New Orleans Barataria Plantations River Road

New Orleans, Barataria and Plantations along River Road

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New Orleans, Barataria and Plantations along River Road

Thursday, November 2 2000.

Joyce has us scheduled on a two hour Grey Line bus tour of New Orleans beginning at 10:00. The tour guide was excellent. He pointed out the school he had to graduate from in order to be a tour guide in New Orleans.

One very picturesque yet interestingly strange stop on the tour was St. Louis Cemetery a typical turn of the century Catholic cemetery, in southern Louisiana. It is an old cemetery, dating from the mid 1800's, but bodies continued to be added to the vaults, more on this practice later. Southern Louisiana cemeteries are strikingly different from the green lawns, trees and the granite and marblemonuments of conventional cemeteries in other parts of the country. The land is so low, at or just above sea level, the normal burial hole will fill with water and the casket will float. Even Cement tombswill float. To obviate this problem the coffin is laid upon the surface of the ground, and a strong structure of brick built around it. This is then plastered and whitewashed. These tombs were made of brick because there is no natural stone near New Orleans and the least expensive permanent building material at hand was the soft red brick-burned in local brickyards. To preserve the brickwork it was necessary to use plaster and whitewash; some marble, imported at considerable expense, was employed, mainly for nameplates and tablets. In some vaults there are several bodies, and in others only one. These above ground tombs resemble little windowless houses, built
close together, row on row, giving the effect of a city of small dimension. Grass and trees so common in traditional cemeteries is virtually non-existent here. On one side of the cemetery there is a wall of catacombs the entire length of the cemetery, like the cells of a honeycomb, in which the coffin is placed, and the mouth closed with a stone containing an inscription. These cells were purchased for various lengths of time varying from 1 to 10 years and some were owned in perpetuity. If you do not understand how it is possible to
purchase a vault for "less than eternity" read on I will explain. These wall vaults were less expensive. Many are in a state of picturesque dilapidation, the lower rows having sunk into the soft earth to such a degree that it is not possible to open them. That is not to imply that many of the other tombs are not in disrepair also.

The Creole (a person of mixed French or Spanish and black descent speaking a dialect of French or Spanish) custom of using a single vault for a number of entombments is one that really fascinates me. As the occasion requires, the remains of the last occupant of the vault are gathered and pushed to the back of the vault, the decayedcasket wood being removed and burned; the vault is then ready to receive another body. In the private tombs, which generally consist of two vaults, one above the other, and a pit (caveau) or receptacle
below, bodies are removed from the upper vaults and consigned to the receptacle to make room for further occupancy on the occasion of subsequent funerals. Thus a small, two-vault family tomb is used many times for the interment of several generations of its owners, a very practical and relatively inexpensive arrangement. The biblical "ashes to ashes and dust to dust" appears to apply here. They say after a few years the remains decompose and can be "pushed to the back of the vault" or the (caveau) thus making room for the next family member. Tour guides tell their charges that these above ground vaults get very hot in the summer months reaching temperatures in excess of 300 degrees during the day. They say that when they open the vault after a year or so that there was less than a soup bowl of remains inside of the decayed wooden casket. Now you know how the same vault can be
used more than one time. It just takes a few years and the vault is ready to be used again. If there was a real tragedy and you needed to inter a body before the current occupant had time to decay the family had to rent one of the vaults in the wall until such time as your remains could be interred in the family grave.

We noticed a number of "society" tombs-multiple vaults built by mutual benefit groups for their members. Some of these are built five or more tiers high and may occupy several lots. These "society" tombs inter many, many bodies, especially with the practice of pushing thendecomposed body into the (caveau). Modern day "society" groups might be the American Legion, Moose and Elks, the ones we saw were Italian immigrants, Spanish immigrants, firemen, and several we could not make out because the inscriptions were not clear.

