Thursday, July 14, 2016

Rodney, Mississippi :: A Ghost Town

The South is full of ghosts, and ghost towns.  Rodney, Mississippi is one of those towns, famous for its boom and bust in the mid 1800's, just three votes shy of becoming the state capital.  During its peak in the 1860's it boasted a population of over 4,000 people and even claimed the state's first opera house. It seems as though some things just aren't meant to be, though.  Yellow fever, the Civil War, two raging fires, a railroad that bypassed it by just 10 miles, and finally, the changing course of the Mississippi River all conspired against old Rodney.  By the turn of the century she lay all but abandoned.  

Our goal was to see the ghost town of Rodney, but of course we had a couple stops to make along the way.  

Our first stop would be the boyhood home of Jefferson Davis, known as Rosemont Plantation, built in 1814.  It was pretty enough, but I missed the tour, so there's not a whole lot I can tell you about the place.  The grounds were beautiful though, and it would be a perfect place to live if you didn't want to be bothered by the outside world.   

The town of Woodville was like too many other dying towns I've been to in the South.  Whatever the reason for its existence in the first place is long gone.  People still live there, but they ain't doing much.  You had a couple of people sitting around the square napping, a couple of shops open with no one shopping, a couple of nice historic homes, and a snowball stand- the life of the party.  It makes you really wonder whether these towns will survive the passing of another generation or two.  Only time will tell, I guess.

Another hour down the highway and what seemed like another 12 miles down a dusty gravel road, we finally approached Rodney.  It was hotter than hell, not a cloud in the sky.  It was as humid a day as I can ever remember, and the sting of constant sweat flowing in my eyes made it hard to see.  The sun seemed to have a personal vendetta against us.  It has been a long time since I've been that hot.  Throw in the herds of horse flies the size of hummingbirds, capable of removing whole chunks of skin with a single bite, and it wasn't exactly a pleasant experience.  DEET simply pissed these things off.  I'm not kidding.

I will never understand how people survived in the South before the advent of the ceiling fan, much less AC.  You just don't ever get used to being that hot.  God bless those who came before us.

There's not much left of this once booming town, other than a couple of churches and a few other structures that look like a stiff breeze might blow over.  Time has taken is toll, and mother nature has done the rest.  I guess they're really the same thing though.

The old Rodney Presbyterian church, circa 1832, has quite the history and was in surprisingly good shape.  Nearby villagers organize a couple of clean-ups a year, and it shows.  There was hardly even any dust.  The place looked like it was holding Sunday services, although the piano was a bit out of tune.  

Legend has it that quite the squabble took place here between the occupying Union soldiers and good ole home town boys of the Confederate.  If you look closely you can still see the canon ball right above the middle upper window, but apparently it's not the original.  Still, it's always amazing to walk through history like this- to stand in the exact spot where so much action went down.  Better than any museum I can think of.

The story of said squabble goes a little something like this [from Wikipedia]:

"After the fall of Vicksburg, the Union Navy was in charge of the Mississippi River. The gunboat Rattler was stationed in front of Rodney to ensure the federal control of this important town, and aware that the area was not completely secure, the admiral left strict orders that no sailor was to leave the ship. But on Sunday September 12, 1863, 22 sailors, a lieutenant, and a captain left the ship dressed in their best uniforms, and quietly seated themselves amongst the Presbyterian Church congregation. 

As the second hymn was being sung, a Lt. Allen of the Confederate Cavalry walked up the aisle to the pulpit. Apologizing to the Reverend Baker, he turned and announced that his men had surrounded the building and demanded the Yankee sailors surrender. One of the Yankee sailors jumped behind a door and took a shot at Lt. Allen. A general melee broke out, and most of the citizens dove under their pews for safety and reputedly one Yankee sailor hid in the undergarments of his local southern girlfriend. One older lady, however, would not run. She stood up in her pew and shouted "Glory to God!" 

A skeleton crew had remained on board the Rattler, and, when they heard the commotion, began firing their guns at the church. The church and four homes were hit. The firing ceased once word was sent that the Confederates threatened to execute the prisoners. It was on this day that a cannonball lodged itself in the front wall of the Presbyterian Church. 

The Confederate Army had taken 17 prisoners, including the lieutenant and captain. The crew of the Rattler became the laughingstock of the nation, for it was the first time in history a small squad of cavalry captured the crew of an ironclad gunboat. (Local history tells us that the cannonball that is imbedded very high up in the front of the Church was placed there many years later. The original one had fallen out.

To eliminate all Confederate presence in Rodney, Union infantrymen landed in Rodney and plundered almost every house in town. Citizens of Rodney later formed Company D. 22nd Mississippi infantry to fight against the Union army."

Now you know!

The real mission of the trip, besides to check out Rodney herself, was to test out my (new to me) 1958 Graphex Super Graphic 4x5 large format press camera.  I've never shot large format before and I hope I did everything right.  I think I did.  I'll only be able to tell when my negatives come back from the lab.  Large format!

The old Baptist church has not fared as well, although I guess it's a true testament to the craftsmanship of the place that it's still standing.  Built in 1850 and much closer to the river, it has withstood the flood waters more than once, including in January of this year.  For many more pictures and really fascinating account from another photographer, click here.

Due to the suffocating heat and the aforementioned horse flies, I really didn't get to explore the place properly, but I'll be back.  On our way out we ran into an old black lady hanging clothes on a fence, and asked if she knew the best way to get to the Windsor Ruins (our next stop, not more than five miles away).  All we got in return was a blank stare.  And although she was nice enough, she had no idea what we were talking about.  I found it strange that you can live so close to so much history and not know anything about it, but I guess if you still live in Rodney you don't get out much.

The Windsor Ruins were stunning.  I wasn't expecting much, being that I've seen my fair share of really cool abandoned places, but the sheer size of these columns and the space that this house used to occupy was simple amazing.  It looked like you could fit about three Olympic size pools in the foundation of this place.  The place was built in 1861 and burned in 1891, after a guest passed out with a lit cigarette.  Sadly, all the photographs and paintings of the place burned with her.  The state of Mississippi now owns the ruins.

The only known surviving drawing of the place, from a soldier in 1863.

So, there you have it.  A quick tour of the old South, stuck in time and still there.  Like I mentioned before, it was hotter than Hades, which made us rush just a little too much.  I'll have to go back in the fall when it's about 100 degrees cooler.  I can't wait.  Hope you enjoyed.

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