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Additional access, new visitor center in Clinton

Clinton — When the Clinton Visitor Center officially opens May 21, the day commemorating the completion of the 444-mile Natchez Trace Parkway, the historic event will represent the culmination of decades of work by historians, elected local officials and devoted Clintonians to produce two miracles: an additional access to the parkway from Interstate 20 and an unplanned depot.

“Years ago, when we saw the plans starting to unfold for the completion of the Trace through Clinton, we began lobbying for an additional access on Pinehaven Road and a visitors’ center,” said Clinton Mayor Rosemary Aultman. “There were no plans for a stop in Clinton, and we knew it would boost tourism if we could draw visitors into our charming neck of the woods.”

The Natchez Trace Parkway is the seventh most-visited unit in the National Park System, and had 12.6 million visits in 2003.

Preparations for the completion of the Clinton-area portion of the parkway had begun decades ago, when the late Robert Bell, a Clinton native often called “Mr. Natchez Trace,” began a mission to acquire the necessary rights-of-way. “I remember how exciting it was 20 to 30 years ago, when Mr. Bell acquired the last piece,” said Jacque McLemore, coordinator of volunteer services for the Clinton Visitor Center.

Even though Clinton already had parkway access on Interstate 20 within the city limits, it was far removed from “the essence of Clinton,” said city engineer Richard Broome.

“To really get the feel of the city, we felt that we needed the Pinehaven exit, which we finally got approved and was subsequently built.”

Aultman and Broome were instrumental in obtaining a $1.5-million grant through the Mississippi Department of Transportation’s Transportation Enhancement Fund, and the City of Clinton added $500,000 to finance the Clinton Visitor Center.

“Our concept was to recreate architectural elements of the fine homes that existed in the 1800s, when the Trace was still an Indian trail that was transitioning to use by early pioneers,” said Broome, who interviewed historians, researched architectural styles, perused Lost Homes of Mississippi and collaborated with architect Belinda Stewart, who specializes in historical recreation and restoration projects, to “meet the project goal of visitors getting the same sense of stopping by the Trace during its heyday.”

“Richard and Belinda accomplished that goal,” said Aultman. “It’s not the typical visitors’ center, nor is there anything along the Trace like it.”

The 3,500-square-foot, one-story, raised-roof structure with a dogtrot layout that architects describe it as “Southern vernacular,” evokes the image of farmhouse-meets-New Orleans. Cypress wood from a centuries-old sugar mill near the Crescent City was used to craft the porch posts, fireplace mantle, and stair railings. Handmade bricks, similar to those used to pave historic Brick Street in downtown Clinton, were used to frame the exterior. Broad steps leading to porches on the front and back of the building were fashioned to double as natural amphitheaters.

“Once we got the building started, everything else fell into place,” said Aultman. “Belinda found this great wooden table, maybe 20 feet or more in length, that was maybe used in a general store and required only slight repair work. It became the natural centerpiece for the main hall.”

Local residents donated an antique cotton wagon to display on the back porch, as a nod to the time when Clinton housed the state’s largest cotton gin, and paintings of an Native American maiden and warrior to showcase the era of Native American trade along the Natchez Trace in Clinton.

Heirlooms commemorating the historical role of Mississippi College and Hillman-Berry College were given to the center, including a graduation gown, an old football sweater, aged photographs and cherished letters. So were Civil War artifacts and farm implements from plantation days.

“We incorporated a public meeting room into the center as a place to develop programs and conduct historical research,” said McLemore. “We may later have a library. Right now, we’re just touching the tip of the iceberg.”

Instead of a traditional gift shop, the Clinton Visitor Center houses a consignment art shop featuring items unavailable through local merchants. “The whole point of building a visitors’ center was to entice visitors to shop, eat and stay in Clinton,” said McLemore.

More than 200 people attended the open house for the center last month, and 70 to 80 residents have already signed on as volunteers. “The entire project has truly been a community affair,” said Aultman.

Craig Ray, tourism director of the Mississippi Development Authority, called the Clinton Visitor Center “spectacular … another great way to highlight the Natchez Trace Parkway.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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