The Whitney Preserves the Darker Side of Southern U.S. History

We’re in the final days of Black History Month here in the U.S.  I don’t want it to end without writing about a  new destination I visited earlier this month while in New Orleans.

The last day of my annual retreat to New Orleans was spent visiting one of the many plantations open to tourists and school groups on what is known as River Road, the two-lane highway that winds north along the Mississippi on the opposite bank from the Crescent City. As the National Park Service says: “Although other states have their own River Roads, perhaps none is more evocative or famous than Louisiana’s. Here, the very name inspires a vision of white pillared houses standing amid lush gardens and trees dripping with Spanish moss.”

The Antioch Baptist Church is the first stop on the tour of The Whitney Plantation.

While that is true, River Road also represents a much darker, less charming story of our country’s history that is seldom told during the tours of these showy homes and that is the story of those who actually built these splendid structures, who worked the fields that stretched behind and who lived an existence of enslavement fearing that any day they could be sold off to another “master” and forced to leave their family.  Except at one of these historic plantations, the story of slavery is its entire focus.

Opened in 2014, the Whitney Plantation is one of the newer properties for public and educational tours.  During the many years that I have been going to New Orleans for a winter break, I have visited nearly all, if not all, the other plantation properties.  They have been interesting, to be sure, and wonderful places to photograph.  Last year, I went out the Destrehan Plantation, located just 22 miles west of downtown New Orleans.  I took my son, who had never visited a plantation, there this year.

The heads of the slaves executed for participating in the Slave Rebellion of 1811 were placed on stakes along River Road as warning to other slaves. These clay sculpture heads honor those executed in The Whitney’s Field of Angels.

Destrehan makes a point of talking and including some individual stories of the enslaved in its tours, unlike other plantations. To be honest, I had never heard about the Slave Revolt of 1811 until I visited Destrehan. It certainly wasn’t in any of the history books I had read in school.  I wrote a piece for this blog about Destrehan last year.  The plantation is one I’d highly recommend to you.

The Whitney, however, is solely dedicated to preserving the memory and history of the enslaved. The stories you’ll hear on your tour are not storybook sweet nor romanticized.  Life for those who were chained and brought to this country like cattle, or less, in the filthy holds of ships, was never romantic.  The Whitney seeks to basically tell it like it truly was, as accurately as possible, without sparing words for the way these hard-working, brutalized and largely disrespected people were treated by those who considered them as nothing but property found on their list of valuable belongings.

Cheryl, our Whitney docent and tour guide, takes the history of the plantation personally as she talks before the Wall of Honor.

As Cheryl, my guide for the tour who lives and grew up in the area, said:  “For me, this is not history, it’s personal.”  She quite likely had ancestors who were slaves, if not on the Whitney, somewhere else.  Her words and descriptions of what slave life was like were full of emotional fact.  And as she herself said: “Sometimes hard to hear or read.” Like the fact that no slave escaped the punishment of the slave driver’s rawhide whip. Even pregnant slaves who “misbehaved” were forced to lie face down, with he ground below dug out to accommodate their swollen belly, to receive their lashings.

In the Whitney’s museum you learn about Louisiana slave history.

The visit starts in the Whitney’s small museum while waiting for your tour time which start hourly from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. There you’ll read a little history about their journey from the Ivory to Gulf Coast, view the timeline of slavery throughout history worldwide and gain a little perspective as to how slavery in the U.S. contributed to this country’s disgraceful history.

Outside, on the plantation grounds, you’re first stop is at the picturesque Antioch Baptist Church, for many years the only African-American church in the area. The church was donated and moved to The Whitney from another location on the east bank.

The life-size clay sculptures of Woodrow Nash pay tribute to the children of Whitney.

Inside you’ll find beautiful, life-size clay sculptures of the children of the Whitney, created by artist Woodrow Nash.   Their individual stories and pictures are found on the laminated lanyards given to you when you begin the tour for you take home as a memento of the visit here.

There’s also a stop at The Wall of Honor and Field of Angels where those lived and died in slavery are remembered.  The original 22 cabins once that once housed the 61 slaves of the Haydel plantation, as it was then known, were torn down in the late 1970s. The ones that stand on the property today were moved there from other plantations.

The slaves lived a sparse hard life in cabins, such as this, on the plantation.

The “Big House”  is one of the earliest and finest examples Creole style plantation homes in Louisiana and is one of the best preserved.   Somewhat more modest than others found on River Road, it is, however, architecturally and historically significant. It provides visitors with a glimpse of how the plantation owner’s family enjoyed the comforts of life while those they depended upon to provide it lived in simple, crowded wooden quarters within view of the back gallery.

A family touring the Whitney poses for a photo outside the Big House.

The centerpiece on the property is the rusty-brown box-car shaped slave jail placed directly in line with the Big House. More like a cage, the ‘jail’ originally stood elsewhere and held slaves waiting to go on the auction block.  Step inside and you feel a chill of those who once were shackled and confined here.

The rusty iron doors of the slave jail locked in many an enslaved person before being moved to The Whitney’s property.

Walking around the Whitney was one of the most moving and educational experiences I’ve had in my years of going to the area.  I highly recommend it for anyone who’s headed there.  And if you’re not, take a few minutes to read more about The Whitney and its efforts to provide an honest historical perspective of slavery in the U.S. South. It’s sure to be  a story that sticks with you.

