Sugar, Hot Sauce and Rice

The sugar cane harvest was in full swing when we arrived in Louisiana.  I have always enjoyed learning about how things are grown and produced. Growing sugar cane was something I knew little about.  We first saw fields of sugar cane as we drove the last mile or so to our RV park.  In the weeks ahead as we toured the area, I was amazed at how many sugar cane fields there are in southern Louisiana.

I learned that Louisiana is the second top producer of sugar in the United States after Florida.  Sugar cane has been grown in Louisiana for over 200 years and became the state’s first lucrative cash crop in the 1790’s when a process was developed for successfully granulating sugar.

Processing sugar was first done in kettles like the the one pictured above from the 1800’s.  After the juice was squeezed from the canes, it was boiled in open kettles, removing the water and leaving the syrup.  Additional boiling caused the syrup to crystallize.  People now like to display these old kettles as decoration.

Some where I read that sugar cane fields are burned during harvesting.  I really wanted to see a sugarcane field on fire!   When Mark and I would drive around we sometimes saw dark smoke in the sky, possibly signaling a cane field being burned.  One day we took off in the direction of some smoke but this proved futile.  As we drove it seeemed the smoke was further away, rather than closer!  We laughed that we felt like “tornado chasers” except we were chasing cane field smoke, rather silly I guess.   After some discussion with the locals, I learned that not all cane fields are burned and if they are, it is usually to burn up the leaves that are left when the cane stalks are machine stripped.  In the picture above we found some fields that were being harvested and burned.

One day while visiting a nearby town we saw a sugarcane mill in the distance and headed down a dead end road to get closer.  We ended up at the back of the mill and I tried to see what was going on but a fenced area and bayou were in my way.

We drove closer to the plant and stopped at a field to watch the black smoke billowing out in huge clouds.   The empty cane field in front of us had dark mud that was bubbling up to the surface in many places.  I showed some pictures I took of the mud to some locals to see if they knew what it was but the bubbling mud remained a mystery.  A few people thought it was the pulpy remains after the cane is squeezed of juice (called bagasse) that had been put back in the soil.   We also found out from the locals that the black clouds coming from the sugar cane mill were not smoke but steam!  Below is a picture of cane stalks waiting to be processed across the street from the sugar mill.

Another day while driving a scenic byway we came upon a mill in the town of Jeanerette.   We were able to watch from our car as the stalks were taken from a large pile to a machine that was probably washing them In preparation for crushing and extracting the juice.

It was interesting to have a closer view of a sugar mill in action.  When we visited a local museum after seeing this mill, the docent told us that tours used to be given at the mill but they stopped them due to safety concerns.

At the Jeanerette Museum we learned more about the sugar industry and watched a film showing us the process from beginning to end.  The film was informative but we were reminded that it was put out by the sugar industry when at the end we were told that sugar was a healthy and wholesome product that was not the cause of diseases including diabetes.

I so enjoy a good factory tour and on many trips I have searched out if there are any tours in the areas we will be visiting.  It seems to me though, that factory tours are on the decrease.   In the California Central Valley where we lived for many years there were a few tours like the Hershey Factory in Oakdale and the Sunmaid Raisin Plant in Selma that at one time had great tours, but no longer.  Some trips have had several factory tour opportunities in one city or area.   A number of years ago, my sister Barbara and I were passing through the Henderson/Las Vegas area with several of our kids and toured Ocean Spray Cranberry, Favorite Brands Marshmallow and Ethel M. Chocolates.  I can still remember drinking as many varieties of cranberry juice as we wanted at the end of the Ocean Spray tour.  Except for Ethel M. Chocolates, the other two tours stopped many years ago.

The Tabasco company located on Avery Island has a great tour.  Edmund McIlhenny developed the recipe for the original red pepper sauce in 1868 and the same recipe is used today after being passed down from generation to generation in the same family.  The Tabasco tour gives you a good look at the process from the growing of the peppers to the bottling of the sauce.  Avery Island, although not a true island is in a unique area surrounded by marshes and bayous and on top of a huge salt dome.  The salt mined here is used in making the pepper mash which has only three ingredients:  peppers, vinegar and salt.

The tour starts at the visitor center where you buy tickets and then do a self guided walk through the different stages of production.  In the barrel warehouse you view the oak barrels that were previously used for Jack Daniel’s Whiskey.  Red pepper mash is mixed with salt and aged for up to three years in the barrels.  A thick layer of salt is placed on top to protect the mash.

After the mash is aged, it is strained to remove skins and seeds and the resulting liquid is mixed with vinegar and stirred occasionally in large closed vats for a month until ready to be bottled.

In the last processing room we saw different sized bottles of sauce going through bottling and labeling.   A sign tells you how many bottles have been processed that day and also where the bottled sauce will be sent.  The day we were there sauce was being bottled for shipment to Germany.

The final exhibit room held some interesting facts and history about Tabasco Sauce.   The huge bottles were fun to see.  Mr. McIlhenny first packaged the sauce in discarded long-necked cologne bottles, the only bottles he found readily available in the post Civil War South.  This style of bottle continues to this day since it works well for sprinkling the pepper sauce.

