March 20, 2015

Pine Hill Plantation House - History and Renovation


The above photograph and the following article written by staff writer, Max Hill appeared in the November 28, 1982 edition of the News-Star World.



















Transcription:

It's been a persistent legend in Catahoula Parish for 75 years.

Pine Hill Plantation house - long abandoned and all but forgotten but said to be filled with spirits too restless to accept death.

As far back as 75 years ago, Pine Hill was referred to by local children as the "Haunted House."  Even then, it was abandoned and in a state of disrepair.  

No one lived there as a reminder it had once been the center of a social life with ties to New Orleans and Natchez culture.

No one was there to tell of the days when guests to elegant balls and dinners filled its rooms.
There was only mute evidence that a prestigious family had once called it home, or once filled it with the trappings of Southern aristocracy.

The once-elegant structure was suffering from neglect and the ravages of time.  A tree fell through the dining room windows around the turn of the century, forming a ladder by which vandals and sightseers could enter and pilfer any remaining possessions.

Will Peck, the man who knows more about Pine Hill than any other person in the area - on the basis of family ties and a life-long interest in the house - has taken up residence there.

Peck says he has always heard stories of mysterious phenomena at the house, but reports few unexplainable occurrences have taken place during the five years he has been living there.

Today, there is new life in the house with restoration work in progress.  But still an aura envelops the house, keeping alive the mystery which may have been a key factor in its preservation.

If there had not been rumors of ghosts, the structure may well have been destroyed by scavengers or arsonists.

Lucky for historians that the house still stands, because in addition to the myths surrounding it, Pine Hill played an historic role based on fact.

Norris Springs - 2011
The house is located near one of the most historic spots in Catahoula Parish and northeastern Louisiana--Norris Springs. The natural springs have been mentioned in almost every history of the state as a water source for Indians and local residents.

For unknown centuries, the springs were the center of life for indigenous Indians.  As white men entered the area in the mid-1700s, they were quick to realize the importance of the springs.

Peck says the road which runs directly beside the springs and Pine Hill was an extension of the El Camino Real during periods of high water.


Norris Springs - 2011
The El Camino Real was the main Spanish road that ran from the Mississippi River to Santa Fe, NM. A variety of wayfarers must have stopped to refresh themselves with the icy water as they marched westward.

One of those early adventurers who decided to settle in the area was John Bowie.  He was the original inhabitant of Pine Hill plantation, named it and began the first house there.

Bowie was the uncle of Jim Bowie -- inventor of the Bowie knife -- who met death at the hands of Santa Anna's troops in 1836 at the Alamo Mission in San Antonio.

The younger Bowie was a resident of Catahoula Parish and a frequent visitor to Pine Hill Plantation.

John Bowie sold the plantation in 1822 to Zachariah Kirkland, who completed the current structure in 1825.  The house was built on a portion of an original Spanish land grant.

Pine Hill house is built in a style known primarily in the West Indies, the most important of a number of reasons the house is noteworthy in Louisiana architectural circles.

It was constructed high on a hill which overlooked the entire farm.  Main floor rooms are elevated over two brick basements.  There are five rooms and an enclosed porch upstairs.

The unusual basements were utilized mainly for storage in the days when a plantation had to be completely self-sufficient.  Still intact are bars over the windows to prevent animals from entering the food supply rooms.

Peck says the West Indies architecture was unusual in this part of the state; however, he adds, there was a rational explanation for its utilization at Pine Hill.

"These people were closely akin to the Spanish in New Orleans.  Governor Gayosa was responsible for many of the land grants here and on Sicily Island," he says.

Kirkland lived at Pine Hill until his death a decade later.  His widow, Harriet Perry Kirkland, lived there until her death past the age of 90.

Following the death of Mrs. Kirkland's first husband, she married a "Dr. Norris," who bequeathed his name to the house, springs and community.

Mrs. Norris was well known throughout the state as one of the wealthiest women of her day.  She was also acquainted and related to many prominent people throughout the state.

The house was refined with imported millwork and conveniences during the time Dr. and Mrs. Norris lived there.  A brick-paved circular driveway, complete with carriage landing, was constructed.  The original brick walk has been unearthed during recent renovations.

There also was a continuous stream of interesting people visiting there during Dr. Norris' lifetime. Stephen F. Austin stopped on his way to Texas long enough to borrow money to finance the remainder of the journey.  He left his desk with the family as collateral, Peck says.

Mrs. Norris was considered the matriarch of many Catahoula Parish families.  She was a staunch supporter of the Confederacy during the Civil War and on occasion hid Rebel troops in her brick storerooms.

Confederate agents, scouting out the countryside following the fall of Louisiana, camped on her property, Peck said.

"She was really taking a chance in allowing this.  If the Federals had found out, she could have been ruined," Peck says.

During Reconstruction, the house was used as a relay station in a most unusual spy network.
Federal officials, anxious to arrest pro-Southern sympathizers, made several fruitless trips to Catahoula Parish.

"They never could figure out why the prominent men always eluded capture," Peck says.

According to local legend, a woman in Monroe who owned a river boat alerted the Southerners to impending danger.  She would travel by boat to Boeuf Prairie in Franklin Parish and send a relay messenger to Mrs. Norris at Pine Hill.

"This Belle Watling-type character saved many Catahoula men from Yankee jails," Peck says, referring to the classy madam in "Gone With The Wind."

Social events for which Mrs. Norris had been famous continued at the house until the early 1900s. Dances were held in the upstairs rooms for the young people of Sicily Island.

And then, around the turn of the century, a young man who had only recently moved to the area was murdered at the house.

Peck said that a "Mr. Stewart" had come to Catahoula with the gas industry.  In the short period he was there, he gained the respect of area residents.

One ill-fated night, he escorted a young Sicily Island woman to the Pine Hill dance.  Unknown to the young couple was the fact that a local youth was in love with the girl.

He waited outside the house for them to leave the dance.  As they walked onto the front steps, Mr. Stewart was mortally wounded.

The murderer mounted his horse and vanished into the night, according to one popular version of the story.

"The young girl was totally innocent, that was the irony of the entire matter." Peck says.

After Mrs. Norris' death, Pine Hill remained an empty shell for a number of years.  From time to time, tenants would live there, but never for any great length of time.

But work is currently underway to restore the front veranda and to repair other deteriorating features.
Peck intends to open the house to the public for seven months during the New Orleans World Fair in 1984.  He plans to make available the upstairs to overnight guests who wish to take a trip into the past.

Whether there are ghosts at Pine Hill remains a mystery.  Peck will not comment on any unusual happenings during his time at the house.

"Ghosts?  All I can say is Grandmother Norris has to be here.  Without her, the house would never have survived," he says.

Pine Hill Plantation House - 2011


Newspaper article and photograph are courtesy of Karen Barron Egloff.

2 comments:

  1. My father loved that house. I remember trips there as a very young child. While Daddy may not have been willing to comment on ghosts or strange happenings at Pine Hill, I assure you that inexplicable things did take place. The sense of a hand resting on the shoulder of a waking visitor, the sound of conversation in the side yard when no one else was present, apparitions. In none of these events was there ever a sense of threat. I am glad the home was saved and is now a residence to a family (as I understand it).

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  2. Who owns the home now? Is there anyway to view it?

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