By SAM HANNA
Staff Writer, Monroe Morning World April 21, 1957
NOTE: Sam Hannah, a native of Winnsboro and classmate of mine at LSU, is now (2004) owner and publisher of the Concordia Sentinel in Ferriday, and has kindly allowed the publishing of this story on the Madison Parish website. RPS email@example.com
PHOTOS (Recent photos by Joe Ulmer 2/26/2005)
(EDITOR'S NOTE: Many stories have been told and written of the fantastic life of Norman Frisby. An extensive amount of research went into preparation of this story in an effort to trace the "king's" life as he lived it. The writer checked records in five courthouses-Claiborne County, Miss., Tensas, Madison, Franklin and Concordia and was assisted by the Old Natchez District Historical Society and the AP at Richmond, Va., which provided additional information. Numerous old-timers provided the colorful legend, and to all those who had a hand in helping publish this account of Frisby, gratitude is expressed. We feel that those who have been fascinated through the years by the Old Brick House in Tensas Swamp will appreciate the detail.)
Empire of the swamplands? . . . castle in the woodlands?
Norman Frisby built it . . . Norman Frisby destroyed it.
He was a mortal man.
His was a dream to be king over a land raw with ideas and young with desires. His was an ambition to rise to great heights in a swamp that to this day defies conquest.
He bought thousands and thousands of acres rich in black soil, planted much of it in cotton and worked it with slaves, made his own brick, built a gin and began a brick mansion, straight-up, taller than the trees, a pinnacle over the surrounding countryside.
Over it he ruled; for it he lived; because of it he died.
Legend of the life of Norman Frisby as he lived it prior to the Civil War in Tensas Swamp today runs wilder than the swamp that has come back to claim what was once its own.
There are buried treasures and a hidden silver bell, and tales handed down from generation to generation left in the closet of making a rattling skeleton of the Southland.
Yet, as the father of seven minor children, he could have been a mild man, but one whose impatience drove him to be a tyrant in quest of success.
Regardless of his nature, however, fate and time did not ride with Norman Frisby, and a tragic death in a fight with an in-law brought to an end probably the most fantastic story ever lived in this part of the country.
They said he was building the largest cotton plantation in the South, a kingdom of 40,000 acres, and a plantation home unequalled, three-stories high with a view of the lights of Vicksburg in one direction and those of Natchez in another, resplendid with trimmings and furniture shipped by stream from Natchez.
He was so rich he buried his gold; so cruel he killed the slave that dug the hole, and the land he owned was so mysterious it swallowed the silver bell every time fortune-hunters came within sight. None of these tales have ever been proved.
The old-timers said it was a mystery where Frisby came from, but the records show that he crossed the Mississippi River from Claiborne County, Miss. and maneuvered through property sales until his huge Palo Alto estate began to grow in the corner of Tensas, spreading into Franklin and Madison.
He owned property in Claiborne County and had money - and access to more, either or both from a man named John E. Hall of Claiborne or his wife Anna - when he came; and there were those who thought and are some who still believe that he left treasure buried in the swamp.
Fresh-dug holes in the ruins are indicative that the spirit of Frisby is somewhat of a king even today -nearly 100 years after he died on the banks of Bayou Macon in Madison parish.
Frisby moved to Tensas in about 1855, six years after he bought his first property there. As a fast, shrewd opportunist, he purchased land through sheriff's sales and from several individuals, in one case buying a tract for $10 per acre and selling it shortly afterwards for $30 per acre.
It took him only 10 years to build the plantation, for property sales of Norman Frisby were numerous between 1850 and 1860. There is no way of determining just how many acres he did have. He owned a little over 19.000 at death, and probably sold that much before dying.
History told some that he planned to produce as much as 10,000 bales of cotton a year and raise enough food to make his plantation self - sufficient. It came down through the years of his making his own brick, but buying better in New Orleans, and of his bringing gin equipment from New Orleans, carried on a barge he built generated by the gin engine to navigate through the narrow Tensas River.
The chimney of his gin, entangled in vines and underbrush and surpassed by smothering trees, stands today as the den of an occasional squirrel.
One old-timer said, he knew a slave of Frisby's, who told of the unmerciful work and cruelty dealt them by the driving master. However, Frisby was said to have been as hard a worker as his slaves.
Frisby’s first move into Tensas was shown on November 18, 1849 when he and David, C. Griffing bought 1,158 acres from John E. Hall, Claiborne man with whom Frisby did much business.