Perhaps the highlight for many visitors is the gift shop and tasting room.  There is an amazing variety of Tabasco related products for sale.  Visitors can taste every kind of Tabasco sauce available as well as other products such as salsas and even cola.  Mark tried the Scorpion sauce reportedly made with “the most piquant pepper in the world.”  Based on his reaction I don’t think he would dispute that claim.

The most unique sample I tried was the Tabasco flavored ice cream.  There were two varieties – the green pepper and raspberry chipotle.  Tabasco flavored ice cream is an acquired taste – the peppery heat with cold is a little strange.

Avery Island is also the home of Jungle Gardens, a large and beautiful nature sanctuary.  Created by Mr. McIlhenny, it includes a driving tour where you can see a Chinese garden, groves of bamboo, palms, plants and flowers including many camellia bushes.  There are ponds and marshes with alligators, turtles and other wildlife.  The centerpiece of the gardens is the bird rookery where thousands of snowy egrets return to nest each spring.

My favorites here were the massive oaks dripping with moss that were in abundance as we drove through the gardens.

Rice is an important crop in Louisiana and is the 3rd state in production after  Arkansas and California.  What I found interesting is that the rice fields are used not only for growing rice, but also for producing crawfish.

The rice is grown in a water filled field from March to July and then the crawfish are seeded into the rice field in June.  The field is drained and the rice harvested in July/August.  When the rice is being harvested, the crawfish have dug themselves into the ground where they are safe.  The rice fields are then reflooded again and it becomes a crawfish pond as the crawfish emerge and are subsequently caught in special traps.  Crawfish are harvested in specially designed boats that we saw out in the fields a few times.  The harvest time can vary but can start as early as November in a warm year and go through the spring.  Above is a picture of a rice field with the red topped traps in place.  Below is a picture of a crawfish trap I found at a museum.

In the small town of Jeanerette is the oldest rice mill in the United States.  The Conrad Rice Mill was built in 1912 and has continued to operate since the beginning.  I took a tour of the mill where I was shown some of the old machines that are still used in processing and bagging rice.

Next door to the mill is the Konriko Company Store that sells rice related products from the mill as well as other local food items and souvenirs.  The store features a different rice each day that visitors can sample.  We bought several different boxes of brown rice to try and recently cooked up one of them – it was quite good.

Thanks for checking in and best wishes for the new year to come!

How about all of you?  Have any of you visited or toured an interesting factory?  Would love to hear about your experiences and/or recommendations.

Love That Cajun Music

One of the best things about our stay in Cajun Louisiana was the music.  Music and dancing is a big part of the lives of the people here.  There are all kinds of places to listen to good Cajun music – restaurants, bars, dance halls, clubs, cultural centers and theaters.   We could have spent months exploring all the possibilities.  There were more quiet venues such as restaurants like Prejean’s in Lafayette that features a Cajun band nightly to a rowdy anything goes bar on the levee next to a bayou.  Several locals recommended a Zydeco Breakfast.  There were two, a place called Buck and Johnny’s on Saturday mornings offering breakfast while you listen to a Zydeco band and dance.  The other one is Fred’s Bar, open on Saturday mornings in the small town of Mamou and serving up only alcohol with the music.  I found out about Fred’s too late for us to plan to go – but Mark and I are not early risers and these places fill up with people early in the morning.

We started out our exploration of Cajun music one Saturday morning by going to Savoy’s music shop in the town of Eunice.  On Saturday mornings for the past 40 years, this shop has hosted a jam session with local musicians and anyone else who shows up.  The morning we visited, there was a lady guitarist from Quebec and a male accordionist from England.  People that don’t play and just want to come listen are welcome as well.  I am glad that we did a little research on how to find this place.   People on the internet advised to just look for a line of cars parked on the highway outside of town.  Sure enough the cars were our only clue as there was no sign.  Someone told us later that it accidentally burned down while Mr. Savoy was burning refuse from the last big storm.  Above is a picture of me at the entrance which is obscured by foliage with no sign or identification any where.

Mr. Marc Savoy (pronounced Sav-wah) has been playing and making accordions all of his life.  His family is also very involved in music.  The shop is well worn, but that made it all the more atmospheric and there were chairs to sit on as well as great music.  What a fun way to start the day!  Different people came and went with their instruments and often there would be a dozen or more people playing along.  Occasionally someone would sing along in French.  I got a kick out of wandering around reading the many interesting notes Mr. Savoy has placed on bulletin boards.  This is maybe my favorite.  He is known to be a colorful character.

After the jam ended, we headed into Eunice and stopped at the Acadien Prairie Cultural Center run by the National Park Service.  They have exhibits on Cajun history and culture as well as music each Saturday afternoon.  The local band was great.  Mark and I figure that many of the musicians have grown up playing much of their lives.  The gentleman on the far right sang some and played rhythm on a metal triangle which we learned was a basic part of early Cajun music.  There was actually a sign at Savoy’s jam session that allowed only one triangle player at a time.

The Cajun Hall of Fame in Eunice is a small building that showcases the best of Cajun musicians – there were just over 100 inductees.  There are photographs and other memorabilia packed into the small space.  The lady running the museum was friendly, showed us around and helped Mark pick out his first Cajun CD.

