The Rainwater Observatory and Planetarium in French Camp sits on the site of an old trading post and inn, offering visitors both a trip forward into space and a trip back to the early days of the Natchez Trace.
When Louis LeFleur established a trading post and inn on the Natchez Trace in 1810, he most likely watched the stars at night. There probably wasn’t much else to do in a dark, wooded area, and without the technology we have today, ol’ Louis surely relied on the stars as a navigational device.
Today’s stargazers have it a lot easier. Those who are serious about studying the stars travel from all over the state to go to French Camp, the very settlement where Louis LeFleur started his trading post. They go there because of the Rainwater Observatory and Planetarium.
The Choctaws called the settlement The Frenchman’s Camp, which later became shortened to French Camp. Presbyterian missionaries established a school for girls at the settlement in 1885, named the Mississippi Institute for Girls. The school was so successful that a school for boys, called French Camp Academy, was established the same year.
The girls’ school was destroyed by fire in 1915, leading to the two schools combined into one. In 1950, French Camp Academy was reorganized under the direction of an interdenominational board of trustees. As vibrant as ever, there are now 170 students boarded at the Christ-centered home and school. The town of French Camp is a 900-acre community located 90 miles north of Jackson, and sixty miles south of Tupelo. The town has a population of 175, which includes many FCA graduates as well as staff members at the school.
One of the ways the school is supported is through proceeds from the Historic Village, where visitors can travel back in time to experience what life was like in the 1800s. It is a glimpse into the days of the early Natchez Trace, when the fantastically rich walked alongside the tragically poor on the rutted roadway that ran between Natchez and Nashville, two of the larger cities in the South.
The Village features a bed and breakfast, where many stargazers stay when visiting the observatory. After finding so much to explore, a comfortable bed at night is welcomed. The main bed and breakfast opened to visitors in 1986. It offers accommodations for up to eight people in one of two log cabins that were built between 1840 and 1870. The cabins were moved from Eupora, Mississippi to French Camp in 1986 and placed side by side, joined together with an addition to match the period architecture. Each of the four rooms has a private bath. There are plenty of places to unwind, including the spacious family room on the first floor and balcony sitting area upstairs. A front deck is perfect for chatting and relaxing.
A second cottage opened in 1990. The Bed and Breakfast Junior is constructed of wood from several 1800s structures. It sleeps up to six people. The Burford Cabin was moved to French Camp from West Point, Mississippi. The 1800s dogtrot cabin is handicapped-accessible and sleeps up to four people. The newest addition to the inn is the Carriage House, which sleeps up to six people. Built on the site of an 1800s cabin, the Carriage House features the original fireplace.
The Council House Café was added in 2019. Owned and operated by FCA, the restaurant is styled in a rustic French country décor. A large outdoor deck allows diners to enjoy meals al fresco in front of a large fireplace. The restaurant offers generous-sized sandwiches, homemade soups and bread, and salads. Don’t forget dessert. Both Mississippi Mud Cake and bread pudding are on the menu. Profits from the restaurant fund scholarships for students. The restaurant also provides a valuable training opportunity for students.
The Children of God Pottery Studio opened in 2011 in the historic Post Office building in French Camp. Students learn all the steps of making pottery and sell their pieces in the Log Cabin Gift Shop. The gift shop features arts, crafts, jams, and jellies hand made by students and local artisans. Demonstrations are also held in the gift shop, which is an outreach ministry with profits supporting the school’s programs and ministry.
The Rainwater Observatory is an educational ministry of French Camp. The facility is a one-of-a-kind window to the splendors of the universe. Astronomy-related programming is designed for a variety of different groups and organizations. As many as two hundred groups utilize the facility each year. A campsite is available on site. Indoor exhibits include an impressive meteorite collection, and outdoors is a large-scale solar system model and a solstice-equinox alignment exhibit.