1. March 2013 02:38
One of the most interesting cities I encountered during my December tour of the South was Natchitoches (pronounced NACK-a-tish), located in western Louisiana. Guiding my two-day visit here was Markita Hamilton, communications director for the Natchitoches Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, whose family has lived here for generations.
This charming community, the first permanent European settlement in what we now know as the Louisiana Purchase, was founded in 1714 by Louis Juchereau de St. Denis to facilitate trade with the Spanish in Mexico. Needless to say, big plans are currently being developed for the city’s Tricentennial Celebration in 2014.
Furthermore, in addition to exploring the area’s wealth of historic sites and homes (including Cane River Creole National Historical Park) during the daytime, the 86th Annual Christmas Festival of Lights provided me with the opportunity for some additional evening photography.
Situated along the banks of the Cane River, Natchitoches’ National Historic Landmark District includes 33 blocks of magnificent historic homes. I was fortunate to dine here on local specialties at both Lasyone’s Meat Pie Kitchen and the Merci Beaucoup Restaurant. In fact, the National Trust for Historic Preservation has included Natchitoches in its list of the “Top 10 Most Romantic Downtowns” in the country. Surprisingly enough, however, the strikingly modern new home of the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame, currently nearing completion at the north end of the downtown area and promising another “plus” for potential visitors, is architecturally somewhat incongruent with its surroundings.
Markita also took me out to splendid Melrose Plantation, which dates back to 1796. In addition to the plantation’s well-preserved historic structures, Melrose is the home of numerous fascinating paintings and murals created by renowned folk artist Clementine Hunter, who painted here while employed as a domestic servant. Coupling its history with the region’s vibrant Creole culture, Natchitoches’ is highly recommended as a true “off the beaten track” treasure. Groups planning to patronize the nearby Shreveport-Bossier City casinos are advised to add at least a day trip here in order to create a more fully satisfying, diversified travel experience for their members, while a more extended stay is virtually self-recommending for those more historically and culturally inclined.
Lunch time at Lasyone's Meat Pie Kitchen
Christmas Festival of Lights on the Cane River
8. January 2013 22:50
Although one might associate many national parks with the arrival of icy roads and mountain snows in December, there are many Southern parks that are still suitable for a late-year group visit. Just south of Natchitoches, Louisiana, is Cane River Creole National Historical Park, which protects two great cotton plantations: Magnolia and Oakland.
In 1753, Jean Baptiste LeComte obtained the land grant that became Magnolia Plantation, while in 1789, Jean Pierre Emmanuel Prud’homme also received a land grant which became the core of Bermuda Plantation, later renamed Oakland. Even though well-managed plantations like Magnolia and Oakland survived the war, low prices, boll weevils, and the departure of former slaves from the region brought hard times.
Although World War I initially increased cotton demand, it wasn’t long before depressed prices and lean times returned. And as modernization and mechanization increased, from the 1930s to the 1960s, many plantations like Magnolia and Oakland were gradually abandoned. Nevertheless, descendants of families and workers who have farmed the region for over two centuries have been able to successfully adapt to social, agricultural and economic change, carrying on many traditions and an enduring Creole culture into the 21st century.
Today, visitors to the two plantations can explore a varied collection of carriage houses, overseer’s houses, slave quarters, plantation stores, a doctor’s cottage, and other facilities, including the country’s last remaining mule-powered cotton press. The main house at Oakland, fully furnished with period and some original pieces, is open for guided tours, while the main house at Magnolia, burned during the Civil War, was rebuilt in 1896 and is still in private ownership outside the park boundary. There is no charge for admission to either park site.
Oakland Plantation - Counter and shelves in Plantation Store
Magnolia Plantation - Old steam-powered cotton press
Magnolia Plantation - Slave/tenant quarters