Saturday, March 28, 2015

The Missing Letterbox Blues


Unlike some of the other places we've visited on this trip, Lafayette promised a good supply of letterboxes, so we decided to begin the day on a treasure hunt.  First we went to Vermillionville, a living history museum and folk life center.  It mattered not that we arrived before they opened because the letterbox was hidden near the parking area outside the fee area.  Alas, it was not there.

No worries.  There were plenty more to search for.  Next we headed to Girard Park, a 33-acre haven of recreation in the city.  A series of three boxes was planted there by Cheekee Monkey, a very talented Tennessee carver.  Certain we checked the intended locations, we found not 3, not 2, not 1, but none of them.

Fine.  Another series of three boxes by Lionsmane, a New Mexico letterboxer, awaited at Acadian Village, a private cultural park.  After striking out at the previous locations, we were excited to find just one of them.  Again, we were confident that we had searched the places the planter described.  That left us with a 1 for 7 record for the morning.  Not our most successful boxing experience, but we were seeing a bit of Lafayette in the course of our search anyway.

Acadian Village
A 32-acre compound, Acadian Village is owned and operated by the Lafayette Association for Retarded Citizens (LARC).  With a collection of  19th century structures arranged as a typical 1800s Cajun village, the facility serves as both an educational facility and a center of employment for local residents with developmental disabilities.

At our earlier stop at Vermillionville, a similar historical Cajun cultural center, we noticed that they were hosting a Cajun music jam in the afternoon.  So we made our way back there after lunch to take in some authentic local music.

Opened in 1990, almost twenty years after Acadian Village, Vermillionville is a living history and folklife park which seeks to preserve the cultural heritage of Acadian, Creole and Native American people living in the area between 1765 and 1890.  Located on Bayou Vermillion, the 23-acre site also offers a look at restored historic houses.  Costumed interpreters are on hand to educate visitors about life in this era.

Joel Pautz in the village ecole
Joel Pautz is typical of the artisans who share their work at the village.  A luthier (creator of string instruments), Joel left his native Lafayette to study violin making in Boston before returning home as a Vermillionville artist.  Passionate about revitalizing French culture in Louisiana, Joel demonstrates his craft in the village school and teaches visitors about education in 19th and early 20th century Louisiana.  On the chalkboard in the photo above, someone has written repeatedly, "I will not speak French on the school grounds,"  referencing a time in the early 1900s when Louisiana law prohibited speaking this area's dominant language, even on the school playground.

Still waiting for the jam to start at Vermillionville's Performance Center, we wandered around the artificial hamlet, checking out other historic structures.  Typical of Cajun cottages of the period, La Maison Acadienne, an 1830s house, once served as the schoolhouse on a local plantation.

La Maison Acadienne
Like many homes in this area of the period, the house included separate sleeping quarters for male and female offspring.  The girls would sleep in a "cabinet" room, accessible only from their parents' bedroom, while young, unmarried men slept in the garçonnière, an upper sleeping area accessible in this house from the external staircase on the front porch.

Vermillionville Jam
Finally it was time for some Cajun music.  The weekly Cajun Jam at Vermillionville is open to musicians of all skill levels, beginners to professionals.  We don't know if this was typical fare, but we were treated to performances by some Cajun music legends.  Known as the Cajun Music Queen, Sheryl Cormier (the redheaded woman in the green shirt) was the leader of this performance.  She was joined by some very talented players, including Milton Vanicor, the legendary "Cajun Iron Horse," his daughter, and so many others.

You can judge for yourself.  Here's a sample of the 97-year-old Milton singing and playing his august fiddle.  The song, "Une Grosse Erreur," relates the regrets of a man who leaves his wife and then, seeing her happy with someone else, realizes he has made "une grosse erreur" (a big mistake).

Tomorrow we'll head back east to Baton Rouge and check out the Louisiana State Capitol.