Included in the sale were 31 slaves, ranging in age from 1 to 45, in names from Swean to David Redman. Both land and man cost the two $19,700.
His slaves dug dirt from the Tensas and built a levee around the mansion. Parts of the levee are still standing, and the river at one point runs into a sharp bluff where slaves a century ago took its bank.
Huge cypress trees were cut from a nearby brake and snaked through the woods and into the river, floating only a short distance to the site of the mansion. A scar was left on the bank. That too can be seen today.
There is no written detail of the house, but it was all brick, built on 10-foot tall pillars on a floor base 100 feet square. Buggies would have been run below the house. The interior was built of wood with furnishings from Natchez.
Port records are non-existent there, and only the story that Frisby said his home would be as good as any in the old country, and Natchez newspaper ads from 1850-1890, indicate the nature of his shipments into the swamp.
He could have bought great artists busts, "tops in their field," marble and stone masons, mantles "of the finest," steps, iron railings, chimney tops, window sills and door facings, "highgrade" shingles, blinds, paint and. varnishes, stained glass, door panels, and sashes for "steamboats, mansions and public buildings."
Importer and shipper H. M. Gastrell featured "lightning rods," a reflector against lightning. Would Frisby have been afraid and ordered one?
Possibly the silver bell was brought up from Natchez as a symbol of the supremacy of the empire, to be hanged from the top of the towering house, to be heard on still summer nights when Frisby would have sat in a top room and looked out over his darkened land below, looked to the lights of Vicksburg and Natchez, and listened to the spirituals of his harassed slaves.
'One man said he saw the bell, but explained that everytime he came within 30 yards of it, the swamp opened up and it sank below as though the land itself was Frisby's keeper. Another said he saw it once, but was never able to locate it again.
Superstitious, sure, but the scene of the remains of Frisby's mansion - known today as the Old Brick House - is much the same.
It's obscure from the world - 18 miles by river from one highway, a long walk through the swamp from another. Only the hunter and the fisherman visit there.
You climb the bluff from the river and walk a flat for about a hundred yards until it gradually comes into sight. It looks small at t first and hidden by the dense saplings.
Silent, standing alone in the dark backwoods country, 32 pillars, some only nubs, others intact with Frisby’s personal design mark the spot where the dream crumbled like the large heaps of brick piled in the center of the pillars where the house finally fell.
Vines have wrapped themselves around the pillars, and palmetto and plants are growing through the piles of brick, under which den uncountable snakes. Trees have sprung up, replacing the walls and spreading a roof of green. Little sunlight seeps through.
Except for the occasional song of a bird and signs of turkey and deer and the raccoon, the scene is empty of life - eerie in its remorse of yesteryear.
Quiet, silent, dead. Who walks there?
And then you get the feeling of not belonging. It seems to say “go away, leave him be."
But Norman Frisby was not the kind of man that is easily forgotten. It's hard to tell what possessed this man to shoot for a goal so far beyond that of those who surrounded him. However, it's easy to understand that a man that came so close to building a wonder left many enemies behind.
The Frisbys were a large family in Claiborne parish and from the number of property sales recorded there they were by no means poor. Yet the records fail to link their kin, and some could have possessed greater fortunes than their cousins.
Norman's brother, Thomas I. Frisby, was a lawyer in New Orleans. Another Frisby - Daniel W. - was shown to have sold a building Richmond, Va. So with Thomas being an educated man and Daniel owning property in Richmond, they could have originated there.
However, the Richmond court records, the Virginia State Library and the adjoining counties of Henrico and Chesterfield proved fruitless in producing data on Norman, Thomas and Daniel.
The Virginia records did uncover one Anne Frisby of Cecil County. Md., as the second wife of early Virginia Col. William Fitzhugh.
Nevertheless, the Frisbys of Mississippi and Louisiana stood well with men of respect and office. Brother Thomas bought 1, 571 acres for $29,375 from H. M. Hymas and Judah P. Benjamin, the latter of whom was none other than the attorney general of the Confederate States of America.
Thomas made the purchase in New Orleans for Norman. Sixteen days later on April 18, 1854, Norman himself bought another tract from the Attorney General and Hymas - this time 785 acres for $11,200.
While the batchelor Thomas was in New Orleans practicing law and possibly mingling with Benjamin in society, Daniel W. and Aaron Frisby were old enough to be setting $200 bonds - as was the practice then for their children to be married.
The marriage licenses in Claiborne go back to around 1843, but there was no record of Norman's betrothal to Anna Joe Chambliss.
