Home Travelogues City Travel Logs Sanctuary: Holly Springs, Michigan City

Sanctuary: Holly Springs, Michigan City

Walter PlaceFor some it was a haven, for others a beautifully civilized hell… A glittering pawn shuttled between Civil War powers… A bewitching collaborator that held hardened soldiers spellbound… A cavalier host whose act of chivalry in the midst of combat would become an ironic prelude to Total War. Here is where a fleeing Confederate could hide his whole body inside a massive Corinthian column of his mansion… Where for decades a brilliant painter could hide her spectacular body of artistic work, burying her extraordinary talent beneath her position as a pillar of Southern rectitude. From those suffocating Southern bonds another young woman of gentry would flee to achieve her dream as a nationally respected writer and colleague of Longfellow, only to return home to tragedy…And yet a woman born to slavery would rise to become a preeminent civil rights leader and the world's most inspiring champion against the heinous crime of lynching.  America's first African American senator would hail from here; the nation's second college founded for African Americans would arise on the former site of slave auctions.

The truth is, if Holly Springs weren't real, a novelist would have to invent it.  A story this good has to be told-and today it is, in an elegant array of historical residences, churches, gardens and museums.  A home for heroes, a haven for hummingbirds and nature lovers, a prime location for quirky filmmakers and an altogether necessary destination for those like you seeking refuge from the ordinary and mundane …This is Holly Springs.

Holly Springs had long established itself as a bustling and busy town by the time U.S. Grant rode into town, with his mind on Vicksburg and his wife Julia, their son, and Julia's slave called Black Julia, all in tow.  After the Grants arrived, however, the action, much of it military, picked up considerably.

For his headquarters, Grant chose Airliewood, an elegant chalet-style home with massive front gates identical to West Point's.  To house the family, the Grants settled on the Walter Place.  In a town full of grand mansions, the Walter Place was the grandest of all, a glorious hybrid of gothic towers and Greek revival columns.

The city was to be a supply base for Grant's overland approach to Vicksburg, and after he had established both army and family, the general headed south with much of his force.  He didn't realize that ambush and defeat lay ahead of him and that behind him at Holly Springs, the trusting officers he had left in charge were falling under the enchantment of a bewitching Southern town-an enchantment that would transform hardened soldiers into sleeping beauties when a daring raid by Confederate soldiers was launched against Grant's supply base.

Burning supplies, burning bridges.

Confederate General Earl Van Dorn and his raiders galloped into town in early morning; the evening before, conspiring townspeople had thrown a lavish party where unsuspecting Union officers danced and drank long into the night. Not surprisingly, defense of the town was weak. Over 1500 surprised and sleepy Union soldiers were immediately captured and paroled, as the raiders set to work on their destruction. Tons of cotton intended for sale to finance Grant's army were torched, smoking the skies, while rail car after rail car packed with bacon were burned, grease crackling in stench-filled pools. Over $1 million in medical supplies alone were destroyed.

And yet amid the destruction, quarter was given. While the town square was burned, other homes were spared, and Confederate soldiers declined to invade Julia Grant's personal space, leaving her quarters untouched. It was said that because Van Dorn hailed from Port Gibson, for this reason Grant refused to burn that town once he finally reached it. However, if Grant's personal feelings were charitable, his experience leading a defeated army out of Mississippi without supplies led to a brutal shift in his tactics. It was only after Holly Springs, he later recalled, that he realized an army could feed off the land and its people, a realization that would cost the South dearly.

Today, in Holly Springs, a town the New York Times has called "an antebellum encyclopedia," a driving tour gives you some of the sites and details involved in Van Dorn's dramatic raid, but it is when you take the driving and walking tour of Holly Springs historic homes, churches and neighborhoods, you'll understand at once why those Union officers never stood a chance-Holly Springs is still pure enchantment.

So here's your marching orders: first stop, the Walter Place.

Tour de force.

