Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Helen Johnstone and the Chapel of the Cross

The Chapel of the Cross, located in Madison County near Annandale, was built between 1850 and 1852. The style of the Gothic Revival church was based on a design by architect Frank Wills, a native of Exeter, England, who came to New York in the 1840s and became particularly associated with ecclesiastical buildings. Wills was the official architect of an organization called the New York Ecclesiological Society, a group dedicated to the Oxford Movement, a movement within the Protestant Episcopal Church emphasizing high church, Anglo-Catholic worship. The plans for the Chapel of the Cross likely came from Wills’ designs, and are similar in form (although adapted) to his Sketch of a First-pointed Church, published in 1849 (below). The architect which supervised the construction the Chapel of the Cross, which was at the time, of course, located far from any populated area, is believed to have been Jacob Larmour, a New Yorker, living in Canton at the time. 

The church was completed in 1852 and consecrated the same year by Bishop William Mercer Green. The little Gothic church was actually built for the Johnstone family, who owned a nearby plantation, as a family church. Although Mr. Johnstone died before the church ever became a reality, his wife Margaret pressed ahead and built the chapel and then deeded the church and the grounds to the Episcopal Diocese of Mississippi in 1851. In the mid-1850s, Mrs. Johnstone also built a magnificent Italian Renaissance house called Annandale (above right). This house, from which the present residential community takes its name, was lost about 1920. The chapel itself fell into disuse and disrepair after the Civil War. In 1911, however, a granddaughter of Margaret Johnstone pressed the Diocese to reactivate the congregation and services were once again held in the church. In 1956, the church was restored and today is a thriving and growing congregation. Although the Chapel of the Cross is noted (and rightly so) for its architecture, the church, and especially the graveyard behind the church, is also associated with a classic ghost story. 

In 1855, so the story goes, a young man named Henry Vick, a member of the Rev. Newitt Vick family (the founder of Vicksburg), was traveling near Annandale when his carriage broke down. Invited by the Johnstone family to dinner that evening (it was during the Christmas season), the handsome young man promptly fell in love with sixteen-year-old Helen Johnstone, Mrs. Johnstone’s daughter. Over the next couple of years, the romance blossomed and in 1857 Helen and Henry were engaged to be married. Because of her youth and because Mrs. Johnstone did not wish to lose her daughter so soon, she convinced the couple to wait until Helen was twenty to be married. To that end, May 21, 1859 – Helen’s twentieth birthday – was selected as the wedding day. As with most good ghost stories, however, fate intervened and tragedy struck. Just four days before the planned nuptials, Henry was killed in a duel in Mobile. The duel was the result of an argument which began in a pub in New Orleans; after the duel was moved to Mobile, the two antagonists squared off. Vick missed (deliberately, so the story goes) but his opponent’s aim was true and Vick fell dead with a shot to the head. Henry’s friends took his body back to New Orleans and then to Vicksburg and finally to Annandale, where Helen was preparing for her wedding day. Grief stricken, she was inconsolable. On the day of her wedding, she led a procession to the graveyard at the chapel to bury her beloved Henry in the family plot (right), wearing her wedding dress to the funeral. Henry Vick was all of twenty-five years old.

Time, we are told, heals all wounds. In Helen’s case, she at least, in time, found a new husband. In 1862, Helen Johnstone married George Harris, an Episcopal priest who would later serve as rector of the Chapel of the Cross. Harris was a Confederate chaplain during the Civil War. After the war ended, he and Helen moved to various places in Mississippi and raised a family of three children. In 1896, they built a house near Rolling Fork, Mississippi, located on top of an Indian Mound. The house, which still exists (and will no doubt be the subject of another blog post) is known as “Mont Helena.” Rev. Harris died in 1911. Helen remained in the house until her death six years later in 1917. Both are buried in the Mound Cemetery in Rolling Fork (above). For Helen, however, time did not, apparently, heal all wounds. If you believe in such things, Helen never recovered from the untimely death of Henry and still visits her long lost love in Madison County on a regular basis. According to the oft-told tale, a young woman in her early twenties has been seen sitting near Henry’s grave weeping inconsolably, and many believe the apparition to be none other than Helen Johnstone, the “Bride of Annandale.” 