Just down the street from the hall of fame is the Liberty Theater where we attended a Cajun music show that night.   The Liberty opened in 1924 and almost every Saturday night the theater has live music.   It is home to the Rendez-Vous de Cajun radio show which is broadcast live on Saturday nights with the announcements made in French.   The band that night was Jackie Callier, Ivy Dugas and the Cajun Cousins who turned out to be one of our favorites.  Couples danced in front of the stage while the music played.  People at the show were quite friendly and interested where we and others were from.  During the show they announced:  “We have visitors from England and California on the dance floor tonight.”  The English couple were definitely dancing and pretty good at it – but Mark and Beth remained sidelined – haven’t taken up dancing yet and probably wouldn’t be too good at it.  It was a fun day immersing ourselves in Cajun music at three different venues.

The next day, we headed back to Vermillionville where we had previously learned about the history and culture of the Cajuns.  Each Sunday afternoon they have a Zydeco band with dancing in the auditorium.  We got there early and there were few people until the band started playing.  Then it seemed people came out from nowhere and hit the dance floor.  The auditorium became rather crowded with all ages from very young to very old dancing.   The featured band was “Lil Wayne and Same Ol 2 Step.”  I love the peppiness  of Zydeco music and watching the people dance and having a great time.  Here in Cajun country, music and dance is definitely intertwined and a big part of the culture.

The cute little guy in the picture below strummed his guitar steadily for several hours throughout the show.

The next Sunday we decided to visit La Poussiere, a dance hall in Breaux Bridge that has been open since 1955 and features music each Sunday afternoon.  We were welcomed by very friendly owners who were happy to have out of town visitors!  While we were there, other people also came up to visit with us including two of the band members’ wives.  Mark figured out that this was the same band, Jackie Callier, Ivy Dugas and the Cajun Cousins that we had heard at Liberty Theater.   They play here each Sunday.

We were curious about the meaning of La Poussiere.  We found out that the first dance hall had a floor that was loose and allowed dust to filter up between the boards and create a dust cloud in the room.  Patrons lovingly referred to the Hall as La Poussiere which means “The Dust” and the name stuck.  When a new larger building was constructed across the street, eighty percent of the original building’s floor came too, but none of the dust coming up the floor boards during dances.   The owners of La Poussiere are proud of their dance hall as there are not many of them like this left.   A number of tables surround the dance floor and there is a bar, but no food is served here.

An elderly gentleman who could dance like a twenty something invited me to dance and said he was a great teacher.  I managed to get around the dance floor a few times without falling all over my feet!   So began our Sunday afternoon ritual the month we stayed in the Lafayette area.  Twice we went to Vermillionville to hear Zydeco music and twice to La Poussiere to hear Cajun swing music.  Below is a picture of the Zydeco band of Leroy Thomas.

The two different styles of music were a contrast from each other.  It was La Poussiere and the traditional style that won our hearts.  The people there were so friendly and the music so relaxing and enjoyable.  The two band members’ wives gave us a CD from the group before our last afternoon was over – a remembrance of our time listening to Jackie Callier, Ivy Dugas and the Cajun Cousins.

The accordion is the most popular Cajun instrument and Martin Accordions are known as the best.  We visited the Martin shop in Lafayette to see where they make them.

Junior Martin’s daughter, Pennye Huval gave us a tour and showed us some of the accordions.   The two of them also played a few songs for us.  Do you see the crawfish on the bellows of the accordion?  This is a Martin signature.   The Martin family performs shows regularly for tour groups.

The accordions are beautiful, handmade instruments and Mark was really wanting to get one, but alas, practicalities intervened.  I’m still not sure we won’t end up with one – sales tax is very high in Louisiana and you save hundreds of dollars by having one shipped out of the state.  Today we left Louisiana and are now in Mississippi?

Our last show before our month at Lafayette ended was back at Liberty Theater with the popular group of Steve Riley and the Mamou Play Boys presenting a Cajun Christmas show.  The show also featured children playing and singing including Mr. Riley with his two young sons.  It seemed that in many of the shows we attended, children played along which would definitely be important in keeping Cajun and Zydeco music alive through the generations.

We wish you all a very happy holiday season and new year to come.  See you next time!   Thanks to the Huber clan for taking a look!

Louisiana Has Some Good Eats

Mark and I were amazed as we pored over the menu at Veronica’s, a favorite local restaurant in Carencro that specializes in daily plate lunch specials.  It was our second day in Louisiana and some of the menu items we had never heard of before:  Smothered Okra, Catfish Courtboullion, Crawfish Ettouffee, Shrimp Creole, carrot soufflé.  On this visit Mark decided to have the smothered okra which was smoked sausage, chicken and okra in a brown gravy over rice, picture below.  The price was reasonable at $9.00 for a plate lunch.

We ate at Veronica’s twice during our stay and it was a busy place, frequented by locals.  The second visit Mark had the chicken fried steak and I had the stuffed baked chicken with mashed potatoes, carrot soufflé and macaroni and cheese.  Veronica is the main cook at this restaurant and her family helps her out serving the food.  Ordering is done cafeteria style at the counter where you choose your entree with two or three sides and they dish it up for you right from the steam table.

We found another great plate lunch spot called Creole Kitchen in Lafayette itself.

