As 2014 draws to a close, so do the events of the Natchitoches Tricentennial, honoring the first Louisiana city to reach that milestone of seniority. Louisiana Life began the year with a visit to State Parks’ wondrous replica of the city’s birthplace, Fort St. Jean Baptiste, and there’s no better way to end it than with a tour of the National Historic Landmark District in town and a drive through the Cane River National Heritage Area – essentially the entire length of Cane River, encompassing Melrose Plantation (owned by the Association for the Preservation of Historic Natchitoches), two tour routes (the Cane River National Heritage Trail and Isle Brevelle Trail), and the Cane River Creole National Historical Park (two units: Oakland and Magnolia Plantations).
After Nov. 22, by the way, a tour would coincide with the city’s six weeks of Christmas lighting, which means special Christmas home tours plus bands and Natchitoches Meat Pies on the riverfront. For a calendar of events contact the Visitors Bureau at (800) 259-1714 or natchitoches300.com. The Visitor Center at 780 Front St. sells a $5 (but priceless) guidebook titled Cane River Heritage Trail Scenic Byway, created by Cane River National Heritage Area, Inc., a partnership of individuals and agencies that supports the entire National Heritage Area.
A good starting point for a river tour is the National Fish Hatchery at 615 South Dr. (La. 1), with its diorama of the 18th-century Natchitoches Indian encampment that once sprawled across the Hatchery site, beside the 35-mile “south fork” of Red River that’s now Cane River Lake (traditionally just “Cane River” because, shhhh, it thinks it’s still a river). When Louis Juchereau de St. Denis visited in 1714, already friendly with that tribe of the Caddo Nation, he established a small military post next to the village – an irresistible spot for military and commercial purposes, for Indians and French alike: at the river’s intersection with an ancient east-west trace dubbed a Royal Road (Camino Real) by the Spanish. He soon hit that trail on a two-year trade mission to Mexico, but his post survived. Over the next three centuries it would grow into a fort, settlement and city, and the intersecting camino and river road would be named National Heritage Trails.
From La. 1 take La. 494/119 south to the first bridge, which begins a 5-mile cluster of important west-bank homes (all private): Oaklawn, the mansion built and oak alley planted in the 1830s (home of Steel Magnolias playwright Robert Harling), 1839 Cherokee (a slender-columned beauty in the “Louisiana Colonial style”), Hope Plantation (facing the river), a simplicity-is-elegance raised cottage named Cedar Bend, and Beau Fort, built about 1800.
Another mile brings the National Park’s Oakland Plantation, first named Bermuda and born as a 1789 Spanish land grant to Jean-Pierre Emanuel Prudhomme. His manor, completed in 1821 of hand-hewn beams and bousillage walls (mud-and-moss), sports a de rigueur hip roof and great surrounding gallery (some sections understandably enclosed over these 193 years to house an indoor kitchen and such). In 1797 he introduced cotton to the river, which remained the primary crop as Bermuda passed to his son and then to his grandsons, with Jacques Alphonse Prudhomme receiving the big house and west-bank property (renaming it Oakland) while brother Pierre Emanuel received the east-bank lands and built the home called Atahoe (private).
Site maps at Oakland’s entry pavilion steer visitors to clusters of frozen-in-time outbuildings, each deserving a stop to appreciate the art of its construction. As beautiful as the joinery of fine furniture, the no-nail assembly of the carriage house, carpentry shop, corncrib, coops and barn is a pleasure to behold. The home holds the collections of many lifetimes, including family photographs like the one of team captain Edward Prudhomme and his 1889 Notre Dame football squad.
Below Oakland follow the “Isle Brevelle Trail” by taking west-bank 484. The “isle” lies between the Cane and Bayou Brevelle, for 200 years a community of Creoles de couleur, progeny of a French planter named Claude Metoyer and a slave christened Marie Therese but remembered as Coincoin (Kwahn-Kwahn). Once freed she and three sons became plantation owners themselves (including Augustin and Louis Metoyer who donated land and labor for the 1829 St. Augustine Church), and to this day the community remains a place of strong family ties, agriculture, ancient recipes and hearty banquets to mark, it seems, every holiday, birthday and anniversary.