Walter PlaceAfter the Civil War, the Walter Place would see headquarters duty once again, in 1878, as a refuge for victims of yellow fever, and while the house survived, owner Harvey Washington Walter and his three sons who stayed to tend to the sick did not. For a time the house served as a home for the Walters' daughter and her husband, Oscar Johnson, who made his first fortune selling boots to the army and later helped found Red Goose shoes. Today, the mansion sits on 15 acres of developing gardens with two English style cottages that are part of its tour.

After the Walter Place, it's one down and an amazing 65 to go. That's how many antebellum structures are still standing in Holly Springs, a remarkable fact given that the town suffered through more than 60 different Civil War raids. Today, Holly Springs architecture runs a gamut of styles from Italianate to Greek Revival to Gothic, churches reaching skyward with gorgeous spires, homes bearing appropriately romantic names and dramatic, sometimes tragic, stories.

Inside the gold-dust embellished Grey Gables, a hand-carved winged Icarus adorns parlor doors to commemorate a young son drowned in a lily pond. At Heritage, on the very eve of a wedding, a marriage was postponed because the future mother-in-law foresaw a vision of doom; only at her death two decades later did the couple finally say their vows and enjoy their original wedding cake, preserved through the years with copious amounts of brandy-though how their love survived was another matter! At Greenwood, the owners built a tunnel underneath the house to secret their belongings and themselves during the many Civil War raids. On the front door of Magnolia, you can still see the stab marks of Union bayonets; after attacking the door soldiers rushed inside and stabbed out the eyes on all the fine portraits that lined the walls.

Considered the state's finest example of Greek Revival architecture, Athenia was owned by a two-time vice presidential candidate as well as by a local resident who made his fortune by patenting the "Indian Queen" hair straightener. Athenia was the first house in town to boast indoor plumbing; today, you can still see the wooden zinc-lined tub once considered the height of luxury. At Wakefield, a romance between the widowed owner and a Union soldier outraged the town; a later owner gave up the house when her husband bet it in a poker game, and she chose to honor the wager.

There are other, more uplifting examples of homes changing hands, among them the majestic Montrose and Montrose Arboretum, gifts to the Holly Springs Garden Club that all visitors may now enjoy. Holly Springs churches, historical treasures themselves, also offer inspiring stories.

Visitors can see the past come alive in Holly Springs with Time Travel Tours, "the entertainment adventure like no other".

Death be not proud.

Today the picture of stately grace, the churches of Holly Springs suffered indignities great and small during the Civil War. The elegant Romanesque First Presbyterian Church became a Union horse stable and ammunition storage facility. Horses ate from the hand-made pews at the Christ Episcopal Church, while the organ was dismantled so that rowdy soldiers could blow their own tunes through the pipes.

Yellow Fever MuseumHowever, the Yellow Fever Martyrs Museum at the former St. Joseph's Catholic Church bears witness to horrors worse than indignity. When "Yellow Jack" rampaged through Holly Springs, the townspeople opened their doors to the sick at great personal cost. At the headquarters for the Holly Springs Tourism Bureau, known now as the Yellow Fever House, W. J. L. Holland, editor of the Holly Springs Reporter, took in the epidemic's first victims only to become one of the last victims himself.

Fronted by cedar trees and a wrought iron gate, Hillcrest cemetery is the final resting place for many of those who died during the fever. It is also the burial site of 11 Confederate generals, as well as Hiram Revels, the first African American elected to the United States Senate. A stroll through this picturesque cemetery is well worth the time; the town's writers and poets are buried here, their own verse adorning some of their graves.

But one writer who came to rest here wanted no lines, no mark at all on her gravestone. Her name was Sherwood Bonner, and her story, along with that of painter Kate Freeman Clark, reveal the high cost of decorum in 19th century Southern society. Both women were great talents who passed away young: Bonner died of breast cancer at the age of 34; in Clark's case, it was her heart and her spirit that gave out, and she spent the next two decades with her talent buried in the invisible life of a small-town spinster before her body finally expired as well.

