Natchitoches is especially festive during the holidays.
Tucked into northwest Louisiana on the banks of the Cane River, Natchitoches (pronounced Nak-A-tish) is one of the prettiest cities in the state. Settled in 1714 by French-Canadian soldier and explorer Louis Juchereau de St. Denis, it’s also the oldest city in Louisiana.
The French architecture of Natchitoches’ buildings is reminiscent of, if not better than, New Orleans’ French Quarter. The entire downtown, 33 blocks, has been designated as a National Historic Landmark District.
Natchitoches may be small –– the population is approximately 19,000, not including the student body of Northwestern State University –– but it packs a wallop with history and culture. There is a lot to see and no shortage of places to stay with more than 25 captivating bed and breakfasts.
A proper introduction
An interesting way to learn the city’s history is with a guided walking tour offered for free by the Cane River National Heritage Area. Tours leave from the Natchitoches Convention & Visitors Bureau, 780 Front St., at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. from Tuesday–Saturday.
Near the bureau’s office, the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame and the Northwest Louisiana History Museum share a space at 800 Front St., a stunning copper-clad building. The Hall of Fame has everything you will ever want to know about sports in Louisiana, as well as a good overview of the region’s heritage and culture. Inductees into the Hall of Fame include such luminaries as Terry Bradshaw, Lou Brock, Joe Brown, and Shaquille O’Neal.
The Northwest Louisiana History Museum’s exhibits present a timeline that showcases 3,000 years of history, beginning with the Caddo tribe of Native Americans, and including French and Spanish settlers, African slaves, and the unique Louisiana Creoles. Many of the artifacts on display date to the early 1700s.
A selection of paintings by noted African-American artist Clementine Hunter is an added bonus at the museum. Hunter was a self-taught folk artist who painted what she knew: plantation life. She was born in 1887 at Hidden Hill Plantation, later moving with her family to Melrose to work as sharecroppers. Scenes in her paintings depict farming, pecan picking, courtships, weddings, and funerals.
More history to explore
There are several plantations in Natchitoches Parish, three of which are open to the public. National Park Service rangers give tours of Oakland Plantation (1789), located on state Highway 494, and the outer buildings of Magnolia Plantation (1830), both of which are part of the Cane River Creole National Historic Park. Magnolia Plantation, located in Derry on state Highway 119, was burned by Federal troops in 1864 and rebuilt during the 1890s.
Melrose Plantation (1810–1815), located on state Highway 119 and operated by the Association for the Preservation of Historic Natchitoches (APHN), is a National Historic Landmark. On each of these properties you will see sites such as blacksmith shops, cotton pickers’ sheds, gristmills, and slave hospitals and quarters depicting a resemblance of life on a Louisiana plantation in the 19th century.
Near the site of the original fort is Fort St. Jean Baptiste State Historic Site, a meticulous replication. Building materials were obtained locally, and many 18th-century techniques were employed in the rebuilding, which began in 1979.
With its strategic location on the Cane River, Natchitoches was an important trading post. Exhibits and costumed re-enactors describe the battles between the French and the Spanish for control of the fort, which was first built in 1716.
Walk the lush trails of Briarwood Nature Preserve, which once was the birthplace and home of Caroline Dormon. She was one of the first women employed by the U.S. Forest Service, hired in 1921 as a public relations professional. She soon tired of the bureaucratic atmosphere but continued to work on behalf of Louisiana’s parks, forests, and natural areas.
Shops to browse, restaurants to try
Natchitoches’ historical downtown brims with distinctive shops. Indulge yourself with some luxurious handmade soaps and scents at Bathhouse Soapery & Caldarium. Handmade furniture made out of Creole Cypress wood is the theme at Olivier’s Woodworks.
The grandfather of all the shops is Kaffie-Frederick General Mercantile. Founded in 1863 by Adolph and Harris Kaffie, Jewish immigrants from Prussia, it is the oldest general store in Louisiana. Today, a third-generation of the Frederick family owns the store. Sales are still rung up on a 1910 cash register.
This is a city steeped in traditions, and one of them is the Natchitoches meat pie, a mixture of ground beef and pork, onions, garlic, and peppers covered with a crust, crimped into a half-moon shape, and deep fried.
The history of the meat pies goes back to the 1700s when vendors sold them on the streets. You could say they were Natchitoches’ first fast food.
Laysone’s Meat Pie Restaurant (622 Second St.) is the place the locals head to for meat pies. They are also famous for their crawfish pies and corn fritters.
Maglieaux’s on the Cane (805 Washington) offers casual dining overlooking the river. Portobello mushroom fries, pecan shrimp, or seafood cannoli are just a few items from their extensive menu.
Another great restaurant is The Landing (520 Front St.). Here, the food is a little more refined, with dishes such as crawfish etouffee or shrimp and grits. Give the chicken and sausage gumbo a try.
Natchitoches for the holidays
The holiday season starts early in Natchitoches with the Christmas Festival, which began in 1927. Festivities kick off Nov. 19 and continue through Jan. 6.
The city is adorned in more than 300,000 Christmas lights, 100 lighted sets, and holiday decorations. There is a beauty pageant, food (including a meat pie booth), juried arts and crafts shows, tours and re-enactments at Fort St. Jean Baptiste, live entertainment, and fireworks over the Cane River.
No matter what you do here; whether it’s sitting or strolling the gardens of Beau Jardin Park, admiring the beautiful architecture on Front Street, walking through downtown, or visiting antebellum plantations, you’re sure to want to return to pretty little Natchitoches.
Frances J. Folsom is a new contributor from Cambridge, Mass.
November/December 2016 Issue
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