Other ghostly occurrences have also been reported at the Chapel of the Cross, including an organ which is heard playing late at night, occasional blood stains on the chapel’s floor, and ghosts who are seen wandering in and out the graveyard, which is locked at night. But the most famous is Helen. One has to wonder what the good Rev. Harris might have to say about this situation, though – surely he would not be in favor of his wife visiting her former fiancĂ© on such a regular and extended basis!

If you wish to visit the Chapel of the Cross, please do so. It is a marvelous church in a beautiful setting. If you’re looking for a ghost, though, you might be disappointed. Then again…it is Halloween!

(1) Chapel of the Cross:
(2) Drawing:
(3) Annandale:
(4) Duel:
(5) Vick grave:
(6) Harris grave:

Monday, October 29, 2012

Hurricane Hazel

As Hurricane Sandy bears down on the east coast, those in the Gulf states know exactly what folks along the Atlantic are facing. The size and strength of this storm appears similar to many hurricanes which have ravaged our region in the past, most recently Hurricane Katrina. This storm is unusual, however, due to the lateness of the season. A late October hurricane is not unprecedented, however, and in 1954, another monster storm ripped into the Carolinas and up the Atlantic seaboard, causing mayhem as far as Canada. Her name was Hurricane Hazel.

Hazel was the fourth powerful hurricane in 1954. On October 5, the storm appeared off the island of Grenada and gained strength as it crossed the Atlantic Ocean. A week later, on October 12, Hazel slammed into Haiti, completely demolishing several towns and killing perhaps as many as 1,000 people. With winds clocked at 140 miles per hour, the storm also did major damage to the island’s coffee crop. Next in line was Puerto Rico, where another eight deaths occurred. Three days after hitting Haiti, Hurricane Hazel, a Category 4 storm, came ashore in the U.S. at Myrtle Beach.

After making landfall in South Carolina, Hurricane Hazel churned north up the coastline into North Carolina and Virginia, still packing winds of more than 100 miles per hour. The all-too familiar storm surge was 18 feet. Coastal towns suffered tremendously, especially in North Carolina. A total of nineteen people were killed in the Tarheel State and 15,000 homes were completely destroyed, with many more thousands damaged. After moving north out of North Carolina, the storm dropped huge amounts of rain and still packed strong winds throughout Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York.  In New York City, winds were recorded at 113 mph at Battery Park, the highest ever recorded in the city. Other areas farther away from the coastline suffered from heavy rains. In West Virginia, for example, Hazel produced more than nine inches of rainfall.

After wreaking havoc in the United States, Hazel headed into Canada. Although somewhat weakened, she, like Hurricane Sandy, combined with a winter storm before dumping huge amounts of rain onto an already rain-soaked Toronto. The deluge produced massive flooding, sweeping away some fifty bridges and severely damaging Toronto’s road network. More importantly, eighty-one Canadians lost their lives in the flood waters and left 4,000 homeless, still the worst natural disaster in Canadian history.

In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Hazel, President Eisenhower declared a disaster and moved to provide Federal assistance, including mobilization of the National Guard in some areas to prevent looting. Recovery began immediately, and many coastal communities had rebuilt sufficiently by the coming summer months to welcome tourists. The destruction wrought by Hazel hastened, in some instances (Myrtle Beach is one example) the construction of modern resorts in what were previously quiet beach communities, a phenomena repeated in many Gulf Coast communities like Gulf Shores, Alabama. Damage estimates from Hurricane Hazel reached $281 million in the United States alone and the wind and water killed approximately 1,200 people in Haiti, Puerto Rico, the Bahamas, the United States and Canada. Due to her ferocity, Hazel was one of the first storms to have her name retired from the list of named hurricanes.

It is perhaps of little comfort to those in the path of Hurricane Sandy to know that similar events have occurred in the past. However, it is always good to reflect on the fact that the people of this nation have time and again come together after such disasters and rebuilt their communities.