After death, Bonner became a feminist icon, and Clark's paintings finally found the light of day. Today their stories-and in Clark's case more than 1,000 paintings-are preserved in Holly Springs.

The Belles' toll.

Katherine Sherwood Bonner McDowellShe might have been Scarlet O'Hara. Her father was an Irish immigrant who married into a wealthy plantation family that fell on hard times after the Civil War. But when Katherine Sherwood Bonner McDowell found herself in a stifling marriage, starved for emotional and financial support, she didn't bother with the draperies. Instead she filed for divorce, settled her only child with family and headed for Boston to make her mark as a writer. That she did is evidence not only of her talent but of her determination as well. Longfellow became her patron and colleague; her stories achieved national acclaim, published under the pseudonym of Sherwood Bonner.

But her success was short-lived. In 1878, her brother fell ill with yellow fever, as did her father (who had cut off contact with her during her divorce). Once the rebel, now the dutiful daughter, Bonner came home to Holly Springs to nurse them. It was here only a few years later that she would be diagnosed with terminal breast cancer. Today you can learn more about Bonner at Cedarhurst, the Bonner family home.

Like Bonner, Kate Freeman Clark was born to a preeminent Southern family, the wealthy and politically connected Walthalls. In her early years, Clark seemed the perfect Southern belle, interested in beaus, fearful of becoming a spinster. But it was art that truly stirred her passion, and eventually she took up residence in New York City, where accompanied by her mother (and her grandmother at times) she became an active art student and a respected protégé of noted American painter and portraitist William Merritt Chase.

But Clark's will to create was dealt a fatal blow with her mother's and grandmother's deaths, both of which followed on the heels of the death of her patron. Leaving her paintings in storage in New York City, she moved back to the family home in Holly Springs, and against the advice of her New York friends who urged her to "leave thing unembroidered," she abandoned painting all together and took up the persona of small-town spinster. It was only after her death two decades later that a bequest in her will created her final work: the Kate Freeman Clark Gallery, which has allowed her paintings to be shared with the world once again. The portraits and still lifes that hang at the Gallery are remarkable.

Remarkable, too, is the story of another young woman who challenged the barriers of society and overcame even greater odds. She was born a slave, she lived a hero, and today her portrait hangs next to Winston Churchill's in Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. Her name was Ida B. Wells, and her story began here in Holly Springs.

Inspiration personified.

Ida B. WellsWells was born a slave in 1862 to a father who was a skilled carpenter and a mother who was a famous cook. While both were literate and taught their daughter to read, they died in the yellow fever epidemic when Wells was only 16, leaving her to care for her five younger siblings. Undaunted, she attended school at Shaw University, now Rust College, and began work as a teacher in Memphis. While riding the train to work, she was denied a seat in the ladies' coach and sued. Although her legal victory was overturned, her writing about the case caused her to change her career to journalism.

As the tide of violence toward African Americans rose in the post-Reconstruction South, Wells was fearless in her writing about lynching, and she spoke out with such fervor that threats to her personal safety kept her exiled from the South for the next forty years. Her legacy not only in fighting violence, but in working for the suffragist movement and as a founding member of the NAACP has made Wells a figure of worldwide renown and acclaim. At the Ida B. Wells-Barnett Museum, located in the Spires Bolling house, visitors can see a variety of family heirlooms as well as historic African American artifacts.

Rust CollegeAfter spending some time in this inspiring woman's company, you'll want to explore her alma mater. Rust College, founded as Shaw University on the former site of slave auctions, was only the second college founded in America for the education of African Americans. Besides Wells, other outstanding Rust alumni include Ruby Elzy, a Pontotoc native who originated the role of Serena in Gershwin's Porgy and Bess and appeared in The Emperor Jones. Her story, like that of Sherwood Bonner, is one of genius cut short. She died the age of 35, just as she was about to reach her greatest dream, to star in the title role of Verdi's Aida.

Today, Rust College is home to Rust College Center, which houses more than 400 pieces of African art, sculptures and masks in the Ronald Trojcak African Art Collection of tribal arts and fabrics.

