Sunday, March 4, 2012

Lafayette, Natchez & Vicksburg

All paraded out…we headed over to Lafayette to get a better sense of Louisiana, but more particularly to visit Vermillion Ville to learn the history of the Cajun and Creole people. We spent a very enjoyable day in an authentically reconstructed village where talented local people portrayed through handicrafts and stories the culture of the Cajun people who lived in the Vermillion Bayou around the year 1765. The “period clothed” men and women were very knowledgeable and demonstrated how the people worked, spoke about the culture and explained their way of life. We were surprised to learn how useful Spanish moss was in everyday life - it was picked, soaked in water until the green rotted off - the result is very strong fiber from which the people made rope (if coiled) and mattress stuffing (when teased out), it was also used in house building by mixing it into the clay. Spanish moss was used as filling for car seats in the early 1900s.  We met a musician in the school house playing the fiddle, a carpenter making little boxes with a secret drawer (Adele purchased one) and a lady making baskets and corn husk dolls. A fisherman was making a fishnet – it takes 30 minutes to “weave” one inch - what tedious work. This was fascinating to us as we both come from port towns and often wondered why fishermen spent so long repairing their nets.

The National Parks Service has a visitors center just at the entrance to the village where we saw an enlightening movie on the history of the Cajun people, the adjacent museum was well worth the visit.
On our drive over to Lafayette and back (through Baton Rouge on our way to Natchez) we drove over Atchafalaya Basin an intracoastal waterway quite similar to the Everglades;  it’s a shallow river 40 miles wide in which trees grow, we’ve since learned these are bald cypress and pine trees. Some of the bridges we drove over are way longer than the bridges they boast about in Florida.

Adele acquired a new cooking talent “Southern” making great Gumbo (a soup) and a mouthwatering Jambalaya (which she has dubbed Louisiana's answer to Irish stew, a whole meal in one pot).
We then headed for Natchez to drive the Natchez Trace, once a trade route for the Natives Americans who have burial mounds along the Trace and also the Emerald Mound a manmade hill which was used for ceremonial meetings. In the 18th century the Trace then became the way for fur traders to return north as it was impossible to row against the flow up the Mississippi. The traders floated down on flat boats with their wares and then sold everything including the boat for timber. The advent of the steam boat changed all that after which the Trace almost disappeared. For a period Natchez had the largest number of millionaires in the US except for New York. It just occurred to me that ladies at that time dressed like the Native Americans - coats of animal fur and feather hats - same materials different designs! More about the Trace in another Blog…

Vicksburg was a “must see” on our visit to Mississippi as Adele had read a book about the Civil War siege of the city and wanted to see the lay of the land. The city was surrounded on land by troops and on water by the navy who blockaded the river to the north and south. After 47 days the almost starving people surrendered.
We were also interested to see if the city had been flooded last year after we had seen that Mississippi was already at flood stage when we were in Minnesota last June. It had been - Vicksburg had its worst floods since records began 75.1ft of water. The town is perched on a very steep hill on a bend in the river which has 5 old river boats converted as Casinos; they float so there’s minimal damage when the river rises during flooding. To complete our trip to Vicksburg we visited an Antebellum house Cedar Grove House, now an upscale restaurant and B&B. Built in 1840 by a jeweler John Alexander Klein for his wife Elizabeth; Elizabeth was a cousin of General Sherman who used the lower part of the house during the Civil War. There are several cannon balls embedded in the walls and under the floors, all prominently displayed as patched holes in walls and doors. It was purchased by a 24 year old woman several years ago, it has all it original furniture - even creaking floor boards - the grounds remain landscaped as the Klein's had them. It is very authentic and felt very original.

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