Legendary Mississippi writer Eudora Welty often is credited with imbuing her writing with a “sense of place” – an almost indefinable feeling that makes a fictional location become real and familiar.
Even though it’s as real as can be, Sarah McCullough says that visiting Cotesworth gives her that “sense of place.” Cotesworth is the 160-year-old home of another legendary Mississippian, former U.S. Sen. James Zachariah George, who helped frame and pass the 1890 Mississippi Constitution. It has been a family home for more than a century, but is now in transition, turning from home place to culture and heritage center. But McCullough, manager of the state’s Cultural Heritage program, says that despite a solid five-year plan to move Cotesworth forward, when she walks into the six-sided J.Z. George Library, she’s transported back to the late 1800s. That “sense of place” allows her to see the senator busy at his desk, surrounded by law books, working on the state constitution that is still in place today.
And that feeling, she says, is just one of the reasons that Cotesworth is such a special place.
The story of Cotesworth starts with George, the Georgia boy who adopted Mississippi as his home in the mid-1800s. A self-trained lawyer at 20, as well as an astute businessman, George bought the plantation in Carroll County, naming it after a lawyer friend, Cotesworth Pinckney Smith. The house was built as a stagecoach inn, but it turned into a family home when George moved
in with his wife and, eventually, nine children. A wing and freestanding office/library were added later.
George died in 1897, and Cotesworth has stayed in the family since. At times, it served as a weekend house, but mostly it’s remained much the same as it was in the senator’s day – a family home, furnishings intact, and a working farm.
The house, situated on top of a hill and surrounded by grassy fields, has never had air conditioning. Wide-paned windows that run floor to ceiling allow ample air flow, and the home's numerous porches create ventilation, even in the hottest part of August. The wide-planked heart pine floors, 12-foot ceilings and plastered walls loan authenticity to the furnishings – all of which are original to the home and still intact. Wallpapers from years past, antique rugs and vintage knickknacks complete the scene. In the library, law books at least a century old are carefully situated, along with shelves of magazines, one containing issues of The Saturday Evening Post – all stacked in an orderly fashion.
A few years ago, George descendant Katharine Williams decided to look into Cotesworth’s future. She turned to a cousin, Gloria Kellum, then a vice-chancellor at the University of Mississippi. Williams, who was living at Cotesworth, knew that there was historical and cultural value to the property. She and Kellum talked to historians and archivists, but found that no federal or state funds were available to buy a private historic property.
“We knew that our people, places and stories are very interesting to others,” Kellum said. “So we began to look at how we could share that heritage, what might be the right future for this house.”
With no funds available, they began to look for a private buyer. First came a determination of market value for the house and library, done by a Sotheby’s associate in New Orleans. Next came a brochure on the property, designed to attract just the right buyer.
That’s when fate, in the form of a Mississippi state senator, intervened.
Lydia Chassaniol (R-Winona) chairs the state senate’s tourism committee. In 2010, Williams’ granddaughter worked in her office as a page, and the senator happened to see a brochure advertising the sale of Cotesworth.
She grabbed the brochure and headed straight to Gov. Haley Barbour’s office. “I said, ‘I’ve got to talk to him,’” she recalled. “I thought, ‘We must buy this, or this history is going to just go away.’”
No one disagreed with Chassaniol. Money was the issue, not George’s importance to Mississippi. A non-profit was formed for Cotesworth, the legislature passed a tourism bond to help pay for the on-grounds library (the rest will come mostly from private donations and foundations), and Cotesworth became an official Culture and Heritage Center in the summer of 2010.
But that’s not where the Cotesworth story ends.
McCullough calls the change from family home to cultural center “an opportunity to really encompass all our cultural heritage.” Because Cotesworth is an established farm, there’s much to be learned about the history of agriculture in Mississippi from its history, McCullough said.
“So much of what we are in Mississippi stems from our agrarian roots,” she said. “Our music, our literature … think of the people working on the farms, making music. The stories that come from the farms. Our roots have made us what we are.”
McCullough and Chassaniol are excited, too, by the chance to tie in the burgeoning national farm-to-table movement at Cotesworth. In George’s day, people ate what was grown a few feet from the back door. Because Cotesworth continued as a working farm (bounteous gardens were planted and Brangus cattle were raised there), the chance to provide lessons in farm-to-table can enhance the cultural heritage lessons.
“Our children have no idea where their food comes from,” Chassaniol said. “They think hamburgers come from Wendy’s.”
