Antebellum homes on Aberdeen pilgrimage tour

By Ginna Parsons/NEMS Daily Journal

For some, a starter home means a two-bedroom, one-bath cottage in an up-and-coming neighborhood.
For Rebecca and John McCown, a starter home means a 5,500-square-foot mansion in downtown Aberdeen called Sunset Hill.
“John was an Air Force dentist and we lived all over the world, largely in apartments,” Rebecca said. “This is the first house we’ve ever owned.”
Sunset Hill, also known as The Reuben Davis House, is one of nine on tour during Aberdeen’s annual pilgrimage April 5-7. The weekend’s events include a tasting luncheon and gospel concert; carriage rides; a crawfish boil; a turn-of-the-century formal dinner; an antique and classic car show; a pancake breakfast; a barbecue; a cemetery tour; and storytelling.
Some events are free, including tours of Bella Vida, a Second Empire-style home built in 1879 that’s currently being renovated. Tickets for tours of the other homes range from $10 to $45, depending on how many homes you want to see. Tickets are available online at or at Aberdeen Antiques, Bird’s Nest and Victoriana Rose. No tickets will be sold at any of the houses.
Sunset Hill will be open for tours April 5 from 1 to 4 p.m. and again from 9 a.m. to noon on April 6. This is the first time the home has been on the pilgrimage tour in more than 16 years.
History of the Home
John Harris built Sunset Hill around 1847 as a cottage. A wealthy cotton farmer, William Cunningham, bought the property from Harris in 1853 and made extensive renovations, including adding the Greek Revival columns on the front. After the Civil War, it was purchased by historian Reuben Davis, who lived there until his death in 1890.
The home would eventually have 14 more owners before the McCowns purchased it in 1997.
“We came back to the states from Turkey and were stationed in Columbus,” said Rebecca, a Bay St. Louis native. “We wanted an old home to redo. We were very interested in history – all kinds of history. We looked at towns of 5,000 to 6,000 people just about everywhere in the state.”
Once the couple visited Aberdeen, they didn’t need to look anywhere else.
“Aberdeen just had an old South flair to it we didn’t find in other towns,” John said.
The first thing the McCowns did was begin work on the home’s infrastructure, such as the plumbing and the wiring.
“We worked closely with a structural engineer out of Tupelo when we first bought it,” John said. “He told us what to fix and what to leave alone.”
The more work the couple did, the more the house became theirs, Rebecca said.
“Above all, we wanted to maintain historical accuracy, while still making updates that made it livable,” she said. “We tried to save as much as we could, even if you couldn’t see it. In this house, nothing is square, nothing is plumb. You really have to think out of the box.”
All the floors in the home are heart pine, even ones that were replaced.
“We bought some flooring from an old carpenter who salvaged it,” John said “There’s actually flooring in one room that’s 200 years old – older than the house itself.”
The layout
When you come in the front door, you enter into a large foyer with walls covered in Chinoiserie wallpaper. A Kimball piano that belonged to Mrs. Reuben Davis sits against one wall. Parlors filled with antiques flank the foyer.
The dining room holds a large table the McCowns had made when they lived in England, and one of 10 fireplaces in the house.
The kitchen is off the dining room and next to the kitchen is the library, one of the McCowns’ favorite rooms in the house.
“It’s been totally redone,” Rebecca said. “It had dated wallpaper and the trim was blue. It had a real Early American look to it.”
The second floor has four bedrooms that open into a large sitting area where guests can gather for morning coffee or cool drinks in the evening.
“Eventually, we might turn this into a bed and breakfast,” Rebecca said.
There are three bathrooms upstairs and one downstairs and the couple did extensive work on them to bring them up to date.
“In one bathroom, there was tile and then linoleum and then carpet,” she said. “There was stuff flying everywhere as we tried to get to the original floor. We did a lot of research on what a bathroom would have looked like in the 1930s, because when the house was built, there would have been no bathrooms in it.”
The McCowns are happy to open their home to visitors during pilgrimage for the first time since they purchased it 16 years ago. It’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places and was designated a Mississippi Landmark by the Department of Archives and History.
“We love to share it with people,” Rebecca said. “We don’t want people to feel like it’s untouchable We have antiques, but it’s also comfortable. I mean, we get excited about our new toilets with the self-closing lids. It doesn’t get more down-home than that.”

Aberdeen Pilgrimage
WHAT: 38th Annual Southern Heritage Pilgrimage.
WHEN: April 5-7 in Aberdeen.
TIMES: Different houses will be on tour on the different days. On April 5, The Old Homestead and The Harrison-Phelan House will be open from 9
a.m. to noon; Sunset Hill, Dunlee and Neville Place will be open from 1 to 4 p.m. On April 6, The Adams-French House, Sunset Hill, The Gregg-Hamilton House and The Old Homestead will be open from 9 a.m. to noon; The Adams-French House, The Gregg-Hamilton House and Holliday Haven will be open from 1 to 4 p.m.; Neville Place and The Harrison-Phelan House will be open from 2 to 5 p.m. On April 7, The Magnolias, Holliday Haven and Dunlee will be open from 2 to 5 p.m.
COST: Tickets are available online at or at
Aberdeen Antiques, Bird’s Nest and Victoriana Rose. Prices range from
$10 for one home up to $45 for all nine homes (ticket prices for three
homes and up are less if ordered online). No tickets will be sold at the door.
MORE INFO: Call (662) 369-9440 or (800) 634-3538 or visit

Click video to hear audio