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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?”