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back to index A Brief Ethnography of Magnolia Plantation: Planning for Cane River Creole National Historical Park

Chapter 4: An Ethnographic View of Landscapes

This chapter notes the landscape features that people believe give meaning to local geography. In the National Park Service, we call these features “ethnographic resources” because people’s comments and interactions have demonstrated that certain sites, structures, and natural features are considered heritage resources with traditional importance in their ethnic histories and identities (1997 Directors Order #28:10). People may attach meaning, for example, to birthplaces and communities where they grew up or “came up,” and to the places they worked, played, and worshipped. These tend to be storied places, associated with and explained by tales about the people and events that made them special. Acknowledging the diversity of socially complex societies, the National Park Service also recognizes that “factors such as people’s class, ethnicity and gender may result in the assignment of diverse meanings to a landscape and its component places” (NPS 1998a). Not every landscape feature is valued in the same way by different people.

Magnolia’s past and present residents regard the park as a slice of an extensive landscape sculpted by the different places associated with their lives. Some places fall within the NPS area, and others are beyond park limits but still on the plantation grounds. Additional places are in the general vicinity of the plantation. Taken together, they represent a core area within which people spent most of their days. This core is nested within a more inclusive landscape that extends to further reaches of the heritage area and parish, or even beyond, to places that Magnolia residents had shared with members of neighboring towns and plantations.

Extended Landscape: Urban Natchitoches, Alexandria, and Beyond

Management found several locales beyond the parish landscape important. New Orleans was significant for conducting plantation business and had been the residence of Dr. Ambrose Hertzog, Mr. Matt’s brother, who practiced medicine there. Family ties and business interests, such as auctioning plantation herds in the 1950s, also linked Magnolia management to Alexandria, a city some 32.5 miles to the southeast. It was not until the rural exodus of the 1940s, 50s, and 60s that Alexandria gained greater importance to black people as one of the destinations for outward-bound country people from Magnolia and environs.

Magnolia residents attached importance to urban Natchitoches. A local commercial center, plantation managers banked there and, in a lighter vein, competed for the annual prizes banks awarded to planters who ginned the first bale of cotton. Magnolia managers re-stocked the plantation commissary, purchased equipment, and had it serviced at the Front Street facilities. They also relied on black Natchitoches entrepreneurs to recruit black seasonal laborers and transport them to and from Magnolia for the cotton harvest. Early in the 20th century, Baptist and AME ministers came from Natchitoches to serve the black Magnolia congregations. Some black Magnolia residents moved temporarily to Natchitoches for domestic work, but not until the 1940s and 1950s when cars and trucks facilitated transportation between the city and the country did Magnolia residents travel there more frequently to shop, visit, and attend church.

Ecologically, Magnolia is part of an ecosystem that includes the low valley, created by the rich alluvium deposits of the Cane and Red Rivers, and, on the western periphery of Natchitoches Parish, the hilly uplands of Kisatchie National Forest with its abundant pine and oak. Social and economic links brought the valley and hills together. Blacks and Creoles of color not only had kin living in the hill towns, they also depended economically on the hills for sassafras leaves for teas and gumbo seasoning and thickening. People collected the leaves themselves or acquired them from kin and other middlemen. Earlier in the 20th century, the household economies of white hill families and the commercial plantation economies were linked through the plantation needs for basketry containers and the hill families’ production and sale of baskets. The plantation also met its firewood needs in the upland pineries when Magnolia wood lots became too reduced to provide adequate supplies. Kisatchie occasionally provided a refuge for plantation cattle during Cane River’s high water periods. Management and a former cowhand recall that when the 1945 floods made Magnolia pastures unusable, the cowhands drove the herd to Red Dirt in the Kisatchie hills, where men and animals stayed until the waters receded. At another time, even when cattle could remain at Magnolia during the high water, they grazed in the hills because the high waters made the lowland grasses inedible, scaled, and rotten.

The Core Area

Derry, Cloutierville, and Vicinity

Dozens of meaningful places pepper the core area south of urban Natchitoches from Cane River to the Kisatchie Ranger District. They include smallholder settlements, ferry landings, schools, Catholic churches, Protestant churches with their baptismal sites on the banks of Cane River, former mill towns, and commercial centers (see Figure 1). Derry, the township within which Magnolia is located, was important for Magnolia management as well as labor. Management cooperated with the Derry lumber company in various ways. For example, around 1910, some people suggested, Magnolia donated land to the Derry Lumber Co. to build a dam across Cane River and a swimming place complete with a diving board. In return, the company developed a small island near the dam for the Hertzogs’ use as a campsite for family and guests. The camp, which replaced a smaller site on the riverbanks, is still in use, although now as a rental property.

