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|Jeff Dickson initiates Fort Rosalie reconstruction in 1940|
(Thirteenth in a series)
In early 1940, Jefferson Davis Dickson, Jr. began a whirlwind process of developing "historic" sites as tourist attractions in Natchez. As a native of Natchez with family roots primarily in Jackson, he had a personal linkage to Mississippi history.
By September he had formed an organization called the Natchez Historical Association with headquarters at 328 Main Street to oversee his enterprises.
His first attraction, the Devil's Punch Bowl, opened on March 25, and half a year later on September 28, a much more elaborate, and costly, project, White Apple Village, opened. Completing these projects allowed him to devote his attention to his principle project, the reconstruction of Fort Rosalie.
Fort Rosalie had apparently been the initial inspiration that led to all of his Natchez projects. He told the story of touring Rosalie mansion with Miss Rebecca Rumble, a former owner. Miss Rumble pointed off to a high knoll to the south with an American flag flying on top and told him "That's where old Fort Rosalie stood." He immediately snapped his fingers; he had an idea. He would rebuild the old Fort and promote it along with other Natchez history.
However, Fort Rosalie would be the last of his three attractions to be developed. This was probably because of the difficulty he faced in acquiring title to the several small lots that were needed. Although as early as March he had an option on property on the site, it would be December 2 before he had all the land he needed. He reflected at that time on his experience: "To buy a single plot of land in Natchez requires infinite patience and courage. To buy four plots of land and join them into one requires intestinal fortitude."
His first purchase at the Fort Rosalie site occurred on April 22, a month after the Devil's Punch Bowl opened, and two weeks after he leased the White Apple Village property. And he still had several other lots to acquire. On May 4, writing from New York City he reported: "Spent several days in Syracuse N.Y. looking over the old French Fort, and found it most interesting in ref to Fort Rosalie. The rest of my time I have been cooped up in the N.Y. Library [looking at early French sources relevant to Natchez]." By the time he returned to Natchez about May 9 the newspaper reported that his "principal project" was "the restoration of Fort Rosalie."
On May 20 he wrote that "work has at last got under way on [the] Fort Rosalie site with the clearing of the ground and grading." However, all the wood work would have to be done around December or January. On May 27 he purchased two more tracts of land giving him all that he needed for the reconstruction itself.
However, he still needed one more lot that fronted on Canal Street -- but acquiring it would take several more months, that is until December 2. It would be the site for the ticket office and gift shop, effectively providing access to the fort from the street. The log building constructed for this purpose is the only one that survives today from Dickson's Fort Rosalie. It was used until 2008 for the restaurant, Fat Mama's Hot Tamales.
After acquiring the last lot Jeff told a reporter: "Last year the original site of Fort Rosalie belonged to four people. Now it belongs to me."
In early December the Fort Rosalie project was in full swing. The log structures were designed by an architect in New York with the building components prefabricated off site from whence they would be transported to Natchez for assembly. The woodwork was done by the R.F. Learned Lumber Company of Natchez, apparently at mills in the pine woods to the east. Dickson's account with the company ran from October 1940 through February 1941 indicating the time frame for constructing the fort.
A reporter described the project rather vividly. His account will be quoted in some detail because it catches the spirit of Jeff Dickson, his hands-on approach, his enthusiasm, and his hyperbole:
"Jeff Dickson forced the thick soles of his black leather boots deeper into the pine needle matting of the forest floor. He brought the bright blade of his new axe down in a hissing arc.
"Then he straightened up and looked at his work critically. Finally, he wiped a few beads of perspiration from a broad delicately lined forehead and handed the axe to his foreman.
"'That's the way I want 'em notched,' he said.
"The promoter showman who worked wonders in Paris in 1930 with reinforced concrete in his Palais des Sports is out to work a miracle in Natchez with plain tree trunks. He is personally supervising the cutting and shaping of 1,000,000 feet of untrimmed pine logs.
"Says Dickson, 'I'm going to prove that though Rome wasn't built in a day. Fort Rosalie can be built in a morning!'
"Sometime in February, when a moonlit morning is only minutes old, a fleet of fifty trucks will meander into town from the out-of-the-way- places of Adams and Franklin counties at sun-up that day, the Fleur de Lis…will float from the peak of a rustic pine flag staff. And the ramparts of Fort Rosalie perched on a plot of ground that had been an oat field twenty-four hours before will stand looking at the Mississippi. . . .
"Now, with research completed, nine log cabins are abuilding at nine woodland workshops in two counties. And at still another, logs are being trimmed for construction of a stockade and double stockade. And rustic furniture is being prepared, authentic down to the very wooden pegs with which each chair is held together.
"In a New York sky scraper, on the island of Manhattan, a great artist John Sloan who designed Grand Central station and the Graybar Building, is drawing blue prints by means of which Fort Rosalie will be assembled like a jig-saw puzzle, some moonlit February morning.
"…And Jeff Dickson plans personally to dig the first stockade post-hole for resurrection of Fort Rosalie by moonlight, a couple hours before daybreak sometime in February 1941."
With the work in progress, Jeff departed Natchez for New York to see his wife Billie. What few people knew was that she was several months pregnant.
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