 

 

Destrehan Dedicated to Preserving Plantation’s Real History

Two years ago I wrote about the Evergreen Plantation which I had recently visited during a trip to New Orleans and which had been the location for several films, including the Academy Award winning “12 Years A Slave.”  Now with last night’s Oscar ceremony and Black History month winding down, I thought I’d feature another Louisiana plantation that also has been the setting for motion pictures, including “12 Years A Slave.”

But what’s really important about this plantation, is not its film roles but the role it played in history and continues to play today in educating its visitors about the history of the South and, particularly, Black history.

The main house of Destrehan Plantation was built in 1790 in the French Colonial style.
The main house of Destrehan Plantation was built in 1790 in the French Colonial style.

The Destrehan Plantation sits a mere 30 minutes north of New Orleans yet it was one of the few plantations in the New Orleans’ area that I had not visited during the nearly 20 years that I have been going there.  On this trip, however, I decided it would be a good place to take my cousin and his friend from Sweden who were visiting us in New Orleans. It would be a treat for me too.

Now that I’ve been, I can tell you that it’s one of the more worthwhile and informative plantations to visit.  Architecturally, it doesn’t have the “Gone With the Wind” grandeur of Oak Alley, which many tourists associate with plantations, and its slave quarters aren’t as extensive as those found at Evergreen, but it is rich in ways that other area plantations aren’t.  And yet, it barely survived having fallen into disrepair and the hands of vandals who took everything that could not be carried away.

One of the few items found in the decaying Destrehan was a piece of marble from the downstairs mantel. It now sits on the faux marble mantel in the restored downstairs dining room.
One of the few items found in the decaying Destrehan was a piece of marble from the downstairs mantel. It now sits on the faux marble mantel in the restored downstairs dining room.

The plantation was rescued from its demise in 1971 when a local group of preservation-minded citizens who had formed the River Road Society was granted a deed to the house and four acres of its property by the then owners, the American Oil Company. The group set out to restore the house, which has cost more than $2 million. Another $500,000 is being spent for the purchase and development of 14 more acres of plantation land, to include six bed and breakfast cottages expected to be ready in 2018.

Docents at Destrehan dress in period costume to lead visitors through the house sharing with them information about the plantation, the people who lived there, including those who were enslaved, and a history of the pre-Civil era. Our guide, Beverly, clearly enjoyed her role and answered many questions.

Construction on the French colonial style home was started in 1787 by Robin deLogny and completed in 1790. But the plantation takes its name from Jean Noel Destrehan, who married deLogny’s daughter, Celeste, and bought the property after her father’s death in 1792.  Destrehan was also appointed by President Thomas Jefferson to the legislative council responsible for organizing and creating the laws for the new state of Louisiana. The appointment signed by Jefferson and Secretary of Sate James Madison is on display at the plantation although photographs of it are not permitted.

One of two slave cabins that sit near the main hoise. The slave registry can be seen posted on the front of the cabin.
One of two slave cabins that sit near the main house. The slave registry can be seen posted on the front of the cabin.

The plantation remained in the Destrehan family until 1910 when it was sold to the Destrehan Manufacturing Company and then to Amoco which operated an oil refinery and a company town on the property until 1958.

During the tour, visitors learn about the family who lived in the house. They are also told about those who actually built the house–the enslaved which numbered more than 200 before the Civil War. The names of some of those appear on the registry posted on one of two slave cabins that sit near the entrance.  The names of other slaves are placed throughout the house where they would have worked. One of those was Marguerite, a cook and laundress, whose story is told by the historical interpreters.

Beverly, one of Destrehan's historical interpreters, introduces visitors to Marguerite, repesented by the manniequin seen here in the background.
Beverly, one of Destrehan’s historical interpreters, introduces visitors to Marguerite, represented by the mannequin seen here in the background.
destrehan-revealed
Construction details are revealed in one room of the main house with walls that have been left exposed. Window frames from a previous time can be seen next to existing doors and windows.

In the education center, originally an overseer’s cabin, are exhibits about the Slave Revolt of 1811.  The revolt, which nearly succeeded, was one of the largest slave revolts in U.S. history.  Contrary to the letters from the planters, “which are the basis for most accounts of the revolt,” according to historian Daniel Rasmussen, “the slave army posed an existential threat to white control over the city of New Orleans.”  Three trials of those accused as instigators were conducted at Destrehan. Many found guilty were executed, others were sent back to their plantations for a life of hard toil. The story is as dramatic as any movie script but until recently, little was heard about it in American history classes.  To its credit, Destrehan has made every effort to bring this part of its history to the forefront.

Plantation life was often portrayed through that of the owners but little attention was focused on the ones they enslaved.  Destrehan, it seems, is attempting to correct that.

The open gallery on the front of Detrehan looks toward the Mississippi River and provided shade during the hot Louisiana summers.
The open gallery on the front of Detrehan looks toward the Mississippi River and provided shade during the hot Louisiana summers.

A Close Up Visit with Bud’s Clydesdales

Next time you see a Budweiser beer commercial featuring their iconic Clydesdale horses, look closely at the driver. It might just be Rudy Helmuth. This 25-year-old from Iowa, grew up on an Amish organic farm caring for horses.  “I started riding and driving horses at a very young age, practically since I could walk,” Rudy says. “Our family also trained horses so we had horses from various sizes and breeds. All from the smallest miniatures to largest draft horses. I always had a deep passion for the draft horse.”  Eventually, that love and experience landed him a job as one of the drivers and handlers of one of the most famous horses in the country– Anheuser-Busch’s Clydesdales.