(1) Weather map:
(2) Car:
(3) Map:
(4) Boats:
(5) Newspaper article:

Friday, October 26, 2012

MSU vs. Alabama: When Bully Beat the Bear

Tomorrow’s football game between Mississippi State and Alabama has generated a lot of anticipation, and well it should. Both teams are undefeated heading into the contest. Mississippi State, at 7-0 for the first time since Moses crossed the Red Sea. For Alabama, also at 7-0, this is somewhat familiar territory. Again ranked as the top team in the nation, expectations are that the Tide will find a way to turn back the Bulldogs in their quest for immortality.  If this scenario sounds somewhat familiar, it is. Way back in 1980, Alabama was also 7-0 and ranked number one in the nation.  On November 1st (All Saints Day), Alabama rolled into Jackson expecting to continue their march to a national championship behind a powerful wishbone offense led by Bama quarterback Don Jacobs that had generated up to 300 yards per game thus far. Alabama had won twenty-eight straight games, and had earned two conference championships and two national championships in the process. Bear Bryant’s boys had been ranked as the top team in the nation all season long.

Mississippi State came into the game with a 6-2 record. Opening with three wins over Memphis State, Louisiana Tech and Vanderbilt, State was upset by the Florida Gators on September 27. Beating Illinois the next week, the Dogs suffered a humiliating 42-14 loss to USM the week after and then won two straight over Miami and Auburn. Coach Emory Bellard’s team, led by freshman quarterback John Bond (left), a native of Starkville, came into the Bama game ranked #13. Although both teams were good, few expected the upstart Bulldogs to win that day. After all, it was Alabama, which had beaten Mississippi State twenty-two times in a row, and it was Bear Bryant. At this point, the story becomes personal for me.

The sports editor for the Natchez Democrat at the time was a cousin of mine. With most folks in Natchez more interested in the Ole Miss-LSU game that day (which the Tigers won 38-16, by the way), I was asked to cover the Mississippi State-Alabama game. I gladly (although nervously) accepted. Since I had covered football games in high school for my school newspaper, I at least had some rudimentary knowledge of the game. However, I was woefully unprepared for the task ahead. Back then, of course, there were no laptops and certainly no internet (as a freshman at Millsaps I took a course in BASIC, but that was all I or anyone else knew about computers at the time). Sportswriters either wrote their stories out by hand or pecked them out on a typewriter and then called in the story. Even Video Display Terminals (or VDTs), a device which revolutionized newsrooms, were still a couple of years out. When I arrived at the stadium, I used my press pass *(above, right) to go up to the press box and took my place among the real sportswriters. I was in awe, in high cotton, and way out of my league. The game, to be honest, is a blur now. What I remember most is that someone brought food around at some point, and that folks kept handing us mimeograph sheets with up-to-date stats throughout the game. While I did my best to write a story that would pass for a newspaper article, let’s just say that I flubbed it completely, and in the end the Natchez Democrat had to reconstruct the biggest game in the nation that day from wire reports. In the long run, it was the greatest gift I could have gotten, because it cured me once and for all from ever wanting to be a sportswriter. To this day, I have nothing but admiration for all those who cover sporting events. The tools might have changed, but the pressure is still there to get the story right and on time, and it’s often a thankless job. 

Mississippi State won that day, of course, 6-3. Alabama’s offense was held to only 116 yards on the ground and 64 passing yards. Neither team was able to score a touchdown, although in the final drive it sure looked as if the Crimson Tide would punch it in and preserve their championship season. With the ball on the MSU four yard line and less than thirty seconds on the clock, big Tyrone Keys (a fellow graduate of Callaway High School) hit the Bama quarterback and jarred the ball loose. When State’s Billy Jackson recovered the fumble, Alabama lost any hope of winning, and the Bulldogs’ biggest win in history was in the record books. For a seventeen year old freshman in the SEC skybox, that should have been enough to impress, but what happened next is actually what has stuck with me all these years.

