Last Updated on March 20, 2023

Take a road trip around the back roads of central Louisiana and you’ll find some of the best places you’ve never heard of.  

Delta Music Museum

Little Ferriday, Louisiana is the home of not only one of the biggest stars of Rock and Roll, Jerry Lee Lewis, but also his famous cousins, Mickey Gilley and Jimmy Swaggart. 

The Delta Music Museum exhibits the many inside stories of famous Louisiana musicians. It’s also the official Delta Music Hall of Fame. 

When you enter the museum, there are the local trio: Jimmy Swaggart with Bible in hand and a preacher-type smile on his face, Jerry Lee pounding on the keys, and Mickey Gilley in Stetson and vest. The statues are so real you expect them to turn and greet you. 

As you go through the museum, you will find posters and memorabilia from many musicians that had a connection to not only Louisiana, but the entire Mississippi Delta. A glass case displays the guitar, records, photos, and clothing of James Burton who played with Elvis. 

Fats Domino is brought to life with posters, his Hall of Fame induction certificate, albums, and photos. 

Naturally there’s Louisiana’s singing governor, Jimmy Davis. A photo shows him and his beloved horse, Sunshine. There’s his gold record for his most famous song, “You are my Sunshine.” Almost everyone can sing along with that one, but few know it is the state song of Louisiana.

Our docent, Jane Vaughan, explained how Jerry Lee earned the nickname “Killer:” 

“He got the nickname first from his best friend. He was wild, wild, and mean sometimes, and always in trouble. When he was in seventh grade, he failed the year and the next year when he tried to sneak into the eighth grade homeroom and the teacher told him to go back, he grabbed the teacher by the necktie and probably would have killed him if the coach hadn’t come by at just the right time.” 

He was “Killer” to everyone after that.

Frogmore Plantation 

This is a working cotton plantation that preserves and tells its history in a unique way. Frogmore Plantation invites you into a 1800s plantation church where local musicians, Gwen, Bobby, and Willie, sing you through history before you tour then-and-now methods of cotton production. 

Gwen sang a moving rendition of “Swing Low Sweet Chariot.” It ended with Bobby singing the song requested by Abraham Lincoln when he learned the Civil War was over, “Dixie,” before morphing into “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

Lynette Tanner, co-owner, showed us the enslaved cabins and let us hear some of the recordings made by former slaves explaining what life was like on plantations. We learned how sharecropping worked and were given the chance to try on a cotton picking sack at the overseer’s cabin.

Tanner then took us on a detailed tour of the ginning barn and showed us the early ginning methods versus how it is done today. We even got a sample of a cotton boll.

Magnolia Plantation 

Magnolia Plantation’s history began in the 1830s when Ambrose LeComte II began building what became Magnolia Plantation. When Ambrose and his wife Julia Buard retired in 1852 he turned management of the plantation over to his son-in-law, Matthew Hertzog. 

In 2001, the plantation was designated part of the Cane River Creole National Historical Park. The actual home is not open to the public as it is still owned by the descendants of the Hertzogs. It is not the original home that was burned by Union soldiers in 1864, but the 1890s rebuild.

What you can see and tour are the plantation store, overseer’s house, blacksmith shop, enslave quarters, tenant quarters, gin barn, cotton picker shed, slave hospital, and carriage house. These are all part of Cane River Creole National Historical Park. 

In the gin barn, it is amazing to see those ancient wooden pulley wheels and imagine they could still work. There is a 1830s era cotton press, the only one of its kind in its original location, which would have been operated by a mule turning it. It really takes you back to the 19th century. 

Then visit the general store and imagine the life of a sharecropper, who could only use the tokens they were paid for their labor here. 

This is a glimpse into the life of the French and African descended Creole people of Cane River. The plantations here had many family connections as you will see at the next stop.

Melrose Plantation

© Kathleen Walls

Melrose Plantation takes a deep dive into Louisiana’s culturally diverse history and tells the story of a formerly enslaved woman who began one of the best preserved plantations in Louisiana. Marie Thérèse Coincoin was owned by Louis Juchereau de St. Denis, the founder of Natchitoches. A young Frenchman, Claude Thomas Pierre Metoyer, fell in love and leased her. 

He later freed her and gave her a yearly allowance and a parcel of land. She began acquiring more land and enslaved people of her own. Her family owned Melrose Plantation from 1796 until 1847, when her great-grandson lost the family home.

