History Lesson at Port Hudson

History Lesson at Port Hudson

On previous trips to St. Francisville, we always head straight for the historic town, walking the shaded main streets and shopping at Grandmother’s Buttons before setting off to tour a nearby plantation. Although we see the sign for Port Hudson State Historic Site as we pass, we never stop, always having a slight aversion to taking toddlers to a battle site. On our most recent trip, though, we had a change of heart and decided it was finally time for us to veer off the road and check it out.

Port Hudson State Historic Site

As is most often the case, we were pleasantly surprised by our decision. A model state facility, Port Hudson was immaculately kept up, with 6 miles of wipe-open trails for exploring and a child-friendly ranger who welcomed the kids and their insanity with open arms. An informative exhibit inside the museum offered miniature models of soldiers and horses that captured the kids’ imaginations, while the sad details of the actual battle were left to those old enough to read.

Golden-silk spider

The longest siege in American military history took place at Port Hudson, where for 48 days 6,800 Confederate soldiers held off 30,000 Union troops. There were thousands of casualties before the Confederates finally surrendered after hearing that Vicksburg had surrendered. The site is also important as being the first battle in which African American troops from Louisiana were allowed to participate in the battle, fighting for the Union army against the Confederates. Port Hudson later became a recruiting center for African-American troops.

After brushing up on our history and watching the ranger let the kids try on a canteen and practice moving a small cannon, we began our journey on the trails outside. It first led us through an open field to original cannons used in the Civil War battle here. Then, looping around, it immersed us into a shady forest with giant spiders weaving webs right over our heads and small bluffs offering elevation changes not often seen in Louisiana.

Fort Babcock

At Fort Desperate, an elevated boardwalk led us over the earthen hills built by the soldiers, and signs spoke of sharpshooters watching Union soldiers as they dug trenches to get closer to their enemy. We then crossed Foster Creek and found Fort Babcock, another series of earthen hills left behind to nature and the tiny frogs and lizards jumping and scurrying about through the fallen leaves. While the kids tested their bug-catching skills, we tried to imagine thousands of young soldiers hiding here in these woods 150 years ago.

Train car on display in town

The day was still early when we left Port Hudson, so we headed toward St. Francisville to pick up a bite to eat at Magnolia Cafe. On a whim, we decided to drive to the edge of town to view the Mississippi River and were surprised to find the road leading nearly straight up to the water’s edge. From here, we turned back and stopped off to investigate an old train car left behind from the West Feliciana Railroad. The kids climbed over every inch of it before we herded them back into the car to find out if the road was open to Cat Island.

Drive to Cat Island National Wildlife Refuge

As we crossed the low-lying bridge over a local river, we were excited to realize that the road was not flooded as it had been on previous visits. A family jumped across rocks in the scenic river while we headed out into the country, past several sightings of grazing deer to the dirt road that leads to Cat Island National Wildlife Refuge. A lack of signage and our own poor guessing at directions helped us “get lost in Louisiana” yet again before we finally found our way to the destination. Inside the refuge, we parked at the trailhead for the old cypress trees and walked the short distance to the viewing platform for the National Champion Bald Cypress – an enormous, ancient tree dominating the old growth forest around it. We took our time admiring this grandfather of trees, which spends half of every year swimming in the floodwaters of the Mississippi River. It’s a sight to see and the perfect ending to our day of adventure.

National Champion Bald Cypress
Pointe Coupee Parish: New Roads & Livonia

Pointe Coupee Parish: New Roads & Livonia

In all of our years visiting picturesque St. Francisville, we had never made it across the river to visit its sister city, New Roads. When an advertised Historic House Tour caught my attention, our weekend plans were sealed and we loaded the car with toys for our two-hour drive from New Orleans.
Pier and boat house on False River

We followed LA 1 and the Louisiana Scenic Bayou Byway to the southeastern edge of False River, an oxbow lake once part of the Mississippi River before it changed route and cut off the lake. The main road runs along a steep dropoff, creating a unique effect where the homes on our left were at eye level yet we were driving beside rooftops on our right. Graceful plantations with sprawling lawns dominated the road’s left side, and newer homes with lines of piers jutting out into the water stood to the right.

