Dreams still alive for old plantation

An old brick bell-shaped cistern is one of three dug wells at rear of the house.

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James Belton of Magnolia visits Prospect Hill on occasion, sometimes as a guest of The Archaeological Conservancy, which owns it.

“I come out here from time to time, whenever they’re having a little function, and I speak of it from the slaves’ side,” Belton said.

As a direct descendant of slaves who built the plantation, and possibly of its owners, Belton is a go-to source for writers and researchers on the topic.

He was interviewed in Alan Huffman’s book “Mississippi in Africa” and in a 2018 Clarion-Ledger article by Billy Watkins. TV host Walt Grayson has also profiled Prospect Hill on his show.

Despite intermittent publicity about the place, “there are a lot of people in Pike County who never heard of Prospect Hill,” Belton said.

He figures there are probably white and black descendants of the Rosses and Beltons living in the Pike County area.

Belton’s great-great-grandfather, William Frank Belton, was a carriage driver at Prospect Hill, and Belton feels certain he would have driven the sunken road bed in front of the plantation house. On a recent visit Belton found an old iron wagon wheel rim leaning against a tree.

In a thicket out front of the plantation house is a trickle of water impounded into a small pond. Belton wonders if that’s the Drew Spring referred to in historical records.

According to a 1947 article in the Journal of Mississippi History, “Among Captain Ross’s soldiers were several free negroes, who made good soldiers, and when he moved to Mississippi they followed him and settled near him on land he helped them to buy. Drew Harris, one of these old soldiers, who drew a pension from the government, was buried near the Drew Spring on Prospect Hill Plantation.”

The spring meanders through a thorny wild orange thicket and spreads out into a placid, iris-ringed pond whose levee is so old that sizable trees grow out of it.

Stone steps lead up the hill to the front yard, and rickety wooden stairs continue up to the massive house, which stands high off the ground and has 12-foot ceilings. There are displays here and there in the musty interior.

The bottom story has brick rooms that Belton speculates were occupied by servants. On the recent visit he found a wooden spinning wheel leaning against an exterior wall.

“Those are the things that make me feel good, when you can come back to a place and know that your ancestors built this building,” Belton said.

Out back are three dug wells including a brick bell-shaped cistern, and an old round grindstone. One of the dug wells has a metal cover engraved with the words, “David McClure, Bluff City Foundry, Natchez 1881.” Belton remembers when there was a tank at the corner of the house to catch rainwater as well.

Portions of a brick foundation suggest a separate kitchen, which was the custom of the era to prevent house fires.

The place may seem hopelessly remote and beyond repair, but admirers of it have a different view.

Harry Ross sees it as a springboard to help the slave descendants who still live in the impoverished, war-torn country of Liberia.

“The civil war in Liberia destroyed a lot of our educational facilities. A lot of kids didn’t make it through high school. There are no books,” Ross said.

His goal is to raise funds to build a school there in honor of Isaac Ross.

“He was a man who valued education,” Ross said. “I want to use this platform to show the connection between Mississippi in the U.S. and Mississippi in Africa. A lot of people coming up today do not know the connection.”

Jessica Crawford of The Archaeological Conservancy sees Prospect Hill as a place to learn about a fascinating period of history.

“We have events there. We have an archaeologist from Ole Miss who’s hoping to do his thesis project on excavations behind the house,” she said.

The building is architecturally important, and the very dirt it sits on has archaeological significance since the plantation dates to the early 1800s.  

“There’s a lot of research that can be done there,” Crawford said.

“It’s an early Mississippi plantation, and all plantations weren’t the same. It hasn’t been disturbed. There’s a lot of foundations there,” she said, citing remains of a cotton gin in front of the house as an example.

Belton would like to see the house restored and made accessible to the public.

“I would like to see somebody own it one day, and I would like to see a historic marker down there,” he said. “I know it’s far-fetched, but I would like to see someday people come down here and visit, maybe a bed-and-breakfast.”

He admits the place is hard to find. There’s no marker or sign. Entrance to the property is barred by a locked metal gate off a narrow gravel road miles from anything.  

The gravel road itself winds through loess bluffs canopied by trees draped with Spanish moss.

“A road like that is very, very old,” Belton said. “My ancestors traveled down this road back in the time, and now I am in 2020 and I’m driving back down these roads here.”

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