Daily Stats:  
  • Miles driven:  38
  • Letterboxes:  1 for 7
  • Authentic Acadian villages visited:  2
  • Weather:  sunny, 48° to 79°
  • Cajun musicians:  16
More Photos from Today

Maison Buller at Vermillionville (note external staircase to garçonnière)
A spot to relax on the back porch, Vermillionville house

Friday, March 27, 2015

The Boom Boom Blues

CHASING THE BLUES, CHAPTER 5:  Houma, LA to Broussard, LA

Our big plans for a swamp tour were drowned in a lingering thunderstorm on Thursday.  We ended up spending the morning doing laundry at the hotel and driving the short distance to Morgan City in the afternoon, counting raindrops rather than gators.

But Friday brought back blue skies, and Morgan City (pop. 12,091), situated on the eastern bank of the Atchafalaya (uh-CHUH-fuh-LIE-uh) River in a distinctly Cajun region, offered some interesting sites of its own. In the early 1800s, federal government surveyors sent to this area to map out the uncharted Louisiana territory spotted what they thought was a tiger on the river bank and dubbed the place Tiger Island. The name stuck until 1860 when a permanent town was established around the large sugar cane plantation of Walter Brashear, a transplanted Kentucky surgeon.  The town was called Brashear in his honor.

By 1876, the town had become a trading center and had been renamed Morgan City as a tribute to steamship and railroad entrepreneur Charles Morgan, who spearheaded the dredging of the river as a way to open the city's port to ocean-going vessels.  Ever evolving, Morgan City later transformed itself into a commercial fishing stronghold, building a special reputation for its jumbo shrimp.  More recently the offshore oil industry has become a major player in the local economy.

Riding down the elevator at the local Hampton Inn, we were reminded of the city's focus on the petroleum industry.  With a little help from a marker, some clever local had transformed one of the hotel chain's standard feel good elevator signs into one uniquely branded for Morgan City.

Standard Hampton Inn version (top); Morgan City redo (bottom)
With all this emphasis on black gold, we couldn't resist stopping at the rig museum, an industry shrine also known by the more glorified appellation of the International Petroleum Museum and Exposition.  Most familiarly, the structure is warmly called "Mr. Charlie."

Mr. Charlie
Built in 1953, Mr. Charlie was the world's first transportable and submersible oil drilling rig.  When offshore drilling began in the late 1800s, parts and materials were carried to the designated location, a derrick was constructed on site, and production began.  When that site was no longer needed, all was dismantled to be moved to the next drilling destination and re-constructed—until an innovative Louisiana engineer decided there must be a better way.

A.J. LaBorde conceived the idea of building the entire drilling operation on a transportable barge and floating it to the identified location, where water would be pumped into the barge to sink it until it rested on the ocean floor, becoming a stable platform.  When that well was tapped out, the water could be pumped out and the rig floated to a new location.

Faced with an ocean of skepticism regarding the viability of his radical idea, LaBorde was so excited when the fledgling Murphy Oil Company's CEO, Charles Murphy, finally became the rig's first investor, the engineer gave him naming rights.  After the rig was built and proved its worthiness, Mr. Charlie drilled hundreds of offshore wells for many major oil companies and revolutionized the industry.  By 1986, however, drilling was moving to waters deeper than Mr. Charlie's 40-foot legs could reach and he retired to Morgan City.

"Johnny" lowers the boom
Narrowly avoiding the scrap heap, the rig was ultimately stationed just off the bank of the Atchafalaya River, where it is now used for training petroleum workers as well as to educate the public about the industry.  Our tour guide for today was "Johnny," an affable fellow who was doing his best to share his knowledge of offshore drilling.  Substituting for the usual docent, Johnny, a diver in the industry, exhibited extensive expertise but had difficulty composing explanations comprehensible to a layperson.

"So you just swing, roll, swing, tighten.  Boom!  That's how that works."

"If the geologist says it's +5 or -10, these guys have to build it up to—boom!—whatever is needed."