The next owners were the Hertzogs from neighboring Magnolia Plantation. Fanny Hertzog upgraded the existing two-room cottage into the more typical eight-room plantation home you’ll see today. After the Civil War, she started a Freedmen school for the former enslaved people.

Carmelite (Cammie) Garrett Henry, whose family was the last private owner, collected historic cabins from the area and brought them to Melrose as residences for visiting writers and artists. 

One of the best-known writers associated with Melrose was Lyle Saxon, author of “Children of Strangers,” which portrays the Cane River region from the viewpoint of a young African American girl. You can tour Yucca House, the cabin where he stayed. 

The last resident writer was Francois Mignon. He came for a six-week visit in the early 1940s and stayed in Yucca House for 32 years. The plantation was sold at auction in the 1970s to Southdown Land Company who donated the buildings and land they are on to the Association of Natchitoches Women for the Preservation of Historic Natchitoches. Today it is called Association for the Preservation of Historic Natchitoches. 

An African American cook named Clementine Hunter found paints left behind by a visiting artist, Alberta Kinsey, and began painting the story of the plantation workers. She became one of Louisiana’s most famous folk artists and the first African American to have an exhibit in the New Orleans Museum of Art. 

Her home is one of the tour buildings. Her most famous works are the African House Murals. Today they are where she originally painted them on the second floor of the Africa House. The tour includes this building. 

The Big House is large and furnished much as it was during Cammie Henry’s ownership. There are portraits of Marie Coincoin’s grandson and granddaughter in the dining room. There are photos of Cammie with some of her writer friends and photos of Clementine Hunter.

Fort St. Jean Baptiste des Natchitoches 

Step back into the early 18th century roots of Louisiana’s oldest city. Natchitoches grew from two small huts built in 1714 to become Fort St. Jean Baptiste des Natchitoches. The city grew up around the fort to become an important French trading post. 

The fort is mostly made of log structures. The original fort did not survive Louisiana’s hot humid weather, but the replica looks authentic. It is built near the site of the original fort on Cane River Lake, then called Red River. First stop at the Fort’s Visitor Center to see a video and displays of the type of goods traded and dioramas that depict the villages of the Native Americans. 

The fort was built to house about 18 men and some families. The exhibits portray family life.

French women were scarce so many of the soldiers married Native American women from the friendly Caddo Tribes or Spanish women from the nearby Spanish fort. There are costumed docents that give it a very authentic feel.

You can visit the barracks and imagine cooks preparing bread in a huge outdoor clay oven. Be sure to visit the small church.

Cane River Historic District Walking Tour

Natchitoches is so proud of its heritage that it offers a free tour of the city with a knowledgeable guide. The tour starts at the Visitors and Convention Bureau and takes you from the beautiful Cane River walkway through part of downtown to see much of Natchitoches history reflected in its buildings. 

The Roque House next to the river is a gem of French Creole architecture. It was built in 1803 by a freed enslaved man named Yves or Pacalé and later bought by Madame Philamene Roque, granddaughter of Augustin Metoyer, son of Therese Coincoin. 

Another interesting stop on the tour is The Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. This magnificent red brick building is the seventh in a line that grew from that little church at the fort.

Construction began in 1857, but was delayed by the Civil War and Reconstruction and not completed until sometime between 1900 and 1905.

You’ll leave the tour with a deeper understanding of Natchitoches history.

Natchitoches Sports Hall of Fame and Northwest Louisiana History Museum

Just down the block, visit the Natchitoches Sports Hall of Fame and Northwest Louisiana History Museum. The combined museums will tell you about Louisiana’s athletes and the region’s culture and history.

The building is unique and stands out from the rest of the city’s architecture which has a New Orleans feel. Trahan Architects of Baton Rouge designed the museum which was named the Top Architecture Project in the World in 2013 by Azure magazine.

Starting on the first floor, the sports section tells the history of Louisiana athletics. You’ll find information on names known to all sports fans like Archie Manning, Willis Reed, Shaquille O’Neal, and Chanda Rubin. There are some lesser known names like New Orleans-born Audrey “Mickey” Patterson, who was the first African American woman to win an Olympic medal.

The History Museum section on the second floor takes you through 3,000 years of history with the Caddo Native Americans, French and Spanish settlers, and free and enslaved Africans that created today’s Cane River Creole culture. You’ll find more Clementine Hunter paintings and learn about Magnolia and Melrose Plantation era life.

Cane River Brewing Company

Take time for a cold brew and tour a brewery housed in a refurbished cotton gin building that is nearly a century old. The new craft brewery is the only one in Natchitoches.

