I am standing in the library of Northwestern State University, a small town in rural Louisiana, leafing through a contemporary account of the Battle of Bunker Hill, written by the British commander. The book I am holding is older than the United States of America, a fact that still amazes me. Their over 100-year collection of Britain’s “The Gentleman’s Magazine” is just one of the delights to be found in NSU’s Cammie Henry Research Center. One can also read debates on the “troubles in the colonies” during the American Revolution and an account of the burning of Washington D.C. in the War of 1812, once again from the perspective of the British general.
The archives hold a broad range of collections for researchers, genealogists, and historians of every type. By far the largest collection is that of the archive’s namesake: Carmelite “Cammie” Garrett Henry, who owned Natchitoches’ Melrose plantation from her husband’s death in 1918 until her own death in 1948. The Melrose collection reflects Henry’s eclectic tastes. One may find everything from copies of the 1944 Christmas programs at St Matthews’ School and the Natchitoches Training School to a range of well-preserved newspapers. One of Cammie Henry’s sons, Stephen, served as an Army officer, rising to general’s rank. The collection has his WWI AEF Identification, a program for the Follies Berger in Paris, a WWI Infantry Tactics manual still marked “Confidential” and boxes of other material.
The archive is a treasure trove for people researching their family’s history. Several of our local Native American tribes were able to research their history and establish the thread connecting the area’s tribes and their modern descendants, an invaluable service in showing the story of a people described as “hiding in plain sight”.
One of the unique collections in the Cammie Henry Research Center is the papers of the Great Depression Era WPA Federal Writer’s Project. Lyle Saxon was a writer, friend and frequent guest at the writer’s colony Cammie Henry hosted at Melrose Plantation. He oversaw the project and housed much of the material at Melrose after the WPA was closed down at the start of WWII. The material then found its way to the archives after Melrose was sold in the early 1970’s. The Louisiana part of the Federal Writer’s Project is a fascinating look into the life of our state, often from the viewpoint of its humblest residents. The archives also hold the interviews conducted by the WPA of Louisianans who were still alive and who had lived under slavery. The Slave to Ex-Slave Narratives are some of the most compelling material in the archive’s collections and are a must for historians of that era. There are items in the library of a small college in rural Louisiana that do not exist anywhere else, not in Harvard, not in the National Archives.
I will leave the reader with a final bit of Lagniappe discovered by former Assistant Archivist Sharon Wolff. The Members of Monty Python’s Flying Circus were well educated products of Oxford and Cambridge, two of the oldest universities in England, and indeed the world. They would have been familiar with The Gentleman’s Magazine mentioned earlier. In 1796, there was a long running discussion, ranging over the course of several months’ worth of issues, over the flying qualities…of the African Swallow.
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