November first was All Saints' Day. Remember that today is November the second. Each year prior to All Saints' Day the cemeteries humwith activity, so much activity in fact, that tour groups are prohibited during the days leading up to All Saints' Day. The grass is cut; Tombs are patched and freshly whitewashed. Vases of marble, of glass and even bottles are brought. Thousands and thousands of chrysanthemums are brought to the cemeteries and reverently placed at the tombs. From morning to late afternoon the cemeteries are thronged
and by nightfall become huge bowers of flowers. Here we are visiting St. Louis Cemetery the day after All Saint's Day. I guess you can say we they prepared the place for our visit.

We had a delectable lunch at Café Maspeiro, 601 rue Decatur, across the street from Jax Brewery. Everything was good; the $1.00 strawberry daiquiri was great.

We rode the St. Charles street Trolley to the end and returned viewing the garden district, parks, homes and universities along the route. This trolley ride is one both of us enjoy when we visit New Orleans.

Joyce booked us on the 7:00 dinner cruise aboard the steam ship Natchez. This was a fun outing complete with a New Orleans Jazz band. Mike enjoyed a tour of the engine room where the 100 year-old steam engine was chugging away. What a magnificent piece of machinery, it is so intriguing.

Friday, November 3, 2000. We slept late then headed to New Orleans via the free ferry that transports passengers between Algiers on the "west bank" and the foot of Canal street in New Orleans.

The day was spent wandering around the French Quarter area viewing St. Louis Cathedral, Jackson Square, and a myriad of other charming buildings mostly constructed in the mid 1800's. I took a picture of Joyce outside of the Court of Two Sisters an upscale restaurant 537 Royal Street. The Court of Two Sisters is significant in that my parents ate there on their honeymoon 55 years ago. We were trying to concentrate on the history that has been preserved in the French Quarter; however, it is hard to overlook the homeless and teens that have obviously completely dropped out of normal society. I honestly do not know how people can wear clothes that filthy, how they can not wash or comb their hair, or how a teen age girl could shave her head and have a spider and its web tattooed on her skull. A few hours in the French Quarter and you will witness every variety of degenerate imaginable. With that said there are thousands of normal tourists walking around having a good time.

Around 7:00 we head to the ferry for our ride back to the RV Park. The view of the New Orleans waterfront from the west bank, at night, is beautiful. We have enjoyed this view every night on our way back to the RV. We keep asking ourselves, does it get any better than this? The answer after a smidgen of thought is yes, probably in five months when I retire. Then we can do this every day.

New Orleans lifeline is the Mississippi River, which in its meandering way makes a big "crescent" shape thus, the name "Crescent City". Along the riverfront the river is approximately one half mile across and is in excess of 200 feet deep at mid-stream and 30 to 60 feet along the bank. The Port of New Orleans has ranked as high as the second busiest in the world. Tonnage today is concentrated in crude oil being transported to refineries along the river and grain being transported downriver on barges then transferred to freighters for export over sees. Oddly enough, a tour guide said that a large quantity of grain export was headed to Russia.

Saturday, November 4, 2000. We get up early and head to the ferry, we want to eat breakfast at "Mothers" a famous eatery in New Orleans. As luck would have it we missed the ferry by about 1 minute and had to wait for 30 minutes for the next one. That was ok since we had started early and did not have to be the starting point for our Gray Line walking tour until 10:00. We get off the ferry and head to Mothers only to find a 30-minute line outside the door. We decide to do breakfast at Orleans Café on the corner of Decatur and Iberville. Then it was off to our scheduled walking tour of the Garden District.

As always Gray Line provides a superb tour guide. The Garden District of New Orleans is located across Canal Street from the French Quarter. In the 1700's and 1800's the French and Americans were not getting along well especially those settling along the Mississippi River. To say the two nationalities eschewed each other would be an
understatement. Canal Street separated them. However, since they had to do business with each other it was conducted in the neutral zone or "the median" of Canal Street. New Orleans does not have medians; they have "neutral zones". These neutral zones throughout the Crescent City date back to those times.

