Life on the Mississippi River – Part One

Day 954

     Because of the recent heavy rains, we again walked the levee of the Mississippi River across from our campground. The river is 12 feet above it’s normal level. Controlled by 3 gates, this dumpster would normally be on dry land.

     In the early 1900’s this portion of the river was the slowest and most shallow, because of the bend in the river at this point. I was surprised that the Mississippi was not a straight river, as it appears on maps. Actually, it winds around and around. Here, at Convent, you could walk across the mile wide river. At that time a rope was strung across the river and for 1 cent you and your horse could walk from shore to shore. 25 cents if you had a wagon. 

     Plantations grew up along River Road, which provided transport to Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Today, you see a plantation, then a factory, a plantation, then a factory. These are no small factories, covering 30 acres or more. Next to the plantation we are staying is a fertilizer factory. After the next plantation is a coal shipping factory. Coal is brought in by trains and transferred to barges. 

     If there are 2 houses together and a church, that is a town. Convent is the Parish Seat because there are 4 houses, a church, and a courthouse. 

     Fact, fiction, or plain bull crap. You never really know. We have now traveled around the Country for 954 days. I document in this Blog where we have been, what we have done, and the history of places we stayed and visited. I rely on the local townspeople to supply this information. 

     We are staying for the month of May at Poché Plantation in Convent, Louisiana. I retold the history of Judge Poché and the Plantation House and grounds as told to us by the campground manager, who was our tour guide. 

     Today, we took another tour of the Plantation House, this time our guide was the owner and lifelong resident on the Mississippi River, Mark Anderson. His family has grown sugar cane here for generations

     Mark, himself is an amazing guy. At a young age he invented and patented a mold for making cement pathways that he sold for a profit. He owned over 28 local newspapers around the country, which he ultimately sold. He is a national foosball champion. He owned a string of muffler shops. He has developed a number of RV parks, and owns several historic buildings that he is renovating for public display. On April 29, 2013 he won $70,000 (after taxes) in the Louisiana Scratch-off lottery. 

     He originally went to the auction of the Poché Plantation House to buy a rug for his RV. They auctioned off all the contents of the house, and moved on to the house itself. No one put in a bid, the price kept dropping until Anderson said it was a steal. 

     In giving us a tour of the house he told us what I suspected in tours of other mansions we have seen. On Day 946 our tour guide told us since the contents were auctioned off prior to the sale to Anderson, he acquired furnishings for the house from the same era, 1800’s. Anderson informed us every single item in the house he got at an auction, cheap sale, or donation. For example, this chandelier in the dining room he saw for sale for $85,000, but he bought this one on e-bay for less then $10.00.

     This cabinet he purchased at an auction after Katrina for $200.00, which was an amazing price for this beautiful artwork. A short time afterwards the police arrived looking for items stolen from houses after the storm. Evidently they were not able to confirm if it in fact was stolen. 

     He acquired beautiful red wood lumber from Brazil that came to the US, but the entry fee was not paid. He got a good deal and then had craftsman David Oubre make this tester bed. 

     You might ask, why is there a cross on the bed? The answer is, to cover a hole in the covering. 

     He informed us some of the rugs in the house he purchased on QVC. A short time after he restored this property, he had a party for those in the area to put together the history of the Plantation. He found that the stories he was making up were far more interesting. 

   

Donaldsonville, Louisiana

Day 948

     Across from where we are camping, on the West Bank of the Mississippi River, is Donaldsonville. In 1806, William Donaldson subdivided a farm which he owned, and platted the city which would adopt his name. The Louisiana legislature incorporated the city on March 25, 1813. For a short period, January 1829 to January 1831, Donaldsonville was the Capital of Louisiana. 

     Strolled through the “historic district”. While there were some unique buildings.

     Most were just old and run down.

     I guess “historic” means “dilapidated”.

Poché Plantation, Convent, Lousiana

Day 946

     Our current campsite is located on what use to be a sugar cane plantation in Convent, Louisiana, on the east bank of the Mississippi River.

     Felix Pierre Poché was born May 18, 1836 in St. James Parish, Louisiana, to a family of French Acadian origin. A Confederate Captain in the Civil War, he was a Justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court from April 5, 1880 to April 5, 1890.

     The Judge Felix Poché Plantation House was built in 1867. When Judge Poché built the home, the land was already the site of a 160-acre sugar cane plantation. Poché maintained the plantation as his main residence until 1892 when he sold the property and moved to New Orleans, where he died a few years later. The property passed through 6 other owners until it was bought at auction on December 15, 2004 by Mark J. Anderson, a self made millionaire, who restored the Plantation House and turned the grounds into an RV Park.

     Over the ensuing one hundred and thirty seven years since Poché lived here, the plantation house had come to ruin. However, restored with furnishings from the era of the mid to late 1800’s by Anderson, it is now very impressive.

     With 13′ ceilings and floor to ceiling windows,

     You just don’t find craftsmanship like this today:

     or this dresser (there she goes, touching again).

     Outside were fountains sparkling in the sunlight:

     Servants quarters extended from the rear of the house:

     I bet Judge Poché was really proud when this surrey with the fringe on top was brand new:

Convent, Louisiana

Day 945

     The community in which our current RV park is located was first settled in 1722 and named Baron after one of those first settlers, Canadian Pierre Baron, who remained here until 1739. In the late 18th Century it was renamed St. Michel. In gratitude for the Sacred Heart Convent opening in 1825, the name was changed to Convent. 

     St. James Parish is located midway between New Orleans and Baton Rouge on the Mississippi River. The original settlers carved this parish from a wilderness on both banks of the river. It is one of the state’s nineteen original parishes, created by an act of the Orleans Territorial Legislature on March 31, 1807. The original seat of government was the community of St. James on the west bank of the Mississippi, but this was moved in 1869 to Convent, on the east bank, where we are located.