Located in a neighborhood of small older homes, this tiny eatery was close to running out of food by the time we arrived.  I had fricassee chicken with rice and gravy,  black eyed peas, greens and a corn muffin.  It was delicious and the price only $8.00.  It looks to me like rice and gravy is more popular for plate lunches than mashed potatoes and gravy.  It could be because this is a rice growing region.

Louisiana prides itself on great food and some foods are pretty special to them with frequent advertisement on buildings, signs or billboards.  Probably no food gets more advertisement or notoriety than crawfish.  People here are crazy about it and eagerly await crawfish season which usually begins around the first of the year and goes through the spring.  They are served different ways, boiled in the shell or in dishes with one of the more popular being crawfish étouffée.  The nearby town of Breaux Bridge calls itself the “Crawfish Capital of the World” and hosts a yearly crawfish festival in the spring.  Crawfish étouffée was first created in Breaux Bridge.  Below is a picture of a restaurant that we never visted but I loved the signs out front.

While staying in this area I had crawfish étouffée a couple of times, twice at buffets and once at Prejean’s, one of the most well known restaurants in the area.  I thought the creamy spicy dish with small pieces of crawfish tail was quite good.   Crawfish are so small I am not sure they are worth the trouble since it takes time to pull off the heads and shell them.  Perhaps I would feel different if I had them just boiled and not in a sauce.  I am a real novice when it comes to understanding crawfish eating.  Prejean’s serves the étouffée with a crawfish pie, see picture below.

Gumbo is one of the most popular foods down here, it’s served everywhere.  I had gumbo a few times at different restaurants and at first wondered where was the okra, the tomatoes and rice already mixed in the soup.  The main feature in gumbo I had eaten out west was okra.   Actually the word gumbo comes from the African word for okra.  But here in Southern Louisiana, gumbo consists of chicken, sausage or seafood in a dark brown gravy called “roux.”  There is usually no okra or visible vegetables.  Below is a picture of the gumbo we had during our first day traveling through the state.

One day Mark and I went to the Prairie Acadien Center, run by the National Park Service in the small town of Eunice.  Each Saturday they have live music as well as a food demonstration and the day we were there, they were cooking up gumbo.  Our chef was a local carpenter by trade who loved to cook and came often to the center for the demonstrations.

The chicken, sausage and turkey neck gumbo was simmering in the pot when the demonstration started and although our chef did spend a few minutes describing ingredients that went into the soup, he soon veered off to stories about alligators and nutria, a large rodent similar to a muskrat.  We found out that since nutria have overpopulated the land and are a nuisance, there is a bounty of $5.00 at the Sheriff’s Department for every tail brought in.  In the audience was a family of six from Singapore who were living temporarily in Texas.  Another park ranger and our chef had one of the girls in the family stand up to show that the largest alligators had a jaw capacity that could swallow a person this size.  Not sure what our visiting family thought, but the conversation became quite entertaining although we were learning more about local wildlife than cooking gumbo.

Meanwhile, as Chef Paul talked wildlife and local customs, the more on task lady ranger checked out the gumbo and did not appear satisfied with the results.  She said it did not have enough roux and stirred more in from a jar.  For those that might not know, roux is made by cooking oil or fat and flour together on low heat until it browns.  This is what thickens the gumbo and gives it a richer flavor.  She explained that no one made their own roux any more since it takes approximately one and a half hours to cook it to a dark brown.  I took a picture (above) at a grocery store of locally made roux recommended by Paul.   For some reason, a jar with a mixture of cooked oil and flour does not seem appealing to me, something I would have to get used to if I was cooking Louisiana gumbo like a native.

Mark and I were curious to try Boudin, a very popular staple here.  Boudin is a type of sausage made with pork, rice and seasonings.  The day after Thanksgiving we stopped at Billy’s, a popular shop with a fast moving line almost out the door.  Boudin, Boudin Balls and pork cracklins are the primary things sold here.   When making boudin balls sausage is taken out of the casing, breaded and then deep fried to a golden brown.  We tried several kinds including crawfish, pork and pepper jack cheese.  We also got a small order of cracklins or fried pork rinds, another popular food.  We thought the boudin balls were pretty good, but probably not the kind of thing we could eat a lot of.  Mark liked the cracklins better than I did.  Below is a picture of the case containing boudin balls and cracklins.

Po’Boys seemed to me to be the most popular sandwich item in Louisiana Cajun country.  They are usually made with either catfish or shrimp, but I also saw oyster Po’Boys.  Seafood is very popular in Louisiana and shrimping is big business in the gulf.  I had several shrimp Po’ boys which are simply fried shrimp on a French or hoagie roll with lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise.   My favorite Po’ Boy was the Kickin’ Shrimp with grilled onions, bacon, cheese and jalapeño mayo, (except no mayo for me, not a fan of the stuff).   Below is a picture of Anchors Up Grill located right on the gulf coast, proud home of the Kickin’ Shrimp Po’boy.

Speaking of shrimp, one of my favorite meals while staying in the Lafayette area was the Nola Shrimp and Grits at Bon Temps restaurant.   The jumbo shrimp were served with the heads on which was new to me.  They came with what the menu called a New Orleans style BBQ sauce that did not taste to me of BBQ but was rich and delicious.  The jalapeño and cheese grits were a great complement.