The lumber company also spawned the Derry mill town, just west of Magnolia. A segregated company town on the railroad line, like other Louisiana sawmill towns, its resident laborers and specialists depended on the mill for their homes and livelihood. Derry had the accoutrements of its trade, such as a kiln to cure timber and a sawmill. It also had the amenities needed to maintain a stable work force: grist mill, commissary, school, medical services, boarding houses, and recreational facilities. Black people from Magnolia’s quarters occasionally found wage work in Derry, where, for example, one of the longtime cooks in the Magnolia Big House briefly worked. Montrose and other neighboring mill towns also offered temporary jobs. Management and others also recall a Catholic chapel located in a grove of Chinaberry trees near the Derry Bridge, within walking distance of Magnolia’s quarters, and constructed on land, the Hertzogs noted, donated by Fannie Hertzog Chopin, great aunt of Magnolia’s present owners. The land reverted to the Chopin estate when the chapel was taken down several decades ago.

Whites, including visitors to Magnolia, recalled Derry as “a lively little town” with recreational facilities they could use, such as a dance hall, the ubiquitous baseball field, and race track. A popular outdoor movie theatre, available to everyone, was located behind the Derry Mercantile restaurant on Highway 1. It ran movies until the 1950s, recalled Ms. Ruby, who had cooked for the restaurant, a popular lunch stop, and local landmark. Today, relocated to a nearby site, the restaurant and the adjoining Metoyer’s Arts and Crafts shop are among the few visible signs of commerce remaining in Derry since the defunct timber industry and farm mechanization prompted the mid-20th century exodus.

(photo) St. Andrew Missionary Baptist Church
Figure 4. St. Andrew Missionary Baptist Church, on the banks of the CaneRiver, in Derry, opposite the site of Magnolia's St. James AME. Photo: M. Crespi.

Churches and schools in this core area also attracted residents from various settlements and plantations. For example, black people recall St. Andrew Missionary Baptist Church (see Figure 4) in Derry and, opposite it on the Magnolia side of Cane River, the plantation’s formerly standing St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), as principal religious and social centers as well as partners in community events. In the early 1940s, a public school was established near St. Andrew Church for black children. Both churches drew members from neighboring plantations into the mid-1960s, and St. Andrew continues to operate today.

Just south of Derry and Magnolia was the town of Cloutierville. Some people know it as the place where Kate Chopin lived and worked in the late 1800s on her then-controversial novel, The Awakening. Her residence now houses the Bayou Folk Museum. But most Magnolia and other rural residents probably know Cloutierville best as the source of services not available at the plantations. Highway 491 functioned as Cloutierville’s main street. It supported a string of services, mostly white-owned banks, medical services, barbers, a cotton gin, and several ample general stores. The LaCaze family owned one and, in 1910, the Cohens built a large store, which they later sold to the Carnahans. Not to be outdone by the plantations, or Derry, the town had a racetrack too. In addition, a multi-purpose “Opera House” that held plays, movies, and dances had been established with support from the legendary Father Becker of St. John the Baptist Catholic Church. From 1921 to 1952, this multifaceted man served not only as the priest but also as a businessman, entrepreneur, and a State Fire Marshal (Miller 1994).

During its most commercially successful period, from around the start of the 20th century to the 1950s, Cloutierville catered to the logging work force, agricultural workers, and managers. The largest merchants competed briskly for available business, sending school busses, wagons, or their own trucks around the plantations on Fridays and Saturdays to collect potential customers. One major store owner gleefully recalled shoving handbills into open car windows, handing them out, and showering the Cloutierville exit at Highway 1 with advertisements of his own weekly specials. Stores were “wide open,” or non-discriminatory, recruiting customers of any ethnicity, and extending credit to trusted clients and sometimes others, preferring perhaps, to risk losing cash but gaining loyal new customers. One merchant recalled that Fridays were days people would seek credit and would get it if they were known, that is, from his own or a neighboring plantation. Others paid cash, if they were strangers or people with unknown, unknowable, or unreliable credit histories. High-risk shoppers lacked established ties to the merchant or his peers and were not vulnerable to wage garnishing for nonpayment of debts. In any case, shopping on Saturdays, which often were plantation paydays, were “cash days” only.

