Those of you who know me personally know that I’m still in college, one semester away from a Master’s in Historic Preservation. Part of that program, as I mentioned earlier this summer, requires me to complete a summer internship in my field. Because I do plan on ending up in West Virginia, I wanted one that would give me some hands-on experience actually working on historic buildings and sites, to round out the law, history, and theory from my studies. This brought me to Cane River Creole National Historical Park in Natchitoches (Nack-a-tish), Louisiana.
Cane River was established in 1994 to preserve and interpret the two best surviving French Creole plantations in the United States, Oakland and Magnolia. Now, when I say “French Creole plantation,” I don’t mean the enormous Oak Alley type plantations from Southern Louisiana. These are a bit smaller, more practical, and much more connected to the local culture and identity. I like to think of them like our plantations in Mason County. Roseberry, for example, is quite small compared to the massive plantations in Eastern Virginia, but it was much more practical and reflected much more of the local culture than one designed mainly to show off money.
Oakland, our Park’s main attraction (shown above), was built in 1821 by Jean-Pierre Emmanuel Prud’homme. While it was being built by his slaves, the Prud’hommes lived in the neighboring Doctor’s Cottage, named for the plantation’s doctor that lived there later. The Big House was followed by all of the other buildings needed to run a plantation: the overseer’s house, slave cabins (two of which survive), blacksmith’s shop, carpenter’s shop, grist mill, smokehouse, wash house, chicken coops, horse and mule stables, and turkey shed.
An unusual building that many of us in West Virginia aren’t used to seeing is the pigeonnier, the pigeon house. In France, pigeons were a sign of wealth because French law required you to have so much land for foraging before you could own pigeons. When French immigrants came to Louisiana and gained new wealth, they continued this tradition.
Later, after the Civil War ended slavery, Oakland and Magnolia transitioned to sharecropping. Think of it like our company towns. Poor farmers and former slaves rented their homes and land from the plantation owner and were sold food, seed, and tools from the plantation store on credit. Come harvest time, the crop was used to settle their debt to the plantation owner. The sharecropper received what was left, or added to their debt. It was essentially economic slavery.
This is the history I’ve been working around for the last two months, and let me tell you, it has been busy! (And hot!) Our main project has been limewashing the outbuildings and barns at Oakland, all 17 of them. Around that, we’ve had to make some repairs to the historic copper and aluminum gutters, doors, and window shutters. Before I leave, I’ll also have repaired and re-glazed a historic window.
Aside from work on the buildings themselves, this year was the renewal year for the Park’s comprehensive conditions assessments (CACs) and List of Classified Structures (LCS). I spent about a week helping a specialist in those systems document the plantation’s buildings, update the inventories and cost estimates for those buildings, and put them into the Park’s Service management system. By the end of the updates, we found out that the Park was severely undervalued and increased its base value over $1 million. Earlier this month, I also helped our Chief of Facilities (my boss) input roughly $1.6 million in projects to make the park more accessible for visitors and easier to maintain for its long-term preservation.
But, my time in Louisiana hasn’t been all work and no play! I’ve spent quite a bit of time exploring Natchitoches, plus weekends in Houston, Natchez, New Orleans, Shreveport, and Vicksburg. These were mostly for fun, to see historic sites and family. But like when I’m away for college, I’m always looking for new ideas to bring home and make Mason County the heritage tourism capital of West Virginia! I’ll talk a bit about those next week.
Chris Rizer is president of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society, reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.