We are fast approaching some important anniversary dates. We are just three years away from the bicentennial of the first house being built at the site of Columbus and of Mississippi’s statehood, both of which occurred in 1817. This past week marked the 75th anniversary of events leading up to the first Columbus Pilgrimage which was held in the spring of 1940.
In the spring of 1939, The Mississippi Federation of Music Clubs held its three-day convention in Columbus. On April 11 the Memphis Commercial Appeal, in reporting on the upcoming convention, said, “The romantic old homes of Columbus, preserved these many years, will be thrown open to the public for the first time…visitors and delegates will see relics that have been passed down from generation to generation as well as some outstanding examples of architecture of prewar days. Plans for the first pilgrimage next year, ‘Wisteria Way in Columbus,’ are already in the making by the Pioneer Club.”
There were to be six homes open for tour after registration on the afternoon of Thursday, April 13. The houses were Snowdoun, Franklin Square, Wisteria Place, Pratt Thomas Home, Leigh Crest and Whitehall. Tours were sponsored by the Pioneer Club with assistance from the Galaxy Garden Club and the Music Study Club.
In order to further promote to upcoming pilgrimage, Columbus played host on October 11, 1939, to travel editors and American Auto Association bureau managers from across the country. The writers and managers were on a six-day tour of Mississippi. Just as had been the case for the music clubs convention and would be for the first Pilgrimage, The Gilmer Hotel served as headquarters during the group’s stay in Columbus.
As the guest arrived at the hotel they were informed how the old structure had served as a hospital for the sick and wounded soldiers of the “Confederate Armies of Mississippi and Tennessee.” They were told to enjoy a “drive over our little city, called ‘The Friendly City,’ see our wide streets and beautiful shade trees, our modern homes and industrial factors.” The editors and managers were given information on the upcoming spring pilgrimage and treated to tours of several historic homes and churches.
That afternoon a party was given for the group. Mrs. T C Billups, a pilgrimage founder and chairman, was helping host the writers tour and the party was at her family home Whitehall.
Working with the Mississippi Advertising Commission, Eudora Welty came to Columbus as part of the travel writers tour and attended the afternoon party. There they were served the Whitehall Mint Julep of which Welty said, “Who could ask for anything more?”
Welty interviewed Mrs. Billups for the story and recipe of that famous Mint Julep. The interview and recipe was published nationwide in December 1939 and has often since appeared in collections of classic southern recipes. It even re-appeared in a USA Today story a few years ago.
The resulting regional and national publicity from the October travel writers event laid the foundation for the first Columbus Pilgrimage which opened on April 14, 1940. The writers left Columbus with the admonition, “We hope that you will enjoy your tour of our State and carry back to your homes memories of Mississippi and be able to say that you did, ‘Discover the old South in Columbus.'”
By the way, last week also marked 200 years since Davy Crockett passed down the west bank of the Tombigbee looking for Gen. Coffee and his Tennessee Volunteers. They were headed south to reinforce Andrew Jackson before what became the Battle of New Orleans. Crockett was supposed to be scouting for them but had missed his rendezvous and was traveling a week behind looking for the Tennesseans. That is a story I wrote about in my book, “Columbus Chronicles.”
Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at firstname.lastname@example.org.