Sometimes, I relive New Orleans history on a ride on the newly refurbished Mid City streetcar. I board in front of the classic U.S. Customs House at the foot of Canal Street. Clattering under mossy oaks and creamy magnolias, I notice how the style of houses morphs every 20 blocks or so, reflecting the changing local tastes over two centuries. At the end of the line stands the equestrian statue of hometown hero General Beauregard, who, in a nice bit of symmetry, was the lead engineer in the construction of the Customs House, where my ride began. From here, I might go left to the New Orleans Museum of Art or right, past St. Louis Cemetery No. 3, famous for its above-ground burials.
As I explore New Orleans historical sites, I ponder the Battle of New Orleans. The Jean Lafitte National Historical Park & Preserve - Chalmette Battlefield, where the famous battle occurred in 1815, gis one of the most important military memorials in the country.
Folklore & Folkways
Of course, the Louisiana story ranges far outside of the New Orleans city limits, so I head west out of the city on Highway 90, which runs like a smile through bayou country. The town of Houma is named for its native tribe of crawfish warriors and is a hub of the Indian nations of Louisiana. It’s the home of the Terrebonne Folklife Culture Center.
Up in Thibodaux, the E.D. White Historic Site sits on the bank of Bayou Lafourche, a Greek Revival plantation house that once was home to U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice White. Was he a closet Confederate? Why did Republican President Taft cross party lines to appoint a Democrat? I find the answers and more while poring over the home’s exhibit, which also fills me in on the area’s Chitimacha Indians and Acadian settlers.
When I was a teenager, my grandmother gave me a copy of Evangeline, Longfellow’s classic poem about the diaspora of the Acadians from Canada to Louisiana. The Museum of the Acadian Memorial in St. Martinville recounts the actual events. My grandmother would be pleased to know that whenever I go to the memorial, I always stop at Evangeline Oak Park and at the nearby church to see the statue of heartbroken Evangeline herself. The place where Evangeline was said to meet her lover, the Longfellow-Evangeline State Historic Site, is close by, too. It doesn’t have any evidence of the star-crossed lovers, but it does have a Creole cottage and an Acadian farmstead.
Labors of Love
Any talk of Louisiana’s heritage has to include the Mississippi River. I begin in Baton Rouge, where David Floyd, the director of the LSU Rural Life Museum, stands in a recently relocated 19th-century antebellum church, part of the museum complex. “The congregation never had a piano,” he says, “so for their hymns, they would create rhythms with their hands and feet.” Listening to his fervor, I can just imagine being a part of the services that once happened here.
The renovated 1840s Louisiana's Old State Capitol, with its fantastic crenellations and dizzying staircases, looks like it came right out of a Harry Potter book. I know the “new” State Capitol spearheaded by then-Governor Huey Long in 1928 is more famous. But I’m amazed the old one is still standing, having withstood capture by the Union, artillery fire and abandonment during the Civil War. Visitors can tour the building daily.
If I were able to live the good life a couple of centuries ago, I would walk the grounds daily at Houmas House Plantation and Gardens, in Burnside. I’d watch cool breezes shake pecans out of the trees above the finest kept grounds on the river before entering the exquisite house, site of the film "Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte," and a precious example of sugar-trade success.
Ancient (and Not-So-Ancient) History
For really ancient history, I take friends to the intriguing Poverty Point State Historic Site. Way up in the northeastern Louisiana town of Epps, this ongoing archeological dig shows the oldest evidence of human habitation on the North American continent. A ranger tells me these little-known people lived here some 12,000 years ago!
Nearly 150 miles to the west in Shreveport, the dignified Spring Street Historical Museum sits in the city’s oldest building, the historic 1865 Tally Bank. The museum’s collections and deft narrative bring to life the foundations of a thriving Southern city.
Whether it’s their famous rodeo, or in music, books, the news or film, I can think of at least a dozen cultural references to the Louisiana State Penitentiary Museum. If you’re curious to see if the pop culture is accurate, the penitentiary's museum retells the prison’s notorious history.
St. Francisville seems to whisper “welcome” to me every time I meander along its verdant streets. Among several stunning mansions is the Audubon State Historic Site & Oakley House. The 1806 Oakley Plantation home is where John James Audubon stayed while creating his bird paintings.
Lake Charles, about 150 miles away, sits as the commercial center of a five-parish area that once was called the “Imperial Calcasieu” region. The Imperial Calcasieu Museum is the repository of all things historic, cultural and just plain interesting for the region, such as a reconstruction of a vintage barbershop and an exhibit of the United States’ military action. And, if you aren’t fortunate enough to catch the springtime Contraband Days celebrating the pirate influence on Lake Charles, the museum has lots of Jean Lafitte memorabilia, including a letter from the French king to Captain Lafitte.
Sulphur, Louisiana, doesn’t smell like the valuable resource found there, but the Brimstone Museum & Henning Cultural Center lays out the revolutionary mining process in a way that even a non-scientist like me can understand.
My figure-eight through the state brings me home to New Orleans, neatly tying together a few places, and leaving lots of others for another adventure. The nice thing is that New Orleans offers the two best things to do when not doing anything – drinking and eating. The brand, spanking new Museum of the American Cocktail, right inside of the Southern Food & Beverage Museum in the Riverwalk Marketplace, describes the history of these two pastimes. While we admire pelicans floating on the Mississippi, a visitor from a far different place says to me “You know, no matter where I am in the world, I love ending up in a place like this,” and I think he’s reading my mind.