Sunday, March 27, 2011

Cane River Country and Melrose Plantation, Louisiana

         Fog shrouds the town of Natchitoches this early March morning.  Breakfast was served at 8:30 and I met the six other guests of the Judge Porter House.  The guests included a couple from Jackson, MS and a couple from Texas, both here to tour plantations, and two women—one from Baton Rouge and the other from San Antonio—long-time friends who are meeting here to share a relaxing weekend.  They all seemed surprised to hear that I was here alone from Utah.
 
         Breakfast offered a true taste of Southern hospitality—eggs and ham on a biscuit, cheese grits, apple crisp, coffee and juice.  After breakfast I hopped into the car and drove south along the Cane River Road to visit the famous Natchitoches Parish Plantations.  The Cane River community of the early 1800’s stretched for 19 miles along the river in central Louisiana; here Creole French farmers, free people of color, and slaves coexisted, mostly peaceably, in antebellum America.  The excellent historical novel “Cane River” by Lalita Tademy explores the complex lives of the peoples of Cane River.

When touring plantations a trip to Melrose should be at the top of anyone’s list.  It was the highlight of the day.  The history of Melrose is a fascinating story of many people and events.  The story starts with Marie Therese Coincoin.  Born a slave, she eventually married a French merchant named Claude Thomas Pierre Metoyer and attained freedom and prosperity for herself and her 14 children.  Between 1794 and 1803 Coincoin and her sons received a number of land grants and hired slaves of their own; the Metoyers soon became one of the wealthiest families of color in the nation. 


Melrose Plantation.

         By the late 1800’s the property had been sold to Cammie Henry and she transformed the plantation into a haven for artists and writers.  One of the more interesting artist stories involves Clementine Hunter, a black women who worked as a field hand and a cook for the family.  She discovered palettes of discarded paints and began painting on her own.  In bright primitive style, Miss Clementine’s paintings are a record of real people and their lives along the banks of the Cane River.  She painted all four walls of one of the out-buildings on the plantation.  The building is preserved as a national landmark and Clementine Hunter’s paintings are now worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. 
  
The two-hour tour of Melrose was well worth the $7.00 price of admission and included the “Africa House”, home of Clementine Hunter’s wall mural.  One of the people in our group noticed that in Clementine’s paintings the men were almost always smaller than the women.  Our guide explained that Miss Clementine did not like men and the more she disliked a certain man, the smaller he got.  Unconventional, evocative, dramatic—Clementine Hunter’s paintings are an inspiration.

Clementine Hunter's Inspirational Paintings.
Two Cane River plantations recently became part of the National Park Service—Oakland and Magnolia Plantations.  Oakland is one of the most complete plantations in existence; many of the original buildings and outbuildings are still standing.  A giant pecan tree stands sentinel outside the kitchen and many live oaks grace the property as well.  Once again I was impressed with the variety of bird life in the old trees on these undisturbed properties.  When I asked about the birds the park ranger informed me that a local Audubon group held a bird count at Oakland Plantation last month. The Park Service, however, does not consider the monitoring of wildlife to be a prime directive for these sites.  That’s too bad, but at least birds and other wildlife will be able to live here indefinitely, protected from the ravages of further development.
By late afternoon I was back in Natchitoches and decided to have dinner at The Landing Restaurant on historic Riverfront Street.  My delectable dinner consisted of crab cakes with creamy seafood sauce, crisp salad, sweet potato fries and iced tea, followed by coffee and Bourbon Street pecan pie a’ la mode.  And all that for only $35.00.  A satisfying end to a delightful day of plantation touring in Louisiana. 


Other sites of interest for the Natchitoches area are:  natchitoches.net and historicnatchitoches.com
The plantations of Natchez, Mississippi are also worth a visit.  See my blog report: http://onedayinamerica.blogspot.com/2012/04/visiting-rosalie-and-burn-plantations.html

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