Disney's Dixie Landings Resort opened February 2, 1992, themed to the Antebellum South of steamboat travel, formal garden parties, mint juleps on the front porch, and more. It was inspired by rural Louisiana and nestled alongside the picturesque Sassagoula River (using the Native American term for the Mississippi).
In 2001, to try to eliminate the negative connotations associated with the Old South including a cotton mill that suggested the slavery of the pre-Civil War era as well as the word "Dixie" itself, the resort was formally merged into Disney's Port Orleans resort to become Port Orleans Riverside. Riverside is divided into two distinctly themed parishes: the stately white-columned Magnolia Bend "mansions" reminiscent of the Old South and the quaint backwoods "cottages" of Alligator Bayou themed after Cajun Country.
Many of the Walt Disney World Resorts that opened in the 1990s had elaborate and convoluted backstories because CEO Michael Eisner had fallen in love with the idea that everything should have a story. This philosophy is clearly evident in the story of Pleasure Island that encompassed several pages of detailed history (I wrote an earlier column about the forgotten story behind the Wilderness Lodge).
The Wilderness Lodge communicated its story through a faux newspaper called The Silver Creek Star. Other resorts had similar newspapers that were handed out to guests. The Caribbean Beach published Tradewinds (I do not have a copy and have only briefly seen a copy once a few years ago). Disney's Port Orleans Resort had The Sassagoula Sentinel, referring to the artificial river that flowed outside. When Dixie Landings opened about a year later, it also had a newspaper, The Sassagoula Times, supposedly originally printed in 1893 and costing five cents but given free to guests.
These newspapers detailed guest information but were also filled with stories that were a mixture of authentic history mixed with fanciful but logical additions from Walt Disney Imagineering. Today, resort guests receive a generic Directory of Services and Resort Map, a small pocket-sized pamphlet containing just the basic service information but no story information or fun facts.
According to stories in the original issue of The Sassagoula Times, Dixie Landings was founded by a pair of brothers from Port Orleans. Colonel J.C. Peace and his brother Everette came up river to make their own home away from the hustle and bustle of the city.
Everette, the recluse of the family who often spent days on end whittling small carvings with a remarkable degree of detail, settled on a remote island in 1835 in the heart of what later became known as Alligator Bayou, to live the life of a hermit.
According to the newspaper, "In the part of town now known as Alligator Bayou, only the heartiest souls dared to build. Not only was there the threat of hungry gators, but as the rains fell far up north and the level of the Sassagoula rose, more than one homestead would be knee-deep in swamp. But the settlers who chose life in Alligator Bayou were as resourceful as they were determined, and they built their homes and other buildings a foot and half off the ground. Even today, though the gators have (mostly!) retreated further into the bayou and floods are a less-frequent occurrence, you'll find the structures in Alligator Bayou still constructed with the same distinctive elevation."
Everette built a simple cabin and constructed a clever aqueduct to bring fresh water from a spring deep in the bayou across the river (his homemade contraptions became the basis of the water play area.)
"The trappers and their families would, from time to time, notice a wisp of smoke rising through the trees on the island and sometimes even catch a fleeting glimpse of the mysterious man who lived there. This, of course, led to many tales of the 'odd, old man on the island' who was surely an ogre with a taste for lost children."
Before long, "Ol' Man Island" had grown into a full-fledged legend among the area's youngsters, until one exceptionally brave young boy on a dare built a raft and paddled to the island. Expecting a child-eating ogre but finding a kindly old man instead, the two quickly became friends.
Soon all the children in the area made regular visits to the island. Everette turned his wood-working talents to constructing all sorts of playthings for the children. Ramps and ropes, slides and swings, ladders and log-walks and all manner of things were built. Eventually, a whole section of "Ol' Man Island" had become a playland like no one had ever seen before, and one so masterfully crafted it still exists today.