From Oakland it’s 2 miles to the high and handsome Carroll Jones House (1815, private), 3 more to a typical Isle Brevelle Creole cottage called the Jones-Roque House (1845, private) and a mile farther to the 1820s Badin-Roque House, an ultra-rare poteaux-en-terre house (a dirt-floor structure with support posts set into the ground). The St. Augustine Historical Society maintains the relic, which will be open for tours and good food on Parish Open House Day, Nov. 8.
Portrait on a plate
Photo by Francois Mignon
Facing 484 just below the intersection of 493, the present St. Augustine Church (1916) remains the center and heartbeat of Isle Brevelle, and there in a side corridor hangs the restored 1836 portrait of Augustin Metoyer, slashed by a saber in 1864, protected at Melrose for years and purchased for the community when Melrose and its contents were auctioned in 1970.
The story of Melrose, its entrance on La. 493 across the bridge from the church, involves a mix of personalities, beginning with Louis Metoyer who acquired the land in 1796 and built the first structures in the 1810s – Yucca, African House and Ghana House (named years later in the belief that they bore African architectural details). The big house was completed in 1833.
Like his brothers and mother, Louis became wealthy, but economic downturns brought changes and by 1899 ownership had passed to John Hampton Henry. His wife Cammie Garrett Henry restored the structures of Melrose, added the manor’s distinctive garconnieres, then used the buildings as a retreat for writers and artists. Guests included artist/naturalist Caroline Dormon (Wildflowers of Louisiana, etc.), artist Alberta Kinsey of the New Orleans Arts and Crafts Club, short story writer Ada Jack Carver and Lyle Saxon (head of Louisiana’s WPA Writers Program and author of bestselling Louisiana nonfiction) who borrowed the name Yucca for the fictional plantation in his only novel, Children of Strangers (Houghton-Mifflin, 1937).
Then there was Francois Mignon, a Frenchman from the Sorbonne who visited for two weeks but, with failing vision, remained for 32 years, wrote a “Cane River Memo” newspaper column (compiled by Claitor’s Publishing as Plantation Memo, 1972), named the structures at Melrose, guided the career of folk artist Clementine Hunter, wrote with Hunter the Melrose Plantation Cookbook (1956), and “contrived” at least seven Natchitoches/Cane River souvenir plates, one featuring the 1836 portrait of Augustin Metoyer. Another of the plates (the grounds of Melrose) inspired one of Clementine’s series of murals for the walls of the African House. Clementine, as we know, was the plantation worker who in her 50s was given oils by Alberta Kinsey and painted her way to world fame, while Francois, as we never knew, was really Frank Mineah of New York whose writings were nonfiction but whose life was pure fiction (his story best told in Art Shiver and Tom Whitehead’s Clementine Hunter, Her Life and Art (LSU Press, 2012). Me, I don’t care. He’s the gentleman who guided my childhood walks through Melrose, and in my mind, he did not impersonate a Frenchman named Francois. He became the Frenchman named Francois.
Below Melrose La. 119 follows the east bank about 2 miles to the 1850s Metoyer-Cohen House (private, on lands granted to Dominique Metoyer), then 2 more miles to the National Park’s complex of plantation dependencies at Magnolia. The smithy, overseer’s house and eight brick slave houses are memorable, but the star of this show is a 25-foot wood-screw cotton press which, with its massive cypress beams and vertical supports, was constructed as an integral part of the “gin barn” itself – the only screw of six surviving in the U.S. that remains in place.
Still privately owned, the Magnolia big house was built by Ambrose LeCompte in the 1830s, burned in the war, then rebuilt in the 1890s by his descendant Ambrose Hertzog.
After his 1864 defeat at Mansfield, Gen. Nathanial Banks chose the east bank of the Cane for his retreat through Natchitoches, burning homes as he went. On April 23, fighting extended from Magnolia down to Cloutierville and beyond, and although that village was torched, Confederates doused the fire. Acclaimed author Kate Chopin was an 1880-1883 resident of the town, occupying with her family the circa-1813 former home of Alexis Cloutier, which survived the flames of 1864 but tragically burned in 2009. Based on memories of Cane River and New Orleans, she authored three volumes of short stories and two novels, including The Awakening (Herbert & Stone, 1899), filmed twice and still in print. Even in ruin, her home remains a National Historic Landmark.
Next trip: Bring bacon; bring beans. We’ll fight the bloody British in the town of New Orleans