2016 marks the centennial year for the National Park Service. In order to promote this milestone, the NPS will be launching the “Find Your Park” campaign. The NPS is hoping that Americans discover or re-discover the nation’s nearly 400 National Parks, that preserve and protect our most precious cultural and natural resources. For residents of the Cenla, our closest National Park is Cane River Creole National Historical Park. Cane River Creole NHP was established in 1994. The park consists of two Creole Plantations, Oakland and Magnolia. Both of these plantations are located south of Natchitoches along the Cane River. The purpose of the park is to preserve and protect the plantation landscapes while also interpreting plantation culture from the 18th through 20th centuries. One of our primary goals is to interpret the Creole culture which evolved out of the region’s colonial roots as people adapted to each other in the New World environment. Manifestations of this culture are evident in language, food, music, architecture, and religion. That being said, what exactly is Creole?
The definition of Creole has evolved over the years. The NPS definition of Creole is very broad, indicating New World products derived from Old World stock. The term Creole can be applied to people, architecture, or livestock. Regarding people, Creole historically referred to those born in Louisiana during the French and Spanish periods, regardless of ethnicity. Today, as in the past, Creole transcends racial boundaries. It connects people to their colonial roots, be they descendants of European settlers, enslaved Africans, or those of mixed heritage, which may include African, French, Spanish, and American Indian influences. Since both Oakland and Magnolia have colonial roots, by definition they are Creole Plantations.
Visitors to Oakland and Magnolia can see the evolution of a plantation from the 1700s to the modern day. The landscapes, buildings, and artifacts allow us to interpret a continuum of history rather than a “snap-shot” of one particular time period or decade. Visitors to Magnolia can see a gin barn that contains a late 19th century cotton gin next to a 1830s mule powered cotton press. The mule powered cotton press is the only press of its kind still sitting in its original location. Magnolia visitors can also go inside a brick slave cabin which was the home of free tenant farmers until the 1970s. Visitors to Oakland can tour a plantation home that was built in the 1820s and lived in by the founding family until 1998. Today, the home is furnished to represent the mid-20th century. Oakland visitors can also see a post-Civil War plantation store which remained open until 1983. Combined, both plantations contain over 60 original buildings. While buildings are an important resource, perhaps the most important resource is the people who lived on these plantations.
Both plantations were founded by French Creoles; the Prud’hommes at Oakland and the LeComtes at Magnolia. Oakland and Magnolia were occupied by descendants of these families well into the 20th century. In the early days the plantation community consisted of the planter family, enslaved workers, and other paid employees. Examples of paid employees could be a plantation overseer and doctor. After emancipation, many of the enslaved workers left, but some remained as free tenant farmers and sharecroppers. Descendants of the plantation communities still reside in the area. Many of these people are volunteers, partners, and stake holders. The NPS has a huge responsibility to protect and preserve the ancestral homes of these individuals. We interpret their stories through wide range of visitor services.
Both Oakland and Magnolia are open seven days a week from 8:00am to 4:00pm. Visitors to both plantations can do a self-guided tour of the outbuildings at any time during our hours of operation. Both sites also offer a cell phone tour, allowing visitors to use their phones to hear a short audio presentation about many of the buildings. Oakland offers a daily slave/tenant cabin talk at 12:30pm and a guided tour of the plantation house at 1:00pm. More tours may be offered if staff is available. Tours and talks at Magnolia are by appointment only. The plantation house at Magnolia is on private property, and not open to the public. Large groups are encouraged to visit both of our sites, however groups of ten people or more need to make a reservation at least two weeks in advance. Both sites have picnic benches and Oakland has a covered entrance pavilion that can accommodate 40 to 50 people. The Oakland Plantation also has a gift shop which sells a variety of books and souvenirs. The park can also provide a variety of services to children.
