Harvest Days at the Rural Life Museum

Harvest Days at the Rural Life Museum

Saturday brought with it the first day of fall, and because you wouldn’t know it by the weather, we decided to celebrate by visiting the Harvest Days festival at Louisiana State University’s Rural Life Museum. For its 16th year running, the outdoor museum showcased a living history of 19th century rural Louisiana, and we spent the day walking through their fascinating lifestyle.

19th century violinist

The journey through time began inside the exhibit barn, where you can find anything and everything from antique farm equipment to an old hearse to a baby walker. The normally quiet, static museum was a bustle of activity, with visitors mingling with docents, a woman carrying her pet duck puppet and wood carvers whittling away at small figures. We stopped to visit with one woman rhythmically pedaling a spinning wheel, turning balls of wool into a long, fine thread. She explained how wool is easier to spin than cotton, which requires a faster turn of the wheel because it is a slicker material.

Mule and buggy rides

As you exited the back door, the village emerged, with sleeping tents set up throughout the property and small cooking fires smoldering in the day’s heat. Two mules pulled up in front of us, tugging behind them a buggy full of passengers, and 2-year-old August launched into a series of neighs. Our normally fearless children were actually timid around the animals, so we passed up the buggy tour and opted to walk instead.

“Homeowners” led us on guided tours through their 200-year-old houses, proudly pointing out the furniture and architecture of each. We watched the blacksmith stoke his fire until it was nice and hot, and the kids took turns pulling the rope on the steam engine to make the whistle blow. A harvest spread dominated the kitchen, where we encountered the delicious smells of pumpkins stuffed with baked apples and fried sweet potatoes.

Louisiana folk architecture at the museum

The boom of a cannon was a constant background noise, reminding us that a Civil War reenactment was taking place across the field. We headed in the opposite direction, though, away from the “scary” noise and over toward the corn maze. Along the way, we stopped to smell some cane syrup being boiled and took a turn at grinding corn off the stalk.

An opening in the back fence led to the labyrinth of corn, where our 4-year-old pointed the way ahead. I have to admit, we finally cheated and charged right through the corn to get to the other side. Our reward was a handful of water balloons meant to be launched at wooden targets, but instead popped on top of the kids’ heads. Soaked through, they were delighted by the afternoon of fun and begged to return again.

The daunting corn maze
On the Hunt for Dinosaurs…and a Hike at Lake Martin

On the Hunt for Dinosaurs…and a Hike at Lake Martin

Louisiana is not known for dinosaurs – that much I have learned through my Internet searching. Now Wyoming, Colorado and the Dakotas, they’re a different story. Unfortunately the pleads of a three-year-old are not compelling enough to make me drive 26 hours to view a bunch of skeletons. Lucky for him, and the rest of our family, the Lafayette Science Museum is featuring the American Museum of Natural History’s traveling “Dinosaurs” exhibit.

T-Rex on display at the Lafayette Science Museum

The drive is still a bit much to make without stopping, so we planned a layover at a friend’s house in Baton Rouge. While in town, we couldn’t pass up a glimpse of LSU’s Mike the Tiger, and the trip to campus reminded us of old anthropology classes in the Howe Russell building and the fossils and rocks on display there.

LSU’s allosaurus skeleton

It promised to be a great “starting off” site for our dinosaur adventures, but when we entered the front doors, Charles nearly squealed with delight at the sight before us. Although the child can’t read, he instantly spouted out that this skeleton on display was “an allosaurus¬†– a carnivore that walked on two feet and had three fingers, not two like T-Rex.” (I must say, I will never understand his obsession with the fingers.) The discovery kept us occupied for quite some time, and Charles discussed the similarities and differences of dinosaurs in lengthy detail well into the night.

The next morning we moved on to Lafayette and headed into the heart of downtown. Our first stop was brunch at The French Press, where we gorged ourselves on the Cajun Benedict: toasted French bread, Hebert’s boudin and two poached-medium eggs topped with chicken and andouille gumbo and fresh scallions. Shortly after, we waddled across the Parc Sans Souci toward the Lafayette Science Museum.

Lafayette Science Museum

While the planetarium is closed for a digital upgrade, the main attraction until March 11 is the “Dinosaurs: Ancient Fossils, New Discoveries” exhibit. The $5 tickets seemed like a bargain when we entered the far hall and came face to face with a giant T-Rex skeleton (complete with two fingers on each hand). He beckoned us inside to explore a life-sized steel and fiberglass apatosaurus, fossilized footprints and a diorama of eastern Asia as it looked 130 million years ago. After making two rounds through the displays, we grabbed some coloring sheets at the end and walked out the doors. I paused in confusion as we exited – what, no gift shop? Although a huge missed opportunity for the museum, it was a lifesaver for us, as gift shops almost always end in meltdowns.