Until segregation gradually ended in the 1960s, blacks, whites, and Creoles of color necessarily differed in their uses of most Cloutierville facilities. Bars, for example, unlike stores, tended to be race-conscious. Blacks were likely to use facilities run by their ethnic peers and Creoles of color tended to favor bars run by their peers. The public Cloutierville High School served the white students and, until it burned, the Springhill High School served the blacks. Two separate Catholic schools served white children and black children. Church structures themselves might serve a mixed population to some degree as did Cloutierville’s St. John the Baptist Catholic Church. Consistent with the architecture of segregation that previously held sway, however, each group entered St. John’s through separate doors and each sat in separate areas until its remodeling in the 1960s. White Catholics sat in the center pews, the black Catholics used pews to one side of them, and Creoles of color occupied the opposite side of the building, each clustered together in their own group. The Church cemetery was somewhat more ecumenical earlier in the 20th century, judging from a headstone that clearly bears the Star of David. On the other hand, St. Davis Missionary Baptist Church, located on Highway 495 in Cloutierville, catered to a primarily black congregation that included some Magnolia laborers.

Several developments in the early-to-mid-20th century converged to reduce Cloutierville’s status as a local economic center and all but eliminate mill towns such as Derry and Montrose. Large-scale logging ceased soon after Kisatchie became a National Forest in 1930. This coupled with the later transformation of plantation economies from labor-intensive to mechanized production and the increasing focus on cattle ranching with its reduced labor demands eventually took their toll. First, the changing resource uses and labor needs pushed rural workers from the timber industry and led to the close of sawmill towns. Then, changing agricultural technology with its associated replacement of men with machines prompted further depopulation of the rural area. These and other factors curtailed the local need for services and fostered Cloutierville’s commercial decline. The number of Cloutierville residents declined as well. Although Kate Chopin’s home is now the Bayou Folk Museum, part of the National Heritage Area and a local attraction, main street is largely marked by structurally and ethnographically interesting places, including the shells of the bank and general stores, all sorely in need of repair. Meanwhile, commerce and real estate in urban Natchitoches benefited from the relocation of rural residents.

Family ties or social and economic interests created social networks that crossed town and plantation boundaries. Magnolia’s cotton was ginned at the Cohen’s place, Lakeview plantation, and Magnolia residents sometimes bought clothes and supplies at the Cohen’s plantation store. Recreational facilities, such as juke joints, race tracks and baseball fields, work, and ties of kinship brought Magnolia tenants in contact with their neighbors and neighboring places, such as Lakeview and Melrose plantations. Marriage, for example, linked Magnolia laborers to others from the Cohen’s place, and pecan harvests at nearby Melrose plantation attracted laborers from Magnolia as well as other plantation communities. Old family ties closely linked the Hertzogs of Magnolia to the Prud’hommes of Oakland plantation. Schools drew teachers together from different communities. For example, Ms. Dee Hertzog, wife of Magnolia’s owner-manager, known as “Mr. Matt,” taught at Cloutierville High School and sometimes invited her co-teachers home for dinner. Communication throughout the area was also facilitated by the principal waterway, Cane River, which was dotted with ferry crossings and foot bridges that facilitated transportation during most seasons to churches, schools, plantations, and towns along the same or opposite river banks.

North of Magnolia and the neighboring Lakeview plantations is the Melrose area. An area heavily populated by Creoles of color, Melrose plantation is the legendary holding of French Creole Thomas Pierre Metoyer and his companion, the black Marie Thereze Coincoin. Nearby on Highway 484 is St. Augustine Catholic Church. Started by their eldest son, St. Augustine tends to serve the Upper Cane River communities as well as urban Natchitoches, especially, but not exclusively, Creoles of color. The Creole of color community perceives this Church, along with Cloutierville’s St. John the Baptist Catholic Church, as principal spiritual, educational and community centers. Recreational facilities also line Highway 119 around Melrose where numerous clubs are located.

Until closing in the late-1980s, a public high school adjoining St. Matthew Baptist Church, north of Melrose, drew Creoles of color and blacks from the surrounding countryside. Some Creole children attended parochial school at St. Augustine or in Cloutierville, Baton Rouge, Shreveport, or New Orleans.

Magnolia

Magnolia plantation stretches over 2000 acres and had included another nearly 19 acres now in parklands (see Figure 3). Together, the area is mostly fertile bottomlands that support agriculture, especially cotton, and pastures, and had supported orchards and considerable timberlands at an earlier period. Culturally important places punctuate the entire area. Many are aligned with the riverfront with ready access to numerous ferry crossings and Highway 119, fronting the work area, or to Highway 1, located just to the west. The landscape is described here in terms of three locales, the parklands themselves, off-park plantation lands with places that were integral to the plantation community, and places that served the community but were found off the park and the plantation.