The dessert of choice in this part of the country seems to be bread pudding, often served with a liquor sauce.  The best we had was at a fantastic BBQ cafe in the Baton Rouge area, called Cou-Yons.  Everything was great here including the bread pudding with Jack Daniel’s whiskey sauce.  We were surprised how much whiskey was in the sauce, what a kick!

Southern Louisiana has many eating establishments and not just restaurants, cafes or fast food joints but little hole in the wall places – some were just little sheds or shacks off the side of the road offering a variety of Cajun fare.  Reminded me of the taco trucks in California.   The picture below was next to a long dirt driveway with a tiny wooden building at the end.

One food that I wanted to try at a restaurant but never got the chance was alligator.  At a local butcher shop we found some frozen alligator, but decided not to try cooking it at the trailer.  Maybe next time!

Louisiana definitely has some good eats.  We have certainly been well fed in this state!

Next time I will talk about the wonderful Cajun music unique to this area.

Welcome to Louisiana

When first planning our route, I knew I wanted us to stay for a month in southern Louisiana’s Cajun Country and arrive some time in November.   After falling in love with New Orleans during my visit almost five years ago,  I knew I would have to return to explore more of the state.  At the time I am writing this we have now been in Louisiana for over a month and have moved further north to another RV park near the Mississippi River.  In my next blogs I plan to spend some time writing about our impressions and experiences while in Cajun country.

When entering a new state I love checking out the State Welcome Centers.  They are usually a wealth of information providing lots of free maps,  brochures and pamphlets as well as helpful and personal travel advice.  When we were traveling from Arkansas into Louisiana I found that the Welcome Centers were not on our route.  We were able to locate one in the middle of the state that was out of the way, but we decided was worth the detour.  We were hurrying to get to our RV park before it closed at 6:00 p.m., but just couldn’t pass up a Welcome Center!

Since I love researching places to go and things to see, I really enjoy getting as much paperwork as possible about where we will be traveling.  At the table area in our trailer, I am often surrounded by brochures and maps.  Although I can find most things on the internet, it is always nice to have a paper copy in front of me.  Above is a picture of some of my stash from the Louisiana Welcome Center.

From the beginning, we really liked our RV park in the little town of Carencro near Lafayette.   It is located out in the country and away from any highways or major roads.   It was our first campground stay with no road noise.   The residents were also very quiet – we hardly ever heard anything from them.  In fact, I told Mark a few times that I wished more of the people staying there were out and about so we could visit and get to know them!   We learned that many of the occupants are working, so that explains their absence.  The price was just right too – they have a great monthly rate and it averaged to be about $17.00 per day with full hookups.  We were lucky to be right across from the bathroom and laundry room.  Some of the places we have stayed didn’t have laundry facilities which meant a trip to the local laundromat.  My favorite part of the RV park though was the small swamp located on the property which was just beautiful.  I was delighted to have it close by to visit.

Speaking of swamps, one of my favorite things in southern Louisiana and Cajun country is all the water.  There are many swamps, small lakes and bayous.  Bayous are slow moving rivers.  Many towns here are along them.  We had a bayou across the street from our park.  Below is a picture showing a fishing pole at the ready.  Someone had built narrow decking along the bank with seating and cute signs.

In Lafayette we learned all about the Cajuns who came here from Acadia in Eastern Canada after being expelled by the British in 1755.  Of French descent, they were forcibly removed from their homes and had to look for new places to live.  Some settled in the Carribean, some in New England and others went back to France.  Eventually some made their way to Louisiana where they built new lives but kept their distinct culture including their language.  Many people in this part of Louisiana speak Cajun French and signs are often in both English and French.  The National Park Service has a site called the Acadian Cultural  Center with exhibits, photographs and a film about the history of the refugees from Acadia.

Vermillionville in Lafayette is a living history museum that shows the lifestyles of the Acadian, Native American and Creole peoples that lived in this area from 1765 – 1890.  The Creoles were inhabitants of Louisiana during the time periods of French and Spanish rule.

Vermillionville is a great place to learn about these different cultures and of course is on a bayou.  We visited here a few times to see the village and listen to the Zydeco music that is offered on Sunday afternoons in the auditorium.  There are seven historic homes on the property. Below is a picture of the oldest building in Vermillionville from 1790, a large Acadian plantation home.  The owner of the home was a successful cattle rancher.

Several people in period costume demonstrate their craft in the village.  One of the best demonstrations was on spinning and weaving.

Before this visit I had never heard of brown cotton.  I learned that at first brown cotton was the only cotton available and used to make clothes and blankets.  White cotton was eventually grown and considered a superior product.  The Village has a brown cotton patch, so I was able to see it in the field and learn how it is grown and harvested.

The Village has a few musicians playing period instruments including one with a guitar and another with an accordion.  The first day we visited the accordionist played a few songs for us on the porch of one of the homes.

Below is the beautiful little Acadian Catholic chapel built in the late 1700’s.  The Catholic Church was the only recognized church in Louisiana during the periods of Spanish and French rule.

Lafayette also has the Acadian Village, another center similiar to Vermillionville with historic buildings and exhibits.  During December, they have the Noel Acadien, a celebration of the holiday season with the village decorated with thousands of lights reflected in its bayou.