At least it could be speculated of her young age, for she bore him seven children, a fact. proving that, Norman was not an old man at death. They couldn't have been married much over 20 years, and all their children were minors when Frisby died.
Norman had money, too, and paid $7,000 for 816 acres owned by Jesse 0. Runell, the date of the sale being recorded as Oct. 16, 1845. Three years later he bought 896 acres of the "Samuel Hill Tract" in Claiborne from John E. Hall. He made that purchase for $800, which points out a vast difference in the value of land.
Then by 1854 he and Anna bought the remainder of the "Samuel Hill Tract," for $6.000. They bought it from Samuel L. Chambliss. Could it have been that Sam Chambliss was Anna’s father? .
But the Frisbys were not alone as big land owners in Claiborne, for as they bought and sold, the Flowers family, at least one and perhaps two of them who were to play a predominant role in Frisby's doom to come, were spreading likewise.
Both the Frisbys and the Flowers can be traced from Mississippi through Madison and Tensas and finally into Franklin, buying and selling among themselves, back and forth between the two families.
So perhaps when Orlando H. Flowers, husband of Norman's sister, Gertrude, and Norman tangled on Nov. 24, 1864, a tension that had been building through the years had finally risen to a head.
It is doubtful that two men of such means would fight to one's death over a legendary stray mule.
There could have been any number of things and possibly a combination of all that would have caused pension between the two men.
Perhaps the succession of the old Frisby family arose, causing hard feelings between Norman and sister Gertrude and Orlando? Or perhaps the property sales were involved? And could it have been jealousy between the two?
All Tensas could have suspected that trouble was brewing on that summer day in 1855 when old Sheriff G. W. Williams posted a written notice at Waterproof, Kirk's ' Ferry and the Courthouse at St. Joseph announcing a Property sale of 140 acres evolving from a suit between Orlando and Elisha Flowers of Kentu'.
Orlando owed Elisha money and Norman stepped in to buy the property for $1108. And a strange thing happened three years later when Norman - acting unlike the crafty trader that he was--and wife Anna sold 120 acres to Orlando for only $175. Did Anna influence the sale?
A year later Norman sold R. A. Flowers a half interest in a "considerable amount" of property for $11,425. Ten days later "Flowers and Frisby" sold 914 acres for $70,565 in Madison parish with Norman collecting the money and Anna again "relinquishing her rights." Was trouble caused between Norman and R. A. because of that?
So the seed had been planted by 1860, about when Norman stopped purchasing land for his plantation and began the mansion.
But Frisby's dream was still a gamble, for he at this time had gone into tremendous debt.
Not all of his land purchases were made by cash. In fact, he probably owed as much as he had paid out. And there was the operation of the plantation and the cost of building the mansion.
Frisby a Driver
So it was no wonder that Frisby was a driver. He had a mountainous deficit to overcome and logically he suspected the sooner he put the empire on its feet the quicker his goal would be achieved.
Then what was life like on the plantation of Norman Frisby, his wife Anna and their one boy and six girls – Eugene, Matilda E., Alesta A., Emma, Ann E., Sallie and Mattie?
Was he building this kingdom for them? If so, what twist of irony brought about a business deal between man and wife? At death Norman owed Anna $25,530.
What had happened to David C. Griffing, the man with whom Frisby made his first purchase in Tensas?
Money was coming from several sources. He left this world owing John A. Stevenson $60,508.69, and his succession mentioned that there were "several creditors."
Law suits were a part of Anna's reasons for selling the plantation after his death. Frisby had reason to drive. He was in trouble. The king was making his last stand.
Some said he worked his slaves long hours in a vain attempt to capitalize off a climbing cotton market due to the Civil War.
It is at this point where the trial of Norman Frisby grows coldest. What was the man doing as news of advancing Union troops spread into the swamp?
He was said to have been building levees around the mansion to convert it into an island castle for protection against the Yanks. Later he was to have started West to build again, but met his death on the way.
Months previous to Frisby's death Port Gibson, Miss. fell to the Union army. Vicksburg followed in July before his death in November.
History proves that it was the control of the Mississipi River that brought Yankee troops down upon Vicksburg. But Frisby didn't know that, and perhaps he believed that they would eventually invade him deep in the Tensas Swamp.
But in face of his financial crisis, Norman Frisby did not pick up his slaves and flee to build another empire. His fight was in Tensas, and had he run from it, defeat would have been his for life. He had gone too far to quit.