Along with the rest of the sportswriters, I went down to the dressing room for the post-game press conference with the winning coach. There was Emory Bellard (right), sitting on a small table puffing his ubiquitous pipe and mumbling something about the game. Frankly, I don’t recall what he said, but I have a feeling it was in fluent “coachspeak.” As we moved into the Mississippi State dressing room, in walks none other than Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, who addressed the Mississippi State players. You could have heard a pin drop.  He said, as I recall, something like this: “Boys, ya’ll played a great game out there today, and I’m proud of you.” I doubt that’s exactly what he said, but that’s the way I remember it, and it’s a moment I will never forget. 

With the win, Alabama dropped in the polls and would not be at the top of the national rankings again until 2008. Incredibly, it was the first time that MSU had beaten Alabama since 1957. The Tide went on to beat LSU and Auburn, but dropped another game to Notre Dame at Legion Field 7-0, while Mississippi State crushed LSU the next week and then narrowly defeated my beloved Ole Miss Rebels on a cold, wet, nasty Egg Bowl in Jackson before 62,500 fans. Both teams went to a bowl game. Alabama went to the Cotton Bowl, where they defeated Baylor. MSU was invited to the Sun Bowl, but State was bested by Nebraska 31-17 to close out what had been a banner year.

Tomorrow night, Mississippi State heads to Tuscaloosa to play the top-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide. Can it happen again? Does history repeat itself? We will all know the answer soon enough. If Mississippi State wins, though, I have a strong suspicion that Nick Saban will not be visiting the visitor’s dressing room for a congratulatory speech.

* Interestingly, the pass was issued and stamped by Bob Hartley, Football Program Manager, Mississippi State College, State College, Mississippi (emphasis added). Although Mississippi State became a university in 1958, they apparently hadn't changed the football program manager's stamp since the last time MSU beat Bama.

(1) Scoreboard:
(2) Bryant:
(3) Bond:
(4) Memorial Stadium:
(5) Game shot: 
(6) Bellard: 

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Little Brown Church in the Vale

One of the most beloved old hymns, evoking memories of little country churches scattered across the landscape, is “The Church in the Wildwood.” In hundreds of churches across Mississippi and elsewhere, this catchy and fun hymn has especially been a favorite at church homecomings and old-time singings. Yet few who have enjoyed singing about the “Little Brown Church in the Vale” realize the church in the song is a real place, and it’s a pretty long way from Mississippi.

The story about the real “Little Brown Church” and the song that made it famous starts in 1857. In that year, so the story goes, a schoolteacher from Wisconsin named William Savage Pitts (right) went to Iowa to visit his fiancĂ©e in Fredericksburg, Iowa. When the stagecoach he was on stopped in the little town of Bradford, some distance from Fredericksburg, he got out and walked around a bit and spotted a particularly beautiful lot in town. In Bradford’s imagination, he envisioned a church nestled under the cedars and oaks on the property. So powerful was the scene that he wrote down his vision in the form of a song once he returned to Wisconsin. Satisfied, he put the composition in a drawer and promptly forgot about it.

Pitts married Ann Elize Warren the next year and they lived in Wisconsin. In 1862, the couple moved to Fredericksburg, Iowa, where he had taught music classes in the area, including Bradford. Some accounts indicate that he moved back because he had secured a position at the Bradford Academy teaching music. However, the Bradford Academy did not open until 1865. Regardless, he returned to Bradford at some point and, much to his surprise, a church had since been constructed on the very spot of his vision! The little chapel (a Congregational church) was even the right color (brown) – presumably because brown paint was cheaper than the white paint the congregation really wanted. Construction of the church was initiated during the Civil War, when many of the men in Chickasaw County, Iowa, were away in the army. Among the soldiers from Bradford who enlisted to fight for the Union was Andrew Laird. One of ten children and a native of Canada, Laird did not enlist until January, 1864, but he joined the veteran 4th Iowa Cavalry, which saw extensive service in Mississippi, perhaps more than any other Federal regiment during the Civil War. Andrew served in Co. H along with two brothers, John and Hugh Laird, who had enlisted a month earlier. While his two brothers survived the war, eighteen year old Andrew was wounded on June 11, 1864, in Ripley, Mississippi, during what Col. Edward F. Winslow described as a “severe engagement” following the battle of Brice’s Cross Roads. Andrew died two days later and was buried in Guntown. His body was later moved to Corinth, where he rests today in the National Cemetery. 

