Discovering the History of Central Louisiana

History & Heritage, Magazine Features

In the heart of the Bayou State is the oldest settlement in the Louisiana Purchase, a working cotton plantation and deep music roots

Louisiana certainly has a reputation for culinary delights, explosive events, great sports and gaming and wonderful hospitality. There are endless reasons to visit Louisiana and one journey that should not be missed is the historic central section of the state.

FERRIDAY

What do an American evangelist, America’s first great rock n’ roll wild man and a country music singer and musician have in common? If you haven’t guessed the answer, it will be found in Ferriday, Louisiana at the Delta Museum & Arcade Theatre. The museum began with stories of hometown favorites and cousins Jimmy Swaggart, Jerry Lee Lewis and Mickey Gilley. It grew with the purpose of preserving the musical heritage of the Mississippi River Delta.

Beginning in 2002, the museum began an annual tradition of inducting musicians and vocalists into the Hall of Fame. Each inductee has an impressive presentation, but your tour guide will share some insight that the exhibits do not show. A catered lunch can be arranged in the lobby of the Arcade Theatre next door and there’s ample coach parking. There’s no charge for entrance or a tour guide. deltamusicmuseum.com

Nearby is a special treat. Frogmore Cotton Plantation & Gins is a working cotton plantation. A tour shows the old and new cotton farming methods. Frogmore is just one of 56 cotton gins that are still operational in the United States. It features a historic 1800s church that still has the original pews. In period costume, Lynette Tanner leads groups with narrative, sharing the music contributions that came from plantation slaves and later, Scott Joplin, Robert Johnson and Jelly Roll Morton. Through stories and song, the performers share the challenges and triumphs of plantation life. You can sing along. Those tambourines provided are not just for show. Frogmoreplantation.com

PINEVILLE

It’s a little more than an hour to a site that had a significant impact on the outcome of World War II. Camp Beauregard is home to the Louisiana Maneuvers and Military Museum. Housed in a WWII replica barracks, the museum has a fascinating story to tell. During the early 1940s, the U.S. Army realized it was short on manpower and in desperate need of modernization. The National Guard was mobilized and the first peacetime draft was conducted. The vast and varied terrain of Central Louisiana was one of the training sites selected. In the end, more than 420,000 soldiers received Maneuvers Preparation at Camp Beauregard. geauxguardmuseums.com

ALEXANDRIA

Although we’ve embraced a history theme, there’s certainly room for an arts mention and it’s just 15 minutes from Pineville. Plan to spend at least an hour at the River Oaks Square Arts Center. In an agreement with the city that their family home be used solely for the arts, the James Wade Bolton family donated their house. For more than 30 years, the Bolton House has grown to seven studios, administrative offices and a wonderful gift shop. The Studio Annex building houses an additional 25 studios and features three rotating galleries.

There are more than 200 artists contributing their work and 40 artists in residence. Groups are welcome to visit the galleries and studios for individual conversations about their work. riveroaksartscenter.com

NATCHITOCHES

Framed by two 150-plus year-old oaks, Melrose Plantation has more than 227 years of history to tell. The story begins with Melrose being built by the family of Marie Therese Coincoin. Born into slavery, Marie Therese attained her freedom and became the wealthiest person in Louisiana. The plantation passed through various owners and with 600 acres became an agriculture dynamo. Melrose became a National Historic Landmark in 1974 with some buildings dating back to the 1800s. Today, 200 acres of pecan trees are still harvested. Nine historic buildings are onsite with the home itself being spectacular and the stories tour guide Jim Kilcoyne can share are memorable.

Melrose Plantation Exterior

Melrose Plantation

Owner Cammie Henry developed a writers and artisans colony at Melrose. Why would she do such a thing? Louisiana’s most famous artist, Clementine Hunter did the majority of her work, including the “African House Murals” at Melrose. Melrose is group-friendly and a delight to visit. melroseplantation.org

Plan on lunch at Lasyone’s Meat Pie Restaurant. For more than 50 years, the family has featured authentic Creole cuisine. As the name implies, it is famous for its meat and crawfish pies. Lasyones is a favorite of both adult and school groups. Lasyones.com

There’s so much more to see and do in Natchitoches. A Cane River Walking Tour with guide Logan Schlatre is perfect after lunch. Exploring the Cane River National Heritage Area rich multi-cultural legacy is fascinating. The walk is pleasant and crystalizes the unique blend of cultures from American Indian and French to Spanish, African and Creole. Canerivernha.org

Cane River Walking Tour guide

Cane River Walking Tour

The walk ends near the front door of the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame and Northwest Louisiana History Museum. Portraits, memorabilia and descriptive exhibits share the importance of Louisiana sports in the state’s culture. The museum section explores the unique cultures that were such an important part of the area. Lasportshall.com

Nearby, the Kaffie-Frederick General Mercantile Store was opened in 1863. The oldest general store in Louisiana, it is a central part of life in Natchitoches. If you see something you like, but cannot take it with you they’ll ship. Oldhardwarestore.com

You can complete your day with dinner at Merci Beaucoup followed by a nightcap at Cane River Brewing Company. mercibeaucouprestaurant.com/ and caneriverbrewing.com

MARKSVILLE

The Tunica Biloxi Cultural and Education Resources Center and Museum is home to the most extensive collection of Native American trade items and artifacts. It was a Tunica tradition to deposit favorite grave goods with the deceased from 1731-64. The 40,000-square-foot center includes a museum exhibit hall, conservation and restoration laboratory open for viewing, classrooms and gift shop. tunicabiloxi.org/cerc/

Tunica-Biloxi

Tunica-Biloxi

Lunch at Broken Wheel Brewery/Fresh Catch Bistreaux features a full menu with the restaurant being accommodating to special food needs. Most menu items are best served with their handcrafted beer. Brokenwheelbrewery.com

When in Marksville, a visit to the Avoyelles Parish Courthouse is a must. It’s here that Solomon Northup regained his freedom after being kidnapped and serving 12 years as a slave in Avoyelles and Rapides Parishes. The Northup documents are still on file. travelavoyelles.com

Whether you hub and spoke from Alexandria or Natchitoches or just followed the highways of central Louisiana the small towns and local guides will guarantee a memorable visit.

By Dave Bodle

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