Desperate in debt, tired by the long siege of work and nervous with the nearby war, Norman Frisby by now was a dangerous man. His back was to the wall of the swamp, which itself had fought him for nearly 10 years.
There are no records of his death. The war was on, and if there had been an inquest, there were no courts to try the case.
Therefore, the details of the death are numerous in accounts provided by a past generation. Even though not one has ever been proved legally, it's common knowledge in the swamp that Frisby did not survive a fight with his brother-in-law, Orlando H. Flowers.
Assuming that Frisby was not leaving Tensas, the most logical account sent Flowers and his men and stock past the Frisby mansion on their way to join the Confederates in Texas.
Filing past Frisby's home, a mule joined the Flowers ranks and could not be discouraged into returning home. And it was because of this mule that the men finally clashed on the banks of the Macon.
His lion head bent forward against the neck of the big bay horse, Frisby swirled into the center of the Flowers clan at a ferry landing on the bayou. Imagine it. There were few words said, and the battle was on.
Frisby was to have pulled a riding quirt, lashing Flowers down. Eventually both were on the ground. A knife was pulled. Norman Frisby did not ride back home conqueror of another foe.
Someone had to bring the body home. Anna emerged from the house, the smaller children gathering around. Work stopped at the mansion. The slavemen trembled. The "old marster" was dead.
For more information on Frisby’s death see More on the Death of Norman Frisby.
And, oh don't you know that night the wind blew and the silver bell rang as the spirit of Frisby walked moaning through the swamplands.
The mansion in the swamp had gone up like a puff.
Anna ran the plantation for seven years after Frisby was buried. She fought a flood and law suits, and it was difficult keeping labor, for the slaves disappeared into the swamp.
Even at that she made $77,176.80 off crops before selling on Sept. 23, 1870.
There were 19,479 acres remaining in the plantation, which was inventoried for a net worth of $199,240.60. The land itself was worth $193,700. It sold for $37,987.70.
Its "affairs" were "much involved'' with debts and law suits. The sale relieved Anna of the obligations of the plantation and brought her $29,303.07 - just $4, 000 over what Norman owed her.
The attorneys received $7,500 and John A. Stevenson, the man whom Frisby owed about $60,000, took the gin, valued at $5,492.50. Stevenson also bought half of the plantation.
Samuel A. Thompson bought a fourth, and L. V. Reeves and B. C. Fanar bought an eighth each.
The children got nothing.
So Anna took them and left. The mansion, almost complete, but lacking a roof, was abandoned never to be lived in, to be ravaged by pilferers, used as a camping site, its interior ripped out for fire wood to be left for today.
Even as late as 1898, land that was to have belonged to Frisby was sold through sheriff's sales because of unpaid taxes. Some of the sales were unqualified, however, for the records show that much of the land sold by the sheriff had been purchased after Frisby was dead.
No doubt the Frisbys continued to live as they had before Norman died. Orlando and Gertrude stayed together. Daniel W. was still in money, giving a tract of land in Franklin to a woman because of "good feeling, respect and esteem." Another Frisby couldn't support his own child.
The lands of the plantation changed hands with the years, and most of it is owned today by a commercial lumber company. The site on which the Brick House stands belongs to the Ruston Fishing Club, Inc.
It seems only fitting today that; Norman Frisby would have come from Mississippi into old Tensas.
The dome of the courthouse at Port Gibson is silver with the sun in the morning, and both white
and colored gather around the center of the county's affairs. A hound sleeps beneath the statue of a Confederate general dedicated to the county sons who served in the war of 1861-1865. The plink of what sounds like a blacksmith is heard in the background.
Across the river, Tensas is equally as old, but young as the days of Norman Frisby in romantic dreams - gray in swamps, purple in wild verbena, green in sprouts of spring.
Even the tattered and yellow records that bring Frisby alive are poetic – “To have and to hold the said sands and slaves into said Griffing and Frisby forever free from the claim or claims of all and every person or persons whomsoever lawfully claiming or to claim the same."
But the life of Norman Frisby, is more than a rich history of the south and the amazing legend of one man's dreams. There were others before him and those who followed him.
Norman Frisby's was a story of the passions of man.
The type castle he built has never withstood the storms of time.
For more on the Frisby House see The Legendary Norman Frisby and his Tensas Parish Empire.
Black & White Newspaper Photos from 1957 Hanna Article
Frisby House in 1908 taken by William Snyder – Courtesy of Joe Ullmer
Photo of Frisby Chimney Courtesy of Joe Ulmer
Photos of Frisby ruins taken by Joe Ulmer 2/26/2005