Louisiana – Baton Rouge: Rural Life

We had one last stop planned for Baton Rouge and this took us out into the country.  The LSU Rural Life Museum is only a short drive from the center of the city and worth every mile of travel. 

Fittingly, after driving through harvested fields and down a dusty gravel road, we began our tour in The Barn looking at an interesting variety of farm vehicles.

From the background in these photos you begin to get an idea of how vast and varied the holdings are in this museum.  The Barn is an enormous building with a U-shaped front that has been attached to two additional long, broad structures.  After touring only a small portion of The Barn, we made our way outside and began visiting the various houses and out buildings. 

According to the brochure, the purpose of the museum “is to increase the appreciation of our heritage and the way of life of our ancestors, their hardships, toils, visions, and artifacts from our rural past.”  What better way to do that than to visit the homes of these early residents?  A collection of houses and other structures have been moved to the property, and we were able to see different styles of Louisiana Rural Folk Architecture.  The styles and construction techniques reflect the varied backgrounds and nationalities of the settlers who came and tamed this then raw wilderness.  

A year ago Don and I spent much of our summer visiting more than thirty houses in New England, and the earliest of them were built in First Period Architecture (1626-1725).  We were looking forward to this opportunity to see how they compared with these Southern structures that were built in a much warmer climate with different styles, materials and purposes.  This 1805 Acadian dwelling is the earliest home on the property.  It was built by French immigrants from Nova Scotia, Canada, and was occupied for fifty-four years by the Marcellian Bourne family, who built the house…and then for another seventy years by the Henry Pitre family.  The house was initially situated on the bank of the Bayou Lafourche and was moved to the museum grounds in 2005.  From the before photo it is impressive to see the work entailed in disassembling, transporting, assembling and restoring this and other structures.

A smaller Acadian house next door was originally constructed from cypress lumber from an old mule barn.  Cooking was usually done outdoors or in a separate building because of the threat of fire.  In this case the beehive oven is located a safe distance from the house and has a pergola to help stave off the broiling Louisiana sun. 

Another example of Acadian architecture is this Split Cypress Barn built around 1870. 

Wandering through a grove of piney woods we came across a church that was built in Gothic Revival style also around 1870.  The red and green painted windows reflect both local tradition and the economic level of the parishioners.  The church was used by several congregations and the last congregation, College Grove Baptist Revival Church, was formed in 1893 and worshiped in the church until the 1960s.  According to museum material, “Area residents, many of them ex-slaves on the Welham Plantation, attended services here.”

Eudora Welty described a dog trot house so clearly in her novel Losing Battles that even though it would be many years before I would ever see one, I felt I knew exactly how every inch of this style structure should look.  My favorite feature of this 1863 two-room home is the generous open-air space in the center that works like a great room and can be used for many purposes in most kinds of weather.  It invites even the smallest hint of a breeze to pass through during the hottest months of summer. 

The nearby Stoker Barn (1845) benefits from this same open center style architecture.   The double pen log structure was used to store hay and corn with the mules and horses kept in the open air outer stalls where they were protected by the overhanging roof.  

This 1880s Shotgun House isfrom Bayou Goula.   This popular style was used after Reconstruction (1877) and is seen in both rural areas for use by sharecroppers and tenant farmers and in the heart of cities like New Orleans.  These homes are only a single room wide and can run several rooms deep with all the doorways in a line.

Another aspect of rural Louisiana life is reflected in the buildings that would have been in operation on a 1800s working plantation.  We learned that there were men and even some women planters managing these plantations, which averaged only 500 acres…far short of the vast acreage I envision when I hear the word “plantation.”  These early plantations were like isolated islands of land, meaning that they had to be self-reliant, so they required a complex of buildings for all the required activities and to house the workers.  A commissary, blacksmith shop, school, sick house and other structures have been moved to this site and furnished to help illustrate their purposes.

The kitchen and the kitchen gardens were vital for not just food but also for the herbs that were used as medicinal cures.  Note the unusual bottle border used around this circular planting bed.

The overseer’s house was situated so he could preside over all these activities and observe the slave cabins as well.  There are several styles of cabins that had been moved to the museum property and it is interesting that even the slave cabins, which were built in the early 1800s, were used by tenant farmers and sharecroppers well into the mid-1960s. 

Back inside the central museum building we learned much more about the responsibilities and obligations of running a plantation.  We learned about crops and their processing, and life in the South before and after the Civil War…how during the Reconstruction years labors were brought in from China, Ireland, Italy, Sicily and the Philippines. 

We did not take time to tour the 25-acre Windrush Garden that is located on this same museum property, but I would love to return and see it in the early spring.  As it was, we had enjoyed our afternoon and the rural beauty of this pastoral setting.

The day had been so full and stimulating that I wore out my phone battery just taking photos.  Both of us and the phone needed some recharging.  Our heads were filled and our stomachs empty, so we set off to find Cajun food, but along the way we chanced into two interesting antique shops.  Both The Pink Elephant and Circa 1857 are well worth a visit. 

It is almost impossible to miss The Pink Elephant with its beautifully illustrated van parked out front.  The delivery elephant is at rest but watchful and ready to lumber into action.  The shop is filled with a lot of mid-century modern and yet has a healthy mix of older pieces as well.

Circa 1857’s entrance spoke of much different holdings.  Architectural salvage was only one aspect of their offerings.  They had a lot of colorful art on display as well as a substantial variety of period antiques.

Hidden at the back of this enormous space is Yvette Marie’s Café with its fun and funky interior space as well as a welcoming patio.  Now this would have been the perfect setting for our wedding!  We could imagine our guests wandering the aisles of the shop, drinks in hand, when they weren’t enjoying Yvette’s cuisine and listening to local musicians playing swamp pop, zydaco and the blues.

We finally left Baton Rouge and crossed the Mississippi via an enormous divided bridge.  It is not surprising that Huey Long came to mind.  Before he came into office we would have probably had to pay a hefty toll to ride a ferry across this broad and powerful expanse of water.   Looking at a map of this oddly shoe-shaped state, it is not difficult to see how locked into poverty the people were without the roads and infrastructure that Long muscled into being.

Port Allen, right across the river from Baton Rouge, was our destination for the night.  A stay here positioned us so we would avoid morning traffic coming into the city.  Food was of paramount interest by this time, so we poked into a couple of restaurants and then spotted Couyon‘s, “Louisiana’s Best BBQ Dive,” with its rapidly filling parking lot.  They didn’t exaggerate.  We ordered a platter of their decadently delicious slabs of Cajun smoked ribs with sides of beans and rice, and there wasn’t a morsel left when we were through.  The smoked ribs were moist, meaty and so flavorful that we barely used any of their custom BBQ sauce.  We even bought a souvenir T-shirt….something we almost never do…but this meal deserved remembering.

After a good night’s sleep, we would be ready for the final leg of our drive to Orange, Texas, and our visit to the Stark Museum of Western Art.  This would be the culmination of an eight year quest.  The brochure we had picked up back in 2011 at the Booth Museum of Western Art in Cartersville, Georgia, had taken us from Georgia to California, from Cody, Wyoming, clear down to the eastern-most town in Texas.  Each of the other twelve museums had held magnificent collections of Western Art and had all been substantially different in their vision, approach, and presentation.  We were curious to see what the Stark Museum would hold and to learn how and why this collection had landed in such an oddly remote location.    

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