Turning Stones - George McKale


Turning stones in Natchitoches

Last week I was conducting a little business in East Texas.  My meetings were wrapped up by early afternoon and I made the immediate decision to go on a road trip to turn some stones in Natchitoches, Louisiana.

I had read that Natchitoches was home to an incredible American alligator farm, so I was bound and determined to make the two-hour drive through northern Louisiana to get a glimpse of this fierce predator.  Little did I know, alligators are rather dormant in the winter; the park was closed for the season.

I’m glad I didn’t call first, as I probably would have picked a different destination.  As it turned out, Natchitoches is one of the oldest towns in Louisiana.  The name itself refers to an Indian tribe and is translated as ‘Chinquapin eaters’.  A French trading post was established by St. Denis in 1714 and the location was a perfect location for both military and commercial uses.

The town is on the Red River, a location which facilitated trade with the Spanish.  In fact, I made the quick 21-mile excursion over to Mission San Miguel de los Adaes, once part of the fifth and easternmost missions founded in East Texas prior to the Louisiana Purchase.  The mission was founded in 1716 to keep a watchful eye on the French, reminiscent of our own mission and concerns over the Russian settlement of Ross.

The Natchitoches post assumed strategic importance during the civil war.  For over a century, the military post was held by the French and Americans, often battling against Spanish expansion into the area.  U.S. Grant, who spent a little time in Sonoma, was also stationed in Natchitoches.  During the Civil War Red River campaign, Natchitoches banded together with Alexandria, Grand Ecore, Pleasant Hill and Mansfield to oppose Bank’s army and his unsuccessful march against Shreveport to the north.

The historic downtown area is well preserved.  One of the most interesting buildings along the river is known as the Roque House, established in 1803.  Listed on the National Register, the home is an excellent example of French Creole architecture.  The house was built using cypress half-timbers, a mixture of mud, Spanish moss and deer hair. This town truly boasts an amazing array of 18th and 19th century treasures.

Besides being motivated by gators, I am also motivated by food, and Natchitoches surely delivered.  That night I headed to Mama’s Oyster House.  If your shirt wasn’t dirty going into the place, it surely would be by the time you left.  Boiled crawfish are served by the pound.  The blackened catfish covered with crawfish etoufee was an absolute delight.

I’m not the only one to have discovered this great town.  The movie “Steel Magnolias” was filmed there in 1988.  Many of the local establishments proudly display signed pictures from the likes of Julia Roberts, Olympia Dukakis, Dolly Parton, Shirley MacLaine, Sally Field and Daryl Hannah. Other movies, including “The Horse Soldiers,” “The Man in the Moon and “The Year Without Santa Claus,” found the town a perfect location for filming with its well preserved historic setting.

The next morning I had to wake early and make the five hour haul to Dallas for a flight back home.  I couldn’t leave without trying the infamous Natchitoches meat pie.  This dish uses ground beef, ground pork, onions, peppers, garlic and oil and slaps it all into a pie shell, then deep fries it.  Recognized throughout Louisiana as a northern specialty, I can attest that the pie goes well with a black cup of coffee.

I can’t wait to go back, but next time I’ll wait for the dormant season to be over. Although gator is always on the local Natchitoches menus, I’d think I’d prefer to see one that still hisses!

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