Copyright © Janice Tracy, Mississippi Memories

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Fire at Malmaison

The article below appeared in the Greenwood (MS) Commonwealth on April 1, 1942:

"Historic Malmaison, show place and shrine for tourists, lies a smoldering ruin today following a fire at 8:30 last night which completely destroyed the mansion of Greenwood Leflore, last chief of the Choctaw Nation of Indians. Origin of the fire is unknown, but it is surmised that it must have started from a defective chimney in the building. Mrs. F. R. Montgomery and sister, Miss Florence Ray were at home with Mrs. W. C. McDougal and daughter, Isabel, as guests.

The group said that they heard someone upstairs, and Miss McDougal went to the front door and discovered that the building was burning. The noise they heard is now thought to have been timbers falling. Alarm was given by the shooting of pistols and five Negroes answered the call and managed to save a small amount of the furniture, including the table in the living room. A silver coffee pot, a silver pitcher and a few glasses and chairs were saved, but the greater part of the furniture, including the bed room furniture, historic pictures, draperies, silverware and china was destroyed in the blaze.

No water was available and nothing could be done to save any part of the building. One carriage shed was burned, but the carriage in which Greenwood Leflore rode to Washington from Malmaison for his historic visit with President Andrew Jackson was saved.

Malmaison was occupied as a residence by Mrs. Montgomery and Miss Ray, and the property was owned by them and their sisters, Mrs. P. H. Brown of Batesville and Mrs. C. C. Pardue of New Orleans. All are great-granddaughters of Greenwood Leflore.

Malmaison was one of the show places of Mississippi. It was a great tourist attraction and was visited annually by hundreds from all parts of the United States. Around it clung the memories of the transition of Mississippi from Indian territory to its present status. It was Greenwood Leflore as Chief of the Choctaws who signed the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek, which provided for the Choctaws ceding their lands to the United States and moving to the Indian Territory, now a part of the state of Oklahoma. Leflore remained in Mississippi on his estate, which at its greatest, comprised 15,000 acres, dreamed of erecting a handsome house in keeping with the times and his own status as one of the greatest planters of the south.

Near the middle of the nineteenth century, there came to Mississippi from Georgia, a young man, James Harris, an architect and builder. He is described as being of great physical strength, an athlete, graceful and handsome in appearance and of modest and courteous demeanor. The wealthy planters of the South were then in a golden age of prosperity. Their cotton was a source of riches. It was grown by slave labor. The white men were almost princes of the blood, surrounded by their retainers, secure in their strongholds of caste and station. They entertained with lavish and prodigality. They hunted, fished, gamed and feasted. Gentlemen drank deeply, but remained gentlemen. Most households had their vintage wines and stronger liquors mellowed in the oak. It became the fashion to build splendid mansions in keeping with the wealth and standing of the planters, where the generous hospitality, which was an outstanding characteristic of their time and class, might be dispensed without stint.

James Harris made a specialty of the construction of these palatial houses. They were built usually of wood, the heavy timbers hewed by hand and the other lumber brought from some local sawmill. A corps of trained slaves under the supervision of Harris and his expert assistants performed the work, to the most delicate on interior finishing and decorative paneling. The houses he constructed have hardly been excelled for strength, symmetry, spacious convenience, beauty and stability. They were the largest ever built in Mississippi, and some of them are standing today as solid, true and well-preserved as when constructed more than three-quarters of a century ago.

Greenwood Leflore had dreamed of a wondrous manor house, and in James Harris he found his builder. The haughty chief of the Choctaws had been a life-long admirer of Napoleon Bonaparte, in whom he saw the same indomitable spirit, the ambition of power and love of great achievement that he himself possessed. When Napoleon divorced Josephine, Greenwood Leflore’s admiration for the Emperor changed to disdain. But Josephine continued to be his heroine of romance, a martyr to man’s inhumanity like Joan of Arc, as long as he lived.

When the planter sought a name for his manor house, he decided on the name of the chateau, ten miles west of Paris on the Seine, where the unhappy “Widow Beauharnais” lived from 1798 to 1814 and where she died. The original Malmaison was also once the home of Cardinal Richelieu. So Greenwood Leflore’s great house was called Malmaison. It was the largest dwelling house that has ever been erected in Carroll County. It was still an imposing edifice, with its wide galleries, many balconies, lofty chambers, spacious halls and beautiful hand carved oak paneling.

Most of the furnishings were brought from France. The silver, glass and china, imperial in its magnificence, came in sets of twelve dozen. The furniture was made by special order. An example was the marvelous drawing room set of thirty pieces, of solid mahogany, finished in genuine gold and upholstered in priceless silk damask. It is said that the Duchess of Orleans tried to purchase the set before it was shipped to America and, failing, ordered a duplicate set for herself. Then there were beautiful mirrors, tables, large four-post beds of rosewood with silken and satin canopies, and four tapestry curtains depicting the four places of Napoleon and Josephine-Versailles, Malmaison, Saint Cloud and Fontainebleau. The furnishings were planned for the entertainment of two hundred guests at a time, and it is said that Greenwood Leflore was in his happiest mood when his home was filled with friends.

The mansion was occupied by Greenwood Leflore until his death in 1865 and by his descendants until it was destroyed last night.

Malmaison was endangered by fire several times during the War Between the States, for Greenwood Leflore, having taken an oath of allegiance to the United States as chief of the Choctaws, covenanting that he would never take up arms against the United States, kept that pledge during the great civil strife. Many of his buildings were burned, but the great mansion survived, and Greenwood Leflore kept his peaceful relations with his neighbors who respected his position.

Malmaison perpetuated the glory of the ante-bellum times. It maintained the legends, which are history. It shed the glow of halcyon days, upon the later times. These things were instantly caught by those who visited the ancient site. But the shrine is gone, and there is a mass of blackened ashes and only the old carriage house and the Leflore family graveyard to mark the site."

1 comment:

  1. Janice, I learned so much from reading your post about Malmaison and Greenwood Leflore. I had no idea that he lived such a lavish life and was such a wealthy planter. It's sad to know that such a beautiful home was destroyed by fire and so little was saved.