Sitting in the shade of a massive oak growing along the banks of Cane River Lake in the Historic District here, watching the current flow, it’s difficult to grasp that this placid and graceful body of water is the result of a great turmoil of nature.
At one time, when this town was a bustling port overrun by traders, trappers, soldiers, adventurers and wealth seekers, the Cane was Natchitoches’ lifeline to the Gulf of Mexico. It flowed into the Red River, which, in turn, is a tributary of the Mississippi. But sometime in the 1830s, probably through a series of floods, the Cane River changed its course violently and unexpectedly, forming the lake and leaving Natchitoches without a navigable link to the Mississippi and the sea.
Suddenly inaccessible to the great steam riverboats of the era, this once energetic borough, full of promise and riches, became stagnant, encapsuled in a time warp where it remains today, like a colonial French outpost fossilized in amber.
The results are very pleasing: a demure, clean town soaked in Southern charm with quiet riverbanks, taintless and airy in the shade. Creaky bridges allow a modest flow of traffic. Some ancient houses serve as bed and breakfasts or have been transformed into quaint shops. Great restaurants housed in historic waterfront buildings have the inevitable wrought-iron balconies gracing their facade. And in the summer, Spanish moss drapes the oaks, while the clopping of horses pulling carriages on narrow streets paved with red bricks adds a pleasant sound.
Natchitoches (variably pronounced NAK-ah-tish or NAK-ah-dish) is a place full of mellow sounds and bright sunlight. But its most formidable asset is the congeniality of its people, a charming lot who still talk about how their town was the setting for the movie “Steel Magnolias” in 1989 and for the fetching “The Man in the Moon” a few years later. And if that wasn’t enough, they boast, John Wayne himself came here to film something called “The Horse Soldiers” in 1959.
The voice of the natives drips with a melodious timbre, not like the magnolia-scented inflections you hear in Virginia or the Carolinas. This wholly American accent has a heavy infusion of French, Spanish and long-forgotten African and Indian dialects, the patois called Creole--a euphonious chant, easy on the ears and heavy on locution.
Yes, sir, they add, a lot of history has flowed through Natchitoches. This is the oldest town in the territory ol’ Tom Jefferson bought in what’s known as the Louisiana Purchase. Before there was a New York City or a Los Angeles, French explorers already had established a vibrant outpost a few blocks from where you’re sitting, and it would be five more years before Jean Baptiste le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville began building on a Mississippi River Delta sandbar a town he named Nouvelle Orleans.
The city is an easy, five-hour drive from Dallas and about 60 miles southeast of Shreveport, La.
One morning not too long ago, I was talking to a local, a friend who had led me around Natchitoches on previous visits. I’d already seen the French fort built by Louis Juchereau de St. Denis in 1714 and reinforced in 1716 to keep the Spaniards in what is now east Texas from advancing into western Louisiana. I’d seen the Roque House, a dwelling built by a freed slave who himself owned slaves, where an impressive collection of 50 originals by the native primitive artist Clementine Hunter is on permanent display. I’d already dined sumptuously on Red Dirt shrimp, alligator tail and crawfish at the Landing, the town’s legendary restaurant, a friendly place that would shame most famous big city eateries. At Lasyone’s Meat Pie Kitchen, I’d eaten enough of the delicious regional dish to last another year. The meat pies at Lasyone’s are a treat unlike no other--spicy, sweet morsels wrapped in a flaky deep-fried crust that dissolves in your mouth.
It was my fourth visit to Natchitoches in as many years and I’d seen where it all began. Now I intended to see the glory that was Dixie in the antebellum plantations that are scattered south along the Cane river for about 30 miles from downtown Natchitoches.
It’s a pleasant drive down Louisiana 494, a two-lane road that crosses the Cane River at the Keyser Avenue bridge before heading south. The outskirts of Natchitoches will blur by and, after a couple of miles, you’ll cross over the river again on Pratt’s Bridge, this time heading west, following the river’s path along what’s known as Louisiana’s Cotton Road. Less than a quarter mile away, on the right, you’ll see Oaklawn Plantation, home to Robert Harling, the playwright who wrote “Steel Magnolias.”
It’s a splendid, privately owned residence built in 1830 as a wedding present for the daughter of Jean Pierre Emanuel Prudhomme, the first planter to grow cotton west of the Mississippi. Prudhomme also built two other plantations nearby, Cherokee and Oakland, for other daughters.
Oaklawn displays all the graces of the Creole architecture common to that time in Cane River country. The splendid, two-story main house was used in the John Wayne movie. But for a glimpse of the house built from bousillage (a mixture of river bottom mud, animal hair and Spanish moss), you first must look down two rows of ancient oak trees forming a 680-foot-long promenade that stun the senses.
Although the house is gated and unapproachable because Harling treasures his privacy, tourists often stop to gape and invariably begin addressing one another as “Miz Scawlett” and “Cap’n Butlah” at the mere sight of the oaks and the magnificent mansion.
A couple of miles down the road stands Cherokee, built in 1837, another private home but open for tours in October during a local festival known as the Natchitoches Pilgrimage.
The next plantation along the Cotton Road is Beau Fort, built in 1790 on land originally granted by the Spanish Crown to a rich planter. It is a 1 1/2-story cottage building of Creole architecture that had fallen into disrepair before being restored in 1948 by its current owners. Unlike Oaklawn and Cherokee, Beau Fort is open to the public for a small admission price and also is rented as a bed and breakfast.
Beau Fort is constructed from bousillage and is furnished and decorated with pieces that were found in its attic during renovation. The main house, like Oaklawn, lies at the end of a promenade of oak trees. It is unlike any other house because there is no single wall traversing the main structure and, consequently, no hall. All its rooms connect to one another individually and its main structural girth consists of massive, hand-carved attic beams stretching the length of the house.