Louisiana is a dichotomy. Let me explain. They have laws prohibiting gambling, however, "gaming" is ok supposedly by an act of the legislature. They "game" in Harrah's. Harrah's purportedly has the largest casino, in the South, at the foot of Canal Street. It is also against the law to drink and drive but they have businesses called "daiquiri drive thrus" complete with neon signs and drive up windows serving margaritas, pina colatas and daiquiris in styrofoam cups. Go figure! This is Louisiana! Laissez les bon temps rouler! (Let the good times roll).

Back to the Garden District tour. It is on the English side of Canal Street so we are in the "American District" that is entirely my term. There are blocks and blocks of 6000 to 12000 square foot homes many sporting ceilings as high as 18 feet. Each has it's own unique architectural design while striving to be more opulent more ostentatious than the other. Most were true to some form of architectural design while others were strangely eclectic. I suppose you could refer to these structures as handsome nineteenth-century villas, Greek Revival mansions and raised cottages surrounded by magnolias and ancient live oaks. Some residences in the Garden District are Antebellum (pre Civil War) others were built after the War. This is a lovely area, with lush landscaping and extravagant gardens dotted with statuary and fountains. It makes a perfect place to stroll around admiring the ornamental iron fences with their geometric and plant motifs, or you could, like me, just ogle the ostentatious residences. This area earned the moniker Garden District because of the flower gardens planted by residents. The Garden District is directly across the Mississippi river from Gretna. Gretna was the end of the trail for cattle moved to the River for shipment from as far away as Texas. We all know what stockyards smell like. This odor would drift across the river. Thus flower gardens were planted by the, newly rich, Americans to mask the smell.

I was surprised to find the French Consulates lavish home smack in the middle of the Garden District. Is this a blatant enigma or what? To tell the truth I can see why he would not want to live "on the French side".

The Americans had to do everything that the French did. The English built a park on their side of Canal Street to rival Jackson Square in the French Quarter. The English named theirs Lafayette Square after Lafayette (a Frenchman) while the French named their park Jackson Square after an Englishman. And these were people that did not like each other! Go figure! The English constructed St. Patrick's Church to have an equal to the French St. Louis Cathedral. Both of these structures are truly magnificent architecturally significant,

I have got to talk a little about GUMBO and OKRA since our docent for today told us how okra seeds were transported to America from Africa. First, the term gumbo comes from the African "Gombo" meaning okra. Gumbo is a soup served either as an appetizer or main course (over rice). File (fee'-lay'), a powdered sassafras leaf, is often substituted for okra as a thickening agent. Hence, one has either okra or file gumbo. Other variations depend on the meat additive: ham, chicken turkey, duck, sausage, shrimp, oysters, and crabs. Hundreds of restaurants prepare their own "secret" recipe for this magical dish. Once gumbo has touched your lips you will be hooked for life. Back to how the okra seed was brought to America. When the slave traders were over in Africa rounding up "slaves" to be brought over here they were not asking them to pack up for a cruise, if you get my drift. They came with what they had on when they were abducted. The women that were abducted had pierced ears much like ladies do today. However, the holes in their ears were a tad bit larger to accept the larger trinkets they adorned their ears with. When the "earrings" were not in their ears the women would place okra seeds into the holes to keep them from closing. Now you know how okra was transported to America. I for one am deeply grateful for the women bringing okra to America. I dearly love Joyce's fried okra. Did I mention that Joyce and I make a simply wonderful chicken & sausage gumbo? It is a LOT of work, especially making the roux, but oh so good.

Joyce and I found a sports bar in the River Walk Hilton where we could watch the FSU vs. Clemson football game. It lasted from 6:30 until 10:00, actually that is how long it was on TV, the game was over much sooner. I had to say that for the benefit of friends and family that are big time Clemson fans. They know that FSU has to travel to Clemson and play them in Death Valley next year. The way Tommy Bowden is bringing along those "tigers" I will be happy to escape Death Valley next year. But that is a year away. This year's bragging rights belong with Pappa 'Bowden and FSU.

