Apr 20, 2021 – The Best City in Louisiana

In one day, we crossed 3 state borders pulling the RV on I-10 for a total of 470 miles. It didn’t help that the I-10 and I-12 sections in Louisiana are among the worst roads encountered. But compared to Louisiana’s backroads, the interstate feels smooth. This is Baton Rouge around 3:30 pm.

No matter where Vivian and I travel, no matter how horrible the road conditions or bleak the communities we encounter, we somehow always discover a bright shiny penny. In southern Louisiana, not far south of Lafayette, we found that shiny penny in the form of a story from Avery Island.

Avery Island is privately owned and is where the Tabasco factory is located. In addition to the factory tours (which are closed for Covid), you can take a tour around Jungle Gardens, basically the entire estate of the McIlhenny family. The live oaks are quite beautiful.
As part of the Jungle Gardens is the Buddha, which Edward McIlhenny received as a gift in 1936.
From a plaque – “This buddha was built for the Shonfa Temple located northeast of Peking, by the order of Emperor Hui-Tsung 1101-1125. It’s builder was Chon-Ha-Chin, most noted of ancient Buddha makers. The temple was looted by a rebel general who took the statue as part of his loot and sent it to New Your to be sold.” The statue was purchased by two friends of McIlhenny and sent it to him.

The story begins with Edward Avery McIlhenny who was born on Avery Island in 1872. Edward was the son of Edmund McIlhenny who began Tabasco brand products and became the heir to the business. One day, Edmund heard a story about an Indian king who kept birds in large flying cages. As the king grew old the cages were left abandoned and fell apart. Yet, the freed birds continued to raise their young year after year at the same spot they themselves were raised.

The McIlhenny home on Avery Island. The island is actually a salt dome thought to be as deep as Mt Everest is high. Nevertheless, it was a perfect location for making Tabasco sauce.

This story inspired McIlhenny to build his own flying cages. This was in 1895 and by that time, five million birds were being slaughtered each year to fuel a fashion. That fashion, feathers and sometimes entire taxidermied birds in women’s hats began in the 1870s. Among the most popular of feathers were those of the white snowy egrets and great white egrets, particularly the more extravagant plumage that is grown during mating season.

Heir to the Tabasco company, Edward McIlhenny was a good businessman who expanded the company internationally. The factory is the only one in existence, producing over $700,000 worth of product each day.

During the fashion craze, plume hunting was extraordinarily lucrative as an ounce of feathers became worth more than an ounce of gold. Being quite conscience of the Florida Everglades, both Vivian and I understand that plume hunting was a severe and dark stain on its history and is included among many of the stories that come out of the Everglades. It is no surprise to us that Louisiana, being ecologically similar to Florida, has its own dark history when it comes to the decimation of bird populations.

So many ways to burn your tongue!

Here is where the shiny penny comes in. McIlhenny, being a conservationist was despondent about the declining bird populations and wanted to save the Snowy Egret. So, using a wet area on Avery Island known as Willow Pond, he built a dam and increased the pond’s size to 35 acres. He then built large flying cages of poultry netting suspended over the water. He did so because he knew birds preferred nesting over water where the alligators could discourage other predators from stealing eggs or chicks. He found eight snowy egrets and began to hand-raise them. The birds thrived and seemed content. In the fall, he set them free to migrate south. In the spring, as he had hoped, 6 of the 8 returned, paired off and hatched several more chicks. This pattern continued and 16 years later in 1911, McIlhenny estimated about 100,000 birds occupied the rookery.

The road to Bird City.

And that is how ‘Bird City’ came to be and what Theodore Roosevelt referred to as “the most noteworthy reserve in the country”. From southern Florida, we have the tragic story of Guy Bradley, the warden hired to protect rookeries in the Everglades and was consequently murdered in 1907 by plume hunters. While Guy Bradley was put out there to protect birds in the middle of the Everglades swamp, a wealthy heir of the Tabasco Company was rebuilding the bird population in a most unconventional way and doing it from his own backyard. And in 2021, we stood overlooking the pond watching hundreds of adult egrets tend to their nests, many with 2 or 3 chicks soon to fledge and take to the sky. They too will one day come back to the ‘flying cages’ and continue the cycle. All because of one man.

