Nachitoches, Louisiana. The Destination of Travelers Since 1714.

Posted on December 20, 2015

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christmas-lights-clipart-string-of-christmas-lights-clipart-black-and-whiteWith a slogan like that, who could resist?

We first heard about Nachitoches, Louisiana (pronounced Nack-i-tosh, Nack-i-tish, or Nah-codish, take your choice) from long ago RV friends who are now off the road and settled down in Wichita, Kansas.

images (11)One year they arrived at Coastal Haven RV Park in Alabama right after spending the Christmas holiday in Nachitoches.

They were full of enthusiasm about the area in general, but were especially impressed by the city’s Festival of Lights, staged along the Cane River in the heart of town.

Three hundred thousand Christmas lights and one hundred lighted set pieces are displayed every evening for 45 days, beginning about the third week of November. And, along with the lights there’s a full slate of music, parades, open houses, kid’s stuff, arts and crafts, Christmas programs, and LOTS of food.

We wanted to go, so we did. About 10 days too early.

download (2) But we had a great time anyway. The town’s DPW crew was busily setting up displays along the river, many of the food booths were in place, the shops were full tilt into Christmas, and the restaurants and bars – well, food and drink were as they always are in Louisiana, good.

While Natchitoches is well-worth visiting just for the Christmas displays – ranked by Yahoo as the third-best holiday light show in the nation – there’s a lot more to see whenever you visit.

Natchitoches is Louisiana’s original French colony and is the oldest city in the Louisiana Purchase. Like other areas of the state, it’s culture is a blend of French, Spanish, African, American Indian and Creole heritage. This special mix is reflected in the everyday life of the largely rural, agricultural landscape known for its historic plantations and Creole architecture.

Interestingly, the Cane River is more accurately called Cane River Lake. The Red River originally flowed through town, but as rivers do, it changed course at some point in time leaving a 33-mile long skinny river-like lake where the river had once been. (Confusing to me, too).

And, yes, it was the destination of travelers as early as 1714.

Adventurer and entrepreneur Louis de St. Denis established a trading post on the banks of the Cane River (then the Red River) in that year, around which a settlement soon developed. As the population grew, numerous plantations were built along the river – or lake, if you wish.

2015-11-12 11.32.42The Cane River National Heritage area is made up of twelve privately owned plantations and two that are in National Historic Parks and therefore open to the public.

These two – Oakland Plantation and Magnolia Plantation –  are the most intact Creole plantations in the United States, both established in the 1700’s and owned and operated by the same families for the next 200 years or more.

 

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Oakland Plantation. Photo credit: natchitoches.net

Oakland Plantation was built over time by Jean Pierre Prud’homme, and eight generations of his French Creole family lived and worked this land.

Like most Southern plantations, Oakland first produced tobacco and indigo, later switching to cotton as Northern textile mills increased their demand in the 1800’s. “In this way”, says the National Park Service handout, “the Industrial Revolution in the Northern states encouraged the expansion of the plantation labor systems of the South.” Interesting perspective.

We didn’t get inside the main house, as it was being re-roofed and was closed.

After the Civil War, descendants of many enslaved workers remained at Oakland as tenant farmers and sharecroppers, as was well-illustrated by our next stop.

 

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The original Magnolia Plantation store.

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Magnolia Plantation. Photo credit: natchitoches.net

Magnolia Plantation consists of 18 acres of outbuildings, dating from 1830. The Big House, however, was gutted by fire during the early days of the Civil War, then rebuilt using the original walls and foundation in 1864. While the outbuildings are open to the public, the Big House is a private residence.

The land on which Magnolia Plantation stands was originally acquired by Jean Baptiste LeComte in 1753, and remained within the LeComte/Hertzog family for more than 250 years.

2015-11-12 11.52.35The only screw-type cotton press still in its original location is here, along with the only row of brick slave quarters still standing in Louisiana.

After emancipation, these buildings became homes for tenant farmers and sharecroppers and their families.

And speaking of magnolias, 320 rue Jefferson, right along the Cane River (Lake) in the heart of downtown, was the filming location for the movie “Steel Magnolias”, and is probably the most photographed home in Natchitoches.

There’s lots of good stuff in Natchitoches and the immediate vicinity. Next time – yes, there will be a next time – I want to visit nearby Cloutierville to see where Kate Chopin hung out. If you enjoy Southern history, you’ll love her stories about this wonderfully unique area. I read her whenever I need a dose of Louisiana.

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One of the many small buildings we saw along the road that may have originally been a sharecropper’s home.

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Relaxing along the Cane River (Lake).

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