Natchez, MISSISSIPPI to ST FRANCISVILLE, LOUISIANA
After a couple of interesting days exploring Natchez, we departed for Louisiana. Our new acquaintance, Dub Walker, proprietor of Steam Punk Coffee (see Mississippi Part Three) recommended that we cross into Louisiana from Natchez. This enabled us to travel a significant distance south along the river on the levees and also view a number of the Army Corps of Engineers flood prevention and control facilities.
We are certainly glad that we followed Dub’s recommendation. Driving the levee was great fun and provided us with a tour of a very rural part of Louisiana. Our drive along the levee took us through Concordia Parish which covers 745 square miles with a population of just under 20,000 people. There are only seven incorporated towns or cities in the entire parish. We visited several “named places” (as noted on our map) such as Slocum and Shaw, but we found nothing other than a small sign and a bend in the road. Needless to say, we did not see many people on this drive!
The rich alluvial soil deposited by the Mississippi River in Concordia Parish was ideal for growing cotton. Being cotton country also meant that the parish was home to a small number of very large plantations. At the beginning of the Civil War, over 90% of the people living in the parish were enslaved African-Americans. No other parish in Louisiana had as high a percentage of the population enslaved. Not unexpectedly, the plantation owners staunchly backed the C.S.A. throughout the Civil War.
We departed the levee system somewhere north of Lettsworth. Our expert navigator guided us off the levee and through a series of dirt fields back to pavement (which was far more difficult than it sounds). Once back on pavement, we followed LA 971 and LA1 south and recrossed the river to lodge in St Francisville, Louisiana.
Traveling on LA1 took us across the Low Sill Dam and the 4200 foot long Morganza Spillway. The spillway has over 100 gates which allow for the diversion of a massive amount of water from the Mississippi River into the Atchafalaya Basin and River.
The Army Corps of Engineers plays a large role in the lives of those who live in the Mississippi River Delta. Without the structures built by the Corps, the communities throughout these lowlands (average elevation 56 feet above sea level) would continue to experience catastrophic flooding and loss of life.
We stopped in Lettsworth to visit the church pictured below. It is relatively simple structure which was constructed of hand made bricks. The stained glass windows were made in England – speaking to this church’s affiliation with the Episcopal Church.
However, as with many things in the South, the Civil War changed all of that. The Episcopal Bishop of Louisiana at the time the Civil War started was Leonidas Polk. Polk, in addition to his religious calling, was as a slaveholding plantation owner (the plantation was located in Tennessee.)
With the states at war Polk felt the need to found a new church (ostensibly in support of god, country and slavery! ) – hallelujah – the Episcopal Church of the Confederate States of America! Polk then resigned his position in the church and joined the Confederate Army serving as a Lieutenant General, despite having no prior combat experience. His battle record was poor, but because he was appointed by Jefferson Davis – well you know. His nickname was the “Fighting Bishop” of the Confederacy and true to his nickname he died fighting in battle in 1864. Every church has a story! P.S. The Episcopal Church of the C.S.A. ceased to exist shortly after the South surrendered.
Gumbo and shrimp – yes please! No better way to conclude a dusty day on the levee. The Francis Southern Table and Bar. https://www.thefrancissoutherntable.com
We made an abbreviated stop in BTR as we were returning to Connecticut on our Covid-shortened trip of Spring 2020. The history of BTR sounds similar to many other port towns in Louisiana and Mississippi (an unfair and inaccurate observation no doubt.) French explorers built a fort on the bluff overlooking the river in 1699. Subsequently, BTR was under the control of the French, Spanish and British at various points in time. The Union Army captured the city in 1862 which, along with the capture of Vicksburg, meant game over for the Confederacy. From a current perspective, people tend to think Louisiana’s state capital (Governor John Bel Edwards), Louisiana State University (Tigers), ExxonMobil’s Baton Rouge Refinery (13th largest refinery in the world) and, of course, the Mississippi River. For history buffs interested in a more serious and less glib reading of Baton Rouge we suggest the following book: Historic Baton Rouge by Faye Phillips and Sylvia Frank Rodrique.
BTR is a short drive from St Francisville – good news in light of the lack of third wave coffee in St Francisville. First stop on the BTR coffee tour was City Roots Coffee Bar. This was a first visit for OTR and we would definitely recommend it be a part of your BTR specialty coffee rotation.
burden museum & gardens (BMG)
The BMG LSU is an unlikely oasis of green off Interstate 10 just outside of downtown BTR. The land was the gift of the Burden family to LSU on the condition that it only be utilized for agricultural, horticultural and agronomic research and the development of the Rural Life Museum.
Although it was early April, there were plenty of flowers and trees in bloom. We toured the gardens and walked the three mile interpretive trail system through woods and swamp. The trail was peaceful and secluded – you would never think you were in an urban area.
The Rural Life Museum consists of several buildings with 18th and 19th century artifacts from rural Louisiana. The exhibits include tools, furniture, wagons and clothing.