Everette's younger brother, Jonathon, was much more outgoing. "Something of a showman even as a child, Jonathon yearned for recognition and acceptance from classmates, parents, neighbors and, most of all, from Everette. One evening, donning his dad's old army uniform, Jonathon paraded about the family home acting every bit the military officer. His antics led the family to dub him 'The Colonel' and, from that day forward, the nickname stuck. Even as an adult, Jonathon Colby kept the epithet, invariably referring to himself and even signing his name as 'Colonel J.C.'" (This is in keeping with the Southern tradition of the honorary title of "Colonel" such as Colonel Sanders of chicken fame or Elvis' manager, Colonel Parker.)
Hardly out of his teens, young J.C. married Millie, his longtime sweetheart, and the two moved away from Port Orleans to seek success and happiness in 1850 and found it upriver near Old Man Island.
"Captivated by the lush grasslands and spectacular stands of stately trees, he claimed a modest stretch as his own, dubbed it Magnolia Bend and set about building both a mill and a mansion.
"The place that was to become Dixie Landings was established largely through the efforts of the outgoing and ambitious Colonel J.C. who saw the locale as the ideal spot for a cotton mill serving Louisiana's growing cotton industry.
"With the dedicated assistance of a couple of dozen family men who had ventured north from Port Orleans in the Colonel's footsteps, a cotton press and waterwheel weighing just over 35,000 pounds were built from local wood. The screw gears, axles, and shafts were carved from white oak, and the gear teeth were fashioned from hickory.
"The home he constructed for his expanding family grew slowly into a stately structure known as Acadian House. (The Colonel's ancestors — among the first settlers in Louisiana — had hailed from Nova Scotia which was also called Acadia. The odd blend of English, French and Indian words which crept gradually into their speech eventually shortened "Acadian" to "Cajun," the name by which we know their descendants even today.)
"Originally a rather simple single home, the mansion grew as Dixie Landings did. Neighbors would pay visits on one another regularly, the cotton trade brought numerous business guests, and steamboats along the vital Sassagoula accounted for a steady stream of visitors from across the country. The two roomy wings, both constructed with fine New England brick brought by steamboat down the Sassagoula, were added to accommodate the many friends and associates who called on the Colonel and his family over the years. It was finally completed around 1852."
Before long, a community of stately Southern mansions arose in this tranquil part of the Sassagoula, commonly called Magnolia Bend.
Buford Honeyworth III married Colonel J.C.'s daughter, Sarah, in 1853. With the Colonel's assistance Honeyworth founded the profitable Sassagoula Steamboat Company. The Colonel, having taken a true liking to the young entrepreneur and wanting to keep his lovely daughter nearby, offered the Honeyworths the prime parcel of land to build a mansion now known as the elegant Magnolia Terrace.
Tanner Franklin, descended from two of Louisiana's most prominent families, brought a tradition of honest government to the bayou, serving as Dixie Landings' first mayor and, later, as the area's first U.S. senator. Franklin amassed a vast fortune growing cotton in the fertile Louisiana heartland. His home, the strong and solid Oak Manor, reflects both his wealth and his sense of order in its brick pathways, its impressive courtyard and its awesome white columns.
Elizabeth "Betsy" Baron the wife of one of the richest men in Louisiana, Edward Baron, was horrified when she saw Magnolia Bend calling it "this forsaken swampland." To appease her, her husband gave her a free hand to build the family home. Using Port Orleans architect Gaston Poupon Jr., Elizabeth created Parterre Place a striking mansion combining Spanish wrought iron and a flowing French style. With its ornate trellis and stylish French roof, its stairways and spacious foyer, Parterre Place was every bit the reflection of Port Orleans society. It quickly became known for lavish parties, socials and soirees, and Betsy blossomed in her role as Dixie Landings' belle of the ball.
The story of Dixie Landings has a heartwarming happy ending with the reunion of two brothers.
