Louisiana’s rich history comes to life along a route that links 17 free museums
By Denny Dressman
The trademark red clay along the side of Interstate 20, which darts across the top of the Louisiana boot from Shreveport to Jackson, Miss., was dusted white with a rare light snowfall on the second weekend of February 2010. Above that odd sight, a newly installed sign not only informed passersby that Exit 81 leads to Grambling State University but also announced the state’s two newest tourism attractions: the Eddie G. Robinson Museum and the Heroes and Heritage Trail.
Above: Exhibits at the Jean Lafitte Marine Fisheries Museum near New Orleans details life as it evolved after the corsair Lafitte departed two centuries ago.
Below: Heroes and Heritage Trail founder Jay Dardenne, who championed completion of the Eddie G. Robinson Museum, presided at dedication ceremonies. Louisiana Department of State Museums photos
A conceptual network of historical attractions, the Heroes and Heritage Trail winds its way from the fishing hamlet of Lafitte, 28 miles south of New Orleans at the southern end of Louisiana Highway 45, to equally small Oil City in the far northwest corner on Louisiana Highway 538, about four miles east of Texas and less than 20 miles south of Arkansas.
The route ties together 17 local museums that were largely hidden gems for many years. It was conceived by then-Secretary of State Jay Dardenne as a way to promote them absent tourism marketing funds. Elected Louisiana’s lieutenant governor in November 2010, Dardenne unveiled the idea at the dedication of the long-awaited Robinson Museum, originally proposed more than a decade ago, on Feb. 13, the late coach’s birthday. Robinson died April 3, 2007.
To encourage vacationers to embrace the trail, Dardenne’s office came up with a promotion called Passport to Adventure. It promises the Ghost of the Castle Sleepover, an overnight stay at the Old State Capitol in Baton Rouge, and a VIP tour of the site to those who visit at least 11 sites along the Heroes and Heritage Trail.
While each museum is a destination in itself, the Heroes and Heritage Trail makes it easy to visit small groups of them in a series of driving trips. And because the museums are funded and operated by state government, admission is free.
Many of the museums feature famous (and sometimes infamous) figures from Louisiana history–from notorious pirate and smuggler Jean Lafitte to colorful politicians, war heroes and celebrities. But only one focuses entirely on a single individual’s life and career, his achievements and contributions.
Eddie Robinson coached football at Grambling and developed educated and disciplined contributors to society under Jim Crow laws and amid the tumult and aftermath of the civil rights movement. From 1941 to 1997, his teams won 408 games–the most of any college coach at any level–through his retirement at age 78. Hundreds of Robinson’s former players went on to play pro ball.
The amazing career and remarkable life of the most significant black coach in the history of American collegiate athletics are impressively preserved with Hall-of-Fame-caliber presentations at the Eddie G. Robinson Museum. It is located in a renovated early campus building where “Coach Rob” also coached basketball for 13 years, winning 288 games and developing national scoring champion Robert Hopkins.
Other museum stops along the trail include:
- The Delta Music Museum and Arcade Theater in Ferriday. Learn about three famous cousins–piano-pounding early rocker Jerry Lee Lewis, country icon Mickey Gilley and television evangelist Jimmy Swaggert–and how the Mississippi River Delta played a role in nurturing the distinct sounds of Southern music, from gospel to country to blues.
- Chennault Aviation and Military Museum in Monroe. Named for Gen. Claire Chennault, daring leader of the famed Flying Tigers in the Pacific Theater of World War II, the museum preserves the history of Selman Air Field (now Monroe Regional Airport), where more than 15,000 American navigators were trained and Delta Airlines later was born.
- The Louisiana State Cotton Museum in Lake Providence. An extensive array of interpretive exhibits, including life-size dioramas, farming equipment, a re-created “juke joint” and more are here. All are packed into a replica gin house along with authentic plantation buildings, including a sharecropper’s cabin.
- The Mansfield Female College Museum, 37 miles south of Shreveport. See artifacts and memorabilia of the pioneering young women who attended the first female college west of the Mississippi. Founded in 1855, Mansfield Female College was closed during the Civil War and its buildings used as a hospital for soldiers wounded in the Battle of Mansfield.
- The Jean Lafitte Marine Fisheries Museum near Bayou Barataria. Dedicated to both the legendary Lafitte and the fishing industry that developed here after his demise in the early 1800s, adventurous visitors can take a swamp tour by airboat at the museum.
Denny Dressman is a new contributor from Colorado and author of a biography about Eddie Robinson.
|Jan/Feb 2011 Issue
|BEFORE YOU GO
A detailed description of each museum, and the rules of the Passport to Adventure game, can be downloaded here.
To visit Louisiana, first stop by your nearest AAA service office for maps, reservations, TripTiks® and TourBook® guides. Locate a AAA service office near you.
Order free information about Louisiana found online at http://southern.ai-dsg.com.