A overlook gives you a panoramic view of Bird City
Birds are indicators of the environment. If they are in trouble, we know we’ll soon be in trouble.” Roger Tory Peterson

Avery Island was a pleasant diversion but what we really wanted to do was immerse ourselves in the deep south’s melting pot. In this regard, we got ourselves a couple of history lessons, first from Vermilionville Historic Village in Lafayette and then the Bayou Teche Museum in New Iberia.

One of the many historical homes on display at Vermilionville Historic Village.
Joseph Broussard was a leader of the Acadians and eventually led them to Louisiana from Nova Scotia in 1765. The Broussard family integrated into the slave-owning upper classes of the colony.

Louisiana’s history is a complicated and long one woven in and out of periods of French, Spanish and U.S. rule. And as far as a melting pot goes, it is a spicey one. First, there are the natives of several tribes including the Avoyel (one of which we met on our tour) and Chitimacha. Then you have the immigrants from France, Spain, and Germany, the Anglo-Americans and the free and enslaved Africans. And then you have the native Americans that were pushed out of the east and moved into or through the area. Mixed in with all that were the French-speaking Catholics from Acadia, having been expelled from Canada in 1755 by the British, later to be known as the Cajuns. And then there were the refugees from the French Revolution, Creoles from the Mississippi River Valley and the Spaniards from the Canary Islands and the Island of Majorca. And don’t forget the immigrant refugees from Saint Domingue coming in after the Haitian Revolution in 1809.

At the Hilliard Museum on the UL campus of Lafayette, we learned about the art and history of handwoven Acadian brown cotton fabric.
In 1910, Louisiana banned the French language from its schools.

Despite all the melting pot ingredients, Louisiana was a slave state and indeed, in 1810-20, almost half the population in Louisiana were enslaved people of color. Which brings me to the stark reality that Louisiana is the second poorest state in the country. And what does that have to do with its 1820 demographics? I’m not sure, but as we drove over the worst roads ever encountered in one state (and yes, we have been to Indiana), or passed one dilapidated or abandoned building after another, we couldn’t help but think there is a connection there somehow. Evidence of poverty is relentless throughout the areas we explored.

Downtown New Iberia, where the historic Evangeline theatre is now the Bayou Teche Museum. You’ll see the name ‘Evangeline’ a lot down here, it is the title of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s famous poem. The poem tells a story of a young Acadian woman during the Grand Derangement, which was the expulsion of French Acadians from Canada by the British.

Both Vivian and I really wanted to take in southern Louisiana’s culture, but it left us feeling underwhelmed. And a bit perplexed, especially upon meeting many Louisianians who are among the friendliest and politest we’ve met throughout our travels, and after receiving valuable history lessons from tour guides who present it with an enthusiastic personal touch.

Our Louisiana history lesson continues however, as we travel a little further north. And with that, I will leave you the following question, “How do you pronounce Natchitoches?”

Here is southern Louisiana’s favorite dish, boiled crawfish. We learned that crawfish are farmed in rice fields where they burrow in the mud; hence the nickname ‘mud bug’. Sounds delicious doesn’t it?
Southern Louisiana’s favorite pork dish is boudin, basically seasoned pork sausage with rice. We stood in line at Billy’s Boudin and Cracklin’ so Vivian could sample more Louisiana cuisine. Not one to eat pork, I settled on a crawfish ball, a deep fried ball of crawfish meat, spices and rice.

4 thoughts on “Apr 20, 2021 – The Best City in Louisiana

  1. What a colorful story! Next time I’m in Wezziana, I’m going to look up the Tabasco factory. I too was underwhelmed with the culture of Louisiana. I expected something colorful but found it rather drab. Btw I think I’ll pass on the “mud bugs”!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. That crawfish boil was delicious! The spices used in the boil at this particular shop was excellent and the meat on the tails tender and better than shrimp IMHO. It is tedious work to get the meat out of the tail but worth it. I highly recommend trying some next time you are there and when it’s season.

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