Over the years, the Colonel had heard tall tales of the mysterious Old Man living on Old Man Island but dismissed them as legend. One day, his granddaughter, Susie, came running to him with a beautifully carved wooden bird in her hand. She told stories of the funny old man who gave it to her as a gift. Turning over the artistic treasure, he could barely make out the tiny letters carved into the base: "Everette Peace, 1857".
Immediately, the Colonel made his way out to the island loudly shouting his older brother's name.
"The two embraced with all the emotion of years gone by. Everette showed off his island and listened to news of the fine Port he'd left behind. The Colonel asked Everette to come across the river and live with him in Magnolia Bend.
Everette smiled but refused. He had no desire to leave the island that had so long been his home, and of course, the Colonel understood. The Colonel returned many nights to the island where the two would sit near a campfire and talk about what was and what the future might hold in store."
Amazingly, despite the length of this article, there is even more information behind Dixie Landings. The boat rental building was originally a Trading Post "where trappers from the bayou would barter, bicker and bargain." The bridges all have stories, as well. The Dixie Landings Bridge (between the docks and Old Man Island) opened in 1883 because of the danger in rowing across the river. Alligator Bayou Bridge (1883), the Arcadian Bridge (1884) and Oak Manor Bridge (1888) made travel between their respective points less troublesome as well as providing children safe access to the island to play.
Retired army officer, General George Fulton and his wife Amelia opened Fulton's General Store in 1855. The General only stocked the basic necessities with the slogan "No frills at Fulton," although he was known to give a free praline nougat to children. Amelia eventually took over the operation and added fine linens and lace, perfumes and toiletries and a selection of gourmet foodstuffs.
To supplement the General Store's modest profit margin, Amelia began selling refreshments to the gentlemen wheeling and dealing and meandering just outside the door. In 1857, this trade had become so successful that a second building, Cotton Co-op was built that allowed the General to share fanciful tales of his glory days as folks got a bit of rest and relaxation and a tasty bite to eat and a cool drink.
In 1877, Henri Le Marin moved his boat building company from Natchez to Dixie Landings and built the Boatwright Shop. (Boatwright means a builder of boats.) Its walls were adorned with the tools of trade and hanging from the rafters was the Louisiana Lugger, one of the flat bottom boats that the shop built.
"Henri went out of his way to lure Louisiana's most skilled artisans and craftsmen from up and down the big river to his shop. With his in-depth understanding of the bayou and their supreme talents, they soon developed an entirely new kind of flat-bottom boat ideally suited to the often shallow and difficult to navigate waters of the Sassagoula."
The Sassagoula Steamboat Company's pride and joy, the Dixie Queen riverboat, debuted in 1855. "[She] served honorably and well, traveling up and down the Sassagoula for 10 glorious years. In one of the worst storms ever recorded along the Sassagoula, the incomparable Queen was struck by lightning. In a spectacular blast of sparks and smoke, half the beautiful boat was ashes in minutes. Her days of service were not entirely over even then, though. The remaining half-Queen was pulled from the water and later purchased by one Monsieur Henri Le Marin who recycled her timbers to build a home for his relocated company, the now-famous Boatwright Shop."
All of this is fascinating stuff completely unknown today to guests and cast members (even those who work at the resort). This column is only a summary of some of the information created for Disney's Dixie Landings resort. In between the information on how to retrieve a voice mail message and where the ice vending machines were located and the hours the General Store was open, the guests in the opening years at Dixie Landings were also given an intricate, lengthy connected, pseudo-history of a world that "never was" accompanied by wood engravings and vintage photos.
Was the Disney Company right in believing that today most guests only want to know where the bus stop is? Or in those quiet exhausted evenings when a guest returned from a day at the parks, did any of them lay on their beds and page through the newspaper and smile a little and the next day look at their surroundings just a little differently?
Did any of them treasure these free little paper souvenirs as a memory of their visit? Or in this non-stop world of FastPasses and phone apps and more is there no longer time to enjoy a good story? Today, remnants of the tale of two brothers from a century and a half ago still remain waiting to be discovered by those who know the story.