Owners Justin Krouse and Cade Gentry currently make four core beers, Pilsner, APA, IPA, and Brown Ale, and some seasonal beers throughout the year. They offer entertainment ranging from music to comedy nights.

The Louisiana Maneuvers Military Museum

central louisiana manouvers musuem outside
© Kathleen Walls

This museum exhibits little-known WWII history, with some earlier events included. You need a government ID to enter as it is housed in a replica WWII barracks on a real military base, Camp Beauregard. 

Outside, there are planes, guns, and tanks displayed. Inside there are many untold stories of bravery by our men and women in uniform. Curator Captain Richard Moran will give you a lot of detail about the exhibits. 

There are photos and artifacts related to well known military persons like Dwight Eisenhower and Douglas MacArthur. There are uniforms from the Nazis and the Japanese. One of the most impressive is the remnants of a Japanese flag that flew over Hiroshima.  

Kent Plantation House

This is one of the oldest standing structures in the state of Louisiana. It’s a Creole plantation house built around 1796 by Pierre Baillio II. 

It has out buildings including cabins, a milk house, open hearth kitchen, and a sugar mill, which are authentic but not original to the house. They were brought in from other plantations. 

The house is furnished as it was between 1800 and 1850. Family portraits hang on the walls and over the mantles. There is a “Stranger’s Room,” a room with no door into the home so if a stranger was passing by and asked for hospitality they could put him up in this room. 

There is also interesting Creole custom illustrated here. It’s a candle holder that winds up or down. If a boy came courting a girl of the house, the father might wind the candle up longer if he liked the boy and use a shorter one if not. When the candle burned down, it was time for the boy to go home. 

For 108 years, the home was only lived in by two families. There is a family cemetery on the site.

Tunica-Biloxi Reservation 

central louisiana marksville center
© Kathleen Walls

Marksville is another often overlooked gem. It is home to the Tunica-Biloxi Reservation, where you can visit their Cultural and Educational Resources Center and witness the restoration and preservation of tribal relics. The huge trove of artifacts here is greater than any other one excavation, and they have one of the most advanced preservation laboratories in the U.S.

The Center traces the history and legends of the Louisiana tribes that combined to make this tribe. You will learn of how they were original refused recognition by the U.S. government until the excavation of these artifacts proved that they were in fact a true tribe originating before the Europeans arrived. 

The Center has a beautiful painting that tells the legend of Sun Woman, Otter, and Kingfisher. If you are lucky Donna M. Pierite, one of the Tunica-Biloxi Singers and Legend Keepers, may be at the Center to tell some of the tribal stories. She and her daughter are co-authors of a book about the tribe.

The reservation is also home to a casino resort with a RV park and a golf course.

Marksville Courthouse

Marksville courthouse is where Solomon Northup regained his freedom and was the center of the famous “Twelve Years a Slave” book and movie.

When you visit the courthouse, note the plaque in front; it tells the story of Jim Bowie and his brother, Rezin, and how Rezin made the first Bowie knife here in Marksville.

Broken Wheel Brewery

You may think “Broken Wheel” is an odd name for a brewery, but there is a reason. It’s the story of how Marksville got its name. 

A traveling trader, Marc Eliché, used to pass through this area trading with the Tunica Biloxi Native Americans. Over the years he had built good relationships with them. On one trip in 1809, his wagon wheel broke. He decided he was not going to fix it and instead just settled here. The settlement grew and took his name.

Tour the brewery and try one of their brews. On-site Fresh Catch Bistreaux is also a good place to enjoy dining. 

Owner Jonathan Knoll opened the restaurant first and after a few years decided to partner with an old friend from Colorado, Chris Pahl. The two men had shared a love of craft beer from their college days, and so Broken Wheel Brewery was born.

Both the beer and food are delicious. Try the pasta alfredo topped with shrimp, crawfish tails, chicken, crabmeat, or tuna steak. I chose the shrimp and loved it. For a tasty and unusual appetizer try the fried alligator. Little alligator bites topped with their homemade Remoulade Sauce.

By the time you finish, you will realize there is more to see on the back roads than in major cities. Less traffic and parking problems are a bonus.

Author

  • Kathleen Walls

    Kathleen Walls, a former reporter for Union Sentinel in Blairsville, GA, is publisher/writer for American Roads and Global Highways. Originally from New Orleans, she currently resides in Middleburg, FL and has lived in Florida most of her life while traveling extensively.