The glowing alligators set in the bayou were one of our favorite light installations.


Stay tuned – next time we will sample some wonderful Cajun food!

Little Rock Central High – A School With a Big History

While staying in Little Rock, the attraction I was most looking forward to seeing was the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site.   My visit here was as interesting and thought provoking as I had hoped and one of the highlights of our trip so far.  It was a great follow up to the Brown vs. Board of Education site in Topeka, Kansas.

On the first day of school in September 1957, nine African American students set out to attend Little Rock Central High, an all white high school to begin desegregation.  They were stopped from entering when the Governor of Arkansas, Faubus ordered the National Guard to bar them for their “safety.”

Above is a famous photo of a white student yelling at one of the “Little Rock Nine.”  In the book store I found a book titled “Elizabeth and Hazel, Two Women of Little Rock,” about how these two students many decades later became involved in each other’s lives.  I have put it on my “to read” list.

President Eisenhower ordered that troops be sent to to assist in the desegregation and 1,200 soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division protected  the Little Rock Nine as they entered the school.  The 101st Airborne remained at the school until November.  It was interesting to us because many years ago Mark and I served in the 101st Airborne.   Above is a photo of the street in front of the school.  I found the neighborhood to be quiet and it is hard to picture hundreds of angry people crowded into the narrow street to protest in September 1957.

I took a guided tour with a National Park ranger.   Our first stop was the gas station across the street.  The station has been preserved as it was during the 1950’s.  Reporters gathered here to cover the news of the segregation and on the first day ended up protecting the Little Rock Nine from the mob that was trying to hurt them.

The school is located across from the gas station.  I was impressed by the size and beauty of the building.  It was built in 1927 at a cost of 1.5 million, the nation’s largest and most expensive high school at that time.  Much of the interior is original and I felt transported back to 1957.  While drama students conducted an informal class on stage, we sat in original seats in the main auditorium while the ranger explained to us what happened during the desegregation.  Being in the building and hearing the stories made it so much more real than if we had been back at the visitor center.  It was difficult to hear the accounts of the cruelty of the white students as they tried to physically injure, verbally abuse and drive away the Little Rock Nine throughout the school year.  We learned however that not all students acted out with resentment, some were friendly and helpful, but many others did nothing to ease the transition.   Below is a picture of the school cafeteria, the only place we were allowed to take pictures as long as students were not around.

While our tour continued in one of the hallways, the final school bell for the day rang and students started filing out of classes and crowding into the halls.  It was our signal to also go and we made our way out with some of the 2500 students that attend.  We were told during our visit that the school offers some impressive academic classes including five foreign languages, many AP and pre-AP classes and a number of service, academic and honors clubs.

Our tour concluded at a small memorial park across from the visitor center.  It features two arches with photo collages of important events that commemorate the Little Rock Nine.

The Arkansas capitol is a beautiful and stately building that I enjoyed visiting.  (As I have probably said before, I love looking at the state capitols)!   It was completed in 1915 and built on the grounds of the state penitentiary.  The state used 200 convicts to level the prison and build a new state capitol in its place.

My favorite room in the capitol was the Governor’s Reception Room on the second floor with many original furnishings.   When visiting the capitols, I find it interesting how many places visitors can wander on their own, including this room which is used as the Governor’s conference space.

The capitol has six 10-foot tall bronze doors which were purchased from Tiffany’s of New York in 1910 for $10,000 and are now reported to be worth $250,000.  The doors are polished inside and out each week to maintain their luster.

My favorite monument on the capitol grounds honors the Little Rock Nine.

The Old Mill, a tribute to Arkansas pioneers was built in North Little Rock in 1933.  Although it resembles early grist mills, it was never actually a working site.  It was constructed to look abandoned, so does not have doors and windows.

It was designed to look whimsical and has fake wooden bridges and benches that appear real from a distance.   The mill and surrounding ponds, creeks and gardens are quite pretty and fun to check out.  It is a popular place for weddings and photo shoots.

While visiting here, I thought of my friend Valerie.  As a fan of the movie “Gone With the Wind,” she may or may not know that this Old Mill is the last standing structure from the film.  It was featured in the opening scene.   I had to check this claim out on You Tube since it had been decades since I had seen the movie and sure enough there it was.

Thanks for your kind attention.  In the next blog I will be writing about the beginning of our stay in Louisiana and Cajun Country.

The long lens.

Only one more day tomorrow in southern Louisiana!  The time is just flying.  Today we took a drive over to Lake Charles then down along the coast.  As it promised some possible birding I took along my (kind of) new long lens.

Beth is really the birder.  I can tell if something is a bird or not more times than not, but my knowledge doesn’t go much further than that.  I do like to take pictures though and birds make a fun challenging subject.  Small birds in the trees are tough.

We saw some pretty cool stuff today so I thought I’d put up a few pictures.

We still don’t have any editing software going so these pics are right out of the camera.  No edits, no crops.

This one I am pretty sure is not a bird, but I get a kick out of seeing them.  There weren’t many around Modesto.

Two shots for this guy.

And finally, still my favorite, a picture of Beth taking a picture. The rare Northern California Wanderer.

Thanks for looking and stay tuned for the next episode in Beth’s Epic tale of exploration.

