First, don’t try to pronounce it like it’s spelt, because that’s wrong. It’s like “Nack-a-tish”. I first learned about the city when I was reading the Cane River Romance series by Mary Jane Hathaway. All the while I was reading it, I was pronouncing it just the way it was spelt. When I was talking with a fellow coworker who was also born in Louisiana as I was, she corrected me. It took days to get myself out of the habit of saying “Natch-it-oe-chess”. So embarrassing, seeing as I was born in Louisiana too.
The town is rich in history and character. It was the original French colony in Louisiana, the oldest permanent settlement in the state, when it served as a major port city for Louisiana. It was founded in 1714 to promote trade with the local Indians and the Spanish in Mexico. From there, it flourished and boomed after the Louisiana purchase when the population more than quadrupled. From there, the cotton industry spurred the buildings of many beautiful plantation homes that still stand today like Oakland Plantation and Melrose Plantation. In the 1830s, however, the river shifted its course by 5 miles and left Natchitoches without a direct outlet to the sea except at times of high water. So, what exists today is a picturesque Cane River Lake bordered by plantations and old shops along Front Street.
What brought on this visit was a few different things. My husband was commissioned to build a chair for another member of the SCA and she happened to live in Texas. I reasoned that instead of paying an arm and leg for shipping and worrying about that, we imply drive over there one weekend. Because it’d still be a long drive for us, I knew we’d want to spend the night somewhere. Natchitoches was the first thing to pop in my head when thinking of a place to stay. I had mentioned Mary Jane Hathway before in another blog. She is a phenomenal romance author and in her Cane River Romance series, the stories take place in Natchitoches. If you haven’t read anything of Mary Jane Hathways, I highly recommend you do so.The town sounded like a place I definitely wanted to visit. I’m a history buff, especially for southern history and just the fact they have plantations makes me want to move there.
But I never imagined it would be this wonderful.
We arrived around 4pm to our bed and breakfast, the Judge Porter House on 2nd street in Natchitoches. I have never stayed in a bed and breakfast before, so I wasn’t totally sure what to expect. I’ve always wanted to stay in one because they often are old renovated homes from the civil war era or beyond. This house was built in 1912 (same year of Titanic’s maiden – and last – voyage) by Judge Thomas Porter and his wife, Wilhelmina (such a pretty name). It passed down through a few families until it fell into the hands of the current owner who opened it for business as a bed and breakfast in 1994. Pretty much all of the furniture in the home is antique and belonged to local families who either sold the furniture to the house or donated it.
The house, simply approaching it, is breathtaking in itself. With a spacious wrap-around porch that I’ve always wanted and rocking chairs, it’s hard not to be instantly charmed. But, stepping through the doorway was a whole new level of “wow”. Crystal chandeliers hang in EVERY room. I’m not kidding. Foyer, lounge rooms, second floor landing, dining room, everywhere. Only place they are not is in the bedrooms and those have ceiling fans. By the way, if you visit Natchitoches at all, pick a time during the fall or spring when it’s not too hot. It’s July. It’s HOT. Not a smart choice on my part, but the house has AC, so I can’t complain too much.
Everything is antique from the chairs, the side tables, the paintings, everything. The house is outfitted with electric lights and modern plumbing, of course, but otherwise, I feel as if I’ve stepped back in time and I feel right at home. I tease Jared that this is the kind of home I’d always wanted, but it’s true. The ceilings are high, giving a very homey and spacious feel to the rooms throughout the house. The dining room is immaculate! Honestly, when I was deciding on which bed and breakfast to stay at (because there’s only a hundred in Natchitoches), I picked the Judge Porter House because of their spectacular dining hall. I knew I couldn’t pass up eating breakfast in a place like that. I do not regret my decision and was not disappointed at all.
When we got settled in, the owners of the establishment were not in and I think we are sharing the house with another couple across the hall, but that’s it.
We rested for a while and decided to walk down to the river. As I said before, it’s HOT. But, there is practically no parking on Front Street anyway, so it ended up being a good decision. Walking down the strip was so fun for me. I got to look in the old, antique shop windows and sit by the river. It smelt rank for a while, but I got used to it. I imagine most rivers don’t smell very pleasant.
As we walked, I couldn’t help but imagine Mary Jane Hathaway’s characters walking the same path that I was. I could easily see Alice Augustine’s store By The Book amongst the many little shops along the river with it’s two apartments on top where she lives in the story “The Pepper in the Gumbo”. I could also see Gideon from “These Sheltering Walls” sitting on one of the rod iron benches late into the night, watching the store and Henry’s (a girl, her middle name is Henry and prefers to go by that) apartment above it to ensure she’s safe. Hence, the picture I took of the benches. I’m such a book nerd.
We sat down to a wonderful dinner at The Landing, one of the many places to eat in Natchitoches on Front Street. When you visit, get the crab and artichoke dip for an appetizer. It’s delicious! As is everything else on their menu. I seriously thought I’d go into a food coma, it was all amazing. From reading Mary Jane Hathaway’s novels, my interest was piqued to try a meat pie. So, I made a special request for a mini one because I knew I wouldn’t be able to eat a whole one. If you haven’t had a meat pie before, you need to try one. They’re so tastey.
I enjoyed the conversation with my husband while there. We came up with yet another story idea for me to write. You’ll probably learn about it later. It seems like every time we go out and have a pleasant evening together, he always comes up with some new story plot for me to roll with. We developed half of the plot already before the main entrees came. However, I did NOT enjoy the walk home. I was far too bloated.