Sunday, November 05, 2000. We sleep late since we did not get back to the motorhome until late last night. Our plans were to do a variety of things but had so much fun early in the day that we altered our plans and went with the flow. Our first stop of the day was Barataria Preserve. Barataria Preserve is one of four units comprising Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve. Jean Lafitte is a unique park within the National Park system. Rather than interpret a single theme, Jean Lafitte encompasses units which interpret many
diverse but ultimately related themes: the Battle of New Orleans at Chalmette; (a few miles south of New Orleans) the history and cultural diversity of Louisiana's Mississippi Delta region and New Orleans in the French Quarter; and Acadian culture in Lafayette, Thibodaux, and Eunice. The Barataria Preserve interprets the culture of people, past and present, which settled the delta and the unique ecosystem, which sustained them. It preserves a representative example of the delta's environment, containing natural levee forests, bayous, swamps, and marshes. Through wild, and teeming with wildlife, this is not a pristine wilderness. Evidence of prehistoric human settlement, colonial farming, plantation agriculture, logging, commercial trapping fishing hunting and oil and gas exploration overlay much of this former wilderness.

Barataria Preserve has over eight miles of trails; two and one half are boardwalks over the swamp. This walking tour is better, in my opinion, than the commercial swamp tours offered at various locations in the area. One of the boardwalks takes you out into the swamp to a cypress tree that escaped the logger's saw. It is the oldest and largest in the area and is possibly over 1000 years old. Much of the land in this region, west of the Mississippi River, is sinking as a result of the levee system on the Mississippi. Prior to the
artificial levees the river used to overflow its bank annually and deposit a new layer of earth. The Mississippi has not been allowed to overflow its banks in recent memory thus what were once sugar cane plantations are now large lakes approximately five feet deep. Also, salt water is encroaching and killing many of the trees and plants that are not salt tolerant.

As in the other Jean Lafitte parks in the system Barataria housed a series of exhibits complete with a superb diorama depicting a typical swamp scene.

Around 2:00 we needed nourishment and started looking for a place to grab a bite. A mile down the road at the corner of Louisiana 45 and highway 3134 we found the Bayou Barn, which was advertising a Fais, do do (having a good time) from 2:00 to 6:00. This piqued our interest.It seems that they have been having a Fais do do at this location every Sunday afternoon for years. For $10.00 a head you could eat and enjoy the band. Of course for a Fais do do there must be a band, plenty of GOOD food and a dance floor. The Bayou Barn was "the place to be" on Sunday afternoon. Joyce and I got caught up in the fun and started dancing. It is so easy to join these fun loving people. I got to add another Cajun dish to my list of wonderful entrees to try again. It was alligator sauce "picante". Picante in French means hot. This was not hot, just delightfully spicy with a slight tomato base. There are many "sauce piquant" variations such as chicken, shrimp, sausage, ham, duck the list goes on and on. Anyone visiting New Orleans on a Sunday afternoon can experience this by taking highway 90 across the Mississippi to the West Bank then turning south on LA-45. You will see the Bayou Barn on the corner the second time LA-45 crosses highway 3134. We hope that you enjoy it as much as we did.

Did I mention the football game last night? Oh was that fun. It was almost as much fun as we had today. Tonight we are doing laundry and writing this travelogue. Monday, November 6, 2000. We sleep late waiting for the rush hour traffic, in New Orleans, to subside then head out to tour plantations on River Road. On the way we ran into heavy rain, so heavy many cars pulled over to the side of I-10. The rest of us reduced speed to 35 or 40. This heavy rain continued for about half an hour then normal rain resumed. Upon reaching Vacherie it is 11:30 and the two Plantations we want to visit both have outdoor attractions we want to experience. We decide to give the rain time to pass.

