Visiting North Louisiana is a little like going to the Smithsonian Institution – there’s something for everyone, and you’re going to need more than a week to see everything it has to offer.
When the prehistoric Gulf of Mexico finally receded and the landmass that would become Louisiana rose from the waters, the hills of North Louisiana soared and gave birth to an area that would become a rolling piney treasure trove of culture and history. Two magnificent rivers cut through its western and eastern borders: respectively, the Permian sandstone red-stained waters of the Red River and the crystalline glassy waters of the beautiful Ouachita. Whether you travel between these two rivers via the modernity of Interstate 20 from Monroe to Shreveport or the winding charm of Louisiana’s scenic byways, you’ll pass through an area filled with rich land that fostered bayous, American Indian tribes, cotton, pioneers, Civil War campaigns, Coca-Cola barons, oil rigs, World War II aviation, the beginning of Delta Airlines and the legend of Elvis.
Bienville Trace Scenic Byway
Poverty Point State Historic Site lies near the town of Epps in West Carroll Parish on the Bienville Trace Scenic Byway. This village, constructed between 800 and 600 B.C., was once the scene of a thriving culture in the Bayou State that predates both the Greek and Roman empires, as well as the magnificent cities of the Aztecs, the Toltecs and the Mayas. Solomon’s magnificent temple was only 200 years old when Poverty Point began. The denizens of Poverty Point came from an advanced stage of the Stone Age culture; their appearance in Louisiana marked the beginning of the American Neolithic period. This sprawling, intricate complex of ceremonial mounds is considered by archaeologists to be one of the most important finds in America.
The Bienville Trace Scenic Byway skirts through the twin cities of Monroe/West Monroe as well as Bernice, Delhi, St. Joseph and Lake Providence, a route beautifully interspersed with lakes, state parks, rivers and quiet small towns.
Near Newellton, the Bienville Trace Scenic Byway will take you to Winter Quarters State Historic Site. Once part of 15 antebellum homes that lined the banks of Lake St. Joseph, Winter Quarters belonged to a brilliant doctor with the inauspicious surname of Nutt. Among his many works of medical and agricultural research, Dr. Haller Nutt introduced a new strain of cotton called Egypto-Mexican.
In 1863, when the Union Army finally realized it was not going to conquer Vicksburg, Miss., by a maritime bombardment from the Mississippi River, Ulysses S. Grant marched as part of the Vicksburg campaign south into Tensas Parish. Following Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s orders to burn everything considered expendable by the Union Army, all antebellum homes on the banks of Lake St. Joseph, with the exception of Winter Quarters, were incinerated. Available for tours, this last-standing bastion of the lake’s antebellum era is filled with period furnishings, diaries, personal records and displays that show Dr. Nutt’s contributions to medicine and agronomy.
Each passing generation has left some mark of its culture along the byway. Passing some of the farmhouses, you might see colorful homespun quilts swaying against the backdrop of farm fields as they air on clotheslines; a rich history of black American quilt-making threads its way through the northeast portion of the state. The byway also offers a quaint corridor where antiques shops pop up in pleasant unexpected ways. Oddly enough, 10 miles south of Lake Providence lies a small town named Transylvania.
Monroe and West Monroe lie on either side of the Ouachita River, a body of water that holds a place on the list of the world’s most beautiful rivers. The Monroe/West Monroe area is a thriving community that blends a love of the arts with a love of family. This artsy enclave brims with creativity and is especially child-friendly. The Northeast Louisiana Children’s Museum is a one-on-one learning experience for the budding artist. The Masur Museum of Art rises in gray Tudor walls that are filled inside with vibrant splashes of color. Music and dance are celebrated by the performances of the lively Twin City Ballet Co., the Monroe Symphony Orchestra and the University of Louisiana at Monroe’s concert series.
People who came from more southerly banks of the Mississippi and were part of French missions first settled these bustling twin cities. They named the spot Prairie des Canots (Prairie of the Canoes) because the Indians paddled there to trade with hunters and trappers. Juan Filhiol, who later anglicized his first name to John, is credited with actually founding Fort Miro. Fort Miro’s name was changed to Monroe in 1819 after its citizenry was thrilled by the sight of the steamboat James Monroe, named for the president at the time, as it made landing on the Ouachita River.
Decades later, a band of railroad workers needing a town of their own christened the western bank of the Ouachita West Monroe.
Joseph Biedenharn, the first to bottle Coca-Cola, moved from the high bluffs of Vicksburg and settled in the Monroe area in 1914. ELsong Gardens, named for his daughter Emy-Lou, is the site of Biedenharn’s home, replete with sprawling, gorgeous gardens that are available for tours, some of which are held under the moonlight.
Monroe’s Louisiana Purchase Gardens & Zoo got its start back in 1924 with only 15 animals in residence. Today, more than 400 critters from all over the world roam in natural settings. The zoo boasts a boat ride that takes visitors on sojourns to visit natural island habitats.
By 1925, the twin city area was a thriving farm community, and to meet the needs of the farmers, the world’s first crop dusting company started operating in Monroe. The company, Huff Daland Dusters, would expand just a tad and become Delta Airlines.
