WEST POINT, Miss. - When Melanie Snow was seven years old, her parents bought a deserted Southern mansion that might have sent other youngsters screaming in fright.
But for Melanie and her family, it was love at first sight.
“I think it was meant for Mom and Dad to have this house,” Snow said, standing on the porch of her beloved home. “Whoever took this house would either have to have a lot of money or a lot of love. We had the love.”
On a shore excursion from the Grande Caribe cruise ship, we headed to one of the most photographed homes in the South. Arriving during the 72nd Annual Columbus Spring Pilgrimage (March 26-April 7), we got to enjoy dogwoods and azaleas in blooming glory, plus folks of all ages in period costumes guiding visitors through gorgeous antebellum mansions.
Of course, Snow’s home didn’t look so beautiful when her family bought it 50 years ago.
HUGE RENOVATION PROJECT
The massive four-story house was almost hidden from view, swallowed by an overgrown tangle of vines, briars and weeds that snaked through broken windows and crept through silent hallways. The attic was home to thousands of bats. Squirrels scampered around the once-glorious staircase. The cupola housed a 200-pound beehive.
Paint was peeling off. Shutters were gone. Floors were covered with debris. Walls were littered with generations of graffiti. The front porch had caved in. The once-grand mansion had sat empty and neglected for almost half a century. Many feared it was in its final death throes.
What saved it and changed the lives of the Snow family?
“It was a chance encounter,” Snow said. “My parents had an antique store and one day a salesman came in and told my parents that he had recently gotten lost on a dirt road near the river and had seen the most magnificent home he’d ever seen standing vacant in the woods.”
Her parents – history lovers Robert and Donna Snow – were so excited that they couldn’t sleep that night. Early the next morning, the family set out to find the treasure. Despite its derelict and forlorn appearance, the Snows saw what had once been and could be again.
Selling their farm and store, the Snows bought the house and 40 acres and began a massive restoration process. “It was a precious jewel just waiting to shine again,” Snow said. “It was a marvelous adventure for a kid.”
Built in 1852 by Col. George Hampton Young of Georgia, the plantation home was designed in Greek Revival style by Italian architect Charles Pond. The novels of Sir Walter Scott provided the inspiration for the name “Waverly.” One of the largest in the South, the self-sustaining plantation had orchards, ice house, gardens, livestock, lumber mill, gristmill, leather tannery and brick kiln.
“It is believed that the first American-made saddle blankets were produced at Waverly,” said local historian Jack White. “The first fox association was formed in Waverly’s library in 1893.”
The Youngs had 10 children and the house was passed down to the two youngest bachelor sons who lived at Waverly until the early 1900s. After the brothers’ deaths, the surviving Youngs couldn’t afford to maintain the property so it sat empty until the Snows bought it.
“There wasn’t as much vandalism as you might think,” Snow said. “We found thousands of names written on the walls but there was not one vulgar word… People told us they were proposed to and conceived out here.”
Fraternities at Mississippi State University would send pledges to spend the night in “the spook house.” Hunters would camp here. “The lack of damage and theft is, I think, a great tribute to the people of Mississippi,” Snow said.
The largest magnolia tree in the state still stands in the front yard. Eight marble mantles were intact. Less than 20 windowpanes were broken. The red Venetian glass around the front door was fine. All the original French gasoliers were suspended in each room. Three large, gold leaf mirrors still hung from their original hooks.
One of the mirrors has a large crack spidering across it. But that was not the result of vandals. Instead it is the reminder of a large Civil War cotillion for Confederate officers where some lighted candles fell against the mirror. Too busy dancing, the officers and their ladies didn’t notice the fallen candles until a large boom echoed over the room.
“The girls ran upstairs and took cover,” tour guide Jimmy Denning said. “The men drew their pistols and ran outdoors to look for the enemy. It sounded like a gun going off when the mirror popped. They must have been pretty embarrassed when they found out what it really was.”
The house had no electricity or indoor plumbing until the Snows installed it. But an early forerunner of air conditioning brings architects and engineers from around the world to study the early use of alternative energy at Waverly. The mansion’s fourth floor is an octagonal cupola with 16 big windows.
“The air flows upward which keeps the whole house cool in the summer,” said Denning. “It is natural old-fashioned air conditioning.”
HOUSE BECOMES A HOME
Working on a shoestring budget and doing most of the work themselves, the Snows have devoted decades to restoring Waverly. Melanie Snow and her little sister Cindy spent several years standing on ladders using toothbrushes and toothpicks to clean the ornate plasterwork around the tops of rooms of mud dauber nests.
“It was quite a playground for us kids,” Snow said. When they moved in, brother Allen was 11 and sister Cindy was 5. “Our baby brother Gage was born here. He was the first baby born in Waverly.”
In 1991, Donna Snow died unexpectedly. The Mississippi State Legislature passed a resolution praising her tireless efforts to restore Waverly Plantation. “When her work was done, Mom went to rest,” Snow said.
Today, Melanie Snow lives in Waverly Mansion with her father Robert. At 86 years of age, Robert Snow still mows the grounds, tends the flowers and raises peacocks. Waverly is now listed as a National Historic Landmark. The public is invited to visit.
“It’s never felt like a museum to us. It’s always just been home,” Melanie Snow concludes as our visit ends. “Thank you so much for coming. We love to share our home and we love you for coming to visit.”
For more information: Contact Waverly Mansion at (662) 494-1399; Columbus Tourism at (800) 327-2686, www.columbus-mx.org; and Blount Small Ship Adventures at (800) 556-7450, www.BlountSmallShipAdventures.com
Photos by Jackie Sheckler Finch