The Homestead

A historic, heavenly retreat in Noxubee County is all about ties that bind

Story Jan Swoope | Photographs Jeremy Murdock

John Morgan Douglass and his wife, Peggy, know the way to serenity.

It’s an exit off I-59, a junket through Tide country and a transition to open cropland that bring the couple from their Birmingham, Alabama, home to the doorstep of John Morgan’s family history. It’s a long, dusty gravel road in Noxubee County and a turn through a tall pine stand to land that has been in the Douglass family since 1841.

There, in two structures, John Morgan has preserved a slice of his own and the rural community’s roots. The oldest is a reincarnation of an 1800s log dogtrot house built by patriarch Abram Douglass, John Morgan’s great-grandfather. The second is the late-1930s Center Point Church building John Morgan had moved to its current location in 1999. Together they form a haven, a place the Douglasses try to come two or three times each month. A place John Morgan’s two sons, daughter and two grandsons can come together to reunion, hunt or sit a spell. “Porchin’,” Peggy likes to call it.

“I come over here to get out of the fast lane,” says John Morgan of the spread affectionately known as Douglass Manor.

THE HOUSE
It was in 1980 that the retired educator and his now-late wife decided to find out if the log structure was sound enough to be made into a weekend getaway.

“The dogtrot was originally built as a two-over-two — two rooms downstairs, two upstairs,” he explains. Over time, changes had been made, including enclosing the center breezeway and adding a porch.

When inspection revealed that much of the original was beyond use, John Morgan enlisted Robert Craycroft, then of Mississippi State’s College of Architecture, Art and Design, to develop plans that would architecturally retain the spirit of the old dwelling. Ethan Goode, then of Noxubee County, acted as contractor, creatively using as many of the old ax-hewn timbers and pine floorboards as possible.

“If we could use it, we tried to do it,” says John Morgan, who began staying in the renewed structure in 1981.

The ground-floor entryway separates a bedroom and sitting-dining room. While modern concessions include an efficient galley kitchen and washer and dryer, most furnishings have been passed down from one Douglass generation to the next.

Of special note is the bedroom set, a wedding present to John Morgan’s grandmother from her father in 1892. Stained glass windows luminously frame a massive headboard as natural light is channeled and changed with the sun’s arc across the Mississippi sky. The two glass side panels are from a house in the nearby Center Point community. The three overhead panels came from the home of John Morgan’s aunt in Missouri.

The aura of the house is quiet, ancestral, with birdsong and the tick-tock of a vintage wall clock punctuating the passage of time.

Standing in the entry hall, Peggy says, “I love nothing more than coming over here and cozying up with a good book for a weekend. It’s just a little nest away from the world.” 

THE CHURCH
In the late ’90s, John Morgan got a heavenly idea: He purchased and relocated the 1939 Center Point Church building a distance of a few miles to a spot very near the house. It sat idle until its new owner instigated transformation in 2013. Architect Elizabeth Alter of Tuscaloosa drew up plans to reclaim what could be saved and turn the former country church into a comfortable living space. Ray Troyer of Macon was the contractor.

“The inside of the church was almost in shambles,” recalls John Morgan. “We were able to keep the floor, though we had to patch it up in some places.”

The raised pulpit became a kitchen, with flooring, cabinets, countertops and counter front fashioned from materials from the original Douglass house. A pastor’s lectern at the counter’s end overlooks the sanctuary, now a great room. The Douglass family Bible sits atop the lectern.

Martha Mullins Blackwell of the Center Point community assisted with interior design of house and church, where almost every furnishing is vintage, especially the dining table — a family keepsake that belonged to Abram in the mid-1800s.

“He ate his wedding breakfast on this table, and Peggy and I ate our wedding breakfast on it in 2013, more than 100 years later,” John Morgan says.

Another historic highlight is the church Session book on display, covering 1846 to 1884. The original congregation dates back to 1842.

Gone are deteriorating classrooms, replaced by homey sleeping spaces, with quilt-covered beds and bunks ready for family and friends.

Douglass Manor is still a work in progress, Peggy says, still evolving into the vision John Morgan had for it in the beginning.

“We have a long list of things we’re looking forward to doing together. It’s a pleasure for me to be in on the finishing touches because, for him, being here is like coming home — literally and figuratively.”