Ouachita Riverfronts

Sheila Snow photograph
Monroe city skyline

Our year of riverfront explorations ends next issue with a Yuletide visit to New Orleans, but this time we’re sightseeing the Ouachita River, starting in Monroe.

Don Juan Filhiol (FEE-yol), who had fought under Louisiana’s Spanish Gov. Galvez against the British in Florida, was later dispatched by Galvez to establish a post on the Ouachita. After a lengthy bivouac in Arkansas, he headed back downstream to the confluence of Bayou DeSiard, a spot called Prairie des Canots (Prairie of the Canoes), and that move marked the birth of today’s Monroe. In 1791 he completed his log-walled palisade and named it Fort Miro in honor of Gov. Estevan Miro.

Spanish military posts became unfashionable after the Louisiana Purchase, but Filhiol –– known as Jean-Baptiste by the French, Don Juan by the Spanish and now John by his new American neighbors –– stayed to develop his land grant and nurture his town, even donating property for the courthouse. The sword presented to him by Gov. Miro, in fact, is on permanent display in today’s Ouachita Parish Courthouse.

Monroe, which might as easily have become Filhiolopolis or Miro City or even Canoeville, instead took its name, in 1819, not directly from the then- current president but from a steamboat that bore his name, the James Monroe, which that year became the first paddle-wheeler up the Ouachita. It not only introduced a new age of transportation but also changed the landscape: With steamboats to haul cotton to market, the Ouachita valley turned white overnight.

Click “Adult Events” at oplib.org for dates of occasional city and cemetery tours led by Larry Foreman and Lora Peppers of the Ouachita Library. City trolleys on the Riverfront Route provide free service to riverside attractions on Saturdays.

Monroe has two waterfronts for touring, the Ouachita and Bayou DeSiard, and a good starting point is where the bayou bisects the University of Louisiana-Monroe. From U.S.165, drive east on DeSiard Street, cross University Avenue, and park at a cluster of original university buildings on the left with that distinctive look of 1930s Public Works Administration structures: the old Fine Arts Building (today’s School of Music), Brown Hall (with its vintage and modern performance stages) and Henry Bry Hall (the school’s first library).

Named for a Swiss jurist who built Mulberry Grove plantation below Fort Miro around 1814, Bry (pronounced “bree”) Hall now houses the School of Visual and Performing Arts, where Bry Gallery unveils a fall faculty exhibition, a December art sale (student and faculty works in all media) and several solo exhibits each year. Visit ulm.edu/art, and click “Art Exhibits” for a schedule or “Sculpture Garden” for a preview of that outdoor gallery.
Department head Gary Ratcliff recently walked me along a footway between the old Fine Arts Building and Brown Hall to the sculpture garden, explaining as we went that student sculptors enter models of their creations in competitions, and the winning works are produced full-size by the university and displayed for a year in this pleasantly secluded spot.

 A bit farther east, DeSiard Street falls in beside the bayou, where Stadium Drive forks left to cross the DeSiard bridge. You can cross the bridge to continue your tour, but be aware that two great bayou-side restaurants lie just upstream: Waterfront Grill at 5201 DeSiard (mossy bayou views and traditional and innovative seafood dishes) and Danken Trail BBQ at 7712 DeSiard (fish and seafood plus bodacious barbecue at a scenic bayou bend).

Stadium Drive leads from the bridge to the school’s athletic fields/courts/diamonds, including the Warhawks’ stadium and Fant-Ewing Coliseum (with its Warhawks Hall of Fame), from which Northeast Drive leads across the bayou into the heart of the campus. Pause at the bridge to see if ULM’s often-national-champion water ski team is practicing its jumps and formations, and have a look at the big new library beside the bayou. A block farther, the Museum of Natural History awaits you in Sandel Hall –– cultural artifacts and fish-fowl-animal-mineral specimens encompassing every science. It began in 1962 as a zoology collection amassed by young Neil Douglas; today retired professor Douglas still frequents the museum, and a conversation with him will infinitely increase your understanding and appreciation of all you behold here.

Take Northeast Drive west to U.S. 165, and then jog right-left on 165 and Loop Road, a residential bayou drive that, changing its name to Park Avenue, leads to Forsythe Park on the Ouachita. (For the park’s best picnicking, take the lane across the levee to the oak-shaded tables by the river.)

Now Loop/Park takes a third name, Riverside Drive, and leads to the famed Biedenharn mansion at 2006, which, along with a memorable home tour, offers a menu of attractions: galleries of ancient biblical art and artifacts, four exquisite urban gardens and a jolly Coca-Cola Museum.

It seems a German immigrant named Herman Biedenharn of Monroe was displaced to Vicksburg by events of the Civil War and invited his brother Henry to join him there and open, in 1865 to 1866, a shoe shop and Biedenharn Candy Co. at 1107 Washington St. There, Herman’s son Joseph was destined to become, in 1894, the very first bottler of Coca-Cola (commemorated by that building’s own extensive Coke museum). Coca-Cola was already a hit at soda fountains, and the bottled version proved so popular that by 1914 Joseph and his brothers began dividing up territory, and Joe set up his distributorship in his dad’s former hometown of Monroe. His mansion on Riverside now houses the collections of his daughter Emy-Lou, a concert contralto in Europe who, forced home by the perils of World War II, filled the home with the art, ancient Bibles, antiques and musical instruments gathered abroad.
Begin with a tour of the Coke Museum, and then move on to a guided walk through the mansion with its period furnishings and exhibit spaces for the stunning collections. End your visit by taking in the Four Seasons Garden, Oriental Garden, Ballet Lawn and interesting Plants of the Bible Garden in the courtyards.

