‘It’s dust to dust’

Published 11:31 pm Saturday, June 30, 2012

It’s been half a lifetime ago for Shelby Flowers Ferris since she saw horses run and cotton grow at Ceres Plantation House.

Last week, when she stood in front of the stately, Southern expanse, it was was the first time she’d seen her former family home in 10 years. She’d heard about the peeling paint, the windows broken by neglect and shaky boards on the porch. Still, she found a sign of life at the antebellum home on a humid summer morning.

“I do think if they’re going to tear it down, it would be good if someone would dig up these azaleas,” she said, taking in a summer breeze under oaks her father planted that belie the morning heat. They’ll certainly be killed with lumber falling on them. They’re gorgeous-looking.”

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On Tuesday, Bogalusa, La.-based Will Branch Antique Brick and Lumber is expected to start taking apart the two-story structure, two barns and fences on the 41-acre site. Once it’s gone, it’ll mark an end to a 2½-year ordeal between the county and preservationists over what to do with the plantation.

Built in the 1830s by Ferris’ great-grandfather, Ignatius Flowers, the house was the centerpiece of a cotton plantation and cattle farm for nearly five generations. Ferris’ father, Uriah Grey Flowers, rebuilt now-abandoned horse barns behind the house. Like numerous places in Vicksburg, the home was a haven for women and children during the Siege of Vicksburg.

Ferris’ brother, Grey Flowers, was the last family member to live at Ceres, named for Roman mythology’s goddess of agriculture. He raised horses and cattle, then added a backyard pool.

“We used it as kind of a summer home,” said Julia F. Williams of Jackson, the second-eldest of Grey’s five children. “We did what many children miss today — spend time in the country. To be able to restore it would have been great.”

The 1,300-acre landscape about 15 miles east of Vicksburg off Interstate 20 — some of the flattest terrain in hilly Warren County — was sold to the county in 1986 and transformed into Ceres Research and Industrial Interplex. Publicly owned land there and at the Port of Vicksburg is managed by the Warren County Port Commission.

Over the years, two restaurants and a plant nursery operated inside the house until 2007. Terms of the nursery’s commercial lease said the county could evict the business if a serious industrial tenant wanted the land. Financial responsibility for maintenance fell to the tenants. In 2006 and 2010, petitions to the Mississippi Department of Archives and History to designate the house a state landmark were denied. Each time, the home’s loss of its original architecture was a factor.

A 2010 estimate to move the house pegged that cost at about $2 million.

The port commission sees the house as something of a “front door” to development at the industrial park, Mansfield said.

The industrial park is home to a mix of industries and government buildings — Laclede Chain, Tyson Foods, Vicksburg Metal Products, Magnolia Metal & Plastic, Mississippi Department of Transportation’s regional headquarters and the Mississippi National Guard Readiness Center.

A key piece in the concept is a reconstruction of the Flowers interchange on Interstate 20. However, that project exists only in theory and is not part of a larger project in the works to widen and reshape nearly 6 miles of the interstate between the Mississippi River bridges and Clay Street.

“That is the front of our industrial park,” Mansfield said. “It’ll depend on what happens with the interchange.”

For Ferris, who turns 94 next weekend, the house is the backdrop of memories of a pastoral getaway before the interstate and lightning-fast communication.

“They had to raise chickens and hogs, fruit trees and vegetable gardens,” she said. “My hope was that someone would purchase it and restore it to its original position,” she said. “Because it is certainly possible. It doesn’t look to me like it’s ready to be torn down. Seems like a terrible sacrifice. It’s a bit of history.”

All may not be lost from the house itself, according to the contractor. At least one mantle from the home’s several old and false fireplaces will be handed over to Shelby Flowers Ferris as soon as he has access to the house, Branch said.

“I’d be less of a person if I didn’t give her anything she wanted,” he said.

Raw materials — hardwood floors, roof and the rest — will go to private buyers in Mississippi, said Branch, who has recent experience in taking down storied structures in Vicksburg.

In 2009, he was hired to take down the old Speed Street School after it was condemned by the city.

Despite emotions about the past, Ferris said the house has come full circle.

“It’s dust to dust,” she said. “When they first moved in, there was nothing here. If it’s torn down, there’ll be nothing left — which I find rather tragic.”