Welcome Tammy! Glad to see you here.

There Really is a Little Rock

We stayed for a week in the city of Little Rock, capitol of Arkansas.  One of the main attractions here is the Clinton Presidential Library, an unusual rectangular shaped building projecting towards the shore of the Arkansas River.  Clinton served two terms as governor in Little Rock, so he definitely has a big presence in this city.

Visiting this Presidential library was quite a bit different than our visit to the Truman Library in Independence.  The Truman library is a more conservative building with smaller space, one floor and is of course older than the Clinton library.  The Clinton library has more high tech exhibits and the building is very modern with three floors of viewing.  The building also features lots of open space between the floors.  Since I am afraid of heights, it made me feel a little uneasy walking around on the top floor that looks down on the floors below and outside.  Above is a picture of the Clinton Presidential Park Bridge as seen from the museum.

The design for this building was inspired by the Long Room at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland.  In the picture below, you can see many blue boxes displayed in cabinets.  The museum has 4,536 blue boxes containing presidential records from the Clinton White House.  You can get a glimpse of the boxes in the pictures both above and below.  On the righthand side of the picture above is also a Chihuly glass sculpture.  Below is a picture of the first floor with Mark standing at the end of the room, probably waiting for me.  There were lots of exhibits!

The museum has a replica of the cabinet room at the White House where one can sit at the long oval table.  The cabinet room has been the center of presidential decision making since 1902 when it was added to the West Wing of the White House by Theodore Roosevelt.

I decided to sit in the chair of the Secretary of Health and Human Services since I worked in the field of human services (hee, hee).

There is also a replica of the Oval Office.  I had to take the picture a little to the side, because there was a photographer in the middle of the room.  You can take pictures in the room, but not a picture of someone sitting at the desk unless you pay to have your photo taken, sigh.

We found the library and museum to be really quite interesting.  There was lots to read and see about Clinton’s time as president, as well as many exhibits about Bill and Hillary’s personal lives, both in and out of office.  I enjoyed seeing the variety of gifts he received from other countries while president.  I read that Clinton was the most traveled president as during eight years in office he visited 74 countries on six continents.

We took a break for lunch at Cafe 42 downstairs in the library.  Mark and I are still getting used to the presidents being referred to by their numbers.  It is a beautiful spot with big glass windows looking out on the bridge and river.  Though the cafe had a sophisticated feel and a trendy menu, the prices were surprisingly reasonable, the food delicious and the service very attentive.  This was one of the nicest places we have eaten on the trip.

We finished up our visit with an eye opening look at the Mandela exhibit.  I am often reminded in my travels how little I know about the world.  I appreciated the exhibit as I learned a lot more about Nelson Mandela and his life.  Above is a replica of the 8 x 7 foot prison cell where Mandela was held for 18 of the 27 years he was a political prisoner.  He was an amazing man for all the work he did to end apartheid In South Africa!

Across the street from the library is the Heifer Village main headquarters.  Heifer is a charity organization that provides animals and financial support to people in poor countries so they can build businesses and a means of support for their families.  Some of you might have received their booklet in the mail, asking for donations.  Often the requests are donations that will pay for a certain animal; for example, a llama for $150, water buffalo for $250, or a goat for $120.  Besides the large headquarters building there is a visitor center with exhibits on the work they do.

We most enjoyed seeing the Village’s large garden areas and greenhouses. Vegetables grown here are distributed to local organizations to help the needy.  A variety of farm animals are kept here including alpacas (above), one of my favorite animals.

Little Rock has a very nice river walk that passes several bridges, parks and sculptures.  I liked the origami bird sculpture seen above.

The Junction Bridge is a popular pedestrian and biking bridge that connects Little Rock with the city of North Little Rock.

Along the river front is an area dedicated to La Petite Roche or a “Little Rock.”  Historically, there was not actually one little rock but an outcropping on the Arkansas River used as a navigation point during early exploration of what would become the state of Arkansas.  Much of the rock had to be removed in 1872 to support the Junction Bridge and have an adequate channel for river traffic.   This rock is part of the area dedicated to the spot and explorers that gave the city its name.

I thought these yellow street cars that tour around the downtown and travel across the bridge to North Little Rock were very cute.  We hopped on board for a free ride and had the car to ourselves with a driver that pointed out interesting sights.  One of the more interesting things he noted was that Bill and Hillary Clinton stay in a residence on top of the presidential library when they come to town.

I will close with pictures of two of Little Rock’s bridges at night taken across the Arkansas river on the North Little Rock side.   The picture below is the Junction Bridge with the downtown Little Rock skyline.

Thanks for reading – next time I will be talking about a famous high school.

Hot Springs – A Park Dedicated to Hot Water

I find Hot Springs National Park in southwest central Arkansas an unusual National Park.  It is hard to think about it the same way one would think about Yosemite, Yellowstone, Zion or Glacier.  Those places boast grand scenery, a large amount of protected land, big visitor centers and numerous activities.   Hot Springs is a very small park that was created to protect the natural hot springs that flow from the nearby mountain.  The main attraction in addition to the springs are bathhouses, especially one historic house that is run by the National Park Service.  The park does include nearby forests with a few trails, a mountain drive to an observation tower and a campground.  But most visitors come to see and learn about the hot springs and the bath houses.  Since the park is so small, I am surprised it was not made a National Historic Site or National Monument.  The park is located in downtown Hot Springs with the bathhouses on one side of the street and stores and restaurants on the other.  I found this park to be a unique and interesting stop, a different sort of national park.