Now follow Riverside to Bridge Street; turn right to cross the Ouachita; and then turn left on Trenton Street, the main thoroughfare of a 25-store shopping spree called Antique Alley. It’s the pride of West Monroe, crowded with colorful old stores (some from the 1880s) offering vintage furniture, decorator items, jewelry, art, books and more (see Antique-Alley.org).

You can overnight a block from the river in the Rose Lee Inn Bed & Breakfast (318 Trenton, (318) 366-2412, RoseLeeBnB.com) –– all the comforts of your house and all the quaint nostalgia of your grandma’s –– on the second floor of a dandy old store called A&K Antiques in the heart of Antique Alley. The hostess is Kathryn Huff, mother of a farm family from out of town a ways, so every morning she appears with yard eggs (and often with fresh veggies just to give away) and then cooks breakfast before opening the shops downstairs (she has a book store; her husband, Ken, sells antiques; and her son Shane sells sports cards) … all this in time to open the two offices of her insurance agency. And she reads a book a day.

Don’t depart Antique Alley without a stop at Gabbeaux’s, 113 S. Riverfront –– big steaks and Cajun seafood with back-porch dining at water’s edge (a ringside seat for watching the 1899 swing-bridge grudgingly open for passing tugs and barges).

Just across the DeSiard Street bridge, turn left to find the interactive exhibitry of the Children’s Museum (323 Walnut) and Warehouse No. 1 Restaurant –– seafood, catfish and steak dinners (or lunchtime delights such as greens with corn bread and “potlikker”), served in a dining room and on a deck that both protrude over the levee.

Head back down Walnut, and fork right on South Grand Street, which leads to the neoclassical Ouachita Parish Courthouse in the 300 block. Built in 1926 to ‘29, the granite-and-limestone building features soaring ionic colonnades, and even inside, any attempt to present an atmosphere of governmental austerity fails because of the granite floors, walls, columns and stairs that make it a place of such exceptional beauty.

On one corner of the square stands the first Clerk of Court’s Office, a one-room stuccoed relic built of logs in 1816, and on the river side of the courthouse, a grand promenade with benches and pavilions hugs the Ouachita.

Farther downstream stand two homes of great interest that may be toured by appointment. The Cooley House at 1011 S. Grand is a prairie-style dwelling designed in 1908 by a Frank Lloyd Wright protégé named Walter Burley Griffin but not constructed till the mid-1920s. It is now being restored for use as a Ouachita Parish museum but is open for tours by calling the nearby Masur Museum at (318) 329-2237. Next, at 1133 S. Grand, stands Layton Castle, a turreted brick mansion created by the 1910 expansion of Judge Bry’s Mulberry Grove plantation house (open only for groups of 10 or more, (318) 322-4869).

At 1400 S. Grand, a Tudor Gothic mini-mansion, built of limestone in 1929, graces the riverside. It was donated by the Masur family to the city of Monroe in 1963 with the proviso that it be used as a museum of fine art, and to this day the Masur Museum welcomes the public (free admission) to enjoy traveling exhibitions and its own holdings of works by contemporary artists and old masters. On view until Oct. 23 are portraits and landscapes of French Indochina painted in 1936 to ‘38 by French artist Jean Despujols, courtesy of Centenary College’s Meadows Museum of Art, plus two exhibits by acclaimed local photographer Lee Estes: Highway 80 (can’t wait!) and Images of France.

So ends our Monroe-West Monroe visit, but a drive down the lower Ouachita is a must, so continue down South Grand (passing an 1830 plantation called Lower Pargoud in the 2100 block –– private) to Thomas Avenue. Turn left on Thomas; right on Wilson; and left on Berstein Park Drive, which becomes Ticheli Road and leads past the Louisiana Purchase Zoo (train and boat rides to see the animals on natural habitat islands) to U.S. 165.

It’s 30 minutes down 165 to Columbia, and just above town, signs lead to the Martin Homeplace Museum, an 1870s farmhouse with dependencies intact –– restored “just enough” –– where you’ll enjoy tours, tale-telling, soap-making and sometimes even Joyce Dupree’s wood-stove biscuits. Columbia itself is a traditional Where-Main-Street-Meets-the-River town, complete with a levee-top boardwalk and benches and great shops lurking behind vintage storefronts. One 1916 Italianate building, created by immigrant architect and businessman John Schepis, is now the Schepis Museum, presenting art shows and other changing exhibits.

To overnight at leveeside, call Emma Jean Richardson at (318) 649-0105 to make reservations at the charming 1893 Captain’s Quarters Bed & Breakfast.

From Columbia, cross the Ouachita via Louisiana 4; turn right on Louisiana 559 for a half-hour drive to the two-car Duty Ferry; and cross it to find Jim Bowie’s Relay Station –– “Ed Bartmess, prop.” –– offering supper in the form of Ouachita catfish and Ruston peach cobbler, entertainment in the form of the Bartmess Grandkids Chorus and accommodations in the form of comfy riverside cabins that can be reserved by calling (318) 744-5206.

From Duty it’s 15 miles down Louisiana 124 to Harrisonburg, with an obligatory stop at the bluff-top site of Fort Beauregard, where Confederate artillery once guarded the river. At the base of the big hill, visit a collection of native artifacts in the impressive 1930 Catahoula Courthouse, and then drive 10 miles down Louisiana 124 to Jonesville where (viewable from Riverside Park) the Ouachita merges with the Tensas and Little rivers and reverts to its original Indian name of Black River.

Jonesville is built upon the famous “Troyville” complex of 2,000-year-old Indian mounds and ridges, and surviving fragments of the earthworks can still be found in the town’s Methodist and Presbyterian cemeteries.

Happy trails.

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