      St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Church was built in 1809, and is located within walking distance of the Sphinx. It’s hand carved altar is from the 1889 Paris World’s Fair. 

     Behind the altar of St. Michael

is the Lourdes Grotto. Since 1876, Catholics have come to the grotto to pray and leave personal items when their prayers are answered. The grotto is unique because its altar is made of shells collected from the Mississippi River. The “rocks” which make up the Lourdes Grotto are actually bagasse. Bagasse is a product of the sugar-making process, which is an important industry in the area.

     Artistic representations of the Lamb of God are common in Catholic churches (of course I know this because I am Jewish). But, the lamb above the altar in St. Michael is different. It looks like it’s looking at you. All the time. No matter where you walk in the church.

     The graveyard of the Church was begun in 1827,

however the locals had already used this area for burying their dead 20 years earlier. Unfortunately, these old graves made of brick have deteriorated. 

     This sign makes note of this:

     “Drove my Sphinx to the levee, but the levee was dry.” We hiked up to the levee of the Mississippi River, opposite our campsite.

     At this point on the river, cargo from ships are transferred to barges for further travel on the river. Today a Russian cargo ship was unloading pot ash to the barges.

     We are on the east bank of the River,

     so we saw the sun set in the west.

Technical Stuff: Ponchatoula, La. to Convent, La: 70.7 miles

1 hour 50 minutes

11.4 MPG

Diesel: $2.70

Easter In Louisiana

Day 940

     We are in Louisiana at Easter. What do we do? Go to a Louisiana Crawfish Boil, of course.

     Crawfish are from the lobster family, but much smaller. 

     Tidbit of Information: Louisiana supplies 95% of the crawfish harvested in the US.

     Our host got 35 pounds of live crawfish

     He brought his pot of water to a boil.

     Put in the screaming crawfish.

     Then put in seasoning,

     salt,

     and his secret ingredient.

     Checked periodically.

      When they were done, added ice to stop the boiling.

    Then added corn, sausage, potatoes and finished cooking.

     Took out a crawfish to make sure they were dead.

     Their is nothing worse than bitting in to a crawfish and finding out it is still alive.

     Then the feasting begins.

     Next time: Charbroiled Oysters.

Ponchatoula Strawberry Festival

Day 932

The annual Ponchatoula Strawberry Festival was this weekend.

There were so many people, the police were going around in circles.

As I mentioned in post Day 296 on Ponchatoula, the train goes through the center of town. The parade had to stop as the train did not slow down.

There were the usual floats,

and characters

Every Parade around New Orleans (Ponchatoula is 1 hour north) is Mardi Gras.

Plenty of food.

And, of course, funnel cakes.

performers

and dancing

I was going to win a cupie doll for Barbara, but no room in the Sphinx.

Plenty of rides (can you see Barbara”s feet?).

Everyone had a great time.

Jefferson Island, Louisiana

Day 929

     Joseph Jefferson was born February 20, 1829 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He became famous for his adaptation and portrayal of Washington Irving’s story of Rip Van Winkle, presenting over 4,500 performances.

     In 1869 Jefferson bought a place called Orange Island in New Iberia, Louisiana. There he built his winter mansion. The site is on a peninsula on Lake Peigneur; the peninsula became known as Jefferson Island in his honor.

    Jefferson Island is not really an island, but one of five salt domes in this area that rise 75 to over 100 feet above the surrounding landscape. The water from an ancient sea that once covered parts of Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi evaporated leaving behind large salt deposits. The deposits were then covered by thousands of feet of sediment. Salt, which was less dense than the sediment, found its way upward in the form of bulbous columns. The rising columns of salt formed the 5 Louisiana “islands” that exist today.

     A worker in 1923 unearthed three boxes under these oaks filled with gold and silver coins. The treasure is believed to have been buried by Pirate Jean Lafitte between the late 1700’s and early 1800’s.

     President Grover Cleveland was often a guest of Jefferson, and would nap under this live oak, now called The Cleveland Oak.

     When Jefferson died in 1905, his heirs held onto the property for a while and eventually sold Jefferson Island and the 2,000 acre plantation to John Lyle Bayless. Bayless was not interested in the mansion, but in the salt that lay beneath adjacent Lake Peigneur. He and several partners began mining salt.

     In the late 1950s, John Bayless’ son and heir to the estate, began developing gardens around the mansion after selling the salt mine. In 1980 he built a multi-million dollar dream home on the shores of the lake. Nine months after moving in, on November 20, 1980, a Texaco oil-drilling team on a platform out in the lake (oil is frequently trapped in the rock strata surrounding salt domes) accidentally drilled into the Diamond Crystal Salt Company salt mine under the lake. The 14″ drill bit punctured the roof of the mine that created an opening in the bottom of the lake.

     The lake then drained into the hole, expanding the size of that hole as the soil and salt were washed into the mine by the rushing water, filling the enormous caverns that had been left by the removal of salt since 1919. The resultant whirlpool sucked in the drilling platform, eleven barges, a tugboat, and 65 acres of the surrounding land, including Bayless’ home. All that’s left of John Bayless’ new home was this fireplace, which was on the second floor,  and now shows above the waterline.

      The damage to the island took 4 years to recover and rebuild, and is now open to the public. We toured the mansion.

    And viewed the gardens.

     Flowers were in bloom.

     This fountain is made from cups used to mine the salt.

     At the entrance to the property was a bird sanctuary.

     And guess what? We saw birds.

     Don’t ask me to name them, who can remember?

     The water was infested with alligators.