Now, four years later, Rudy travels all over the country 300 plus days a year with these incredible horses.  For Rudy, it’s a job beyond even his wildest imagination. “I think back to the days on that Amish farm in Iowa where I was plowing fields barefoot with six horses and never in a million years did I imagine I’d get the opportunities in life that I have been granted thus far,” he says.

Becoming a driver for Budweiser's Clydesdales was a job he never imagined he have.
Becoming a driver for Budweiser’s Clydesdales was a job he never imagined he have.

Rudy wandered into one of my favorite bar/restaurants in New Orleans where I was enjoying a drink and conversation with a friend. He slipped onto the stool next to us at the end of the bar and we struck up a conversation. He was in town with the Clydesdale team for appearances in some of the Carnival parades that occur in the two weeks prior to Mardi Gras. In fact, he was riding the next evening in the Krewe of Nyx parade, he told us, a parade to which I was planning to go.

Prior to the parades, the Clydesdales draw fans anxious to get a closer look.
Prior to the parades, the Clydesdales draw fans anxious to get a closer look.

The beautiful Budweiser horses are celebrities in their own right drawing crowds wherever they appear. The evening before I met Rudy, they had hosted an open house for the public at the New Orleans Police Department stables in City Park where the Clydesdales were staying during their visit to NOLA.  “Ah rats,” I told Rudy, “I would have loved to have gone if I had known.”

Seeing my disappointment, Rudy suggested: “Why don’t you come to the stables on Thursday or Friday morning? I’ll be there after seven,”

 Blanket Logo
The Anheuser-Busch logo adorns the blanket on the Clydesdale’s rump.

“I’ll be there!” I said thrilled at the invitation. I had intended to visit one of the plantations that I had not yet seen in the years that we have been going to NOLA, but the plantation would always be there. The Clydesdales wouldn’t. When Thursday came, my husband and I hopped in the car and headed up to City Park’s stable area. It wasn’t difficult to find them, the three red semi-trailers with the giant words “Budweiser” on the side were parked alongside the large barn. Towards the rear of the barn, five Clydesdales were plodding around in the horse walker, tethered one in front of the other.  The white feathered ankles flowed as their big hooves thudded on the soft ground. To see these incredible animals close up is to appreciate the true size of these gentle giants. Their enormous stocky muscular bodies made them an ideal draft horse to pull wagons, carriages and carts in their native Scotland. Today, in the U.S., the Clydesdale is nearly synonymous with the Budweiser Beer Company .

The beautiful white feathered legs of the Clydesdales .
The beautiful white feathered legs of the Clydesdales .

Rudy was out running errands when we arrived but one of the handlers who had come out to lead the horses, one by one, into the barn for their bath gave me permission to come inside and watch. I excitedly stood where I could photograph them as they sprayed the big beasts down with water, then soaped them with suds while the horse stood quietly hitched to the stall. The Budweiser Clydesdales must be at least 18 hands high (72 inches)  at the shoulder when grown. That makes a step stool a necessity when washing them, even for someone like handler Butch Clark who’s not a small guy. Butch has been a handler with the Budweiser team for 12 years and prior to that showed Belgian horses for his Midwestern family. On this day, he had the job of washing the horses before they were put into their individual stalls.

Butcm soaps down one of the Clydesdale team.
Butch rinses one of the ‘team’ during his bath.

Budweiser has three teams of Clydesdales, of ten horses each. Rudy’s team is based in St.Louis; another is in Ft. Collins, Colorado. and a third is in Merrimack, New Hampshire. They travel all over the country with the horses riding in two of the semi-trailers and the familiar red wagon and the horses’ tack in the other.  In addition to the main stable in St. Louis and the other two hitching locations, Budweiser also has a breeding farm outside Boonville, Missouri.  Every year, 25-30 foals are born but not all are destined to join the prestigious Clydesdale teams.  As Clark told me, they must be 18 hands, chestnut bay in color with a white blaze on their face, four white legs and a black mane and tail. They are also all geldings and four-years-old when they join the hitch team. The smallest of the ten horses that travel with the team are hitched in front.

Every Clydesdale chosen for the team must have a white blaze, like Levi here.
Every Clydesdale chosen for the team must have a white blaze, like Levi here.

The two youngest horses that travelled with Rudy to New Orleans were named Cash and Rocco. The oldest of the team, Levi, was 15. Rudy is perched high above them on the red wagon’s seat and must hold 40 lbs. of reins in his hands. Together, with the tension on the reins, the weight comes to 75 lbs. Drivers like Rudy, who undergo rigorous training before they qualify as drivers, must be strong and an expert in controlling the horses. To look at him, you wouldn’t think Rudy that strong. But when you see him hitching up the team before a parade, as I did, lifting the heavy harnesses over each one’s head and then holding the reins in the parade, it’s clear that he not only knows exactly what he’s doing but that he’s a lot stronger than he initially appears.

The Clydesdales' collars and harnesses hang in the tack room of the semi-trailer.
The Clydesdales’ collars and harnesses hang in the tack room of the semi-trailer.

Each harness and collar weigh about 130 pounds. The shiny brass on them must be polished before every appearance, a job that takes five hours to complete.  Between appearances, the harnesses and collars are carefully re-hung in the mobile tack room.