 

Pointe Coupee Parish Museum and Tourist Center

Colorful balloons bouncing in the wind beckoned us to stop at the Pointe Coupee Parish Museum and Tourist Center, where a table of coffee, homemade cookies and free gourds awaited our arrival. The kids darted through the small museum, not even bothering to look up before exiting out the back door to look for frogs in the sugar kettle out back. They were relatively contained within the fenced yard, so we managed to squeeze out a few minutes of conversation with the tour guides. Turns out the house itself was from nearby Parlange Plantation, and items in the museum documented life in 18th and early 19th century Louisiana. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the building, according to the National Park Service, is “a rare example of a log cabin type construction in a Creole type house.”

Randall Oak

From here, we followed the balloon trail, our marker for all the open houses on the tour. Down the road was the Randall Oak, a beauty of a live oak making its way to the top of the Live Oak Registry. Although a center split gives the impression of two separate trees grown together, the tree’s owner assured us it was only one massive oak. Poydras College once stood nearby this location,¬† where Professor James Randall wrote the poem, “Maryland, My Maryland,” which is today Maryland’s official state song. While here, we peaked next door at Mon Reve’, a lovely French Creole home that unfortunately had dropped out of the historic homes tour.

St. Mary of False River

Our map from the Visitor’s Center led us into downtown New Roads. As soon as we entered, we parked our car for a stroll along Main Street.We skirted in between buildings to access public docks where half a dozen people were out fishing for the day on False River. A few boats passed by as well, undoubtedly enjoying the warm sunshine and cool afternoon breeze. We took note of several interesting restaurants located in historic buildings, such as Ma Mama’s Kitchen, but we forewent a lengthy, sit-down lunch in favor of quick club sandwiches and grilled cheese at the local Cafe.

After eating, the kids exhausted some of their energy playing in the beautiful gardens surrounding St. Mary of False River Church, a Gothic-style church completed in 1907. A few blocks down, Pointe Coupee Parish Court House is another focal point of the town, resembling a medieval castle erected on Main Street.

Market at the Mill

Back in the car, we visited more historic homes on the list, such as the LeJeune House, home to a family with 12 children–all of whom never married. The Samson House, also known as Pointe Coupee Bed and Breakfast, and the Pourciau House were another two landmarks on the tour. Our final stop in downtown was the Market at the Mill, a retired cottonseed oil mill that happened to be hosting its three-day, annual “shopping extravaganza” of antique and vintage items. From the look of the parking lot, it appeared to be a very popular destination.

The town and surrounding area is quite lovely, and we drove around a while longer just sightseeing while the kids snoozed in the backseat. For the route home, we detoured on LA78 toward Frisco and on to Livonia, searching for an Indian mound we had read about in the book New Roads and Old Rivers: Louisiana’s Historic Pointe Coupee Parish. Built between 700 AD and 1200 AD by the Coles Creek Culture, the mound is uniquely out of place next to a Dollar General Store. However, upon contacting the town, we learned that it was donated by the property owners to the town, and plans are in the works for highlighting its prominence in Louisiana’s history.

Livonia Mound

 

Fossil Hunting in Gravel

Fossil Hunting in Gravel

Our latest obsession is fossil hunting. During a recent trip to Percy Quin State Park, we were initially dismayed to find the normally beautiful lake now a drained, muddy bed. We made the most of it, though, venturing out into the squishy mud, collecting a few interesting rocks along the way. Back at home, the discovery of a document by Louisiana State University opened our eyes to what we had before us–rocks filled with imprints of tiny plants and sea creatures from hundreds of millions of years ago.

Now hooked, we had to find more. As it turns out, a good location for Louisiana fossil hunting is in the riverbeds of the Tunica Hills area. Unfortunately, fall is hunting season at Tunica Hills Wildlife Management Area, so we set our sites on neighboring Mississippi’s Clark Creek Nature Area.

Our first find

A two and half hour drive from New Orleans, Clark Creek wasn’t quite close enough to make it without stopping for a sanity break for our 2 and 4-year-old. Pushing through Baton Rouge, we skidded to a halt in St. Francisville on the 400th “are we there yet??” interrogation. A very knowledgeable woman at the Visitor’s Center set us up with a brochure on Clark Creek as well as information on other attractions and, most importantly, food.

Looking for a quick place to pick up lunch, we ordered wraps at Cozy Corner Bistro and walked past the St. Francisville Inn to eat on the picnic tables in the adjacent park. While the kids climbed trees in the park, we glanced down at the Inn’s pebble driveway and discovered the first of the day’s fossils. In under ten minutes, we had found a half dozen river rocks bearing impressions of tiny ferns and marine animals. Giddy with excitement, we loaded back in the car and headed for Clark Creek.