Monroe was definitely spreading its wings. By World War II, Monroe, home to Gen. Claire Chennault, a vital player in the World War II Pacific theater, also played an important role in the war effort by having the largest flight navigator school in the nation at Selman Field. Chennault and his Flying Tigers prevented Japan from conquering China. Memorabilia of Chennault and Selman Field are there for the viewing in all of the 10,000 square feet of Monroe’s Aviation and Military Museum of Louisiana.
Antique Alley on Trenton Street in West Monroe resembles a town in the Old West done in Caribbean colors. The alley is located in West Monroe’s historic Cotton Port District with the Ouachita River peeping at you one block away. Nearly 30 establishments line this little stretch, such as Imperial Galleries, filled with Lampe Berger, or the Rialto Antique Market that includes French antiques and shabby chic items.
Rising as respite for the shopaholic is the quaint Rose Lee Inn, the area’s only bed-and-breakfast, steeped in Victoriana, with exposed brick walls; flowered wallpaper; lace curtains; and, my personal favorite, deep claw-foot tubs. Sink into the cool, shadowy peace of this ornate inn, and recharge for another day of exploring.
The restaurant scene in West Monroe holds a New Orleans-like penchant for seafood in addition to having a down-home predilection for catfish. Gabbeaux’s Bayles Landing serves delicious seafood platters and boiled crawfish in a casual setting. Enoch’s Irish Pub & Cafe offers “pub grub” in the form of Guinness ale and red meat falling off the bone, all to the sound of Irish music. The Warehouse No. 1, rising on stilts on the banks of the Ouachita, feeds you all the crawfish you can eat.
Northwest Louisiana Scenic Byway
The Northwest Louisiana Scenic Byway, Louisiana Highway 2, runs almost parallel to I-20, but it curves and twists its merry west-to-east way from the Texas border through towns with such names as Vivian, Plain Dealing, Sarepta, Shongaloo and Homer and ends in Lisbon on the eastern side of Louisiana. This byway is filled with heritage museums, such as the Caddo-Pine Island Oil and Historical Museum in Oil City, which chronicles the impact oil had on the region. After you’ve picked your fill of muscadines at Jack Martin’s vinery near Rodessa, you shouldn’t miss a spot of tea at the Vivian Antique Shoppe and Southern Garden Tea Room. Highway 2 takes you through breathtaking country filled with lakes Bistineau, Claiborne and Caddo and all the swimming, fishing, hiking, birding, camping and rustic cabins they have to offer. On the eastern side of the byway, on Highway 2 between Oak Grove and Bastrop, stands a cedar with a cherry tree growing right from the middle of it.
The town of Bernice is filled with antebellum splendor. Homer, named for the Greek poet, stands in Victorian dignity. In 1861, the Claiborne Parish Courthouse in Homer, a classic Greek Revival building, was the point of departure for Confederate soldiers on their way to battle.
Food and lodging are readily available along the byway. You can overnight at the Baldwin House in Bernice, the Rollin’ River Ranch and Retreat in Plain Dealing or Tall Timbers Bed & Breakfast in Homer. Just a little north of Homer on Highway 2, you’ll find Moon’s Grocery and Deli, famous for mouthwatering ribs and steaks, a perfect way to end a long day of exploring. On Lake Claiborne near the state park, Port-au-Prince delights in serving you rib-eye steaks and catfish.
Near Lake Bistineau rests the town of Minden, and just northeast of Minden is the Germantown Colony and Museum. The colony was founded in 1835 by people seeking utopia; they were part of the Utopian Movement of the Harmonist Society that had its roots in Deutschland. The colony operated as a peaceful commune until 1871.
In 1979, the U.S. Department of the Interior listed the Germantown Colony as part of the nation’s cultural resources worthy of preservation. Main Street in Minden preserves its original red-bricked charm. Close to Minden is Bayou Dorcheat, a calming scenic waterway that winds the entire length of Webster Parish.
From the Louisiana Folklife Festival in Northeastern Louisiana to the Redbud Festival in Northwest Louisiana, the upper tier of the state has many occasions to celebrate. Shreveport’s Mudbug Madness festival was born in 1984 after a group of North Louisianians grew tired of being told that people from Shreveport were more Texan than Louisianian. The affronted Bayou State denizens set out to set the record straight, and Mudbug Madness, a tribute to the state critter of Louisiana, has been going strong since. Originally a two-day street festival, Mudbug Madness has grown into one big mudbug hill, lasting four days each Memorial Day weekend. The fun includes crawfish; Cajun, zydeco, blues and jazz artists; contests; and as much enjoyment as can be had by the more than 50,000 visitors who stream there each day. The festival is recognized nationally as one of the finest events in Northwest Louisiana.
Tony Joe White immortalized it in his classic 1969 song, “Poke Salad Annie” of the gators-got-her-granny fame, but poke salad has been an old-time table tradition in cultures as down home as those found in North Louisiana. In the town of Blanchard, just outside of Shreveport, this dish of greens cooked up with bacon and onions (after being thrice parboiled to rid it of natural poison) is celebrated yearly. The annual Poke Salad Festival honors the dish that comes from the shrub with the beautiful purple berries with a juice that was once used for ink. Fun comes in the form of rides, the Poke Salad Parade, the storefront decoration contest, and the Pokey Pet Parade. Kids will not want to miss the High Noon Haystack Scramble –– a wild search for coins through a haystack.
