Cane River National Heritage Area: A scenic byway into the past

Scenic byway offers a look at 19th-century Louisiana

Magnolia Plantation sharecropper cabin

Sharecroppers at the antebellum Magnolia Plantation lived in converted slave quarters that provided just the basics of life.

I’ve seen signs for the Cane River National Heritage Area scenic byway for years, but I recently decided on a whim to jump off Interstate 49 and give it a look. I was not disappointed.

Only a couple of miles from the interstate is the Cane River Creole National Historical Park situated on the old Magnolia Plantation, which dates from the 17oos. The plantation home was destroyed during the Civil War, but the old plantation store, the overseer’s house and slave hospital, and some slave quarters turned sharecroppers’ cabins remain. There also is a huge barn that still houses the old cotton gin on the premises.

I spent most of my time at one of the sharecroppers’ cabins and the barn. The cabin is set up just as it would have looked when former slaves were living there, working in the sharecropper system that all but kept them enslaved to the plantation owners. Sharecroppers were paid, but they were charged for everything from housing to food and clothing. And that money was usually paid to the “company store” owned by the planation, and the sharecroppers were often left owing more than they earned.

Farming equipment photography

This old farming implement at Magnolia Plantation features a great combination of gears, wheels and rust to make the perfect steampunk print.

The accommodations in the sharecropper cabins were anything but luxurious. A fireplace provided heat during the winter, while a small wood-burning stove might be available to cook on. The cabin open for viewing at Magnolia Planation were two rooms, so at least the living area was separated from the single bedroom.

The cotton gin in the barn was really fascinating. I had seen depictions of small models, but the one at Magnolia Plantation took up the entire barn. The cotton was ginned on one side, and then the cleaned cotton was moved to the other side and placed into a packing mechanism that packed 400 pounds of the fibers into large bales. A huge screw was used to compact the cotton.

Of course, the gin and some nearby farming equipment provided great photographic elements.

But the Cane River National Trail is more than this one park. There are 32 stops along the way, stretching north from the Monett’s Ferry site near Chopin, La., to the Natchitoches National Historic Landmark District and then west to St. Anne Catholic Church on Highway 485.

St. Augustine Catholic Church, Melrose, Louisiana

The Church of St. Augustine was founded in 1829, and ahead of its time, with a mixed racial congregation.

Scattered in between these points are churches, antebellum plantation homes, beautiful old houses and shops. The entire trail celebrates the rich history of the area, which features the oldest permanent settlement in the Louisiana Purchase (Natchitoches, which was established in 1714).

I still have a lot of investigating to do, but I made one more stop on the scenic byway before heading southward to my home.

St. Augustine Catholic Church at Melrose (aka Isle Brevelle) was originally established in between 1803 and 1829 (there is some discrepancy between local lore and church records), and it was the first Catholic church in the United States organized by and for people of color. The current church building dates to 1917, and is a beautiful example of a country worship center. It features a set of stained glass windows, an arched ceiling with arching supports, a plain but beautiful altar and a crucifix. Otherwise it is largely undecorated.

While most churches of the day were segregated — or at best relegated blacks to seats in the back or balcony — pew records show that the first few seats were used by Creole family members of church founder Augustin Metoyer, with prominent whites seated behind them. This was simply unheard-of in that day.

The original church was destroyed by Union forces during the Civil War, and the second church structure burned in the early 1900s.

A life-sized portrait of Augustin Metoyer hangs in the foyer of the church, which still serves the local Catholic community.

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About Andy Crawford

Andy Crawford has been a photographer and writer for more than 20 years, with thousands of images and articles published in magazines and newspapers around the country. He now focuses on Louisiana photography, landscapes, HDR photography, urban prints and other fine art photography. He also is a portrait photographer.