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This vintage postcard shows Windy Hill in palmier days.

This vintage postcard shows Windy Hill in palmier days.

Windy Hill Manor was never one of Natchez’s biggest or grandest homes, but it harbored a celebrated fugitive and scored high in the eccentricity sweepstakes. Dubbed Halfway Hill when it was built southeast of town in 1788 by Colonel Benijah Osmun, it sat atop a gentle rise at the end of a lush cedar allée. Its relative remoteness held great appeal for Osmun’s old friend Aaron Burr who found temporary sanctuary in 1806 after being charged with treason. In 1817, the house was sold to Gerard Brandon, and afterwards to General Robert Stanton who planted his vast acreage with cotton, added rooms for his growing family and renamed the place Windy Hill. Stanton also gave the nondescript façade a columned gallery and installed a floating spiral staircase in the entry hall.

Windy Hill seemed fine, if you didn't look too closely.

Windy Hill seemed fine…if you didn’t look too closely.

When the general and three of his sons died of yellow fever, wife Jane married his brother Frederick, a physician, and bore five more children. The seven surviving Stanton siblings were well-educated and thoroughly drilled on the importance of good manners. A colorful childhood included play-acting in romance-heavy parlor productions enhanced with their chorus and orchestra of piano, harp and violin. Visitors to the secluded plantation were entertained but noted how much the hospitable but somewhat xenophobic family cherished the isolation of Windy Hill. Following the Civil War, four of the children married and moved away, and with the death of their parents, sisters Elizabeth, Beatrice and Maude found themselves running a fast-failing plantation.

Windy Hill's stunning staircase was ideal for grand entrances.

Windy Hill’s stunning staircase was ideal for grand entrances.

Author Harnett Kane, who often favored fantasy over fact, described the aging spinsters as “more girlish, more ruffled” than ever, but, with fanciful fortitude, they deftly played their roles as though staging another parlor drama. With the land exhausted by cotton and most servants gone, Elizabeth, the eldest and most realistic, took control. Like Scarlett O’Hara, she knew that survival meant taking off the white gloves to tend vegetable gardens and pick pecans. Beatrice and Maude dutifully followed her lead. As time passed, the Stanton sisters, like Charlestonians referring to the Civil War as “that recent inconvenience,” donned a cloak of denial and locked themselves in a vanquished world. The occasional Windy Hill visitor felt as though they had tripped back in time because, with no money for fripperies, the sisters wore twice-turned old-fashioned dresses and outdated hairstyles. The house was also neglected, one room after another closed off due to leaky ceilings or sagging walls. When an entire wing threatened to collapse, the sisters, according to Kane, “shut it off and stacked up pine trees as screens.” If anyone raised eyebrows, the sisters waved dismissively and explained that that part of the house was “under construction.” Ignoring the ever-deepening ruin encasing them in amber, they bravely continued to receive visitors (“Thursdays only, please.”) and startled callers with a dignified, if mannered ritual. Beatrice and Maude entertained until a discreetly cleared throat signaled from the vestibule. All eyes turned toward the top of General Stanton’s imposing staircase where Elizabeth waited according to plan. Fan waving grandly,  a welcoming smile and her most colorful, least-patched ensemble in place, she descended to the parlor and bowed to her guests. “Her Majesty,” remarked one guest, “had arrived.”

The Stanton sisters sold eggs to supplement their meager income.

The Stanton sisters sold eggs to supplement their meager income.

This brave but tragic post-bellum charade, one played out by countless other Southerners “too poor to paint and too proud to whitewash,” continued for decades. Elizabeth died in 1942 at age 91, followed soon afterwards by Beatrice. Poor Maude, wracked by loneliness for the two people she had lived with all her life, soldiered on solo until 1945. With the last of its loving caregivers gone, the now-abandoned house seemed to lay down and die with them. Its remains lingered until bulldozers roared the death knell in 1965. Windy Hill Manor was no more.

The loss of its owners was the death knell for Windy Hill.

Windy Hill was the inspiration for Cedar Grove in my book, The Goat Castle Murder.

Goat Castle Murder

6 Comments

  1. Linda Gray
    May 29, 2016

    Another good one, Michael! I can just see Elizabeth descending the the staircase in her old dress as if nothing had changed all those years.

  2. Lola
    May 30, 2016

    Lovely and lost… You’re so good at this, Michael. Can’t wait to read the book!

  3. Kim
    Jun 18, 2016

    Exactly where in Natchez was the house located? What is there now?

    • Michael Lewallen
      Jun 19, 2016

      Dear Kim,

      According to Harnett Kane, Windy Hill was reached by a driveway off Liberty Road some four and a half miles past Oakland. I don’t know the current state of the site, but I understand that when the house was demolished, its foundations were pushed into a bayou so nothing remains.

      • Charles
        Jul 27, 2016

        There is a Windy Hill Rd. about a mile north and parallel to Liberty Rd. Not sure if related or not.

        Can’t wait to read the Goat Castle book – that was a family home and we still have some important artifacts from there.

        • Michael Lewallen
          Aug 1, 2016

          Thanks for your comments, Charles. The first signing for The Goat Castle Murder is set for October 1, 2-4 PM at Turning Pages Bookstore in Natchez. I hope you’ll come.

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