If Henry Miller Shreve had not invented the snag boat in the early 1800s, those giant crimson steel roses that front the Red River would never have risen. The Red River Raft, a gigantic logjam nearly 200 miles long and fathoms deep, had prevented river travel from South Louisiana to Northwest Louisiana. By 1836, Shreve had done the impossible and unblocked the artery of the Red River by clearing the logjam with his snag boats. Shreveport, a little trading post first visited mainly by fur traders, sprang up and grew. The site was named for Shreve.
In the mid-19th century, across the Red River, Bennett’s Bluff boasted two establishments owned by two different proprietors who would later marry each other. This site became known as Cane’s Landing (named after the bride) and by 1907 was incorporated as the town of Bossier City. A friendly competition exists between Shreveport and Bossier City. Bossier City has the Louisiana Boardwalk, an enclave of primo shops and divine dining that fronts the Red River. Casinos are interspersed throughout the Shreveport-Bossier area as numerously as the natural lakes: Harrah’s Louisiana Downs Casino & Racetrack, DiamondJacks Casino & Resort, Sam’s Town Hotel and Casino, Horseshoe Casino and Hotel, Boomtown Casino & Hotel and Eldorado Resort Casino.
The area of Shreveport-Bossier has 139 designated historical sites available for touring. Shreveport-Bossier never fell during the Civil War and remained a vital point for receiving supplies for the Confederate Army via Texas.
Notable sites include the beautiful Antioch Baptist Church, founded in 1866, and the oldest African-American Baptist church in Shreveport. A statue of revered Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter was erected in Shreveport in 1993. Lead Belly and his guitar graced Fannin Street and gave us such immortal songs as “Midnight Special,” “Goodnight Irene” and “Rock Island Line.”
Over at the Shreveport Auditorium, memories of the Louisiana Hayride fill the air. Hank Williams; Johnny Cash; Kitty Wells; and the King, Elvis himself, performed here. Col. Tom Parker bought out Elvis’ two-year contract from the Hayride for thousands of dollars. The Louisiana Hayride seems a perfect example of the fact that Louisiana usually knows something the rest of the world doesn’t know and knows it first –– especially when you remember the stellar careers that were launched here.
Two eating establishments in Shreveport-Bossier stand out as something to definitely experience. The old red-and-white neon sign of Herbie K’s beckons you to try the smashing Shrimp Buster sandwich: huge butterflied fried shrimp in crisp batter lazily reclining on bread. The sandwich was a favorite of Paul Newman’s when he was in Louisiana filming the movie Blaze. At Fertitta’s Delicatessen, the Muffy, a muffuletta of sorts made with Italian bread, Italian cold cuts and cheeses and topped with the closely guarded recipe for Papa Fertitta’s unforgettable olive salad, is served hot from the oven. The toasted bread soaks up the flavors.
Try the Blind Tiger on Texas Street for lots of fun and the specialty drink, Long-Allen Tea, named for the Long-Allen Bridge.
The Highland, South Highland, Broadmoor and Fairfield sections offer impeccable bed-and-breakfasts. Fairfield Place, located at 2221 Fairfield, boasts light, airy rooms; cozy fireplaces; four-poster beds; high windows; painted iron bedsteads; and elegant décor. The gardens are shady and subdued, and the hardwood floors are polished. The atmosphere here is very Zen, Southern- style, as though it was telling your spirit it could suddenly take very deep breaths. Fairfield Place is a perfect retreat and a distinct change from the excitement of casino hotels and long days of adventures through the rich history, shopping and entertainment of Shreveport-Bossier.
As you leave North Louisiana, you may want to travel south to Lincoln Parish and visit Ruston, home of Grambling State University and the famous (and delicious) Ruston peach. Within this charming parish is Windsong Acres Farm, a delightful two-cottage inn. These charmingly decorated cottages offer Internet, cable, well-equipped kitchens, comfortable overstuffed furniture, living rooms and multiple bedrooms, making them perfect for family reunions or family trips. Windsong also offers massage and spa services, with methods that incorporate Swedish, neuromuscular, polarity and craniosacral therapy combined with blended oils specifically chosen for whatever ails you. Ladies whose significant others are busy hiking, fishing or boating with the kids may partake of the Sedona Mud Treatment, detoxifying body wash or aromatherapy while the men in their lives are off getting messy.
With its history, archaeology, shopping and crafts, North Louisiana is a vital piece of patchwork in the legacy of Louisiana. Here, wagon trains went west and stagecoaches raced to meet packet boats on rivers. You may not breathe in aromas of gumbos or étouffées cooking, but you’ll revel in the smell of freshly baked corn bread, fried okra and barbecue. North Louisiana lies at the top of the state like a historical jewel, filled with the spirits of American Indians and crowned by the etchings of cypress forests.