Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Historic Natchitoches and Cane River Creole NHP

We left Betty's and headed north to Natchitoches (Nack-a-tish), which was established in 1714 making it the oldest city in Louisiana.  It was a major trading center with a blend of French, Spanish, African, American, Indian and Creole cultures.  More recently it has become famous as the site of the filming of the movie Steel Magnolias that was written by Robert Harding.  The movie made Natchitoches a must see destination.
The Steel Magnolia House was one of several used in the movie and is now a B & B.  There is a complete tour of seventeen sites in the area that were used in the movie. 
Natchitoches is located on Red River which was called the Cane River in this area.  It was the main channel of the Red River when the town was founded as the northernmost navigable port.  In 1838 riverboat captain Henry Shreve removed the "Great Raft" of trees and debris to open the river to the Texas border.  After the debris was removed the river changed course leaving the city off the main channel.  Today Cane River Lake is a 35 mile oxbow lake that has no access to the Red River.   
Front Street along the lake has many old French style buildings with wrought iron balconies and railings.  One of the most interesting stores, for a guy, was Kaffie Frederick General Mercantile, the oldest general store in the state.  I needed a new fittings to deal with a leak in our water filter and they had everything, including helpful advice, that I needed to fix it. 
The Prud'hommes-Rouquier House, circa 1790 is one of the largest examples of Bousillage style buildings in the nations. 
Nanc in the Beau Jardin Garden, a beautiful area along the river that is the setting for weddings and other outdoor events.
The Rouque House, an excellent example of French Creole architecture, dates back to 1803.  It was built 22 miles south of town by a freed slave named Yves.  It was moved to this site in 1967.
The Cane River Creole National Historical Park includes the land of two plantations, Oakland and Magnolia, that date back to the 1700's.  They were originally part of one large plantation, Bermuda, and the land was in the Prud'homme family for eight generations.  Before the Civil War the plantations thrived using slave labor to grow tobacco, indigo and then cotton.  After the war many former slaves became sharecroppers, a situation that was just one step above slavery.  This is the main house at Oakland. 
The cooler air under the oaks was used to cool the house on hot summer days.  The bottle garden used old bottles to separate the flower beds. 
The pigeonnier housed birds that were harvested for squab.  The homes of the slaves and sharecroppers that were inhabited into the 1970's are now all in ruins.
The store was also the post office and was the main source of supplies for the tenants until it closed in 1983.  Most of the land for both plantations became part of the national park system in 1994.
The carpenter shop and mule barn.  I always have mixed feelings when visiting places like this where people obtained their wealth using the free labor of slaves and sharecroppers who were treated so poorly.  That said it is important that these places are preserved to not only show what is great about our country, but also the terrible aspects of our history. 
We were heading to Magnolia Plantation, the other part of the national historical site, but turned around when we say these threatening clouds.  At one point a funnel was forming under that big cloud so we were out of there.
One more stop in Natchitoches is the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame and Northwest Louisiana History Museum.  The museum is housed in a new building that was named the top architecture project in the world in 2013.  The exterior has shutters like many Louisiana houses and the walls have earth toned lines like a plowed field.  The interior walls are concrete panels that meander through the building like the Cane River meanders through the surrounding land. 
While we don't have close ties to Louisiana sports figures, we did find a few with PA connections.  Left is LSU basketball player Pistol Pete Maravich who was born in Western PA.  The other three are Mel Blount, Alan Faneca and Terry Bradshaw who everyone in Steeler Nation will recognize.  The hall of fame is worth a visit even if you don't have close ties to Louisiana.
There was a very neat exhibit in the museum part of the building that showed the work of Clementine Hunter, a folk artist who did most of her painting at nearby Melrose Plantation.  For many years she worked in the fields of the plantation and did not begin to paint until she was in her fifties.  She painted until just weeks before her death at 100 in 1988.  These are three murals she painted in 1955 for the African House on Melrose Plantation depicting the life of the people of the Cane River area.    She received an honorary degree as a Doctor of Fine Arts from Northwestern State University.
She rarely named her paintings which sold for as little as $.25 in her early years.  As she became more famous her works sold for thousands.  Her art is not only very neat for its colors, it offers an historical look into the lives of the local people.
Natchitoches is a neat town with many historical buildings that is well worth a visit.