In the mid-1930s, my grandfather, T.C. Billups, who was circulation manager for The Commercial Dispatch, was seeking ways to promote Columbus. He observed the success of Natchez and several other Southern towns in using a spring pilgrimage to attract tourists and promote community development.
The potential that Columbus possessed became apparent when, in June 1936, representatives of the Library of Congress’ Historic American Building Survey spent a week in Columbus photographing buildings. They photographed and recorded information on 12 residences, the Courthouse, Franklin Academy and the Catholic Church. Billups’ residence, Whitehall, was one of the 12, and he was inspired to promote the organization of a Columbus Pilgrimage.
The Galaxy Garden Club was organized in 1936 to foster interest in the creation of a spring garden pilgrimage in Columbus to be called “Wisteria Way.” In 1937 the Galaxy Garden Club began planting wisteria along highways coming into Columbus.
There was also interest in the “Pioneer Club” in Columbus possibly hosting a pilgrimage. Mrs T.C. Billups, a member of the club, traveled to the Natchez Pilgrimage to observe its workings and discussions were then held at Whitehall, the Billups’ residence, about the potential Columbus held.
When it was announced that in April 1939 The Mississippi Federation of Music Clubs would hold its annual convention in Columbus, the pilgrimage began to emerge. 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.” On March 31, 1939, the Jackson Clarion Ledger reported the 1940 spring pilgrimage “sponsored by the Pioneer Club will be known as the Pilgrimage of Wisteria Time in Columbus. Mrs. T.C. Billups has been named general chairman of the pilgrimage movement.”
A pilgrimage association was formed and began making plans for a Columbus Pilgrimage in spring 1940. A year later,the association became the Columbus Pilgrimage Club. The original 1939 “Columbus Pilgrimage Committee” was composed of Mrs. T.C. Billups, chairman; Mrs. T. Bailey Hardy, executive chairman; Sadie Hudson served for a time as secretary; and members Mrs. William Frazee, Miss Mary Billups, Mrs. J.P. Woodward, Mrs. B.A. Lincoln and Mrs. Wildie Morgan.
As the plan for the first pilgrimage progressed a formal pilgrimage committee was established with Mrs. T.C. Billups as chairman and Henry Pratt as co-chairman. T.C. Billups began traveling around the nation making contacts and promoting the new pilgrimage. In Mrs. Billups’ 1939 journal of pilgrimage association business, the first page is a list of the members of the Pioneer Society.
The Pilgrimage Committee members compiled a lengthy list of antebellum homes to be considered for the first pilgrimage. The houses were then discussed and voted on. There appeared to be two criteria for being invited to be in that first pilgrimage: How attractive and historic was the house and how well did the committee members like who lived there. Invitations were mailed to the selected homeowners to gather at the YMCA on June 9, 1939, to discuss pilgrimage plans.
In order to publicize the first tour of homes, Columbus hosted an Associated Press travel writers tour in October 1939. The writers toured several of Columbus’ historic homes and churches and attended a reception at Whitehall. One of the writer/photographers who came was Eudora Welty. Her interview of Mrs. Billups at Whitehall for the proper way to make a mint julep circulated nationwide. The story and recipe of the “Whitehall Mint Julep” has since been frequently reprinted in national publications.
The first Columbus Pilgrimage was held April 14-16, 1940, with 22 homes. Press coverage of that first pilgrimage ranged from the New York Times to the Memphis Commercial Appeal. Pilgrimages followed in 1941 and 1942. Of all the Pilgrimages, the one that attracted the most national and international attention was that of 1942.
It was wartime and Columbus Air Force Base, then known as Kaye Field Air Corps Advanced Flying School, had just opened. Base personnel and their families played a prominent role in the pilgrimage. One of the pilgrimage “star homes,” the Dr. Cornelius Hardy home (now named Magnolia Hill), was the residence of Maj. Joseph Duckworth, the base’s director of training. Mrs. L.C. Mallory, wife of Col. Mallory, the base’s commanding officer, served as a hostess at Whitehall, and Mrs. Joseph Duckworth served as a hostess at Snowdoun. In 1942, Life Magazine did a pictorial of airmen at a hoopskirt party in Columbus. The story attracted international attention and was even picked up by the London Illustrated Magazine. Wartime rationing, especially of gasoline, resulted in a temporary cessation of the pilgrimage.
In 1950 the Chamber of Commerce revived the Columbus Pilgrimage. Chamber of Commerce manager Glover Wilkins, and Chamber secretary, Felicitas Campbell, secured the necessary financing and led the organizational efforts. Mrs. T. Bailey Hardy, sister in law of Mrs. Billups the first chairman, was the chairman of the revived Columbus Pilgrimage. In 1951 the Chamber of Commerce continued to sponsor the Pilgrimage, and Birney Imes Jr. headed the Chamber’s Pilgrimage Committee with Douglas Bateman and Rachel Shute handling the publicity.
Other events were added to the Pilgrimage at that time. There were art exhibits and dance programs at MSCW (MUW) and the Junior Auxiliary inaugurated the Pilgrimage Pageant and Ball. Also included was a Pilgrimage Association Antique Show and Sale, a Museum of Antiquities and a parade.
The Chamber of Commerce and the Pilgrimage Association turned the operation of the pilgrimage over to the Columbus Antebellum Council, which became the Columbus Historic Foundation (Historic Columbus) under the capable hands of Carl and Dixie Butler. Additional events such as the Decorative Arts Forum, which did not necessarily occur during Pilgrimage, were added. In 2008 the Columbus Historic Foundation turned the operation of the Pilgrimage over to the Columbus-Lowndes Convention and Visitors Bureau where through its Visit Columbus and Columbus Cultural Heritage Foundation it continues to host the Columbus Pilgrimage.
The new Preservation Society of Columbus, which is composed of many of the owners of homes in recent pilgrimages, has said that it will take over the operation of Pilgrimage next year. This year Visit Columbus has announced plans for another grand pilgrimage in celebration of the 80th anniversary of the first Columbus Pilgrimage. In that first pilgrimage of 1940, the tour began at Franklin Square on Third Avenue North and ended at Whitehall on South Side. The second year the tour started at Ole Homestead on College Street and ended at the Franklin Square.
For the first time since 1942, all three of those homes will be open during Pilgrimage as will be other former pilgrimage and pilgrimage star homes. Pilgrimage in 1957 saw MSCW host an art exhibit by the late Josh Meador, the Oscar-winning head of Disney’s animation effects department. This year’s pilgrimage will also feature an exhibition of Meador’s paintings, and Meador related Disney animation drawings. Once again it is time for Columbus’ spring pilgrimage and the continuance of an 80-year-old tradition.
In compiling this I have used my grandmother’s (Mrs. T.C. Billups) original pilgrimage records and have been helped by Carolyn Kaye in locating old newspaper accounts including Rachel Shute’s 1957 “The History of the Columbus Pilgrimage.”
Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at email@example.com.