, usually would develop infections and die. She described the “punishments” they received for different infractions – whippings, beatings, brandings – which also often caused infection and death. The guide also discussed the shift when the African slave trade was outlawed and owners forced enslaved women to have as many children as possible to replace lost slaves. The plantation, on the National Register of Historic Places, was used for several scenes in the 2012 Quentin Tarantino film Django Unchained. The gift shop has books of slave history and interviews conducted by the Federal Writers Project, a division of the Works Progress Administration, in 1937-40. On a wall, visitors share their reaction to the plantation with sticky notes, including one that recalls a poem by Aeschylus that Robert Kennedy used in his speech announcing the assassination of Martin Luther King:
Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart,
until, in our own despair,
against our will,
through the awful grace of God.
The visitor concludes: WHAT YOU DO HERE IS IMPORTANT, underlining it three times.
Walking into the entryway of the Bishop’s Palace in Galveston, Texas, you can imagine the rustling silks and genteel voices of high society who gathered here in the late-1800s and early 1900s. The home, also known as Gresham’s Castle, for its first owner, is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, and considered one of the most significant Victorian houses in the country.
We took the excellent self-guided audio tour, which gives details of the construction, as well as bits of family detail.
The home was finished in 1892, built for Colonel Walter Gresham, an attorney, Civil War veteran and founder of the Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe Railroad, his wife, Josephine, and their nine children. Gresham also served in the Texas Legislature. In 1923, the house was sold to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Galveston and was the residence of Bishop Christopher E. Byrne.
Designed by architect Nicholas Clayton, the exterior of the three-story home is sculpted granite, limestone, and sandstone with elements of French Gothic, Romanesque, Tudor, and Classical architecture and a Mansard roof, with turrets and gargoyles. Its cost at the time is estimated at $250,000. In today’s dollars, it’s about $5.5 million.
Two Sienna marble columns flank the entrance hall, which opens to a 40-foot octagonal mahogany staircase, with stained glass on five sides. Fourteen-foot ceilings grace the first floor, which houses the parlor, music room, library, dining room, conservatory, pantry and kitchen.
The second floor houses a living room, bedrooms, and a chapel, created out of one of the Gresham daughter’s bedrooms. It has stained glass windows depicting the four apostles, St. Peter and St. Paul, which were hand-painted in Germany with a single-bristle brush to create the finest detail.
Mrs. Gresham’s art studio and the boys’ bedrooms are on the third floor. Windows and doors throughout the house are designed to open and bring in the Gulf breezes during the warm summers.
Made of steel and stone, it survived the Great Storm of 1900, which killed 8,000 people and destroyed much of Galveston. Mrs. Gresham rode out the storm in the house, helped drag survivors out of the raging waters outside her door, and sheltered hundreds of her neighbors. Afterward, her servants said she was “totally wrecked,” and retreated to New York to recuperate.
The Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center and Botanical Gardens outside Fort Davis, Texas, take your mind from miniscule cactus flowers to dozens of varieties of sage, yucca and willow, to broad outlooks over volcanic intrusions. In the hours we spent there, we saw three other guests.
The Center is located on more than 500 acres and has three miles of hiking trails, including a riparian canyon. We started in the gardens, which has more than 165 species native to the Chihuahuan Desert, then found our way to the cactus and succulent greenhouse, with its magical display of more than 150 species, many grown from seed.
We took the mile-long loop to Clayton’s Overlook, where a series of well-designed displays explain the volcanic history of the surrounding mountains. Rather than lava thrown from a volcanic cone, much of the landscape was formed through volcanic intrusion, magma pushing up and under the existing layers, creating mounds that later eroded into magnificent formations.
Kites capture the endless-summer feel of the beach, sun and wind, and in Long Beach, Washington, you can visit the World Kite Museum and Hall of Fame. Each August, they host Washington State International Kite Festival. The museum started with a donation of 700 Japanese, Chinese and Malaysian kites. The 300 Japanese kites are considered one of the most complete collections outside of Japan. In 2005, the museum moved from a house to the current building right off the beach. It now houses more than 1,500 kites from 26 countries. When we visited in October, we were fascinated by the exhibit on World War II kites. It included barrage kites, flown from piano wire above unarmed merchant vessels in the Atlantic. The 2,000-foot wires were strong enough to shear off the wings of enemy planes. The British added bombs that would go off on impact with aircraft. Other WWII kites collected meteorological data and housed radar, and carried messenger containers that could be snagged by airplanes, allowing the passing of maps, reports and other documents. And target kites were flown above ships for U.S. Navy gunners to practice their shooting. Here’s a glimpse.
I am in awe of my friends who “paint with fabric.” They do amazing things with fabric and thread. So I was excited to see the La Conner Quilt and Textile Museum in the 1891 Historic Gaches Mansion. The Mansion is an attraction in its own right, having been lovingly restored and containing exquisite tiles around the first-floor fireplace. Photos are not allowed of the amazing work on the first and third floors, so you’ll have to go see for yourself. The featured exhibit on the second floor, Thirty Quilts for Thirty Years, showed the work of Caryl Bryer Fallert-Gentry, internationally recognized for her fine-art quilts. The exhibit marks Fallert-Gentry’s 30 years of quilt making, with each of the quilts 30-by-30 inches. They range from Bradford Fantasy #1, a colorful representation of the autumn pear leaves from her former home in Paducah, Kentucky, to the stark Casting a Long Shadow, a stunning depiction of two human shadows on the beach in Kauai, quilted in forms the waves made in the sand. Read more about the exhibit here.