There are Oriental rugs on the original, hand-carved floors. Ming Dynasty ornaments rest on armoires. The living room features matching crystal hurricane shades from the 1830s, Vieux Paris porcelain lamps and a marvelous drop-leaf card table of crotched mahogany from the early Creole period. It has a library dominated by a gentleman’s plantation rosewood desk dating back to 1790 and a sofa and chair brought from France during the Napoleonic era. The chairs and table in the dining room are by Chippendale and the Empire sofa in the master bedroom was carved in the 1820s. A dress and hat worn by a bridesmaid in the wedding scene in “Steel Magnolias” hangs on the wall.
But the most intriguing room in Beau Fort is the Stranger’s Room. According to legend, most plantations had a room the owners left open for travelers to use for the night. It was an honored practice of the day and people often took advantage of it.
The Stranger’s Room at Beau Fort has the oldest bed in the mansion. It was made in 1790 and its posts are hand-carved in pineapple and acanthus leaf patterns, both symbols of hospitality. As I walked through, a wedding had been held there the previous night and bridal bouquets and pressed rose and jasmine petals were strewn over the reception room, where the remains of a gigantic wedding cake were still in evidence.
Across the road from Beau Fort is tiny St. Charles Catholic Church, which served as a semi-private chapel for the plantation residents. It has a rural simplicity that’s the antithesis of the impressive estates nearby.
After leaving Beau Fort, the next plantation is Oakland, where Prudhomme grew the first cotton in the area. Oakland is now a private residence and its two-story main house is girded by an airy veranda. The gardens are exquisitely tended and the oak trees are draped in Spanish moss.
However, about 100 yards from the house, signs of slavery, the most base and insidious practice of the Old South, can still be discerned in the rustic and sad slave quarters. Although slavery in these parts reportedly was not as harsh as elsewhere in Dixie, slavery by any name is still an obscenity, and the slave cabins near Oakland are a stark reminder.
After Oakland, the Cotton Road leads south toward Cloutierville. One crosses yet another bridge and, on the east bank of the Cane River, spies Melrose, the paragon of a plantation mansion. Its history is dominated by two figures, one black and the other white, who are stereotypical of the South’s incredibly strong women.
Melrose stands on land once belonging to Marie Therese Coincoin, who historians say was born into slavery in 1742 into the household of the French explorer St. Denis. After his death, Coincoin was sold to Thomas Pierre Metoyer, with whom she had 10 children. Metoyer freed her and her children in 1794, when she began to acquire land and slaves and became very wealthy by growing tobacco.
She and her offspring, solidly grounded in African tradition mellowed by French culture, framed the original buildings at Melrose--Yucca House and the African House--from hand-hewn cypress beams and uprights and the walls from bousillage. The African House is a mysterious Congolese-style structure that looks like a toadstool.
Melrose changed ownership in the early 1900s, when it was bought by John Hampton and Cammie Garrett Henry, known throughout the area as “Miss Cammie.”
Miss Cammie replanted and extended the plantation gardens, restored the nearby colonial structures, sponsored local artists and accumulated a celebrated library of Louisiana books and paintings.
She was a fervent lover of the arts and invited writers to live on the grounds; they flocked to a place that offered free room and board along with the solitude to compose their works. Among those who took advantage of her hospitality were Erskine Caldwell, William Spratling, William Faulkner and Alexander Woolcott.
Today, Melrose is owned by the Assn. for the Preservation of Historic Natchitoches and tours are conducted daily for a small fee.
Farther down the road is Magnolia Plantation, built in the 1830s and rebuilt after it was burned by Union forces in 1864. Today, friendly cats guard its entrance. It has 27 rooms and a private Catholic chapel. Magnolia is open for tours and has the only cotton press in Louisiana still in its original location and operating, along with the last remaining row of brick slave quarters in the state.
Not too far from Magnolia, the Bayou Folk Museum is housed in the mansion where the early Louisiana feminist and prolific writer Kate Chopin once lived. It’s open for tours and full of native artifacts and historic mementos.
One also shouldn’t miss the St. Augustine Church on the other side of the river, if anything just to walk through its cemetery where the funeral scene in “Steel Magnolias” was filmed.
This Cotton Road, a tapestry of cotton and soybean fields crisscrossed by streams and dotted with giant oaks, has enough cultural diversity to satisfy even the most discerning historians, architecture students, gourmets and even film fans. It is a veritable 32-mile-long historic landmark.
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Getting there: Connecting flights from LAX to Shreveport, La., are available on Northwest (change of planes in Memphis), American and Delta (change of planes in Dallas) and Continental (change of planes in Houston). Round-trip advance-purchase fares begin at about $390. Natchitoches is about 60 miles southeast of Shreveport.
Where to stay: Natchitoches has a good selection of B&Bs.; Tante Huppe Inn, 424 Jefferson St., telephone (800) 482-4276. Rates: $95 per night, double occupancy.
The Levy-East House (built in 1838), 358 Jefferson St.; tel. (800) 840-0662; $105-$150, double occupancy. Judge Porter House, 321 2nd St., tel. (800) 441-8343. This 1912 home has an upstairs two-bedroom, one-bath suite accommodating four ($160 per night) and smaller suite downstairs for $95. The Beau Fort Plantation, 4078 Louisiana Highways 119 and 494; tel. (318) 352-9580; rates $85-$145 per room.
For more information: Natchitoches Area Chamber of Commerce, P.O. Box 3, Natchitoches, LA 71458; tel. (800) 259-1714. Louisiana Office of Tourism, Attn: Inquiry Department, P.O. Box 94291, LOT, Baton Rouge, LA 70804-9291; tel. (800) 334-8626 or (504) 342-8119. S.O.