By Joe Darby
One thing we have plenty of in Natchitoches is history. We’re the oldest continuous settlement in what was the Louisiana Purchase area, beating New Orleans on the time scale by four years, 1714 to 1718.
We have the rich history of the Cane River area, and the legacies left by both early French settlers as well as the famed Cane River Creole culture. We have some wonderful old buildings and homes around here, with a variation of early architectural styles. We have our very close brush with the Civil War (have you ever checked out the rifle pits and artillery emplacements up on the bluff at Grand Ecore?).
There’s just so much here for history lovers. And now we will have a chance to talk about it all at a new monthly program at the Fort St. Jean Baptiste State Historic Site, beginning this Saturday from 1 to 3 p.m.
They’re calling it Cookies and Coffee with Jeremy, referring to Jeremy McCormic, site interpretive ranger. Staff members are inviting folks to come out and talk about Natchitoches history from “the days of the Caddo Indians to yesterday.” Each guest might have a piece of a historic puzzle, that when put all together, will reveal new pictures of our local heritage, Jeremy said.
I expect Saturday’s conversations to be rich and varied. I like to think I’m fairly knowledgeable about Natchitoches history. I’ve been here since 2006 and I have read a lot about our local area. But, on the several occasions when I’ve just sat down with Jeremy, as well as Justin French, park manager of the site, I’m just blown away by the detailed and extensive knowledge of these two men about our early times.
No matter what aspect of local history that you want to talk about, these guys will be able to rattle off everything from statistics, to fascinating facts to amusing anecdotes about things that happened here in the past. Once in a while I will drive over to the fort and just sit around talking with those men and every time I come away with all of my questions answered and being a little more knowledgeable than I was when I walked in the door to the visitor’s center. The visitor’s center is at 155 Jefferson St., by the way, just a couple of hundred yards from the site of the original fort here. Which I’ll get back to in a minute.
If you’ve never been to the fort, I want to tell you that on ordinary days you will be received in the visitor’s center, which is also a museum with some really interesting displays. There’s also a theater (where we will meet Saturday), where you can see an informative film about the founding and early days of the fort. Then, maybe a quarter of a mile or so down a path is the replica of the fort itself. The state was lucky in having the original plans of the fort and were able to build an exact replica back in the 1970s. So when you enter the gates of the fort you are walking into a virtual time machine.
The fort is open every day except Monday and Tuesday and a very modest fee of $4 is charged, except for folks more than 62 or less than 3. Ample parking is available on the grounds.
But let me get back to talking about the location of the first fort, which I’ve written about before in these spaces. Every time you cross the Keyser Avenue bridge, when you drive through the approach to the bridge on the west bank you are almost certainly driving through the barracks area of the original fort. That fact was revealed by Justin in a talk to the Natchitoches Genealogical and Historical Society a couple of years ago.
As you can tell, I’m an enthusiastic supporter of the fort. I think it’s one of our local treasures. So, unless something very unexpected happens, I’ll be there Saturday afternoon and I will look forward to seeing you there, too. Jeremy and Justin are asking that you call ahead for reservations, as seating may be limited, at 357-3101.