Natchitoches in the Red River Valley: A Confluence of Cultures

by Rebecca Flemer, Affiliate ASLA

Alliance group at the Natchitoches Train Depot / image: Martin Holland

A Recap of the 2022 Alliance for Historic Landscape Preservation Annual Conference

The Alliance for Historic Landscape Preservation (AHLP) held its annual meeting in Natchitoches, Louisiana, from May 18-21 this year. Twice postponed because of COVID, the conference was entitled Natchitoches in the Red River Valley: A Confluence of Cultures. Over the three days we heard presentations and visited sites in Natchitoches and the surrounding area. From tenant cabins, to “juke-joints,” to churches and cemeteries, we learned about the unique culture of the Red River Valley and the Cane River.

The Alliance for Historic Landscape Preservation is an interdisciplinary professional organization which provides a forum for communication and exchange of information among its members. It is dedicated to the preservation and conservation of historic landscapes in all their variety, from formal gardens and public parks to rural expanses. The conference, usually held every year, are a great way to learn about historic landscapes and experience in-depth exploration of the locations where they take place.

Our meetings were held at the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training (NCPTT), on the campus of Northwestern State University of Louisiana. NCPTT offices and some laboratories are located in historic Lee H. Nelson Hall, a former gymnasium. We learned about the history of the gymnasium and the long road to its preservation. Jason Church and Vrinda Jariwala, of NCPTT, conducted tours of the labs.

The first day’s presentations also included overviews of the geography of the region given by Jeffrey Girard, regional archaeologist at Northwestern State University, and some of the preservation projects of the NCPTT such as, “Tenant Cabin Documentation Project” and “Juke-Joints and Dancehalls in and around Natchitoches.”

We finished the day with a tour of the Natchitoches Train Depot given by Barbara Justice, chief of interpretation at the Cane River Creole National Historical Park. The depot is in the process of being restored, so we were lucky to get a behind-the-scenes look. After that we visited the Cane River Creole National Historical Park Collections Facility, a fascinating collection of artifacts from the Melrose and Magnolia Plantations. Dusty Fuqua of the Cane River Creole NHP and Rebecca Blankenbaker, Executive Director of the Cane River National Heritage Area, gave us a thorough look at the efforts to preserve the collections using the latest technology and tried and true methods.

In the evening we were treated to mint juleps at the Cherokee Plantation hosted by Tommy Whitehead of the Association for the Preservation of Historic Natchitoches (APHN).

Cherokee Plantation, Natchitoches / image: R. Flemer

On Friday, we loaded the bus and headed downriver to the Cane River Creole National Historical Park, which preserves the cultural landscape of Oakland and Magnolia Plantations, two of the most intact Creole cotton plantations in the United States. The park tells the stories and preserves the heritage of the families and owners and workers, enslaved and tenant, of the Cane River region. Native American, French, Spanish, and African cultures merged, leading to the development of a distinctive Creole culture, which remains today.

We started at Magnolia Plantation, where Dusty Fuqua joined us again to interpret the many buildings and surrounding landscape. The store, overseer’s house/hospital, blacksmith shop, tenant cabin, and gin barn are open to visitors. We observed the ‘bousillage’ construction of many of the structures. A frame of sticks is filled in with mud and Spanish moss to form walls.

Magnolia Plantation, ‎⁨Cane River Creole National Historical Park⁩, ⁨Cloutierville / image: R. Flemer

We ate lunch at the St. Augustine Church and Cemetery where the church committee treated us to fabulous Creole food. The cemetery and church were established by Nicolas Augustin Metoyer, a mixed-race freedman in 1829. The center of the Isle Brevelle Creole community, it is one of the oldest churches built by “gens de couleur libres,” or “free people of color.”

St. Augustine Church and Cemetery / image: R. Flemer

Next we visited the Melrose Plantation, a historic property established by a “gens de couleur libres” family around the time of the Louisiana Purchase. In the 20th century it became an artists’ retreat under the direction of Cammie Henry, who owned the property and welcomed writers, championed local arts, and collected cultural artifacts. It was home to Clementine Hunter, a renowned folk artist. Tommy Whitehead from the Association for the Preservation of Historic Natchitoches, which owns and operates the site, joined us again for an in-depth tour of the buildings and grounds.

Melrose Plantation. Tommy Whitehead from the Association for the Preservation of Historic Natchitoches. / image: R. Flemer

The Oakland Plantation, part of the Cane River Creole NHP, was our final stop for the day. Elvin Shields, a former resident of one of the tenant farmer cabins, spoke to us about his upbringing there. His poignant memories brought us a deeper understanding of the long ties families maintained after slavery along the Cane River. Barbara Justice, chief of interpretation, also joined us again to tell us about the park’s effort to fully represent the many threads of local history represented here.

Numerous fascinating papers from all over the US and Canada rounded out our last day.  The board presented a preview of next year’s conference in Richmond, Virginia. In the afternoon we explored downtown Natchitoches with a tour of the Minor Basilica of the Immaculate Conception and Lemee House, the first preservation project of the APHN.

It wouldn’t be an AHLP meeting without a fun-filled final banquet. We returned to the Cane River Commissary for more Creole food and music! The LaCour Trio got us up and dancing to the Zydeco beat.

Cane River Commissary / image: R. Flemer

The multi-year determination of NCPTT’s Debbie Smith made this year’s meeting a huge success. Her energy and enthusiasm for the cultural heritage of Natchitoches and the Cane River region was infectious. We left knowing more about the vibrant living history—and with full stomachs and tapping feet.

Rebecca Flemer, Affiliate ASLA, serves as secretary of the Alliance for Historic Landscape Preservation (AHLP). She lives in Philadelphia where she works as an independent researcher and board member of several organizations involved with historic landscape preservation. Rebecca also serves as a volunteer leader for ASLA’s Historic Preservation Professional Practice Network (PPN).

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