The next morning, we attended breakfast at the B&B. Again, this was my first time at a B&B and I hardly knew what to expect when breakfast came. I was hoping this would not be the thing that ruined the trip for me. And I’m happy to say that it didn’t. We dined with a couple from Arkansas who were there vacationing for their 10th wedding anniversary that weekend. The company was great and the breakfast was phenomenal! Patricia, the innkeeper, started us off with peach cobbler as a first course. I didn’t care for the nuts, but I loved the touch of desert in the morning. The second course consisted of a slice of quiche, hashbrown casserole, a few slices of tomato and an English muffin. Ya’ll, I was about ready to tell my husband to bring the wheel barrow around to cart me out. The food was so flavorful I couldn’t stop myself from eating EVERYTHING on my plate. I was full all the way until 6pm that evening.
Saturday was spent delivering that chair to our friend in Canton Texas and then visiting with family in south Louisiana. Truth be told, this was the highlight of my trip. I try to make a point of always visiting them when we are even remotely near the area. Four hours may not classify as “near” but close enough.
After arriving back into Natchitoches around midnight, I slept soundly until the next morning. Breakfast with the Arkansas couple again, as well as another couple that had arrived the evening before while we were gone. They were from Texas and attending a wedding in town. Lovely people too. Patricia hooked us up with apple crisp for a first course, which I wish we could have gotten the recipe for) and sour cream grits (drool!) and omelette for second course. I could NOT pass up one ounce of this food, so once again I was full well into the afternoon.
One thing I had been dying to do is take a tour on one of the plantations in Natchitoches. Melrose plantation was open on Sunday, so we went over and took a guided tour from a man that was very enthusiastic about the history of the estate. You’ll see some pictures from the plantation (what I was allowed to take) below.
The Melrose plantation was founded and built by a freed slave, Louis Metoyer, a child with a white slave-owning father, Claude Thomas Pierre Metoyer and a slave mother, Marie Theresa CoinCoin. His father purchased his freedom, along with his mother’s and sibling’s. When he came of age, he was deeded 911 acres where he built the estate and stayed in the Yucca house that still stands on the property. Later this was used for the tenant farmers that served on the property. The estate had many outbuildings, including what they called the African House, which was primarily used for storing crops just behind the big house, and a barn that still stands today.
The big house’s construction finished construction in the 1830s after the death of Louis Metoyer. It passed down through many hands in the family until 1847 when it was purchased by the Hertzog family. The plantation, amazingly survived the Red River campaign of the Civil War and remained as a working farm until 1881. For a time, it even became a school for freed slaves so they may earn an education.
In 1884, Joseph Henry bought the estate. It later passed to John Hampton Henry and Cammie Garrett Henry, spurring an era of the plantation that was quite remarkable and made me love the place even more.
When Cammie became a widow, she grew lonely for society and bored out of her mind. However, she was miles away from town, so instead of going to society, she decided to bring society with her. She set up the plantation as an artist’s retreat for writers and painters. They could stay on the property as long as they liked at her expense, but they had to be busy working on some project. Many renown authors visited there. They even had a copy of John Steinback’s “Of Mice and Men” on display, autographed by Steinback himself and addressed to Cammie. I looked around and same many of the inside covers were written “To Aunt Cammie”. What I wouldn’t give to have been an author back then and live on the estate like that! It sounds like a dream. Cammie also spent much of her time weaving and sewing. She built a building on the estate specially for it. We got to see a few pieces of her handwork displayed in the big house. By the way, if you’re wondering why there are no pictures of the inside of the house, it’s because they wouldn’t let us. I would have been snapping pictures all over the place of the antique books and furniture. It was gorgeous inside.
Something that Melrose is famous for is one of its former employees, Clementine Hunter, a world-renown painter who used to work for Cammie on the plantation. We got to see some of her original works inside the big house, as well as a quilt she had made. She discovered her talent one day while cleaning out a room that an artist had recently vacated after completing a project. The artist left behind paint tubes that were mostly empty, so Clemetine took what little the tubes would give and began painting her depictions of plantation life. Her work has been displayed in museums across the country and even in the Louvre in Paris, France.
If you are in Natchitoches and want to visit a truly inspiring historical site, Melrose should certainly be on your list. However, upon arriving home and beginning to read “These Sheltering Walls” again by Mary Jane Hathaway, I discovered I should have visited Oakland Planation, where the character Henry Byrd primarily worked during the story. I promptly texted my husband and told him we had to go back. I don’t care if I have to go on a weekend without him, I want to right the wrong I have committed and go to Oakland Planation. When, I have no idea. If it were up to me, I’d go this next weekend.
One thing I was bummed about was that the Bayou Folk Museum, which was also the house where Kate Chopin (author of “The Awakening”, one of the first feminist novels of the 19th century) lived for a few years had been burned down in 2008 and I couldn’t go see it. I read her novel in high school and was so eager to visit the home. I personally think they should rebuild the house to the exact specs of the original. It broke my heart, though, to learn that so much local history went up in flames that day. I read in an article that they did find a copy of Chopin’s “Bayou Folk” amongst the remains, still in tact. We saw this sign behind one of the outbuildings at Melrose Planation.
Overall, I truly enjoyed our stay in Natchitoches. It was not near long enough and I hope to return someday soon. Perhaps going for a week next time instead of just a weekend. There’s so much to do there and I know I barely scratched the surface.