January, 2012. The Longfellow-Evangeline State Park, St. Martinville, Louisiana

Posted on January 29, 2012

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This was an odd one.

You would think the Longfellow-Evangeline State Park and Historic Site in St. Martinville would have a personal connection with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, but it doesn’t.

Bust of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, St. Martinville

He never lived there, he never visited there; he never even visited Louisiana.

But, he did write a poem about Acadian Louisiana – more or less – and I guess this epic work, Evangeline, is just used as a tool to promote tourism. And since St.Martinville has a wonderful Acadian Cultural Center, it’s a shame they don’t focus more on the former plantation on which the park is located.

The Visitor Center contains artifacts, photos and text that help explain agriculture and plantation life in the area and replays the history of the Acadians.  It also talks a bit about Longfellow and how he came to pen the poem that has become part of Acadiana’s cultural heritage; a work of fiction that has turned into, well, fictional fact.

In 1840, Longfellow invited a few friends to dinner at his residence in Cambridge, Massachusetts, including Nathaniel Hawthorne. Hawthorne brought along Horace Conolly who, during dinner, related a tale heard from a French-Canadian woman.

The tale was about an Acadian couple separated on their wedding day by the British expulsion of the French-speaking inhabitants of Nova Scotia. The bride-to-be wandered for years, trying to find her fiancé.  Eventually she finds him in Philadelphia, a sick man, and he dies in her arms.

Conolly hoped Hawthorne would take the story and turn it into a novel, but he wasn’t interested. Longfellow, however, WAS interested, and he asked Hawthorne’s permission to turn it into a poem, which he published in 1847.

Then the Evangeline story grew legs.

"Evangeline Oak", St. Martinville

An alternate version of the story, Acadian Reminiscences: The True Story of Evangeline, was published as a novel by Louisiana Judge Felix Voorhies in 1907.  In his version, the lovers were reunited under an oak tree in St. Martinville. When Evangeline finds out her fiancé has fallen in love with another woman, she goes mad and dies.

This version, understandably, became very popular with Louisiana in general, and with St. Martinville residents in particular.

Though everyone pretty much agrees today that the whole story is fictional, it has become symbolic of the history of the Acadians. And, it has some basis in fact, as certainly couples were split up during the expulsion, and some of these partings, no doubt, did not have happy endings.

The state park is located on a site near the Bayou Teche that was once part of a royal French land grant first used as a cattle ranch.  In the early 1800’s Pierre Olivier Duclozel de Vezin, a wealthy Creole, acquired the property to raise cotton, cattle and sugarcane.  He built his plantation house, Maison Olivier around 1815.

The structure is an excellent example of a Raised Creole Cottage, a simple and distinctive architectural form which shows a mixture of Creole, Caribbean, and French influences.  It features the typical layout with each room opening onto the veranda, cedar construction on brick piers – the brick coming from the clay at the bottom of the Bayou – and bousillage walls, a plaster-like material made from Spanish moss, mud and sometimes animal hair.

It’s interesting to note that plantation homes of this more modest type almost always started out as very small cottages used only by the planter on visits to his holdings.  His principal home, where the family resided, was a much larger, more opulent structure in town.

Once the plantation increased in size and affluence, the cottage might – or might not – have additions added to it to accommodate the planter’s family and servants making it suitable as a summer home.

This was the case with Maison Olivier, which became the first property in the Louisiana State Parks system in 1934, and was named a National Historic Landmark in 1974.

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