There are also several other important and interesting venues in Holly Springs where you can witness the fight for human rights. A walk through Cottrell cemetery shows you the graves of important African American leaders, like Marshall County's first African American sheriff.   The preserved papers Roy Wilkins, long-time executive director of the NAACP, hold a dynamic yet intimate portrait of the battle for Civil Rights, detailed in vivid remembrances and exchanges. Wilkins recognized the legitimate anger of the dispossessed, saying, "First in myth, later in reality, passion and violence watered my root soil." Yet he worked tirelessly for a peaceful and nonviolent world where the rights of all would be respected.

An ability to encompass the broader world, a passionate striving for higher goals. This is what sets Holly Springs apart. Another great case in point is the Finley Sisters and the way their gift to the world has taken flight.

"A sanctuary in the truest sense of the word."

That's what Margaret Finley Shackelford and Ruth Finley envisioned when they willed the family's magnificent house and property to the Audubon Society, and today that gift has more than fulfilled its promise as Strawberry Plains Audubon Center, the Society's state headquarters and a premiere natural and historic treasure. Here, more than 200 species of birds spread their wings over 2500 acres of diverse wildlife habitat. 15 miles of walking trails allow visitors to explore forest and woodland, and ramble through the beautiful gardens of native plants. The house presiding over it all was once a grand planter's home, burned by Union soldiers and then restored, and now, a sanctuary offering education and hospitality for the whole world, natural and human alike.

Hummingbird MigrationAt the Hummingbird Migration Celebration every September, the "featured guest" is the Ruby-throated Hummingbird, which flocks by the thousands to the Center's forests, gardens and feeders. Experts are on hand to band the delicate creatures, and many guests are themselves given the chance to release the birds back into the wild.

More outdoor pleasures are to be had at the Fitch Farms-Galena Plantation, where you can trail ride over a 7,000 game preserve; you may want stay overnight in one of the farm's well-equipped cabins. There's also the lovely and serene Chewalla Lake and Wall Doxey State Park.

And once a year, if you're so inclined you can shoulder a musket, don a Confederate or Union uniform and head for the open fields to charge into battle-or just come as you are to watch-at the annual reenactment of the Battle of Davis Mills in Michigan City. Although the reenactment is not held on the actual site, organizers have gone to great lengths to create an atmosphere of authenticity on the undeveloped 500-acre farm site, including the construction of earthworks duplicating those used in the actual battle.

And there's more.

Phillips GroceryThe truth is, you could spend days in Holly Springs and still not see it all. There's also the Marshall County Historic Museum, with more than 40,000 artifacts and relics, from antique children's toys to farm tools to soldier's uniforms (the real ones)!

There are plenty of great places to stay, and to eat, like Phillips Grocery, once a country store, then a saloon, and now a dining pleasure-USA Today declares its burgers world-famous.

Holly Springs may have been put to the torch once, but it's the sort of place that you'll carry a torch for, long after you've gone. The only question is when will you begin?

Holly Springs House Party

The party had been going on for decades by the time rockers like the Rolling Stones and U2 and Sonic Youth heard about it and decided to join in. And while the party’s hosts may have played some outdoor barbecues during all those lean years, the life they lived was anything but a picnic—sharecropping, poverty, even prison time.

Still, Holly Springs blues greats like R. L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough never stopped playing or working as musicians, even if all that meant was clearing the sofa and chairs out the house and charging a couple bucks a head for a house party.

By the end of the 20th century, however, Burnside and Kimbrough were finally enjoying the wider recognition they deserved. (The were playing some novel gigs, too—Kimbrough touring with Iggy Pop and Burnside opening for the Beastie Boys.)

Kimbrough’s Holly Springs juke joint, called Junior’s, became the go-to spot for nationally known rockers. Although Junior’s burned down in 2000, and Kimbrough and Burnside have since passed away, the legend, and the talent, lives on in the careers of Burnside’s and Kimbrough’s many children.

From the sound of it, it could be this party’s only just getting started.


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