Cypress trees at Lake Martin

The afternoon’s adventures winded down with a short drive out into the countryside and a leisurely stroll through the Nature Conservancy’s Cypress Island Preserve at Lake Martin. A loop boardwalk and levee trail offered prime glimpses into the moss-covered, cypress tupelo swamp that serves as a bird haven in late spring. Sunsets are reportedly divine at this picturesque spot, and the lake comes to life when thousands of herons, egrets and roseate spoonbills make this their home during nesting season. The area was scarcely occupied when we visited, though, and I left with the impression that we had found a jewel tucked away inside the state.

An Adventure at the Rural Life Museum

An Adventure at the Rural Life Museum

Armed with his Batman jacket and Elmo sippy cup, my son, Charles, stood outside the car giddy with excitement. Today he was going on an adventure to Baton Rouge (ok, so maybe he thought he was going to the zoo) but we knew he was going to have fun regardless. So after buckling him in–surrounded by enough toys to last the hour drive to our destination–and clicking the baby’s car seat into place, we set off on our journey.

Mid-morning traffic wasn’t terrible, and we made good time getting to our first turnoff at Essen Lane. We had been to the Rural Life Museum before, back during our college years, but never to the adjacent Windrush Gardens–and never with kids. I’ve found that I discover everything anew when I revisit a place with my toddler, whose interests (and eye-level) are very different from my own.

As we drove down the winding road that led us back to the museum, we marveled at how we felt completely set apart from the city, although we were smack dab in the middle of it. In the time it took me to unload the baby, Charles was already climbing a massive column from Louisiana State University’s original Hill Memorial Library. My husband chased him inside the Visitor Center, where he took a whirlwind tour of the old carriages while we paid our admission.

Ox at the Rural Life Museum

The woman at the front desk informed us that the ox outside had just been fed a pumpkin, so I let my husband poke around the museum while the kids and I went to peek at the giant animal. We heard the ox before we saw it, its deep moo overpowering the air around us. I can’t recall ever being face-to-face with an ox before, and as he gave me a hard, unblinking stare, I understood the awe and fear that was showing in Charles’ eyes.

Another young boy shrieked at the ox and broke the trance he had caught us in. James, who turned out to be a year older than Charles, was a fearless child and laughed at our timidness around the beast. His enthusiasm was catching, and Charles and he became instant friends, inseparable the rest of the time at the museum.

Acadian home (built pre-1805)

Aside from the ox, the outdoor section included 32 buildings illustrating a working plantation and folk and Creole architecture. While James flitted from one structure to the next, Charles followed him in lockstep. They posed for pictures in the outhouse, raced across wooden porches, pointed out the pint-sized “Charlie chairs” that furnished many of the buildings and fished with their stick fishing poles in a small bayou.

Windrush Gardens

I was most impressed by the simple, yet beautiful church, while my husband the gardener saw great potential in the winter Windrush Gardens that promised a multitude of spring flowers. An accidental turn led us to a lovely lake before we made our way back onto the map and through the maze of the plantation garden. James offered us some comic relief when the “squirrel” attacking him, which elicited some high-pitched screams from the once fearless toddler, turned out to be a strand of moss caught in the heel of his shoes.

After a tearful goodbye between the new best friends, we filled our now starving stomachs with boudin balls and red beans and rice from the The Chimes restaurant just off LSU’s campus. As all dining-out experiences are with us, it was an interesting 43 and a half minutes, but we made it through without completely destroying the place.

LSU’s Mike the Tiger

It was late afternoon when we entered LSU’s campus and weighed our options against the fact that Charles was still napless for the day. But we were encouraged by the baby’s amazingly good mood-he hadn’t made a peep the entire trip-and pressed on to see the school’s highlights. So just like the kid in his favorite book, Born to be a Tiger, Charles scaled the Indian Mounds, roared at Mike the Tiger, gazed up at Tiger Stadium (and begged for a way inside the locked gates) and threw his LSU football through the arches in the Quad.

As we drove away that evening, I realized, once again, we had overdone it as usual. Both kids were now squalling and both parents were exhausted. But as the youngsters fell asleep in their car seats, we breathed a sigh of relief at the quiet and inwardly smiled at the amazing adventure we had just given our children.