Parents can bring their kids at any time and complete our Junior Ranger Booklet. Once the book is completed, the child will receive an official Junior Ranger badge. Children who complete the booklet are also eligible to participate in the Junior Civil War Historian program. Children our also encouraged to collect the park’s Civil War to Civil Rights trading cards. The cards are hidden scavenger hunt style in various buildings at Oakland and Magnolia. The park has a total of nine cards. Parents are encouraged to bring their kids, and teachers are encouraged to bring their students.
Rangers are able to provide education tours of both plantations. Teachers should make a reservation and allot approximately 90 minutes to tour each plantation site. If teachers cannot bring their students to the park, you can bring the park to your students with one of our two traveling trunks. The park has two trunks that feature curriculum materials and activities pertaining to the Creole culture and the Civil War. Park staff is willing to hand deliver these trunks—free of charge—to any teachers within the Cenla area. While many visitors come to tour the plantations, and take advantage of our education programs, the park is also a wonderful place to enjoy the outdoors.
Tree lovers can come to the park and enjoy varieties of pecan, magnolia, crape myrtle, and our majestic live oaks. The park sits along migratory bird routes and is also a popular destination for birders. In recent years the park has also become a popular jumping off point for cyclists who ride through the scenic Cane River National Heritage Area. The park’s scenic beauty provides the perfect place to enjoy the outdoors and get away from the daily grind. Along with these daily activities, the park also offers a variety of special events.
On Saturday, April 25th, the park will host our annual Junior Ranger Day at Oakland Planation. Oakland will be the site of several activity stations. After the children complete the activities, they will receive a Junior Ranger badge and certificate. This year’s activities include a soil science programs from our friends at Sci-Port and a very special harmonica workshop. The legendary Ed Huey will provide kids with free harmonica lessons. Each child will receive their very own, Hohner Pocket Pal harmonica. Harmonica supplies are limited and will be available until they run out. Junior Ranger Day begins at 10:00am.
On Saturday, May 9th, the park will partner with Cane River National Heritage Area to host the 6th Annual Cane River Music Festival at Oakland Plantation. This event has featured legendary musicians like Bobby Rush, Chubby Carrier, and Buddy Flett. This year’s line-up will include Goldman Thibodeaux & the Lawtell Playboys, Cedric Watson & the Mad Minstrels, Ed Huey, Buddy Flett, the LaCour Trio, and more. The festival will begin at 11:00am. Visitors are encouraged to bring lawn chairs, shade, food, and drinks. Janet LaCour will provide meat pies, hamburgers, BBQ sandwiches and more.
On Saturday and Sunday, October 10th and 11th, the park will host the annual Fall Tour of Homes at Oakland Plantation. This event is a homecoming for Oakland’s Prud’homme family. Several generations of Prud’hommes will wear period clothing and provide guided tours of the plantation home.
On Saturday, December 12th and Saturday, December 19th, the park will host our annual Christmas Down River celebration. This event features live music and Christmas crafts. Past performers have included the Detention Center Choir, Rev. Charley and the Patent Medicine Show, and Jim Pharis. To stay up to date on all of these events, visit our park website at www.nps.gov/cari and don’t forget to like us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/canerivercreoleNPS.
By now, you’re probably wondering how much it costs to visit the park and attend these events. The answer is simple: it’s free! There is no charge to visit our plantations. So please make a point to visit us and “Find Your Park” at Cane River Creole NHP in 2016 as we celebrate the NPS centennial.
To reach Oakland Plantation, take I-49 to Exit 127, Flora/Cypress. Head east on LA Highway 120 toward Cypress. Once you reach the LA Highway 1 intersection cross over LA Highway 1 onto LA Highway 494. The parking lot and entrance pavilion for Oakland are 4.5 miles east of Highway 1 on the left.
To reach the grounds of Magnolia Plantation, take I-49 to Exit 119, Derry. Head east on LA Highway 119. Cross over LA Highway 1 and proceed for two miles. The grounds of Magnolia Plantation are on the right. For more information, call (318) 356-8441.
Photos courtesy of Cane River National Heritage Area and the National Parks Service.