People have been soaking in these springs for many years.  American Indians bathed here in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s.  In 1832 the federal government set aside four sections of land here, the first U.S. Reservation created to protect a natural resource.  The first bathhouses were tent like structures made of canvas and wood that were placed over the springs or reservoirs.  Businessmen later built more permanent wooden structures which did not hold up well.  In 1877 the federal government approved the building of private bathhouses and even operated a free bathhouse and public health facility for those unable to pay for baths recommended by their physician.  Above is a picture of bathhouse row.

In 1921 Hot Springs was declared the nation’s 18th national park.  Bathhouses along “bathhouse row” catered to crowds of health seekers with the latest equipment and pampered the bathers in beautiful surroundings.  They even included gymnasiums and beauty shops.  By the 1950’s, water therapy was on the decline and people became less interested in vacationing at the bathhouses.  They began to close in the 1960’s and only one, the Buckstaff has remained open since it began in 1912.  Above is a picture of the Buckstaff, the only bathhouse that still offers the same bathing experience as when it first opened.  There are other bathhouses in the area that offer a more “modern” experience.

The park visitor center and museum is located in the Fordyce Bathhouse, built in 1915.  Visitors are able to do a self-guided tour of the bathhouse or have a group tour with a National Park ranger.  Exhibits include the bathing areas with original tubs, showers, steam cabinets, sitz baths, massage tables and reclining chairs for relaxing.   There were separate facilities for men and women.  Below is a picture of the men’s bathing area which was larger and more ornate than the women’s with a stained glass ceiling and statue in the center of the room.  Bathers could drink from the spring waters flowing from the statue.

Hot mineral water was piped into the tubs.  Since the water is too hot at an average temperature of 143 degrees, cooler water had to be added.  When we had our backyard hot tub in Modesto, I could barely tolerate 103 degrees.   At the time, a single bath with an attendant cost $2.30.  Below is a picture of a bathtub in the women’s section.  The clothing displayed next to the bath was used by the bathing attendants.

A steam or vapor box was used after bathing.  I thought the box looked quite confining with only the head to stick out.  People remained in the cabinets for up to 30 minutes at a temperature from 115 to 140 degrees.  Ouch!    It was reportedly used in the treatment of rheumatism, advanced syphilis, jaundice and obesity.  Below is a row of vapor cabinets.

The Hydrotherapy room was perhaps the most interesting part of the bathhouse with treatments prescribed by physicians for more difficult ailments or injuries that were not helped by the simple bathing ritual.

The most bizarre was the electric bathtub, seen above.  Although today using electric devices in water is unheard of, in that time period the belief was a little electricity with your bath could be medically beneficial.  Surprisingly there were no known deaths from electrocution while it was in use.  Other treatments in this room included the power hoses that attendants sprayed on bathers while they were in the shower (see below).    Yes, the room had a bit of a creepy feel.  As bizarre as this seems to us today, at the time it seemed important to protect and preserve this area.

There were several massage rooms and a few had scary looking devices – electro massage machines that were used for applying electric charges to various parts of the body.  Massages might also include mercury rubs which at the time was the primary treatment for syphillis until penicillin was developed in the 1940’s.  The rubs were stopped when people became understandably sick.   Arsenic rubs were then used which also proved to be problematic.

There were many other rooms that touted ways to improve health including physical therapy with exercise machines and a full gym.  The Assembly Room, pictured below is a cheerful and pretty room with a much more attractive look than the sterile looking bathing and massage rooms.  Both men and women could use this room to socialize, play games, read, listen to music, etc.  A beautiful stained glass ceiling decorates the room.

A promenade for walking was built on the hill with a view of the town and bathhouses below.  You can also walk past a few places where the springs come down the hill side.  It was fun to feel the water which is quite hot, so you can’t keep your hands in too long.

Outside of the city of Hot Springs is Garvan Woodland Gardens, situated in a forest and alongside a large lake, one of the nicest gardens to be visited in Arkansas.

The gardens were designed by the University of Arkansas and feature trails and paths by plantings, rock gardens, streams, small waterfalls and ponds.  There are several bridges including my favorite below which is called the Bridge of the Full Moon, located in the Japanese Garden section.

Along the trails are views of Lake Hamilton through the trees.

This is a beautiful and peaceful place and a perfect location to walk for a few hours admiring the scenery.  We almost had the gardens to ourselves, a benefit of being retired and able to go on a weekday!

The gardens are known for the many Christmas light installations placed throughout the park.  They had just put them up when we were there, but would not be lighting them for another week.  It would have been neat to see them!

Next to the gardens is the Anthony Chapel which is a gorgeous building that has 55 foot tall glass windows looking out on the surrounding woodlands – built to be a part of nature.  This chapel although similiar to the one I visited in Bella Vista is a little bigger and was designed by a different architect.

The chapel was an ideal place to commune with nature and end a day of sightseeing!

As always, thanks for visiting our blog!  Next time I will be sharing our stay in the city of Little Rock.