BAY ST. LOUIS, Miss. (AP) — Some folks called him the Coca-Cola man. But the people who explored the remnants of his Bay St. Louis home on the shores of Jourdan River had probably only heard the rumors or stories about him.
Dick Thomson was dead before Hurricane Katrina hit, and portions his marvelous home withstood the storm's wrath. But in the years that followed, curious people wandered the grounds.
Some stripped the home of valuable items, picking it clean. Others just took photos and marveled at what the property and the home might have looked it in its heyday. It's been called many things over the years — a farm, a plantation, a ranch and a mansion.
But it's gone now.
The home, the guest house and other buildings that once stood have been leveled — except for a brick chimney. The property is hidden in plain sight. A long, tree-lined driveway leads visitors through Spanish moss to the water's edge. Police officers now patrol the property to run off trespassers.
People have their own opinions and share folklore about the Coca-Cola mansion, but the history of the property is much harder to find.
The Sun Herald archives and interviews conducted with people with reported ties to the property offer a partial account of the Coca-Cola man's dream home.
Who was Dick Thomson?
To understand the home, you must first know something about the man. Richard "Dick" Spotswood Thomson made his fortune off the storied Hattiesburg Coca-Cola Bottling Company.
For 86 years and through two World Wars, his family ran the company, according to the company's history.
Thomson graduated from Vanderbilt University before joining the Marine Corps. He was honorably discharged as a captain. Aside from owning the Coke operation, Thomson was a major player in the state's Republican party. He was appointed as a district director for the 1970 U.S. Census. He was also one of Mississippi's delegates to the 1980 Republican National Convention, according to Sun Herald archives.
Thomson, a man with Coca-cola money and some sway, built a dream home along the banks of the Jourdan River, hidden by acres of sprawling land and giant trees.
And what a home it was.
The house in its glory days
John Bolian, then of JB Design-Build in Bay St. Louis, said he and his company built Thomson's home back nearly four decades ago, but he's a little fuzzy on the timeline.
Bolian, now 77, said it was built some time after Hurricane Camille but before Hurricane Katrina. His records from the era were destroyed by Katrina, but he remembers a few things about the iconic place and Thomson.
Michael Bolian, John Bolian's son, told the Sun Herald the mansion was built in the 1990s. Michael Bolian said he worked on the main house with his father in the summer of 1995 or 1996.
John Bolian said that the Cazaubon family owned the property before the Coca-Cola executive bought it.
John Bolian first worked for Thomson to repair a log cabin on the property that had been damaged by termites. Soon after, Thomson asked John Bolian to build a guest home and the main, larger home. A caretaker's home also sat on the property.
The mansion was built on the land from the ground up, and it took about two years to finish. It was Thomson's primary residence. The late Bay St. Louis architect Fred Wagner designed the home, John Bolian said.
The three-floor home had about 17,000 square feet of living space. There were four bedrooms and four bathrooms. Wallpaper covered all the walls, and the floors were made of old pine boards.
Other features at the home and on the property included a boat dock, a semi-circular pine stairway, a four-car garage, a cypress-walled library, a massive kitchen, formal living and dining rooms, and oriental rugs that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
"It was as fine a house as they had on the Coast," John Bolian said. "Nothing around here compared to that."
About 100 Longhorn cattle and 25 horses lived on the property, John Bolian said.
Thomson's prized possession was his yacht, "Christina." The vessel, measuring about 127 feet, was purchased second-hand for about $6 million. It was kept in the Jourdan River, and Thomson would take the yacht to a home in the Bahamas. He even had a full-time, six-person crew working on the watercraft.
"He was big into boats," Bolian said. "It was a classy boat."
Thomson's death and the property's current state
Thomson died inside his beloved home in 2003. The first floor flooded in Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
"The second floor had no damage. The water didn't get that high," Bolian said. "The ground floor was mainly water damage when I went in there. The house was totally salvageable."
Kathleen Johnson, a Waveland resident who came to the Coast to work recovery after Katrina, said the property was breathtaking, even in the storm's aftermath.
She visited the home three times. She lived close to the home and walked through the woods to get onto the property.
Her first visit came after Katrina. She went in again in 2007, and she said "scavengers" were already tearing the home apart. On her third and final visit in 2009, she found an antique military hat upstairs and she took it with her.
"That place just fascinated me," she said.
Thomson's daughter Susan called John Bolian, the older builder, and asked him to fix up the home after Katrina. But the family eventually sold the home as is, he said.
Gulf Coast Waterfront Investments, LLC purchased the property from the family, and they still own it. Plans to build condos and boat slips were in the works. The plans were first mentioned in 2007, and the Mississippi Commission on Marine Resources approved a motion to allow the development in 2011, according to Sun Herald archives.
But, In the years after Katrina, the home sat empty and many fascinated folks explored its old grounds. Some took things of value. Others just used it as a place to take pictures. Campers sat up tents in the area, too. From 2013 to 2016, three fires were set on or near the property.
Fires destroyed both the main and guest houses, said Kenny Allison, a managing member of Gulf Coast Waterfront Investments. All that remains there now is a lone brick chimney.
Nothing came of the condo plan then. Allison blamed the economy, and said the group hopes to develop condos on the property in the next couple of years.
Until then, it remains as is. And if you drive on the narrow concrete paths that divide the property, you're likely to run into a Bay St. Louis police officer who wants to know why you're on the land that once belonged to the Coca-Cola man.
Information from: The Sun Herald, http://www.sunherald.com