The horses seemed to know that they were about to go to work, as they waited patiently in their trailer stall.
The horses seemed to know that they were about to go to work, as they waited patiently in their trailer stall.

Rudy arrived at the barn just as we were about to leave. He invited us to come watch as he hitched up the team the next evening before the Krewe d’Etat parade. I gladly took the opportunity to photograph them during the process.  We arrived at the designated spot at 5:30, as he said to do. The horses were still in their spacious trailers, peering out the open side doors, anxiously awaiting their turn to be hitched up. It was clear that they knew they were about to go to work.

As parade time neared, each horse was led down the ramp to their stall and held while Rudy placed the collars and harnesses over the ears. In addition to the harnesses, every horse wears blinders and plugs in their ears to help keep their attention focused on the road and not the parade onlookers. Their tails are braided as are their manes with red roses.

Rudy adjusts a harness as he hitches up one of the Clydesdales.
Rudy adjusts a harness as he hitches up one of the Clydesdales.

One by one the Clydesdales were backed into their spots and hitched to the singletrees of the wagon. Quietly, the horses waited, held in place by the other handlers, until Rudy emerged from the trailer, dressed in his red Budweiser uniform and climbed up to his seat. Just before the team was to pull out, the Dalmatian, joined the two drivers in his perch between them. Behind them, strapped to the wagon’s benches were members of the local Krewe d’Etat or Budweiser whose job it was to toss beads to the crowd along the parade route.

In the light of dusk, the Budweiser Clydesdales are ready to parade.
In the light of dusk, the Budweiser Clydesdales are ready to parade.

Dusk was setting when they finally pulled out and assumed their position near the front of the parade, followed by the indispensable cart with barrel and shovels to pick up after the horses as they went along. As they lined up on Magazine Street, where the parade started, parade watchers gathered near to get a closer look at the famous Clydesdales. Kids and parents alike cheered as Rudy and his co-driver took off the wagon’s brake and slapped the reins to move the horses forward. It would be like that the rest of the parade route. Everyone, like myself, was thrilled just to see the celebrity Clydesdales.  And if the Clydesdales come to location near you, be sure to wave to Rudy!

Cheryl gets a close up look at Budweiser's Clydesdales as they get ready to join the parade.
Cheryl gets a close up look at Budweiser’s Clydesdales as they get ready to join the parade.

Reveling and Revealing at the Mardi Gras Mask Market

When it comes to Mardi Gras in New Orleans, you think of parades, Bourbon Street, beads and music. But you should also think masks because wearing masks on Mardi Gras and during the two weeks of Carnival that led up to the big day, is part of the tradition.  And part of the fun.

 

The Mardi Gras Mask Market featured the work of 15 mask artists and drew droves of collecctors and shoppers.
The Mardi Gras Mask Market featured the work of 15 mask artists and drew droves of collectors and shoppers.

For the past 33 years prior to Mardi Gras, mask makers from around the country have been bringing their handcrafted masks to the French Market Mask Market. It’s one of the highlights of the celebration and if you’re lucky enough to be in New Orleans of that weekend, as I was this year, it’s something you don’t want to miss.  Tucked in Dutch Alley, the market opens on Friday before Mardi Gras and continues through Monday.  During that time, Mardi Gras revelers and tourists can come to pick out a mask to wear or take home from a variety of mask makers who offer a their creations in a variety of styles.  Prices range anywhere from $15, for assemble-it-yourself kits, up to $200 or more for some of the more elaborate masks.

The cat mask shown here by his assistant, was Richard Thompson's new design at this year's Mardi Gras Mask Market.
The cat mask shown here by his assistant, was Richard Thompson’s new design at this year’s Mardi Gras Mask Market.

It’s a big weekend for the mask makers too, some of whom, like Richard Thompson of Finger Lakes, N.Y.  have been coming to this annual event 20 years or more.  This year’s mask market drew 15 different mask makers and hundreds of shoppers, some of whom, like Carrie of The Party Never Ends, from Washington D.C. came in costume. Carrie stopped at the booth of mask maker Wendy Drolma from Woodstock, N.Y. to pick out a mask.  “I have masks for all sorts of different occasions,” Carrie explained. After trying on several of Drolma’s leather masks, she settled on one with reddish tones.

Wendy Drolma greets collectors to her mask booth at the Mardi Gras Mask Market.
Wendy Drolma greets collectors to her mask booth at the Mardi Gras Mask Market.

Drolma is a self-taught mask maker of 25 years who began her craft at age 25. At the time, she had a corporate job but was looking for something else to do. “I like to say that mask making found me,” she explains.  And though others may refer to her as a mask maker, she likes to think of herself as an ‘alchemist’, whose masks transforms those who place one of her creations on their face. “I want my masks to say something about me,” she says.

Veronica Ur stands alongside some of her husband, Vincent Ur's, masks available for purchase during the Mardi Gras Mask Market.
Veronica Ur stands alongside some of her husband, Vincent Ur’s, masks available for purchase during the Mardi Gras Mask Market.

Vincent Ur is also a self-taught. His fascination with mask making in his 20s after he and his wife, Valerie, fist visited New Orleans. Valerie loved the masks she saw there and the two of them wandered in and out of the many shops that sell masks in the French Quarter.  When Vincent when home, he began experimenting and launched a new career for himself, one that has been very rewarding. In addition to selling masks on his website, Masks on Parade, Vincent takes special orders and recently completed masks for the Houston Opera’s production of ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ But he still comes to the Mardi Gras Mask Market as he done for the past 23 years.