B & C Cajun Restaurant and Sea Food Market

Our homework on the Internet and written publications indicated B & C Cajun Restaurant and Sea Food Market was a "must stop" in Vacherie. Joyce and I can now add our "AMEN" to those recommendations. This was a REAL Cajun place, not just a tourist trap. The restaurant featured all of the traditional Cajun fare. While we were eating they had a
"home made" video playing on an overhead TV. This video featured some of the local good old boys capturing alligators and turtles. To capture alligators they use a BIG fishhook baited with fish weighing about a pound or so. The hook is secured to a heavy line, or small rope and dangled from a small tree limb about a foot above the water. The end of the rope is then secured to the trunk of a tree 15 or 20 feet away on the bank. They leave this hanging from the tree and come back to check on it hours later possibly the next day. This is when the fun begins. One of those good old boys gets the end of the rope and starts pulling on it. You and I both know what is on the other end of the line. Things get wild about this time. Did I mention that the alligator is not happy about that hook in his mouth and is not eager to get in the boat with those two idiots? These boys catch turtles and crawfish also but that is just interesting not exciting like putting those alligators in the boat. B & C Sea Food Market comes complete with alligator and turtle cleaning tables. These boys are for real and had picture albums full of pictures to prove it. We had a good time in this place until the rain subsided over an hour later. Did I mention that the seafood market sold turtle and
alligator meat as well as crawfish tails?

I am not going to waste your time and mine recommending which of their entrees to sample. However, DO NOT dare miss their bread pudding with rum sauce. Nuff said. J

Laura, a Creole Plantation

Less than a mile up highway 18 we stop at Laura, a Creole Plantation. We were treated to the fascinating world of the Creoles who, at this one historic site, lived apart from the American life-style for 200 years. Creole means someone born here with parents from France, Spain, Africa, or any of the Caribbean Islands. They were our native sons and daughters. They were Creoles. Laura was owned by French Creoles and throughout its history was run by a succession of women. Ruthless women I might add. The guide gave us
an unvarnished account of plantation life. Unlike other plantation tours where slaves are referred to euphemistically as "servants" (or not mentioned at all), our guide related some heart-rending stories about slave life. One story was about how Laura sold the child of one of the slaves. Upon witnessing the slave mothers wails of grief, one of the family members, (Laura's brother I think) became upset and used his own money to purchase the child back so that the mother and child would not be separated. Another story was about one of the young girls seeing one of the field slaves up close and realizing that there was a bad scar on his forehead. She asked him about it and found that he had run away but been caught and Laura had him branded like cattle. Then after the Civil War slaves worked on contract for $12 per year paid annually in December. When payday came they would be told that
they owed more than the $12 dollars for their housing and such. This and other practices disgusted some of the family members who left Laura never to return. We were told that much of what they know about Laura Plantation was from memoirs written by Laura, a granddaughter of the Plantations namesake, who left the Plantation, in disgust, and moved north. It seems that upon seeing Gone With The Wind she decided to document what Plantation life was really like. It is this written account that gives Laura's tour guides the interesting stories about slave life.

Laura has a number of Slave Quarters on display as well.

Laura is where Alcee Fortier recorded the West African folktales later published as Br'er Rabbit stories. We all remember Br'er rabbit and the Tar Baby don't we? Now you know where the story came from.

Another interesting bit of information concerned the French and Americans. Remember they do not like each other and wanted everyone to know which they were. As riverboats plied the river Plantation houses were displayed in all their glory. The French painted their houses in bold colors while the Americans painted theirs white.

Oak Alley Plantation was our next stop. This is another ostentatious residence of a wealthy Creole sugar plantation owner. What differentiates this Plantation home from others are the 28 live oak trees leading from the river to the front door a distance of a quarter mile. An unknown French settler planted the trees in the early 1700's. They were placed 80 feet apart and have formed a magnificent covered carriageway. The mansion was not built until 1837 over a hundred years later.

The most interesting thing I remember about this plantation was the "shoos fly" above the dinner table. The mahogany dinner table was 16 feet in length to give you an idea of its size. The shoos fly was a heavy cloth arrangement hung across the table from the ceiling. It operated much like a steeple bell where a rope was attached to it and discretely routed to a chair in the corner where a slave would keep the shoo fly in motion thus creating a breeze that kept the flies at bay during meal time.


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Mike & Joyce Hendrix

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