People from all over the world have traversed the Port Gibson road of Mississippi to have a glance at the stately columns which are all that remain of Windsor, one of the most magnificent homes in the Clairborne County of the U.S. Built in 1859-61 by Smith Coffee Daniel, a wealthy planter, it was the then largest antebellum Greek Revival mansion in the state. The Windsor plantation covered over 2600 acres and stood overlooking the Mississippi river. Legend says that from a roof observatory in the mansion, Mark Twain watched the Mississippi River in the distance. Unfortunately on February 17, 1890 the house was burned to ruins because of a lighted cigar left behind by a house guest. Everything was destroyed except 23 of the Corinthian columns, balustrades, iron stairs and a few pieces of China.
Today the mansion is known to the public as Windsor or Windsor Ruins, the name derived from the sound of the wind whistling through its columns. The four storey mansion was built to reflect the height of Southern life at that time. The home was used by both Union and Confederate troops during the American Civil War. History says that the house topped a roof observatory from where the Union troops used to send signals to alert the Confederate troops of the Yankees. A Yankee soldier was even shot dead in the doorway of the mansion! The mansion was used as a Union hospital and observation post after the battle thus sparing it from being burned by the army troops. How Windsor actually looked before it got burned down was a mystery until a drawing by Henry Dwight, a Civil War officer was recovered.
Though a Greek Revival mansion, Windsor also borrowed details from Italianate and Gothic styles of architecture. Windsor had twenty-five rooms with twenty-five fireplaces and an above-level basement with a school room, diary and supply rooms. Tanks in the attic supplied water to the baths. The ell shaped extension on the east side contained the kitchen, pantry and the dining room. Unfortunately Smith was able to live for only a few weeks at the mansion before the passed away. It is said that Mark Twain thought Windsor to be a college instead of a residence due to its majestic size. Twain has also immortalized its elegance in his book ‘Life on the Mississippi’.
Windsor was handed over to the State Department of Archives in 1974. The wrought iron stairs now belong to the nearby Alcorn State University. The Ruins have also featured in several films including Raintree County (1957) that had Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Cliff in the lead roles. Ghosts of Mississippi is a recent film that featured the Ruins. Walking around the Windsor grounds is an amazing experience. The 100 years old walnut trees surrounding the columns make the place even more magnificent. Unfortunately the trees in front of the ruins have been chopped and burned recently. However one can still feel the sense of grandeur that once held the Windsor Ruins. The place is worth a drive back again as the ruins are, simply put, very impressive.
Finding Windsor is a bit difficult even if one is not new to the County. Make sure you do your research on how to reach Windsor as it is off the beaten path. The Ruins are located about 10 miles from the Port Gibson road near the Alcorn State University. From the Natchez Trace Parkway take Mississippi Highway 552 at milepost 30. Travel west and follow the signs. However there are no inns or restaurants in the vicinity. But this doesn’t prevent tourists from visiting this extraordinary wonder. Windsor provides the best atmosphere to relax, to take a break from the hectic routines of day-to-day life. People take lunch and snack with them and go picnicking with their families. One can almost hear the crunch of carriage wheels on the gravel drive in this quiet spot! Windsor is beautiful beyond imagination that we would so wish we had a time machine that could take us to the time when we could see this place in its heyday.
The Bethel Presbyterian Church and the town of Rodney are two other important tourist spots that lie in close proximity to the site. The ghost town of Rocky Springs is also nearby. Also near Windsor is a cemetery where the members of the Smith family have been buried since the early 19th century. A visit to the Grand Gulf Military Park is also an interesting side trip. The Oakland chapel at the Alcorn State University is one of the most beautiful churches in the vicinity. There you can also see the actual metal stairs that once graced the front of Windsor.
Windsor Ruins have, no doubt, left a mark in the history of mankind. On November 23rd, 1971 it was added to the National Register of Historic Places. A drive to and from Windsor is worth one’s precious time. It gives us an idea of how grand and stately an antebellum plantation is. The fact that Windsor has been there for the past 150 years is by itself a testament to the craftsmanship of the past. Architecture lovers and history buffs are normally advised to not miss visiting the Ruins. Today the haunting beautiful Ruins stand tall; its visitors enthralled by its majestic beauty.