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COLUMBUS, Miss. — Once a year on certain spring evenings they appear, arising out of the darkness of their resting places at historic Friendship Cemetery in Columbus, Mississippi.

They come to tell you their stories. The real stories.

A slave girl tells you of learning to read. A wife of a Methodist theologian bears witness to the founding of universities across the South. A 19th century newspaper editor explains how he beat the clock in a pell-mell effort to publish. A Secretary of Health tells of being felled by a clock, literally, killed when the weights of the courthouse clock dropped on him.

On certain spring evenings in Columbus, Mississippi, fact isn’t stranger than fiction, it’s just richer, in the real-life characters conjured in real-life form by costumed student performers during “Tales from the Crypt,” part of Columbus’ annual Spring Pilgrimage.

That same richness also applies to Pilgrimage itself, the city’s annual two-week celebration of Southern history and culture. What began 72 years ago as a historic homes tour has grown into a vibrant city-wide panorama mixing fact and fun in an irresistible blend of festivities that include horse-drawn carriage rides, concerts, a barbecue cook-off and a 5K race. “Tales from the Crypt” originated twenty years ago as a high school research project, garnering numerous awards over the years, including a finalist designation in the History Channel’s 2006 Save Our History classroom competition.

This year’s 73rd annual Spring Pilgrimage will also celebrate the grand opening of the Josh Meador Trail, marking points of interest in the life of the Academy Award-winning Disney animator who grew up in Columbus. It was Meador’s animating genius that brought the Disney characters to life and made Disney stories dramatically real by creating effects like the rising waters of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and the awe-inspiring night scene of Fantasia’s Baldor Mountain.

Of course, when it comes to inspiring awe, Columbus’ grand historic houses are still the stars of Pilgrimage. Restored and preserved to the last beautifully authentic detail, the homes immerse visitors in fascinating history, with costumed volunteers sharing knowledge and narratives of the past. At Ole Magnolia, for example, the elegant antebellum mansion was enlarged by a later owner, a city mayor who added new rooms and a secret compartment in the master bedroom where he could hide liquor from his tee-totaling wife.

And while compelling characters and beautiful homes are the headliners of the festival, it’s the character of Columbus that makes Pilgrimage a memorable event for many, notes Nancy Carpenter, Director of the Columbus Convention and Visitors Bureau. Residents have coalesced around Pilgrimage, supporting and volunteering in the hundreds. “They’re really delighted to have visitors and to be able to share our historic past,” Carpenter says.

So about that warm Southern hospitality? Like those stories and the other terrific activities of Spring Pilgrimage, it’s the real deal, too.

A complete schedule of events, tickets and more information are available at the Columbus Convention and Visitors Bureau, telephone 800-920-3533 or 662-329-1191, or on the web go to www.columbus-ms.org

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