Building a hospitable hunter’s haven on the majestic Mississippi River
By Erica Eason Hall and photography by Don Beard
Tucked deep in the woods, behind the levee from Farrell, lies Burkes Hunting Club on the Mighty Mississippi River. At the very end of the long and winding gravel road, The Graeber Place welcomes you with a grand slam in more ways than one. Skip and Gwen Graeber of Clarksdale began this journey of building a new cabin for their family after the epic flood of 2011. Knowing this would be a perfect new setting for Thanksgiving gatherings for Skip and his sister’s families, he and Gwen hired architect Berry Jones of Memphis to bring their large vision to life.
Skip assembled a team of local craftsmen to construct his cabin that included builder Robby Taylor of Rena Lara, finish carpenter Jonathan Dancy of Marks, and Wilbourn & Son of Grenada for cabinetry. Cypress beams were sourced just across the river in Helena, Arkansa. Pecky cypress came from Coffeeville. Energy efficiency was of great importance to Skip, explaining that the entire structure is insulated in foam—under floors, walls and above ceilings with large low-E windows throughout.
In addition to structural planning, Skip’s hunting abilities contributed to the prized taxidermy mountings in the foyer and living areas. Skip and his close friend Jim Humber set a goal for themselves to complete a grand slam turkey hunt in one year and they achieved it. Skip beams sharing, “It was exhilarating!” The result is a magnificent collection of turkeys that include Eastern, Rio, Merriam, Gould and Ocellated species mounted in a 360-degree design above the foyer of the entrance.
Gwen’s impeccable sense of style is evident throughout the rustic modern river cabin. Her interior design plan began by working with family heirlooms from the original family cabin and the former family home of Skip’s parents, Jim and Jewel Graeber in Marks. Gwen placed these furnishings throughout the cabin to spread memories of them around every corner. She also used family art such as the mallard painting that hung behind Jim’s desk at Graeber Brothers, Inc. for fifty years. Jim and Jewel’s handmade wooden rockers adorn the stone hearth in the living area to memorialize their creation of this family.
Once treasured pieces were placed, Gwen went on a hunt of her own for art and furnishings to complete the design. Gwen’s color choices for the living area encompass the feel of an autumn retreat like the buttery caramel tones of leather in the sofas, creamy butternut squash tones of the walls in the living area, and the persimmon fabric of the dining chairs.Sixteen-foot vaulted ceilings in the master suite are grounded by the gorgeous headboard that Gwen created using antique wooden squares that she found in Atlanta and had assembled into a grid. The rich, dark wall shades of gray wrap the room in modern sophistication. The antique rug adds a pop of bold colors to the warm neutral backdrop.
At the top of the wrought iron staircase, you will find the children’s sleeping quarters which is divided into a room with four-poster single beds, play area, and a bunk wall constructed from pecky cypress. The design was purposed so that the children would all sleep together at the end of the evening like at camp, and the adults could stay up together and visit downstairs and retire to their bedrooms all located on the first floor.
The chef’s kitchen is perfectly equipped to host large parties. The floor-to-ceiling windows in the breakfast area overlook the children’s playhouse and zip line. And if there are no children around, you are likely to see deer on the edge of the woods that line the backyard.
Situated next to the granite-topped kitchen island is the dining area. The glass top of the dining table is supported by a cypress stump that Skip harvested from McWilliams lake years ago. The lake fell so low “that sadly loggers came in and harvested many of the cypress trees and left behind the stumps.” Skip had one of the larger stumps dug out and sent into town to the shop at Graeber Brothers where some of his handymen planed and waxed it. It stayed in town for many years, but when they were building the cabin, Skip knew it was “time to bring the stump home and had just the place for it!” The iron branch light fixture above the table mimics the natural woodland feel of the stump below.
From the dining area, floor-to-ceiling windows look out onto the front porch and create a feeling that everyone is together. The expansive front porch invites you to sit awhile and watch the river and its diverse traffic. Tug boats and river barges are the most common sightings, but as wide a variety as yachts, ski boats, steamboats to canoes and Huck Finn-style wooden rafts have been spotted cruising the River.
The Graeber Place is a luxurious nature retreat to disconnect from the busy world and enjoy being with family and friends.
Once again, a stranger steps in to rescue Wayside’s 1857 gem
By Noel Workman • Photography By Jay Adkins
Tennessee Williams wrote that line for Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire. But it could have been penned for anyone talking about Belmont, the antebellum mansion south of Greenville. Joshua Cain is Belmont’s latest “kind stranger.” The 36-year-old Los Angeles interior designer might have been a stranger to Belmont, but he and his family are no strangers to Mississippi. Both sides of his family have been in Mississippi “since the beginning,” as he says. His mother’s family founded New Albany with the first grist mill and general store. The Cains were early Calhoun County settlers who saw Civil War action on the homestead where Cain’s family still lives today.
Mount Holly’s savior?
Born in Brandon, Cain’s connection to Belmont actually began with his attempt to purchase Mount Holly. A decade ago he toured that Lake Washington plantation home, already abandoned. “Mount Holly was magnificent,” Cain recalls. “The leaves were gone and I could see the house in all her splendor. It was well before vandals had entered the house. Just a few critters and overgrown Virginia creeper. Almost everything was intact, although she needed substantial restoration.
Just when Cain finally had enough money to purchase Mount Holly and start the restoration process, he could not come to an agreement with the out-of-state owner, who allowed it to get worse and worse. A fire on June 17, 2015, was its ultimate demise, much to the dismay of Delta residents.