Diane Trapp with some of ther masks shown at the 2016 Mask Market in New Orleans.
Diane Trapp with some of their masks shown at the 2016 Mask Market in New Orleans.

Diane Trapp’s masks have also appeared in many stage productions, as well as episodes of the CW television series, ‘Vampire Diaries’ and in pre-show events for Lady Gaga concerts. Trapp and her sister-in-law, Connie, live in Hillsboro, Ore. where the two have been happily creating masks for the Mask Market for the past 23 years. They even were there the year after Katrina hit, as was I. That year, I purchased one of Diane’s spectacular masks, which I still own and wear for special events. It never fails to bring in ‘awes’ from friends along with questions as to where I bought it. The two women each have their own style.

Colorful strands of yarn are decorate the masks of Connie Trapp.
Colorful strands of yarn are decorate the masks of Connie Trapp.

Connie recently began adding to her masks locks of colorful yarn that are tediously stitched into a skull-cap of sorts that slips over the wearers head. Diana brought with her this year to the mask market some fanciful animal masks adorned with papier-mache horns made from recycled grocery bags. “I’m from Oregon, after all,” she says laughing.  In addition to making masks, Diane also teaches a number of workshops to pass on her craft to novice mask makers.

Liz Blaz demonstrates how she applies paint to her mask art.
Liz Blaz demonstrates how she applies paint to her mask art.

Liz Blaz, of New Orleans, also teaches workshops in mask making and recently was in Haiti doing exactly that. She’s been invited by the Minister of Culture for the Cayman Islands to come that Carribean country to conduct workshops there as well.  Blaz’ masks are constructed of leather.  Her interest in the craft took her many years ago to Abano Terme, near Padua, Italy, to study the techniques of Commedia dell’Arte mask making.  Her masks are now worn in theatrical productions throughout Europe and North America.

One of the many molds that Liz Blaz uses to shape her leather masks.
One of the many molds that Liz Blaz uses to shape her leather masks.

While visiting with her at the Mask Market, she explained how she first sculpts her masks using molds, then once she is satisfied with shape and it has dried, she begins to apply layers of paint until it feels it is finished. Some, such as the “mother of pearl” finish, takes many layers of paint blended together to give it the look she’s after.  According to her website, Blaz is working to create a Guild of Maskmakers, to promote and help perpetuate the art.

Scott Schoonover studied his craft in Bali.
Scott Schoonover studied his craft in Bali.

Like Blaz, Scott Schoonover, also traveled abroad to study his craft. Schoonover attended the University of Iowa where he studied set design and became interested in costume making. But it was mask making that intrigued him.

Schoonover's mask designs draw from his experiences in Bali.
Schoonover’s mask designs draw from his experiences in Bali.

He was drawn to Bali, where he learned from native maskmakers.  As Schoonover tells it, part of requirement was to also learn the dances for which each mask was intended. Schoonover says that experience led him to his own philosophy towards his craft which is that “we are a community of artists who tell stories essential to our identity based on a legacy handed down from our ancestors.” He’s now based in St. Louis, where he’s from originally, and sells his work to a number of theatre companies as well as through his website.

Portland, Ore.-based mask maker Tony Fuemmeler stands beside some of his creations on display at the Mardi Gras Mask Market.
Portland, Ore.-based mask maker Tony Fuemmeler stands beside some of his creations on display at the Mardi Gras Mask Market.

Tony Fuemmeler of Portland, Ore., also became interested in mask making while an undergraduate in theatre at the University of Kansas.  There he studied the Lecoq tradition with Ron and Ludvika Popenhagen.  His very stylized masks reflect Lecoq’s development of the neutral mask as a training tool for actors, “designed to facilitate a state of openness in the student-performers, moving gradually on to character and expressive masks, and finally to ‘the smallest mask in the world’ the clown’s red-nose.”*

Tony Fuemeller's masks reflect the Lecoq tradition of maskmaking.
Tony Fuemeller’s masks reflect the Lecoq tradition of maskmaking.

Lecoq’s use of mask changed the performers’ movement on stage. giving them a body-based approach to mask work, rather than a visually led one.  Fuemmeler, who is also a puppeteer and director now teaches workshops for actors that utilize this approach to character development.  You can read more about his work on his website.

Carrie of Washington D.C. tries on one of Wendy Drolma's creations.
Carrie of Washington D.C. tries on one of Wendy Drolma’s creations.

Throughout the weekend, collectors, celebrants and the curious come to New Orleans’ Mardi Gras Mask Market at the French Market to see these wonderful creations.  They are special and unique souvenirs for anyone who ends up purchasing one of them, just as I did at my first mask market. Some of those come seeking new masks for their Mardi Gras costumes, while others, like myself, see their new acquisition as a work of art to be displayed and worn for special occasions. But whether you pick out a mask for purchase, take time to visit this market if you are in New Orleans during Mardi Gras weekend.  It’s an opportunity to see firsthand the work of some premier maskmakers who are continuing a tradition that dates back centuries.

A mask buyer checks out one of Diane Trapp's masks with the papier mache antlers.
A mask buyer checks out one of Diane Trapp’s masks with the papier-mache antlers.