Making friends at the Pond Store

Google routed us along Tunica Trace to the Fort Adams Pond Road, which proved to be a bumpy ride pitted with potholes. Regardless, it was a nice jaunt into the countryside, past pastures of cows and horses and even an old Pond Store, circa 1881.

Just around the corner from the Pond Store was Clark Creek Nature Preserve. We parked alongside a handful of other cars and loaded our backpack with water and snacks. The 700-acre preserve boasts 50 waterfalls, champion trees and miles of hilly, strenuous trails.

Clark Creek’s Waterfall Trail

We set out on the leaf-covered Waterfall Trail, admiring the scenery and listening to the birds chirping. Long rows of stairs bypassed steep slopes that turned slippery in wet weather, and much of the trail had a surprisingly sharp drop-off on one side. At the intersection with the Primitive Trail, we veered off the main trail to walk along the stream’s edge (often having to jump across to switch sides). It was here that we began taking breaks to examine rocks and had already found several interesting pieces when we heard the first waterfall.

Passing beyond a leaning tree, we found ourselves on top of the waterfall, looking down to the pool below. We backtracked through the woods and emerged again on the lower end, marveling at our first sight of a waterfall since the Smokey Mountains. The pool was warm to the touch, and the kids practiced their “mountain-climbing” by jumping across boulders.

Exploring the creek bed

Although the Waterfall Trail leads to six waterfalls, we set our goals on seeing the first two, knowing that we’d most likely be carrying kids on our way out. The second was just as stunning as the first, making us realize the trip would have been a success even without the discovery of fossils.

By the time we made it back to the car, nearly three hours had passed and the sky was darkening with the incoming front. Despite being a bit sore, we were delighted with our day’s adventures through this picturesque nature preserve. Plus, we found plenty of brachiopod, crinoid and tabulate coral fossils for our coffee table’s “show and tell” bowl.

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.

Escaping to St. Francisville

Escaping to St. Francisville

After suffering through three days of rain over Labor Day weekend, I watched in disbelief as a week full of sunshine mocked me out my office window. Saturday couldn’t come fast enough, and we were up and out the door before the geckos had even fled our porch from the night before.

We had saved this trip to St. Francisville until we had the perfect weather conditions, where every historic home glittered in the sunlight and low water levels provided access to the nation’s largest cypress tree. Yet no matter how many times we visit this “best of the small towns,” we always begin our adventure at Grace Church of West Feliciana Parish. Take two steps into the surrounding, tree-shrouded cemetery and you become immersed in history, walking among elaborately carved headstones honoring those who died nearly 200 years ago. The entire area gives the sense of treading through the pages of a book. Three-year-old, dinosaur hunter Charles must have shared the mystique, spinning me a tale of T-Rex eggs and triceratops bones lying just beneath the surface.

Magnolia Cafe

From the cemetery, we strolled around the historic district, making sure to peek in Grandmother’s Buttons, before following a motorcycle crew to lunch at Magnolia Cafe. Outside on the screened-in porch, Paul and I filled up on overstuffed sandwiches, while August flirted with our table neighbors and Charles showed us his collection of dinosaur fossils in between mouthfuls of shrimp.

Our plans had included a trip to the garden ruins of Afton Villa, but a quick stop at the local tourist information let us know they didn’t open until October 1. Instead, we left with a recommendation to visit Oakley Plantation, where famous naturalist John James Audubon once worked as a tutor while creating 32 of his intricate bird paintings. Charles spent his time here giving the resident peacock an afternoon workout followed by making us a meal of mushrooms and osage oranges in the cooking pot on display outside a slave cabin.

Oakley Plantation

Back downtown, we stopped in for an afternoon coffee at Birdman Coffee and Books and treated the kids to some chocolate ice cream. Rejuvenated, we headed back out, this time down a gravel road deep into Louisiana’s wild country. Egrets and blue herons eyed us carefully as we passed their hunting grounds on our way to Cat Island National Wildlife Refuge. Our destination was the National Grand Champion bald cypress tree, accessible by land only from July through December and flooded by the Mississippi River the rest of the year. A short, half-mile hike led to the base of the tree, which unfortunately we could only admire for a few minutes before the inevitable mosquitoes launched their attack. So, while worth the visit, I would definitely recommend bringing bug spray.

Sufficiently exhausted, the kids slept soundly the whole way home, not even waking as we shouted the obligatory “Geaux Tigers!” while driving back over the LSU lakes.

National Grand Champion Bald Cypress