Cain’s dream of finding and restoring one of Mississippi’s antebellum vestiges was stoked by a 2013 trip to the Natchez pilgrimage. He began researching and compiling a notebook of every plantation home north of Jackson. “Maybe I could find one in disrepair, perhaps long forgotten, that needed a savior and still be relatively close to my family in the Hills and the Delta. Right up the road from Mount Holly, Belmont came up for sale and I was interested. Despite my interest, I couldn’t get anywhere with the owner’s daughter so the house sat,” he recalls.
The following year, Cain’s uncle, Butch Ruth of Greenville, sent word that Belmont had been foreclosed by Bank of America and was now for sale. “At last,” Cain said. “Somebody I could negotiate with and get somewhere.”
The Brothers Worthington
The sale of Choctaw Indian lands in the 1820s and Chickasaw lands a decade later brought an influx of settlers to north and central Mississippi. Only a few were willing to tackle the challenges of the Delta, with its heat, floods, fevers, and wild animals. Of those who did, none made a more lasting architectural impact than the Worthington brothers. Kentucky natives Samuel, Elisha, William, and Isaac Worthington bought thousands of acres of land in Mississippi and Arkansas and established vast plantations.
Each brother built at least one house. Isaac’s was Leota, close by the Mississippi River at Leota Landing. He ignored the warnings of his neighbors that the house was too close to the river. Rising spring floodwaters first took his lawn, then swept Leota from its foundations and off to the Gulf of Mexico. Elisha became one of the wealthiest men in the South with 12,000 acres of plantations that he owned across the river in Chicot County, Arkansas.
Samuel Worthington’s Wayside was a thirty-eight room mansion that also, if more indirectly, was a victim of high water. It withstood the disastrous 1927 flood, only to be condemned and demolished when the new levee construction placed it on the riverside of the earthworks.
The land where Belmont stands was sold by the U.S. government to Governor Alexander G. McNutt. Samuel Worthington purchased it in 1853 to complement his three existing plantations, Redleaf, Mosswood and Wayside. Two years later he sold it to his brother, Dr. William W. Worthington, who was apparently more of a planter than a doctor with his eighty slaves and hundreds of acres surrounding Belmont. He built the house between 1855 and 1861, a blend of the prevailing Greek Revival and Italianate styles of the day.
Belmont Got Plastered
Belmont features some of the finest decorative plaster work in Mississippi. Local lore holds that German plaster artists were stranded in Washington County when the Civil War started. With no means of escape and no other work, they busied themselves during the war years carving intricate molding and ceiling medallions into Belmont’s plaster. Another version claims Dr. Worthington met a group of Italian carvers on a boat trip to New Orleans and convinced them to return with him to Belmont. Regardless of its origins, the decorative work in Belmont rivals the finest interiors of Natchez or Columbus.
Originally, the grounds extended to the River. Just across the road (now Mississippi Highway One) was Wayside, home of Dr. Worthington’s brother, Samuel. That house suffered more directly than did Belmont during the Civil War, with one of Samuel’s sons being shot by Union soldiers in his own pasture. Roving bands of troops wreaked havoc across Washington County for several months, foraging and burning Greenville. Remarkably, all of the South Washington County homes, including Belmont, were spared.
Belmont remained in the Worthington family until the early 1930s. Mary Howey Key, a young girl living at Wayside in the early years of the twentieth century, recalled Dr. Worthington’s son, always known as “Mr. Will.”
“He was really a southern gentleman. He wore white linen suits and panama hats and on hot days he carried a parasol, or umbrella, and he was a very genteel person,” she included in a 1977 Washington County Library System oral history project.
A Hunting Clubhouse
Governor Dennis Murphree, a distant relative of Belmont’s new owner, bought the house from the Worthington heirs during the Depression and converted it into a hunting lodge. Over the next half century, it was occupied only by hunters and sportsmen. The elegant rooms were filled with bunk beds, mattresses, muddy boots, and mounted deer heads. Plaster cracked, and sections of the elaborate ceiling medallions crumbled. A room in the back of the building was designated for drinking, in a valiant effort to keep inebriated sportsmen from further damaging the old home.
After the hunting club disbanded, Belmont was converted back into a private residence. Mr. and Mrs. Fernando Cuquet restored it to its antebellum elegance. Cuquet was a former New Orleans attorney and banker who helped develop the Delta’s first casinos in Tunica and Greenville. He also served as a World War II spy and later helped the FBI solve a notorious white slavery case.
The Cuquets’ restoration was completed in 1993 and they lived in Belmont until 2012. Despite all efforts to sell the home or find a family member who would care for the massive estate, Belmont begin to fall into a state of decline, even during the Cuquets’ final years there.
Belmont, the house and its surrounding seven acres, went into foreclosure in 2014. The 9,000-square-foot home had been listed the previous year for $1,100,000 but was subsequently put on the market at $270,000. The dramatically reduced price reflected the extensive restoration work needed to bring the home back to its former glory. The once stately mansion was a wreck, “filled with mildew, mold and a variety of Delta critters.” Unlucky for those critters, interior designer, builder, and historic preservationist Joshua Cain had his eye on the home for some time.
The million dollar renovation is about 60 percent finished, Cain says, with a geothermal heating and air conditioning unit currently underway with a significant amount of interior decoration to be completed. “I want Belmont to be used by the community,” he says, “Weddings, hunting groups, any sort of event. We’ve had our first wedding reception already and the Greenville High School Class of 1968 had its 50th Class Reunion at Belmont.”
The kindness of this “stranger” means a lot of Deltans will be enjoying Belmont for years to come.