After all that mind food, have a beer at the La Conner Pub and Eatery on the Swinomish Channel and watch the sun set through the Rainbow Bridge. Here’s a glimpse.
I have been fascinated by salmon since Tom and I owned a small newspaper in Fort Bragg, California, a vibrant fishing harbor north of San Francisco. At the time we were there, in the late-80s, the salmon fishermen were slowly going broke, facing more and more closure days as the salmon populations declined. So, I was interested to see the Leavenworth National Fish Hatchery, one of the hatcheries built to help blunt the loss of habitat when the Grand Coulee Dam was built on the Columbia River in the 1930s. Today, it raises and releases 1.2 million juvenile spring Chinook salmon into Icicle Creek each year. A pilot project is also under way to mix colder, pumped groundwater into the creek to improve fish habitat. You can visit the buckets, trays, tanks and raceways where the salmon move from fertilized egg to hatchling to fingerling to smotes, which are released in April. We later hiked along the Wenatchee River, where we could see salmon swimming in the cool deep water. Despite substantial efforts, salmon populations continue to decline. Here’s a glimpse.
The Hiawatha Rail-Trail is my kind of bike ride, 15 miles through the stunning Bitterroot Mountains, over seven trestles, through 10 tunnels, including one more than a mile and a half long, all downhill with a shuttle ride back to your vehicle. Genius. The route follows the former Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad, which crossed through the mountains to reach the Pacific in 1909. Construction was estimated at $45 million, but exceeded $234 million. The route hosted the luxury Hiawatha train, with Super Dome observation cars and Skytop sleepers. The line went bankrupt more than once, was abandoned in 1980 and converted to a bike trail beginning in the late 1990s. Signs along the route show where people escaped the 1910 fire called “The Big Burn,” stories of the amazing construction required to get over the Idaho mountain passes, and of the people who worked on the rails. A trail pass costs $10, a shuttle ticket, $9. If you don’t have your own bike, you can rent one at the Lookout Pass Ski Area. They’ll even give you a bike rack to get it to the trailhead. Here’s a glimpse.
When you visit Villa Louis, the 19th century estate of the Dousman family, set on a hill just out of the reach of the Mississippi River’s regular floodwaters in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, the shocking excesses of the leisure class are on display. There are photos of the wealthy family enjoying the home and grounds, but you must use your imagination to envision the bevy of servants cooking, cleaning, washing, ironing, tending the grounds, preserving foods, and cutting blocks of ice from the river to keep perishables cold. The family’s fortune was built on the fur trade and was lost when the son, H. Louis Dousman, died at 37 in the midst of building an ill-fated Artesian Stock Farm to breed and raise trotter horses. The home is restored to its appearance in the mid-1890s, and more than 90 percent of the original furnishings are intact. A tour guide, dressed in period clothing, takes you through the home. The tour includes the separate office, complete with billiard room; the ice house, where blocks of ice from the Mississippi River were packed into the cellar and kept meats and cheeses cold; the preserve house, where summer fruits and vegetables were canned; and the laundry, with a second floor where clothes were hung to dry. They don’t allow photos inside, so you’ll just have to go see for yourself. The site also contains the remains of Fort Crawford, built in 1816 to help secure the Northwest frontier, and a Fur Trade Museum housed in an 1850s stone structure built by B. W. Brisbois, one of the last fur traders in the area.
When we walked into the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, crews were setting up for a concert. Images of Buddy Holly, forever remembered for his last concert here, stared down from the walls, across the original booths, hand-painted murals and maple dance floor. In the wee hours of a frigid February morning in 1959, a 21-year-old (apparently unqualified) pilot was at the helm of a small airplane that plunged into an Iowa cornfield, killing Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson. The musicians were touring the Midwest on The Winter Dance Party Tour, 24 stops in 24 days. But the tour was poorly planned, with the artists zigzagging back and forth across hundreds of frozen miles in a bus so cold that drummer, Carl Bunch, was hospitalized with frostbitten feet. Holly decided to fly from Clear Lake to Fargo, North Dakota, to skip the bus and get some rest. Richardson, who had the flu, took Waylon Jennings’ seat on the plane and, when Holly found out, Holly told Jennings, “Well, I hope your ol’ bus freezes up.” Jennings replied, “Well, I hope your ol’ plane crashes,” a comment that he said has haunted him all his life. Valens asked Tommy Allsup for his seat, and they flipped a coin. Valens would fly. The plane took off shortly before 1 a.m. from Mason City Municipal Airport. Pilot Roger Peterson flew into a cloudy, snowy sky, although he was not qualified for instrument flying and was not given an adequate briefing on deteriorating weather in his path. The plane crashed minutes later, less than six miles from the airport. Investigators think he may have misread the attitude gyro, which gave the opposite visual of the artificial horizon on which he had been trained, and that he flew into the ground, thinking he was ascending. The wreckage was discovered about 9:30 a.m. Holly’s pregnant wife learned of his death from television reports, and soon suffered a miscarriage, prompting officials to change their policies and withhold victim names until notification of next of kin. Don McLean memorialized the crash in his iconic song, American Pie, in which he references how he heard the news when he was folding and delivering newspapers the next morning. “February made me shiver, with every paper I’d deliver. Bad news on the door step. I couldn’t take one more step.”