I fell victim to the charms of Natchitoches, Louisiana. In the future, whenever I am nearby, I intend to visit. In short, I am having a love affair with a Northwest Louisiana town.
But before I wax poetic, let’s get the pronunciation straight and review a little history. “Nack-a-dish” is named for an indigenous tribe of people from the area. This is where the Spanish came exploring in the 1500’s, and the French settled in 1714. Natchitoches is the oldest town in the 1803 Louisiana Purchase.
Fort St. Jean Baptiste, the original French settlement founded by Louis Juchereau De St. Denis, has be been rebuilt along the banks of the old Red River (known as Cane River Lake after the river re-routed itself).
Main Street, along the waterfront, anchors the 33-block historic district, which includes shops, boutiques, restaurants, bars, the oldest general store in Louisiana, and Lasyone’s Meat Pies.
Remember the tune, “Jambalaya, crawfish pie, file gumbo?” They’ve got crawfish pie at Lasyone’s, and man, is it delicious.
The town was decked out in fall colors during my October visit. Come Christmas time, they have one of the biggest and most visited light displays in Louisiana.
They’ve also got drive-through daiquiri stands, which are a staple in Louisiana, but this one near my campsite was near and dear to my heart. After a day of sightseeing I would drop by and order a big Styrofoam cup of frozen, syrupy, boozy goodness and take it back to the rig for dinner. No putting the straw in the cup or drinking from the cup before you get home! That’ll get you busted for drinking and driving, even in Louisiana.
The historic homes and buildings of Natchitoches evoke French colonialism.
In fact, I was lucky enough to get a personal tour of a house built in 1776 by its 97-year-old owner! On a movie tour.
DRINK YOUR JUICE, SHELBY
Many people travel to Natchitoches because of one of the most classic movies of the 1980’s: “Steel Magnolias.” Author Bobby Harling grew up in Natchitoches, and he wrote a Broadway play about his sister, Susan Robinson, who died of complications from diabetes after giving birth. When the play was optioned for a movie, thank goodness the powers that be chose to film in Natchitoches.
There is no better way to see Natchitoches than with Barbara Bailey, who herself lives in the historic district.
She travels along as a passenger in your vehicle, imparting Southern wisdom, exuding charisma and conveying seemingly infinite knowledge about Natchitoches, “Steel Magnolias,” and the Harling family.
I phoned Barbara and told her I wanted a hybrid of her tours about the movie and the local history. We met at the Visitor’s Center on Main Street, where she is known as “Miss Barbara,” and she assured me she would not take me anywhere that would get me shot or arrested. I had my doubts on our first stop, while we were tramping around the yard of a private home!
As we stood outside the home, built in 1776, the front door opened. An elderly woman in a wheelchair with a delightful accent bade us good morning. Seeing that Barbara was conducting a personal tour, she invited us in. Barbara was gobsmacked; in all of her years of conducting tours, this was only the second time that the homeowner allowed company inside.
I restrained myself from taking photos of the architecture and amazing period furnishings, out of respect for the homeowner, but I could not resist requesting a photo of her as we were getting ready to leave. I felt so touched, and honored.
Most of the rest of the tour was spent talking about the movie. We stopped at the site of M’Lynn’s (Sally Field) house, now a bed-and-breakfast, where the wedding took place:
Ouiser’s (Shirley McClaine) house next door:
Truvy’s (Dolly Parton) Beauty Spot and the beauty salon that inherited the iconic prop:
And the cemetery location of the funeral scene.
With life imitating art, a memorial marker has been placed where Sally Field had her meltdown, and Olympia Dukakis (“Clairee”) offered up Shirley McClain as a punching bag.
We also drove by the hospital where the death scene was filmed, and the actual, understated home of the Harling family, where Mr. Harling really did shoot at birds to roust them out of the trees in preparation for his daughter’s backyard wedding. At the conclusion of the tour, we stopped at the site of the Easter egg hunt at the end of the movie, when Daryl Hannah (“Annelle”) goes into labor.
PLANTATION DAY TRIPPIN‘
A 25-minute drive outside of Natchitoches, along the Cane River,
past fields of cotton,
will find you in plantation country. Magnolia, Melrose, and Oakland plantations are there. I chose to tour Magnolia plantation because of its Franco-African, Creole heritage, and its later association with art and artists.
The owner of Melrose, Claude Thomas Pierre Metoyer, and Marie Therese Coincoin, an African born into slavery but freed by Metoyer, had ten Franco-African children and became the legacy of the Isle Brevelle Creole Community. Descendants of the Metoyer family still live along Cane River today.
In the early 20th century the plantation was an artists’ colony, at the behest of benefactor Miss Cammie Henry, and hosted Lyle Saxon, William Faulkner, Rachel Field, Ada Jack Carver, Roark Bradford, and Alberta Kinsey. They stayed at Yucca House on the grounds.
Francois Mignon arrived for a six-week visit in the early 1940s and stayed 32 years. I’m so glad he did, because he became the muse for one of the greatest primitive artists of the 20th century, Clementine Hunter.
Clementine Hunter, an uneducated field hand at Melrose, later worked as a cook and housekeeper. One day she picked up some discarded paints and began creating. Her “insider art” works are treasures. Many of her paintings can be seen at Melrose, including the African House murals, which she painted on the premises in the 1950s at Mignon’s request. Her modest home is on the property.
It is impossible to have one favorite painting, or comment, by Miss Hunter. When asked why she painted such large chickens pulling carts, she replied that regular-sized chickens would not be able to do the job.
She often painted angels – good ones wearing white and evil ones in red – with beehive-type hairdos. She explained that your hair would be messed up too, if you fell from the heavens.
Clementine and Mignon are buried side-by-side at Saint Augustine Catholic Church Cemetery near the plantation, friends for eternity.
Saint Augustine was founded by free people of color and is the oldest African-American parish in the country. It also happens to be the scene of Shelby’s wedding in “Steel Magnolias.”
Natchitoches was just the palate cleanser I needed after a week in Shreveport. I highly recommend it for anyone who is interested in history, or the movie.