Traveling scenic byways are a great way to see some of the best of a state. In Louisiana, the Old Spanish Trail goes through Cajun country passing lovely small towns, bayous, sugarcane fields and old plantation homes. We traveled sections of this byway on a few different days. One of the first towns we visited was St. Martinville, settled in 1765 and one of Louisiana’s oldest cities. The town became noteworthy after Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote the famous poem “Evangeline” in 1897. The poem is about two Acadian exiles and lovers forced from their home in Nova Scotia and then separated. The Evangeline Oak became the site of the meeting place of these lovers after many years. Although the story is fictional, it illuminated the plight of the Acadians who were forced to leave their homeland in Canada and find other places to live.
The town has a beautiful church, St. Martin de Tours Catholic Church founded by a group of Acadian exiles. The current structure was built in 1836. Early property owners had to pay an annual rent to this congregation, a type of feudal system.
I find the cemeteries in Louisiana to be interesting. Grave plots are above ground due to the high water table as seen in the St. Martinville graveyard above.
Longfellow-Evangeline State Historic Site preserves the grounds of a former cattle ranch and sugar plantation. The Olivier Plantation home built in 1815 was owned by a wealthy Creole family. Creoles are French descendants or of mixed European and African descent. Because of their mixed heritage, the home reflects Creole, Caribbean and French influences. A common practice was to have the kitchen in a separate building from the main residence to lessen the heat and food odors in the home. It would be neat to have a plantation like this and live among big oaks like these below.
The park has an Acadian farmstead with longhorn cattle and gardens. Loofah vines were growing all over the porch railings of this adorable furnished cabin from the early 19th century. Years ago I once thought of growing loofah in my backyard garden and drying the sponges. Seeing them here made me wish I had given it a try.
In another Acadian cabin on the property the roof is steeply pitched. I learned that while living in Canada, the Acadians built their roofs in this style to keep the snow off. They continued the style even after moving to this much warmer climate. It was common for the cabins to have a ladder on the front porch leading to a loft for additional sleeping, usually younger males.
The Rip Van Winkle Gardens and Jefferson Mansion are a highlight when visiting southern Louisiana. Mr. Jefferson was a renowned stage and silent film actor who played Rip Van Winkle, a character from the short story by Washington Irving. Set in the Catskills mountains of New York, Rip was the fellow who fell asleep and woke up 20 years later finding the world had changed. I decided to read the story since I had heard of Rip Van Winkle but couldn’t remember the details.
The mansion was built in 1870 as a winter retreat for Mr. Jefferson and is in a beautiful setting on a small hill surrounded by oaks, lawns and gardens. Below I am standing by the Cleveland Oak which was named for President Grover Cleveland who liked to take naps under this 350 year old oak tree when he came to visit Jefferson.
While I toured the house with a guide, Mark took advantage of relaxing in a rocker on the large front porch.
The house and gardens located on an ancient salt deposit next to Lake Peigneur have an interesting history. In 1980, an oil company accidentally drilled into the salt mine under the lake creating a hole and gigantic whirlpool so powerful that it sucked all the waters of the lake into the salt caverns. A very large portion of the gardens also disappeared. The gardens were restored but the property size was reduced from an original 65 acres to 25! A home on the property was also destroyed and today you can still see the home’s chimney sticking up in the lake as a reminder of the disaster.
Probably the prettiest place we have eaten on our trip is Cafe Jefferson which has a wonderful view to the outside of the oaks, gardens and Lake Peigneur. The food was delicious as well. We enjoyed gumbo, eggplant with seafood casserole and bread pudding for dessert. Below was our view.
The sub tropical gardens are designed with Asian inspired statuary. The many plants include Camellias, bamboo, palms and hibiscus with peacocks roaming the area.
I really enjoyed seeing the banana plants as they brought back fond memories of my more tropical trips. If I ever lived in a warm, frost free environment I am sure I would plant a banana plant or two!
On another day we hit the scenic byway again for further exploring. This time we began with a visit to Le Jeune’s Bakery in the small town of Jeannerette. I have already talked about Jeannerette in a previous post since the rice mill and sugar factory we visited are located there. Le Jeune’s is known for their French bread which they have been baking since 1884. The bakery has been in the same family for five generations using the same recipes. The bakery lets people know when the bread is ready by turning on a red light above the store front. In the picture below you can see the red light next to the sign.
When we visited, the bakery in front looked closed up. We walked around to the side and found an entrance into a work room, not the typical bakery shop entrance we were expecting. As we stood around awkwardly waiting for someone to help us the lone baker eventually came out to see what we wanted. In addition to the French bread ginger cakes are popular. Luckily there was a rack of fresh out of the oven ginger cakes cooling right there and we got two warm ones to go.
As I got into the truck clutching a loaf of warm French bread and ginger cakes, a woman appeared out of nowhere and tapped on the passenger window. She said she saw me taking a picture of the front of the bakery and was the owner. She asked if I would come back in, sign the guest book and let her show me around. I went inside and she gave me a tour of the old fashioned office and baking area with flour mixing machines, tables and ovens, including the original oven (below) that is no longer used.
She talked about how rare it was to find a bakery baking original French bread here in Louisiana. I asked about the ginger cakes and she said she couldn’t recall their origin, we have just “always made them.” Mark came in from the truck munching on his ginger cake and said, “the ginger cakes are amazing, you better get more, four more!” We left with a few more and continued our drive.
We headed to another interesting and unusual museum – the Wedell Williams Aviation and Cypress Sawmill Museum located in Patterson. The museum covers Louisiana aviation pioneers Jimmie Wedell and Harry Williams who formed an air service and were also involved in air racing. The museum has a number of small planes. The golden age of air racing was during the early 1930’s. In 1933, Jimmie broke the world speed record becoming the first pilot to exceed 300 mph. The picture above is the plane that he flew. Unfortunately he died of a plane crash in 1934. Since it was during the Great Depression, the pilots served as heroes with the promise of an exciting new industry.
The museum has a great venue (above) where you can watch on several big screens the 1932 Cleveland National Air Races.
The other half of the museum (above) details cypress logging in Louisiana which was a major industry in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s until the trees were almost wiped out. It is estimated that many trees over 1,000 and even 2,000 years old were cut down. Cypress wood is much desired because of its durability and resistance to rot and insects. The museum has a number of historic machines used in the logging industry. Although I have little mechanical understanding (none Mark says) it was interesting to learn about how the trees were cut and transported on the waterways. Below is a picture of a typical cypress log harvested in the early 1900’s and estimated to be 300 years old.
The Bateau boat pictured below was very versatile on the swamps and bayous. Besides transportation, they were used for moss picking, fishing and to round up cypress timber for the steamboats to tow to the sawmills.
Although there have been friendly people in most places we have traveled, the people in Louisiana really stand out. People like the owner of Le Jeune Bakery were so interested to share their culture and history and find out about our own travels. We found friendly people that worked at our RV park, rangers and docents at parks and museums and people attending the music venues. We even met one very friendly couple at the popular Mama’s Chicken while Mark was ordering deep fried Oreos. We wound up visiting until the restaurant was closing. We found Louisianans to be cheerful, fun loving and easy to talk to. Some of the best people we have encountered so far!
Thanks for traveling on a scenic byway with us. Are there any favorite byways you have traveled on? We would love to hear from you!