The outdoor exhibits consist of 32 buildings across 25 acres. The buildings are arranged in four sections representing different regions of Louisiana. The centerpiece from our perspective was the Working Plantation which included the living quarters and church for the enslaved people. Each of the buildings has a plaque identifying the function of the building and context – informative and in some cases dispiriting.
Also on display on the grounds was the statue pictured below —- The Good Darky. We have included below all of the information provided by the museum. We agree with their view that is should be displayed despite the explicit racism depicted (the reader may, of course, disagree).
The sculptor left the statue untitled. Its dedication plaque from 1927 reads: “Dedicated to the arduous and faithful service of the good darkies of Louisiana.” This text was the source of the statue’s first acquired name, “The Good Darky.” The statue has also been called “Uncle Jack,” combining recognition of the statue’s donor, Jackson Bryan, and the practice of referring to an elderly Black man as “uncle.” Today, abandoning both pejoratives, we refer to this object as “the Schuler Statue.”
Museums collect and preserve objects to learn about the past and learn from the past. This principle applies equally to subjects that we are proud to share as well as those that are hurtful and unpleasant. The LSU Rural Life Museum’s role is to care for and to interpret our collection. We do this not to glorify the past or to place inauthentic meaning in the objects. Instead, we preserve and talk about these objects to better inform our shared history, in this case the role of race in the rural South and how it has shaped our lives today.
Jackson Lee Bryan, a successful cotton planter, mill owner, and banker, commissioned noted sculptor Hans Schuler of Baltimore, MD to create this statue. It was erected at the end of Front Street in Natchitoches, LA in 1927, with the stated intention of recognizing the loyalty and friendly relations shown between the segregated Black and White communities of the city. By 1968, much of the social system the statue represented had begun to be dismantled. Under pressure from voices within the Black community, the City of Natchitoches removed the statue from public display. Through the determination of Jo Bryan Ducoumau, J.L. Bryan’s niece, the city returned ownership to her, which ultimately led to the donation of the statue to the LSU Rural Life Museum.
This statue, the only one of its kind, embodies the Jim Crow culture by reinforcing “model” behavior. In Louisiana and elsewhere in 1927, the practice of African Americans bowing heads and tipping hats was as much a survival tactic as a polite gesture. The presence of the statue in a public space reinforced the Jim Crow era’s rigid social norms and racial stratification. Initial responses to the statue were filled with a nostalgic image of a more tranquil past. Similar sentiments appeared in local papers, proclamations, and other public documents. “The old negro looks as if he had just shuffled into the square and recognized some of his white folks; he has removed his battered hat and is bowing and smiling his joyful greeting.” (New York Times, July 31, 1927
Despite being cloaked in genteel manners, these customs were a response to an underlying threat of violence to African Americans who strayed outside societal norms.
“But then, there were times in growing up (under Jim Crow) … where you had to use survival psychology … That’s the time when I would grin, shuffle, say “Yes Sir” or “No Sir,” look down. All of those things that said that you were inferior, you know. But, that was a survival tactic. Even at a very young age, we understood how to survive in a racist and very violent system.” –Ser Seshsh Ab Heter Clifford Boxley, Natchez,MS
About 15 minutes east of the museum in Shenandoah sits a local favorite for cajun and creole cuisine – Dempsey’s Poboys – a perfect spot to sit and reflect on all that we had seen at the museum. Or could it be the photos above of gumbo and fried catfish represent the new primary diet of one of the members of our little band of travelers?
After our day at the museum we hit the bike trail. BTR has created a 39.6 mile partially paved bike trail along the top of the Mississippi River levee. The northern trailhead trail begins in downtown BTR and extends southward. Once out of the city the scenery changes to a mix of farmlands, residential areas, the occasional factory and views of the river. You can, in fact ride this levee all the way to New Orleans, although portions are unfinished.
We have had the opportunity to ride on a number of levee trails – this is fun riding – expansive views due to your elevated riding position and no street crossings!
The best trail rides come with the opportunity to have espresso and tea (and perhaps toast) at a specialty coffee shop conveniently located near the trailhead. If the stars are truly aligned that same coffee shop also serves lunch and cocktails ( facilitating the critical transition from caffeine to alcohol).
Fortunately, for us, Reve Coffee Lab BTR, was just a few minutes from where we had parked the Beast for our bike ride. Wrapping a bike ride between a pre-ride cappuccino and a tasty post ride sandwich washed down with a cold, bubbly Prosecco qualifies as an excellent day for OTR!
We departed BTR the following morning, but not before visiting a new specialty coffee shop located near the state capital building in downtown. The guys at Reve Coffee recommended that we stop by Social and say hey to owner Dillon Farrell.
Dillon first launched Social in 2019 utilizing a mobile coffee cart. He built a strong following and opened the current location in March of this year. Dillon is a sincerely nice guy – we really enjoyed the opportunity to chat with him between customers. He is a top notch barista – excellent caps, cortados and London Fogs. Sealing the deal – he uses Onyx Coffee. We wish him the very best with his shop.
We had a good couple of days exploring BTR. LSU brings a lot to the city – the gardens, museums, music and sports. We think BTR is worth two to three days depending on your interests.
Be seeing you!