 

Battle Bicentennial Brings Exhibits, Special Events

Last week I posted to my personal Facebook page a profile photo of myself taken during my recent visit to New Orleans. So many people have asked about it that I thought I’d tell you about the place where the photo was made and why I was there.

Most visitors to New Orleans spend their time in the city’s historic French Quarter.  That district alone is a rich cache of places to see and experience. Some visitors include a day trip out to one of the many nearby plantations to see how that life was once lived along the mighty Mississippi. But few know about the National Park Service’s Visitor Center, located right in the heart of the French Quarter or the Chalmette Battlefield, a National Park just downriver from New Orleans which was the site of the Battle of New Orleans in 1815. This year is the bicentennial of that historic battle in the War of 1812.

The view from the downstairs porch of the Maltus-Beauregard House to the open field where the battle took place.
The view from the downstairs porch of the Maltus-Beauregard House to the open field where the battle took place.

I first visited the battlefield years ago. At the time, it was large empty field except for a large, two-story now-empty plantation home, the Maltus-Beauregard House, which overlooks the battlefield, and a towering 100-foot high cut-stone obelisk monument honoring the fallen troops. But about ten years ago, the National Park Service built and opened a Visitor’s Center at the battlefield with a small, but well-done exhibit about the decisive battle that took place there. The exhibits include maps, informational displays and historic artifacts as well as a short film about the battle. It explains how the Andrew Jackson, with his rag-tag Army of volunteers defeated the British’ well-trained crack soldiers. Youngsters, who can earn a Junior Ranger badge there, will find the exhibit just as accessible and interesting as older visitors. In the past, I have taken friends there with me. This year, my son, Marshall accompanied me on a mid-day visit.

My son checks out the display at the Park Service Visitor Center about the  'grapeshot' cannon used in defeating British troops during the Battle of New Orleans.
My son checks out the display at the Park Service Visitor Center about the
‘grapeshot’ cannon used in defeating British troops during the Battle of New Orleans.

Today, the battlefield is still. But on January 8, 1815, it was the scene of a bloody battle that determined the fate of New Orleans and the Louisiana  Territory.  When Jackson learned that British troops were advancing on New Orleans, he quickly gathered a force of 4,000 troops, to defend the city. The forces who came together there under Jackson’s command that day were an unusual collection of American soldiers, native Americans from the local tribes, French Creoles, Kentucky and Tennessee riflemen, free men of color and buccaneers with the infamous pirate Jean Lafitte. They represented the diverse cultures that still characterize New Orleans today.

Jackson positioned his troops between the Mississippi River and a cypress swamp forcing the British to cross a wide open field. In three short days, the American “Dirty Shirts,” as they were called, worked feverishly digging mud from the canal that flowed along the western side of the open field and hauled into place timbers to build a rampart 3/5 mile long that was, in some places, according to the Park Service Ranger on duty during my visit, 10 to 12 feet high and 25 feet wide.

The rampart at the Chalmette Battlefield was reconstructed and today cannons are positioned behind it.
The rampart at the Chalmette Battlefield was reconstructed and today cannons are positioned behind it.

It was an amazing feat of engineering and a stroke of strategic genius.  It provided such good protection for the American troops against the advancing British Army that only 21 Americans were wounded or died compared to the nearly 2,000 British Redcoat casualties and wounded. The battle actually took place after the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the War of 1812, was signed but because it wasn’t ratified until February the following year, the fighting continued. The American victory at New Orleans firmly established the emerging country with its ideals of democracy triumphing over European aristocratic system of government.

At the battlefield today, you can take a self-guided driving tour around the field where signs point out the positions of both armies.  The rampart was partially reconstructed in 1964 with cannons now positioned behind it to better give visitors an idea of what American forces hastily built. You can climb up the inside of the obelisk to the viewing platform at the top. A walk leads up to the Maltus-Beauregard house and the levee behind where the steamboat, the Creole Queen, docks to drop visitors that take the short cruise down the Mississippi from New Orleans.

The two-story Maltus-Beauregard House was built on the Chalmette Plantation in 18TK.
The two-story Maltus-Beauregard House was built on the Chalmette Plantation in the 1830s.

A number of exhibits and events are commemorating the battle’s bicentennial in New Orleans. On the anniversary, historic re-enactors, dressed in authentic costume, gathered at the battlefield to mark the actual day of the battle. This event takes place yearly although this year the crowds swelled, according to Park Rangers, due to the bicentennial. In New Orleans, you can currently see exhibits relating to Andrew Jackson and the Battle of New Orleans at both the Historic New Orleans Collection on Royal Street in the French Quarter and the Louisiana State Museum Cabildo on Jackson Square. In April, Navy Week will celebrate the Battle’s Bicentennial.

The statue of Andrew Jackson upon his horse is silhouetted in New Orleans' Jackson Square.
The statue of Andrew Jackson upon his horse is silhouetted in New Orleans’ Jackson Square.

If a trip to New Orleans is in your plans for this year, I’d encourage you to include a visit out to the battlefield,which can provide a welcome break from the frenzy of the French Quarter, or to one of the ongoing exhibits devoted to the Battle’s Bicentennial. It will provide you with a look back at this unique American city’s importance in American history and how it continues to be one of the most culturally significant cities in the country today.

Read more about the Battle of New Orleans in historian Joyce Miller’s recent article “From Dirty Shirts to Buccaneers” by clicking the link here.

