This morning, I left New Orleans and drove almost five hours to Northwest Louisiana to Cane River Creole National Historical Park. I practiced how to say Natchitoches all morning but I was wrong! The volunteer at Cane River said “Nakatish.”
First stop was Magnolia Plantation, active until the 1960s when mechanization changed the nature of cotton growing. The LeComte and Hertzog family sold 18 acres to the National Park Service in the 1990s and the Magnolia Plantation became part of Cane River in 1994. The family still grows cotton on the rest on its holdings. There’s cotton on both sides of the road as far as the eye can see. If you know Mt. Le Conte, note that this family name is with an “m.”
When I got to Magnolia Plantation, I met a young woman in a black dress and heels, carrying a notebook and a camera coming across a field from a slave/tenant cabin. She was here for the soft opening of a cabin furnished as 1950s quarters for tenant farmers and family. Ranger Dusty Fuqua was still putting the finishing touches to the effects. They’ll be working on furnishing another cabin, to represent the antebellum period.
“I’m a Creole,” Ranger Fuqua said. “My family came over from France in the 1700s. Creole used to mean, Born in the new world of old stock. It historically referred to those born in Louisiana during the French and Spanish periods, regardless of ethnicity.
Creole is much more inclusive than Cajun. Technically, to be a Cajun you must be a descendant from the 500 people or so who emigrated from France to Nova Scotia and then moved to Louisiana after the French and Indian Wars.
The National Park Service bought 18 acres of plantation land; the site is fenced off to separate it from the original private land. The plantation home is still in private hands.
Oakland Plantation about 10 miles further north, close to Natchitoches, is considered the main site. The word, Natchitoches, means place of paw paw. The Natchitoches Indians have vanished as a people.
Jean Pierre Emanuel Prud’homme began farming the land in 1785 and received a Spanish land grant a few years later. First, the cash crops were cotton, tobacco, and indigo. By 1815, they concentrated on cotton; it was the most successful plantation west of the Mississippi.
Before the Civil War, the family had 3,000 acres. They ran a general store and post office open to the public until 1983. Two old gas pumps are still rusting in front. The daughter of the Magnolia plantation married a Prud’homme and moved to Oakland Plantation. Several families from the area intermarried throughout the centuries and some still live in the area.
I took a tour of the main house, given by Don, a volunteer. Don and his wife have come from Arkansas for the past three years to volunteer at Cane River. They stay in a trailer just outside the park for three months. Don tells me that he’s Cajun French.
“All the buildings on this plantation are original and have not been moved,” Don says several times. The family sold 40 acres which included all the important building, like the main house, store, cook’s house and pigeonnier. A pigeonnier is a structure to keep pigeons so that the family could have squab.
The last person moved out in 1998. The family took whatever furnishings and pictures and the Park Service got the rest.
Don gives us a fascinating tour of the house, built in 1821. The family went to France the next year to buy furniture. But it was obvious that the family was hurting toward the end. Several families could be living here at the same time. The large kitchen dated back from the 1950s, complete with pink stove. Now who wants a 1950s kitchen in the 1990s?