Black people and whites generally agreed on the importance of several landscape features. Former residents of the quarters, as well as the Hertzog family and neighbors, for example, commented on the Hertzog campsite and the dam and noted the plantation store. They all also mentioned activities associated with the former stiles, the ascending and descending steps that had been built over fences dividing the corral from the quarters, and the road from the farm buildings, so that people and small animals could cross them. Everyone agreed on the importance of the Big House, farm structures, and the quarters. Other resources were readily named or recalled by the people most closely associated with them. Black people, for example, spoke enthusiastically of the AME church, the site of former deacon’s home, the flowering trees and bushes, and the gardens that once grew near their homes in the quarters. They identified their own and their neighbors’ homes in the quarters. Residents of the Big House commented on the Catholic chapel in the rear gallery of the Big House and the Derry chapel.

Parklands

(photo) slave hospital
Figure 5. Slave hospital, later overseer’s house. Photo: D. Fricker.

A tree-lined alley separates the Big House and the main plantation from the parklands. There on the parklands are the pigeonnier and the work area holding most of the outbuildings, such as the commissary or plantation store, blacksmith shop, stable, the gin, and other features of the farm operational and labor community. The large multi-room cottage of bousillage construction that served as the slave hospital in 1858 is there too (Figure 5). It became the landowner’s temporary home while the Big House, burned-out in the Civil War, was later reconstructed. In the 20th century it was the overseer’s house. Rising above nearby structures, it represented the owners’ authority and a permanent white presence in an otherwise black occupied area. Nearby, in another section, are the quarters, the black community site built to house enslaved workers, later occupied by day laborers, and now consisting of two adjacent rows of four red brick cabins each.

Natural features recalled on parklands include:

  • Chinaberry or China ball trees (bot. Melia azedarach) produced small brown cherry-sized balls. People in the quarters used them to prepare medicinal teas to de-worm children and for adults with fevers. Children also used the fruit balls recreationally as shot in their popguns. The trees were found at the northern and southern parts of the quarters and in the work area behind the plantation store.
  • Juju or jujube trees, sometimes also called zizis trees, (bot. ziziphus jujube) bear round date-like fruit that became edible once they ripened and turned reddish. People in the quarters used them to prepare jelly and wine. The trees were found near the quarters and farm buildings.
  • Sassafras bush (bot. Sassafras albidum) had leaves that were dried and universally used for teas and as a thickening agent and seasoning for gumbo. They were found in the fields behind the quarters.
  • Blackberry (bot. Rubus) bushes produced berries that people in the quarters used in preparing table wine. Some bushes were found behind the blacksmith shop.
  • Peach (bot. Prunus persica) and plum (bot. Prunus ) trees were behind the quarters. Fruits were picked and jarred.
  • Pecan trees (bot. Carya illinoensis) in the quarters and farm operational center provided nuts collected by residents of the quarters primarily for their own consumption in pies and candies.

Community features on parklands include:

  • the plantation bell, now stored for protection, was rung at the store to signal the start and end of the work day, and critical events;
  • the quarters with their gardens and rain barrels;
  • the stiles (no longer standing) that bridged the fences in the quarters and farm work area;
  • the overseer’s house; and,
  • the plantation store.

Farm structures on parklands include:

  • the cotton gin;
  • the barn; and,
  • the blacksmith’s workshop and adjacent grist mill.

Off-Park Plantation Lands

(photo) The front porch of the big house.
Figure 6. The front porch of the big house. Photo: M. Crespi.

Dominating the horizon is the main house or the Big House, the plantation control and command center as well as home to its owner-managers (Figure 6). Surrounded by a lush flower garden and facing an avenue of cooling live oak and magnolia trees, the Big House is a gracious galleried structure built in 1896 or 1899 to replace the one burned by Union soldiers (NPS 1998b). It is a stately reminder of the care and costs invested by generations of Hertzog family owners and the work of generations of laborers. Nearby, is the contemporary-style home Dr. Hertzog built in 1976, which is presently occupied by his widow and son.