 

 

 

Mardi Gras Parades Through Streets of New Orleans

Mardi Gras is this upcoming Tuesday. In New Orleans, where I just spent a week, the Carnival season leads up to Mardi Gras and actually begins on January 6, or ‘King’s Day’, the Day of the Epiphany. While Mardi Gras in this country is traditionally celebrated in many places in the South, most people associate it with the historic city of New Orleans. There the parades start two weekends before Mardi Gras and continue until the day of.

The first Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans took place in 1856 when a group of business organized themselves into a ‘krewe’ or club and called it the Mystick Krewe of Comus. When you visit the city, stop by the restaurant, Antoine’s in the French Quarter.  Antoine’s opened in 1840 and is said to be the city’s oldest fine eating establishment. Known for its French-Creole cuisine, the restaurant has also been the scene of many ‘krewe’ luncheons and brunches that take place prior to the annual parades.

Mardi Gras memorabilia and ball gowns are displayed in Antoine's Rex Room where the banquet table is set for a krewe luncheon or dinner.
Mardi Gras memorabilia and ball gowns are displayed in Antoine’s Rex Room where the banquet table is set for a krewe luncheon or dinner.

Three of the restaurant’s private dining rooms bear the names of local krewes. You are welcome to view them, if they are not in use, and view the photos,king and queen gowns, septers, elaborate invitations, medallions and other parade memorabilia on permanent display there. Just ask one of the staff for directions as the restaurant is vast and you can easily lose your way in its backroom chambers.

The parades in New Orleans are held throughout the city. Each one is different in character and theme, although this year, Star Wars seemed to be a popular choice. Contrary to recent popular media publicity, Mardi Gras is very much a family celebration, as are most of the parades. One year when visiting New Orleans, I was lucky enough to catch a parade of the French Quarter’s elementary school (Kipp McDonogh) students. Each class was costumed as a different nursery rhyme. Many of the youngsters were barely taller than the tangled beads that they tried to throw out to the onlookers. It was by far one of the cutest Mardi Gras parades and charmed everyone standing along Royal Street.

The Krewe du Vieux float pokes fun at the Supreme Court in this year's Mardi Gras parade. People packed the streets and balconies to see the first parade of the season.
The Krewe du Vieux float pokes fun at the Supreme Court in this year’s Mardi Gras parade. People packed the streets and balconies to see the first parade of the season.

Krewe du Vieux kicks off the New Orleans parade line-up, however, with its satirical and often bawdy procession in the French Quarter two Saturdays before Mardi Gras. This is one that you might not want to take your kids to see although there were plenty of them in the crowd this year. The krewe pokes fun at everyone and anything in the way of its usually highly charged political theme. This year’s theme, for example, was ‘Begs for Change’ and targeted the Supreme Court, City Hall, the local school system, Kickstarter, the medical system as well as others. Because it is the first parade and occurs on Saturday in the French Quarter the sidewalks along the parade route are packed and loud.

Colored flashing light and lots of bubbles for this pedal-powered float tickled the crowd at the Intergalatic Krewe of Chewbacchus.
Colored flashing light and lots of bubbles for this pedal-powered float tickled the crowd at the Intergalatic Krewe of Chewbacchus.

Another popular early parade near the Quarter is that by the Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbacchus, a fairly recent addition to the krewes. As one New Orleanean friend described it, “It’s a parade for geeks.” Members are Star Wars freaks, Trekkies, Mega-Geeks, Gamers to mention a few. This year, they pedaled, pushed and walked their small floats through the Marigny and Bywater neighborhoods to the delight of everyone there. There were nearly as many Intergalatic costumes on the street as there was in the parade and everyone, everyone was having fun whether blowing bubbles or having laser sword fights or just watching the merriment.

Parade goers raise their arms in hopes of catching  a throw tossed from the masked riders on one of the floats during Cleopatra's parade.
Parade goers raise their arms in hopes of catching a throw tossed from the masked riders on one of the floats during Cleopatra’s parade.

Two of the larger parades that same weekend were the Krewe of Oshun and Krewe of Cleopatra parades. They were entirely different and had big rolling floats from which the masked riders were tossing all sorts of ‘throws’ into the crowd below. We watched from the Garden District neighborhood, not far from where the parades started. Families were there with their kids, sitting together in lawn chairs or standing huddled at the curb so as to better catch the stuffed animals, miniature footballs, key chains, cups, horned headbands, tiny balls as well as the traditional beads. I managed to snag a sipper cup and a lighted key chain with Cleopatra’s krewe insignia on it in addition to some ‘krewe beads’. The beads with the Krewe’s insignia are prized among parade goers.

The Mystik Krewe of Barkus banner bearers begin the afternoon parade.
The Mystik Krewe of Barkus banner bearers begin the afternoon parade. More photos of the dogs in this wonderful parade are on my Portfolio page.

Of all the parades I saw this year, my favorite was that of Krewe de Barkus. Judging from those who lined the streets to watch the afternoon parade, I wasn’t alone.  This is one Mardi Gras parade that has really gone to the dogs. That’s because it’s all about the dogs. Owners and their beloved costumed canines strutted down the street together, along with an occasional second line band, to the cheers of those watching. Dogs of every sort, from Great Danes to Chihuahua, were dressed as ‘Star Wars’ characters in keeping with this year’s parade theme of ‘Bark Wars.’