With most of the young men like Andrew Laird gone off to war, there was very little labor available and very little money on hand to build a church, so it took some time to complete the work. Much of the heaviest labor was done by the pastor himself, the Rev. J.K. Nutting. Nutting had established a congregation a few years earlier, but had to move around a bit, meeting in stores, houses and a school building that Nutting described as a “most uncomfortable place.” Finally, a decision was made to build a church, and the people of Bradford donated most of the wood and other materials used in its construction. In the spring of 1865, Rev. Nutting (right)  traveled to Troy, N.Y. to purchase a bell for the church. By the time he returned to Bradford, he found the bell already installed in the belfry. As the bell made its way along the railroad, it “excited much attention, being rung by the crowd at Dunleith, Dubuque, and more or less at nearly every station along the line.” Before the bell arrived and before any furniture was installed, the church was dedicated. On that day, December 29, 1864, William Pitts sang the “Church in the Wildwood” in public for the first time.

Soon after the church was dedicated, Pitts moved to Chicago in order to attend the Rush Medical College, an prominent medical school established in 1837 and named for Dr. Benjamin Rush. To help pay his tuition, Pitts sold the rights to his hymn to the publishing firm of Hiram M. Higgins, publisher of many of the most popular wartime ballads and marching songs. For the rights to the “Church in the Wildwood,” Higgins paid Pitts a grand sum of $25. After some success, the song was soon forgotten. The little town of Bradford, Iowa, was nearly forgotten as well. In the 1880s, the railroad bypassed Bradford in favor of Nashua, Iowa, two miles further west. As often happens, Bradford’s business interests soon moved to Nashua and the population quickly declined. In 1888, little more than twenty years after it was completed, the church was closed, and was abandoned for almost twenty years.

Then, in 1914, interest in the picturesque church was rekindled, and the “Society for the Preservation of the Little Brown Church” was formed. Soon, regular services were again held in the church and with them, interest in the song was revived as well. Among those who appreciated and promoted “The Church in the Wildwood” were a couple of evangelists, J. Wilbur Chapman and Charles Alexander, who included the song in their international crusades. More importantly, a singing group known as the Weatherwax Brothers Quartet virtually adopted the hymn as their own. Composed of four brothers,* the Weatherwax Quartet hailed from Charles City, Iowa, located about fifteen miles from Bradford. In 1915, the Weatherwax Quartet was invited to sing before 23,000 men gathered for a revival led by evangelist Billy Sunday, also a native of Iowa, in Philadelphia.  From that performance, the group toured extensively throughout Canada and the United States in the 1920s and 1930s, and the Weatherwax boys used as their trademark song “The Church in the Wildwood.” Promoted by the Quartet, the hymn’s popularity grew nationwide and is today considered a standard. 

As for the church itself, the “Little Brown Church in the Vale” still holds regular services and is now a popular tourist destination, attracting thousands of visitors each year. The church is especially popular with wedding parties. Indeed, couples have come from as far away as Germany, Japan, South America, Africa, England, France, Norway, Australia, Canada, Mexico and from every state in the Union. In October 2009, Patricia Dierenfeld of Council Bluffs, Iowa, and Jim Mangum, Jr. of Round Rock, Texas, became the 73,000th couple to be married in the Little Brown Church since 1918. The best man was from Gulfport, Mississippi. 

* One of the brothers, Asa Weatherwax, no doubt made news in 1927 when his wife was granted a divorce on grounds of “cruel and inhuman treatment.” Soon thereafter, Asa left the area and moved to Wyoming.

Photo and Image Sources:
(1) Church in the Wildwood:
(2) Pitts:
(3) Laird:
(4) Little Brown Church:
(5) Nutter: 
(6) Weatherwax Quartet:
(7) Little Brown Church (interior):