North of the Big House and along Highway 119 are additional physical remains of the larger Magnolia community (see Figure 9). Barely standing walls, almost hidden with foliage, rubble heaps, still-flowering crepe myrtle trees and plants, and majestic live oaks, mark the house sites of former occupational specialists, just north of the Big House, along Highway 119. The site of the former St. James AME Church along with its kitchen outbuilding, baptismal site, and rutted parking lot follows at the bend in the road (Figure 7). Then come the sharecropper house sites, some occupied into the 1960s by black people and more by Creoles of color. These places all offer evidence of the once viable settlement that made its way around the bend towards Melrose. Although few visible traces of the earlier structures remain, they persist as important and often named features in people’s perceived landscapes. Former residents used earlier structures as place markers that indicate the site of some important event, activity, or person’s home. In addition, they provided locational markers for giving directions or describing locations of other sites. Certain features, for example, were said to be at the “bend” in the road on Highway 119 (Figure 8), “near the AME Church,” or “close by Ms. Lizzie’s house,” or “down from Cliff Lemell’s house.” The Church and Ms. Lizzie’s house had fallen decades ago and left no more physical evidence than rubble heaps and blooming trees, and Ms. Lizzie had moved to Natchitoches over 40 years earlier. The Cliff Lemell house, where the AME deacon once lived, is now a shell of partial walls. Still, these places and the memories of their uses and former occupants were imprinted on the landscape as well as in the minds and conceptual maps of those who knew and visited them. Residences were linked to the former occupants in a socially proprietary, rather than legal, sense. Cultural outsiders could not identify them or their importance without local assistance, nor would they have found sites such as those near “Ms. Lizzie’s place.” Memory places or ephemeral “shadow” structures with stories and names that represent past people, events, and activities help keep the past viable in the present.

Certain features of this core landscape were also so closely connected that they were perceived and used as a coupled unit, despite their location in different communities. Prominent in this respect is the St. James AME Church in Magnolia and, directly opposite it on the Derry side of Cane River, the St. Andrew Missionary Baptist Church. As described later, the two structures and the river between them formed part of a single continuous religious landscape.

Off-park plantation religious sites, structures, and objects include:

(photo) Former site of St. James AME.
Figure 7. Former site of St. James AME, Magnolia, on the banks of the Cane River. Photo: M. Crespi.
  • A small statue of the Catholic Saint Isadore, patron saint of farmers. Mr. Matt had it set on a horizontal beam between two telephone poles as the gateway to the main field north of the plantation house. It was later removed because of threatened vandalism, possibly by people not from Cane River.
  • Unmarked baptismal sites recalled on the river bank near the formerly standing St. James AME.
  • St. James AME with its two locations. The first Church, no longer standing, was on the riverbank opposite St. Andrew Missionary Baptist Church; its back was towards Cane River. The second site, mentioned as a place marker, was nearby at the bend, fronting on Highway 119 in the sharecropper area. Termite-ridden and destabilized by a car crash, it was leveled in the mid-1970s. The Church had an adjacent kitchen at each site (see Figure 4).
  • Catholic Chapel on the back gallery of the Big House, which serves the Hertzog family.

Off-park plantation engineering features include:

  • A spillway or dam below the Lakewood-Magnolia boundary, seen by some as marking the difference between upper and lower Cane River.
  • The “bend” in the road near the St. James AME and the line of sharecropper homes where the river turns away from Highway 119.
  • “Up the road,” towards Melrose and the sharecropper homes along Highway 119, north of the Big House before, at, and after the “bend” (Figure 8).

Off-park plantation community features include:

(photo) The bend, Highway 119 towards Melrose.
Figure 8. The bend, Highway 119 towards Melrose. Photo: M. Crespi.
  • the Big House;
  • Ms. Lizzie’s place near the “bend” in the sharecropper area (not standing);
  • fruit trees and others, including crepe myrtle and flowering plants, found in the fields where they marked abandoned sharecropper house sites;
  • Cliff Lemell’s house near St. James AME (not standing);
  • John Vercher’s house (not standing);
  • the Hertzog camp;
  • the thoroughbred stables and nearby gravesite of the Flying Dutchman, a prizewinning horse;
  • the cook’s house; and,
  • Ms. Betty’s new house.

Off-park plantation natural place markers include:

  • the live oak near the bend, AME Church, and start of the sharecropper area;
  • the pecan tree (near Ms. Betty’s house) that marks a former sharecropper’s cabin; and,
  • the Upper/Lower Cane River.

Off-plantation religious places:

  • St. Andrew Missionary Baptist Church and cemetery, near Cane River in Derry, attended by Magnolia’s black residents who also buried their dead in its cemetery. Held events in tandem with the AME Church opposite it on the Magnolia side of the river.
  • St. Matthew Baptist Church and cemetery, north of Melrose, attended by some Magnolia black people who also buried their deceased there. Numerous Magnolia youth also attended the public high school adjacent to the Church.
  • St. John the Baptist Catholic Church, and cemetery, in Cloutierville on Highway 491, attended by whites, Creoles of color, and blacks.
  • St. Augustine Catholic Church and cemetery, Highway 484, a religious and community center for Creoles of color and other Catholics.
  • St. Davis Baptist Church and cemetery in Cloutierville where several deceased Magnolia tenants are buried.
  • Derry Catholic Chapel (no longer standing) on Chopin lands, near Magnolia, attended by Creoles of color, blacks, and Derry whites.

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