Legal scholars will visit Cotesworth, Kellum said. They’re working with the Mississippi Bar on ways to showcase Cotesworth’s place in state legal history and the property can be used for small retreats and seminars.
Chassaniol’s vision for Cotesworth includes field trips of schoolchildren who have left the history book in their locker and come to Carroll County to experience life on the farm, stroll the gardens and see where the state constitution was written.
Kellum seconds the idea of the educational center for children. Like Chassaniol, she sees Cotesworth as a regular tourist stop and a tool to drive the local economy. It’s already starting – there have been teacher workshops at Cotesworth and quite a few visitors have stopped by see the fictional home of Celia Foote in “The Help.” Scenes from the movie were filmed on the Cotesworth grounds.
McCullough is excited by the idea of using Cotesworth as a retreat for artists and writers. She sees Cotesworth as one of many regional attractions. Highway 82, just a few minutes away, has antebellum homes, rich architecture and lots of Southern heritage and history. Cotesworth fits right into that.
“Once you set foot in it, you feel it,” McCullough said. “Part of the charm is that you know that it truly was a family home. Visitors definitely pick up on it. It’s a feeling more than anything else, but it’s what makes Cotesworth a special place. ”
Not only is Cotesworth a well-maintained example of a mid-1800s farm and residence, it’s also the home of a prominent statesman. Kellum compares the potential of Cotesworth to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello in Virginia.
“In the South, there is nothing like Cotesworth.”
James Zachariah George
Born: Oct. 20, 1826, Monroe County, Ga.
Died: Aug. 14, 1897 (age 70), Mississippi City, Miss.
Buried: Evergreen Cemetery, Carrollton, Miss.
1846: Joined Mississippi Rifles; served in Mexican-American War.
1847: Admitted to Mississippi Bar.
1861-1865: Fought in Civil War, rising to rank of Colonel of Cavalry.
1879: Chosen Chief Justice of Mississippi Supreme Court.
1890: Drafted Mississippi Constitution.
1881-1897: U.S. Senator from Mississippi.
1931: Mississippi donates two bronze statues, of George and Jefferson Davis, as its contributions to the Statuary Hall collection at U.S. Capitol in Washington. George’s statue is in the Capitol Visitor’s Center.
Cotesworth Culture and Heritage Center is one mile north of North Carrollton on State Highway 17. For more information, visit www.cotesworthcenter.org
WHAT WAS DINNER LIKE IN THE MID-1800s?
In the 1800s, the food that came to the table was generally grown or raised on the farm. Hence the term, “farm fresh.”
The J.Z. George family would have been no different. Each family would have had an orchard, a vegetable garden, a root cellar and a smoke house. Everything grown was either stored in the root cellar or canned and stored in the pantry for the winter months. Corn would have been dried and ground for cornmeal to make bread.
Animals, likely pork, would have been slaughtered and ground and stuffed into casings for smoked sausage. Whole cuts would have been cured and smoked in the smokehouse for the family’s table. It was also a common practice to can cuts of pork. Every family would also have had a cow to provide milk and butter.
Poultry was a big part of the family’s table too, providing both eggs and meat for the table. In the 1800s a family could have been very self-sufficient with acreage and livestock.
All of the food served at the Cotesworth dinner on Oct. 1, which was prepared by Sen. Lydia Chassaniol, could have been produced there during the lifetime of J.Z. George. Only the wheat for the biscuits and cakes would have been bought at the general store in nearby Carrollton.
The menu for the dinner was selected with the advice of Matt Huffman, executive chef at the Mississippi Governor’s Mansion in Jackson, which is another 1840s era residence. Huffman called the department of Archives and History to see if there were any menus on file. Most, he found, were written in French. He and Chassaniol decided to feature both poultry and pork, green beans with pecan dressing and a salad of spinach and mixed greens with bacon and hard cooked egg slices.
Chassaniol created the recipe for the pork roulade using sausage and cornbread because both ingredients would have been available. The plate was completed with candied apple slices as a nod to the harvest season. The fig cake was made using fig preserves, which any farm wife would have made to save her figs for winter use.
The kitchen at Cotesworth was originally a separate building and there would have been servants to cook and serve. Mrs. George likely would have served as the overseer of cooking and menu selection for her family.
Chassaniol planned the event as a birthday dinner since October marked the 185th anniversary of J.Z. George’s birth. Everyday meals would have likely been based on peas and cornbread, and the evening meal would most likely have been created from leftovers from the noon meal.