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|Fort Rosalie rebuilt; WWII begins; Dickson leaves forever|
(14th in a series)
In early 1940, Jeff Dickson, a self-made millionaire and native of Natchez, returned to his home town and began a whirlwind campaign of establishing historical and quasi-historical attractions to capitalize off the growing tourist trade.
He first opened the Devil's Punch Bowl in March, then the White Apple Village of the Natchez Indians in September. Apparently his favorite project was the reconstruction of Fort Rosalie. After a late start, that project was underway by early December 1940.
The reconstruction was designed by New York architect John Sloan and was built as prefabricated parts which would be shipped into Natchez for assembly. In early December Jeff was reported as saying that the fort would be reconstructed in the course of one night. When everyone went to bed the fort site would be bare; the following morning the sun would shine on the completed fort with the flag of France flying overhead. As he told the Natchez Democrat: "I'm going to prove that though Rome wasn't built in a day, Fort Rosalie can be built in a morning!" One might question whether this could reasonably be accomplished given the number of structures to be built and the limited amount of space in which men could work.
After making sure that the work was progressing in a satisfactory manner, Jeff departed Natchez on December 6, 1940 for New Orleans from whence he flew to New York City to spend time with his wife Billie who was staying with her mother in the Waldorf Astoria. Jeff had been commuting regularly between his temporary home, the antebellum house Rip-Rap on South Rankin Street, and New York City. Billie had made two extended visits to Natchez earlier in the year, but as of December she hadn't been there for several months. Consequently, few, if any, knew that she was in a state of advanced pregnancy.
After spending the holiday with his wife and in-laws, Jeff returned to Natchez in early January to inspect the progress on the fort. The newspaper noted on January 10 that the palisade would be erected within a week to ten days. No mention was made of the claim that the fort would be reconstructed in the course of a single night. Presumably there was little substance to that claim.
Jeff then departed for Palm Beach, Florida to meet his wife and spend time enjoying some sun in the middle of the winter. He arrived back in Natchez on February 9 to make final preparations for the opening of Fort Rosalie.
During the course of 1940 Jeff had acquired lots at the Fort Rosalie site which provided a space that stretched from South Canal Street westwards along the bluff terminating at a DAR's flagpole commemorating the raising of the US flag over the fort in 1798. The most elevated part of the property--near the flagpole--was in fact part of the fort site, although a considerable part of it had sloughed off at the bluff line over the years. The property was elongated and irregular in shape, and the palisade was designed to fit into this shape rather than adhere to any historical fort plan. Pine posts--sharpened on the upper end--were placed side-by-side to create the palisade. About ten buildings were constructed of logs, a style foreign to the early French settlers. Despite considerable press hype over the accuracy of the reconstruction, little accuracy was to be found.
By Friday February 14, 1941, the structure was apparently complete. On that day newspaper headlines announced that the grand opening of Fort Rosalie would be held at noon on Sunday. The project, it was reported, was based on "several months of diligent study and work by the Natchez Historical Association," of which Dickson was the director, with the result being "historically correct in every detail."
When the opening arrived, "throngs" of people from "practically every state in the union" toured the fort. They entered the reconstruction through a log house located on South Canal Street that served as the ticket office and gift shop. This building is the only component of Fort Rosalie to survive today. Until recently it was used by "Fat Mama's Hot Tamales."
The festivity was the highlight of Dickson's work in Natchez, which was designed to make a profit by selling Natchez history to tourists. In the midst of the festivities, Jeff received a telephone call from New York City; his wife Billie had gone into labor. Apologizing to everyone for having to leave, he departed immediately for New Orleans and then New York. Long before he arrived though, that evening at about 6:00 Billie gave birth to a little girl. Someone suggested that she be named Rosalie because her birth coincided with the opening of Fort Rosalie. However, the parents had other ideas. The little girl was named Christine Lee Dickson and was usually known as Chris.
Jeff returned to Natchez in time for the spring pilgrimage in March, no doubt to observe the effect of his three attractions. In early April he returned to New York, picked up his wife and daughter, and drove back to Natchez for about ten days in Rip-Rap.
When they returned to New York in late April, it was indicated that the Dicksons "expect to return to Natchez in the early winter to again occupy Rip Rap for a greater part of the winter." Whether both ever returned is not know. I have not been able to find a newspaper reference to such a visit.
On or about November 20, H.B. "Doc" Kerr, a columnist for the Akron Beacon Journal, arrived in Natchez to do a story on Jeff and Fort Rosalie. Doc compared Jeff to P.T. Barnum, noting that "he's happiest when promoting something." He also reported that Fort Rosalie was a success; tourists "beat a path to its entrance." However, to his chagrin, he had just missed Jeff. He wrote: "At the moment, Jeff, with Mrs. Dickson, is in New York for a brief sojourn. He left for New York an hour before I arrived in Natchez, so I missed an interview that I had been looking forward to with keen anticipation."
This was probably Jeff's last visit to the town of his birth. Two and a half weeks later, on December 7, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and everything changed. The beginning of the war in fall 1939 had resulted in Jeff's moving his operations to Natchez. The spread of the war to America in 1941 would send him away. . . forever.
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