LESSIE Holder carries with her a wealth of knowledge about Magnolia Hall, the last mansion built before the Civil War in this municipal trove of antebellum Southern life. ``How do you suppose the house got its name?'' asks the tour guide and gift-shop tender, drawing in the visitor. Obvious guesses are rejected with a smile. The answer comes when she asks the visitor to look overhead, thus pointing out the parlor's ornate ceiling plaster work, which features magnolia blooms and leaves. ``We're quite proud of what we have here in Natchez,'' she says, ``we like to show it off.''
It's in large part thanks to people like Lessie Holder -- in love with the Southern town they've long inhabited and eager to show it off -- that Natchez is such a pleasant place to visit. With its dozens of finely preserved mansions, this former capital of Mississippi and one-time center of King Cotton offers the visitor ample opportunity to learn about the town.
Located almost equidistantly between Baton Rouge, La., to the south and Vicksburg, Miss., to the north, Natchez is a perfect spot to get a feel for the South of pre-Civil War days. It's easily worth a weekend visit. The months of March and October are particularly appropriate for visiting, since that's when the city hosts its Pilgrimages, featuring extended house tours, pageants, plays, and other special activities. This year's spring Pilgrimage will run from March 9 to April 7.
But my wife and I, driving through the South on Interstate 20, found this small city to be a manageable one-day respite as well. A Southern lunch on a bluff over looking the Mississippi, a tour of several homes, a stroll through the town, and a cool drink in the once-rowdy river-trade section left us with a desire to return someday to prowl around a bit more.
The best way to enter Natchez is from the west. It is from there -- from Louisiana, across the wide, golden Mississippi -- that the traveler understands best why Natchez was founded where it is.
From there, the city sits mostly hidden, save for a peeking house and an intruding neon sign or two, on a vegetation-tangled bluff above the eastern banks. It was inevitable that this ice-age deposit of rock -- the highest point along the Mississippi between St. Louis and New Orleans -- would someday become a city.
The Indians first realized the attraction of the site, and it's one of their tribes that gives the town its name. As Europeans explored and then settled the region, a need was for an inland defense outpost and trading center along the ``father of waters.'' The swampy, trouble-infested conditions that affected most of the area made this high ground the logical choice. First the French, then the English and Spanish, settled here before the Americans finally took over in 1798.
Once in town, the array of antebellum buildings reveals the influences of the various cultures that have left their stamp here. The striking impact of Doric columns, lacy wrought iron, shiny shutters -- all side by side -- is muffled, however, tempered by the slow, other-era atmosphere of the town. The visitor can easily imagine any number of Eudora Welty tales taking place here, or perhaps Faulkner's lovelorn Emily patiently awaiting her bridegroom from behind a yellowed lace curtain.
Of course, the restored mansions are the major attraction. During the annual Pilgrimages, more than 30 of them are open to the public, but a wide variety remain open year-round and some offer overnight accommodations. Several are inhabited by families with a special interest in preservation -- ``The Burn'' is the residence of the mayor of the city.
A must at lunchtime is ``The Briars,'' an early example of Southern planter architecture. Jefferson Davis was married there. The lovely grounds include an elegant but unpretentious dining room where very reasonable luncheons are served with such memorable touches as warm cheese-pecan biscuits and molded butter pats in the shape of fish, roses, and seashells.
A nice contrast is ``Melrose,'' a much larger home displaying such delights as a love seat with a built-in chaperon, a huge ``punkah wada'' (``fan boy,'' or hand-operated fan) above the dining table, and an ornately patterned precursor of linoleum.
Besides the mansions, the recently renovated Eola Hotel downtown is another ``must-see.'' Built in 1927, the hotel has been redone in an opulence that matches the city's best-kept residences.
Also worth a visit is ``Natchez Under the Hill,'' the riverfront commercial strip that thrived after the Mississippi replaced trails such as the nearby Natchez Trace as the principal trade route. In fact, it was this district -- now an inviting collection of shops, restaurants, and one small inn -- that gave the otherwise civil Natchez its erstwhile reputation for hard drinking, accommodating women, and fast triggers.
Earlier I said the best entrance to Natchez was from across the Mississippi; that was assuming the traveler would be coming by car. Nothing could be better, however, than to arrive on one of the old paddle-wheelers that still ply the river's waters.
As we sat at one of the Under-the-Hill caf'es, the Mississippi Queen was just pulling away from its dock, its guests waving goodbye, its pipe organ playing ``Dixie'' and ``Bye Bye Blackbird.'' With the sun lowering to the west and the proud queen chugging upriver, the heyday of Natchez didn't seem so far away.
For more information on the Natchez Spring Pilgrimage, contact: Natchez Pilgrimage Tours, PO Box 347, Natchez, Miss. 39120, or telephone 800-647-6742.