After 90 minutes of this enlightenment, we left the rig and Morgan City and drove 50 miles west to Avery Island, famous as the home of Tabasco sauce.  Named for the Avery family who established a sugar plantation on the site in the 1830s, Avery is not really an island but a massive salt dome—a dry mound surrounded by wetlands.  It is said that the salt, from an ancient sea, runs eight miles deep below the dome.

Who knew so many products were made with Tabasco sauce?
Our first stop was the Tabasco sauce factory where 700,000 units of pepper sauce are bottled daily—but not today as employees were conducting a quarterly inventory.  We did, however, learn about the process and the history.  Before the Civil War, Edmund McIlhenny, a New Orleans banker, married into the Avery family and moved to the plantation.  When the family returned to their home after occupying Union forces departed, McIlhenny, an avid gardener, began growing plants from the seeds of peppers brought from Mexico.  Intrigued with their fiery flavor, he wanted to make a sauce from the peppers to spice up the bland post-war diet.

Selecting only the reddest peppers, McIlhenny concocted a mash with the peppers and Avery Island salt, aged it, added French white wine vinegar, aged the mixture again, and strained it into bottles.  On a much larger scale, this same basic process is still used today with the aging mash stored for 3 to 8 years in oak barrels.  During the harvest, each pepper picker carries a little red stick (une petit baton rouge), painted the exact color of a perfectly ripe pepper, to ensure consistency in flavor.  Members of the McIlhenny family still oversee this process and Tabasco sauce today is packaged with labels in 21 languages and shipped to more than 110 countries.

After learning about the history of Avery Island— where salt meets pepper, as the locals boast—we couldn't leave without sampling some of the product.  The Tabasco General Store offered many choices, and we opted for some crackers and a praline—yes, that sugary candy with pecans—made with Tabasco sauce.  Both were quite tasty, but we harbored no regrets about not stocking up.

Before leaving Avery Island, we chipped in $8 each to visit Jungle Gardens, a 170-acre garden with tropical plants and abundant wildlife—not to mention a stolen centuries-old statue of Buddha.  In the late 1800s, snowy egrets were being hunted for their plumage.  Understanding the risk of extinction, Edmund McIlhenny established this sanctuary and started a bird colony to save the species.  Thousands of migrating egrets and other water birds nest at this refuge each year.

Nesting platforms offer refuge to migrating birds.
All manner of specimen plants were imported to add beauty to Mr. McIlhenny's gardens.  Dozens of varieties of azaleas and camellias provide color, but one of the most interesting features is housed in a glass temple within an Asian style garden.

Shrine to an unusual gift
Legend has it that in the 1920s, a Chinese warlord stole an ancient Buddha (circa 1100 AD) from an enemy tribe and shipped it to New York.  There it languished in a warehouse until 1936, a year after Jungle Gardens opened to the public.  When two friends of McIlhenny came across the statue, they purchased it and sent to him as a gift for the Asian section of his gardens.

Leaving this tropical sanctuary, we drove the 25 miles to Broussard and checked into a newly constructed Hampton Inn which just opened six days ago.  After a bit of grocery shopping, we put together a lavish salad and began plotting our visit to nearby Lafayette tomorrow.

Chapter 5 Stats:
  • Miles driven:  132
  • Weather:  Rainy to cloudless blue skies, 47° to 73°
  • Letterboxes found:  1
  • Industrial tours:  2
  • Gators on Avery Island:  27
  • Nesting birds:  318
More Photos from Chapter 5

Downtown Morgan City (photo from Louisiana tourism web site)
Stopped at this Morgan City Little Free Library to leave book picked up in a Charlotte, NC LFL.
Part of Morgan City's fishing fleet
Long-Allen Bridge over the Atchafalaya River at Morgan City
Everything's better with Tabasco on it—or in it!
Stone bridge in Asian garden at Avery Island
Gator hanging out in the Asian garden
A Chinese Buddha far from home

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