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Cane River National Heritage Trail

Believe it or not we got an earlier start today! Jerry said to wake him up by 7:00 so I did and we actually got on the road around 9:00. We had not quite decided what we were going to do as it everything was so weather dependent. The forecast was for rain most of the day so we felt that perhaps we should do the inside things today. It was not raining when we left though so we decided to try out luck on the Cane River National Heritage Trail. There were several sites along the way that we wanted to see so we thought we’d start out and if the rains came we go to Plan B.

Cane River National Heritage Trail takes you through the scenic byways of northwestern Louisiana. A largely rural area you can see beautiful agricultural landscapes full of pecan trees, cattle and horses. The area is known for its historic plantations and its distinctive Creole architecture. A winding road takes you by each of the thirty-two stops which include plantations, churches, homes and other historic sites.

We made a brief stop at the St. Charles Borromeo Chapel which represents the only known instance in the United States of a white mission congregation sponsored by a church whose members were primarily people of color. It is now privately owned so we couldn’t go in. I think it’s primarily used for special occasions now. I peeped in the window and it looked like it was being used for storage.

Our next stop was the Cane River Creole National Historical Park, Oakland Plantation. Although Oakland Plantation is the most complete Creole plantation in the South the house was not opened because they were repairing the roof. At the rate they’re going it won’t be opened for a long while! No one was working! We talked briefly with the volunteer guide who is also an RVer. She has a fifth wheel which she will be keeping on the property for about three months. It is full hook up and no charge.

The pigionnier - see the doors where the pigeons entered
The pigionnier – see the doors where the pigeons entered

After a visit with her we wandered through the mule barn, by the pigionnier, went in the overseer’s house and then a slave cabin. The building that is now used as the administrative building was formerly a doctor’s house. It was the slave owner’s responsibility to keep the slaves healthy so this particular owner had a doctor on the grounds although sometimes the doctor would travel to other plantations. Interestingly enough, there is no guide per say but there is a phone number that can be called and when a visitor enters the number of the building being viewed a brief explanation is given. I called several time and put the phone on speaker so Jerry could hear it too.

The Weaver's Building
The Weaver’s Building
Not far from Oakland is Melrose Plantation which was established by free people of color (gens de couleur libres) around the time of the Louisiana Purchase. It eventually became an artist’s retreat encouraging artists of all types to come to paint, write, etc. The rule was that they must spend no more than three days doing nothing. If three days had passed and they had nothing to show for it their bags were packed and they were sent on their way. Too bad if they had writer’s block!

It was hard to remember that it is January because the gardens are so pretty!
It was hard to remember that it is January because the gardens are so pretty!
Melrose was also the home of the legendary Clementine Hunter, a nationally renowned folk artist. When she painted her first picture she used oil paints that another painter had left behind and when she presented the picture to the owner he didn’t believe that she had painted it because she kept saying she had “marked” it. That was her way of saying that she had painted it. Her original paintings that are usually at the plantation are presently in the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame right now as there is restoration going on in the plantation building where they are usually housed. They will be returned in April.

The African House
The African House
An interesting house that we saw was the African House. The roof overhangs a great deal to keep the sun from shining on the walls of the house, thus keeping it cool during the day. When someone remarked that there was a door on the second floor with no outside access the guide told us that it was a form of security.

The inside of the Big House as it was referred to was interesting. The upstairs was added later after the Red River which was across the road rose over the banks. There are several bedrooms, two for the six boys (three each), one for the older son and one for the daughter. One of the bedrooms is now used to house some of Clementine Hunter’s pictures. When she first began to paint she didn’t sign her pieces because she couldn’t write. She was finally taught to write a “C” and an “H” and initially signed her pieces “CH” but she didn’t like that because she said the “C” was turned away from the picture. She eventually reversed the “C”. In later years the “C” began to supplant the “H” and that is how her paintings are now dated. The pictures are of events that occurred in her life. I saw one of a Baptism and others of scenes around the plantation.

By this time we were getting hungry so we decided to ride on down to Magnolia Plantation and have our picnic lunch. We realized when we got there that Magnolia Plantation is privately owned and only the slave cabins are opened for visitors. We’ve already seen a lot of slave cabins so we passed on visiting those. We sat in the car and had our lunch.

On the way back to Natchitoches we rode by St. Augustine Catholic Church and Cemetery. It was the first Catholic Church established by and for people of color in the United States. It is a large church that is now on the National Register of Historic Places in Louisiana.

Our next planned stop was the Fort St. Jean Baptiste State Historic Site. Imagine our surprise when we found it closed only opening Wednesday through Sunday. Someone told us yesterday that many businesses worked all week and then closed on Sundays and Mondays to recuperate. Guess in this case it is Monday and Tuesday.

It was just as well as we were getting a bit tired and tomorrow is another day. Along with Fort St Jean we plan to visit the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame. Although it’s supposed to be sunny it’ll be cooler so a good inside tour is what we need.

The sky said it was going to rain soon so we headed on back to the campground. Jerry decided to “rest his eyes” for a bit while I caught up on the blog. May well join him soon!


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