The Time Traveler recently took a quick trip back in time — just across the street actually from the DeSoto County Museum — but the trek spanned more than a century.
The recent closing of the Fred’s Dollar Store, which has been the subject of much discussion, prompted conversation about the majestic structure which stood at the site for more than a century, the rambling Italianate-style mansion of Col. Thomas W. White and his family.
Scrolled wrought-iron ironwork graced the balconies and porches and spires soared skyward from high atop its castle-like roof.
If only the walls of the old home could talk. Might they whisper of Yankee spies or Confederates in hiding?
The Colonel White home was once the pride of Commerce Street, formerly known as the Holly Springs Road “back in the day,” a row of Victorian and Italianate houses that once rivaled Holly Springs or the antebellum town of Columbus.
Yet, the beckoning call of a modern shopping center a half century ago literally spelled doom for the imposing old structure.
A Memphis developer originally planned to dismantle and reassemble the ironwork and fancy scrollwork of the home but those plans fell through.
Thanks to the generosity of relatives of the White family, the elaborate parlor, with its imported French silk damask furniture, mahogany bookcase, horsehair-stuffed chairs, piano and velvet piano stool, still survives and is showcased in the museum.
But it’s the stories that really make the exhibit come alive.
Yankee soldiers paid the home a visit more than once during the War Between the States and Mrs. White outfoxed the Union officers by cordially inviting them inside when they asked to search the home for Confederate soldiers.
Cajoled by Mrs. White’s charm, they demurred on plans to search the house.
As it turns out, more than 70 Rebel soldiers were hiding upstairs.
Another story had the mistress of the house playing the piano so loudly and boisterously that it was said to have masked the noise of Confederate wagons passing by on the street outside as Union officers milled around inside the home.
Prisoners, North and South, were said to have been exchanged in the front yard.
According to a 1959 newspaper interview with Miss Nellie White and Mrs. Charles Smith, sisters and the children of Col. And Mrs. Thomas W. White, the storied old house had quite a history.
Similar to Downton Abbey, the fictional castle of Masterpiece Theatre, there were rows of bells — one for each of the mansion’s 28 rooms — that summoned servants. The row of bells was still visible on the rear porch in the late Fifties.
Before the home was razed, it was surrounded by a formal garden, with English yew trees flanking the house and reaching the second story. Boxwoods framed the rambling structure and a giant oak was said to have borne the mark of an Indian trail.
The home featured a library, two double parlors, a dining room, and a downstairs bedroom which featured a marble mantel imported from Italy.
Visitors to the home were said to have included United States Supreme Court Justice L.Q. C. Lamar and Confederate President Jefferson Davis, among other notables.
“The massive doors and other materials used in the construction were brought down the Mississippi River by flatboats from Cincinnati, according to the newspaper article.
Nellie White was said to have been a world traveler and served as an interpreter in France for the American Red Cross during World War I.
It’s said the old springs behind the home still play havoc with city streets, causing the streets and alleys to buckle.
So, when the Time Traveler’s time machine attempted to take off from this shaky site, it literally caused the erstwhile voyager across space and time to holler, “Whoa, Nellie!”
No wonder then when yours truly glanced back to see Miss Nellie White standing there with a puzzled look on her face.
It’s a shame that grand old structures like the Colonel Thomas White home are no more.
Perhaps that serves a lesson that we should preserve the truly amazing parts of our past before they are “gone with the wind” forever.
ROBERT LEE LONG is Curator of the DeSoto County Museum.