Masquerading as Princess Leia,, this little dog and her Stormtrooper owner were a hit with the spectators.
Masquerading as Princess Leia,, this little dog and her Stormtrooper owner were a hit with the spectators.

The dogs paraded on the end of a leash or rode in homemade floats and seemed not to mind that they’re wearing headpieces, hats, robes, frilly collars or even peeking out of boxes.  Almost as many dogs were on the sidelines as in the parade where they collected doggie treats of every sort from the marchers. To Go, the handsome brown boxer sitting next to me scored doggie chews, a pull toy, a frisbee and I don’t know what else while I picked up more beads and some insulated cup holders imprinted with the  name and likeness of the Krewe’s King, Andouille Lamarie, a wire-haired Dachshund.  It was all very silly and great fun.

This handsome mastiff seemed quite dignified in his Mardi Gras crown and robe during the Krewe of Barkus parade.
This handsome mastiff seemed quite dignified in his Mardi Gras crown and robe during the Krewe of Barkus parade.

The parades continue throughout the city, with as many as 13 on some days, culminating with those on Mardi Gras itself. And then it all ends–until the next year.  As is said in New Orleans, “Happy Mardi Gras!”

Learn more about the Krewes of New Orleans on the History Blog‘s guest post by Rosary O’Neill from March 27, 2014.

See more of my photos from the Krewe of Barkus Mardi Gras parade. Go to my Portfolio page!

Plantations Star in Oscar-Winning Films

Since winning the Oscar for Best Picture at the Academy Awards last Sunday, the film, “12 Years a Slave” has reappeared in the theatres all over the country for people like me who missed it the first time. The film was shot entirely in and around New Orleans and at four different outlying historic plantations–Felicity, Magnolia, Bocage and Destrehan. All four are open to the public for tours.

Intricate scrolling in the ironwork graces the top at the front gate at Evergreen.
Intricate scrolling in the ironwork graces the top at the front gate at Evergreen.

But these are not the only plantations to have starred in an Oscar-winning film.  Last year’s Academy Award winner for Best Original Screenplay–Quentin Tarentino’s “Django Unchained“–was filmed on location at the Evergreen Plantation located on Louisiana highway 18, otherwise known as River Road. Evergreen is one of several historic plantations found on this two-lane stretch of road that winds along the southern side of the Mississippi, blocked from view by the large, earthen levee. I have driven this route many times over the years during my annual visits to New Orleans. Recently, I took friends on a day trip to see Evergreen.  The trip takes only about an hour from New Orleans, if you don’t stop to see all the other interesting places along the way.

The 'big house' at Evergreen was built in 1790 in the Creole style but later changed to the Classical Revival architectural style. To the right you can see one of the garconniers' and one of the cottages.
The ‘big house’ at Evergreen was built in 1790 in the Creole style but later changed to the Classical Revival architectural style. To the right you can see one of the garconniers’ and one of the cottages.

Evergreen distinguishes itself from many of the other plantations in that the 250-year-old property is the only intact, antebellum sugar plantation remaining in Louisiana. In fact, it is one of the few intact plantations in the South, according to our plantation guide.  In addition to Evergreen’s ‘big house,’ there are 22 cypress slave cabins lining the oak alleé, more than any other plantation in the area. Some of these structures were built in 1830.  And, our guide informed us, the cabins “have never been restored, only repaired.” Interior walls once divided the cabins into two separate living spaces for slave families but were removed at some point.  Otherwise, they remain much as they did when as many as 200 people lived at Evergreen during the antebellum period.

The 22 cabins that once served as slave quarters line the plantation's oak allee.
The 22 cabins that once served as slave quarters line the plantation’s oak allee.

The main house, prominently visible from the road through the big black iron gate, was built in 1790 by German immigrant Christophe Heidel. Heidel constructed his home in the Creole manner, with the main living quarters raised on pillars above the ground floor protecting it floodwaters. Christophe’s great-grandson, Pierre Clidamant Becnel, renovated the house in 1832 to reflect the then popular Classical Revival architectural style. The ground floor was enclosed, as was the back gallery.

The graceful curved stairway leads to the upper gallery porch of the plantation's big house.
The graceful curved stairway leads to the upper gallery porch of the plantation’s big house.

A graceful, S-shaped curving double stairway was added to the front of the house. Other outlying buildings, known as ‘dependencies’ were erected including a pair of garçonniers, where the family’s adolescent boys lived and pigeonaires. A parterre garden was designed to be admired from the home’s rear gallery. A kitchen, a milking barn, a caretakers cottage, a carriage house and an outhouse for the owners were also built.

The parterre garden as  seen from the rear gallery. The outhouse at the rear was moved there from its original location closer to the house.
The parterre garden as seen from the rear gallery. The outhouse at the rear was moved there from its original location closer to the house.

The plantation, however, began to decay 1930s when the Songy family, who occupied it then were forced to leave when the bank foreclosed on Evergreen. The once splendid sugar plantation continued to decline until a wealthy Louisiana oil heiress, Matilda Geddings Gray, purchased it and began to bring it back to life again in 1944. Gray’s efforts continued after her death with the current owner, her niece, Matilda Gray Stream, who inherited the plantation in  1971.  Stream has received numerous awards for her preservation work on Evergreen.

Today, the plantation and its 37 buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places.  In fact, it was featured in Preservation Magazine‘s Summer 2013 issue where you can read more about the plantation, its history and restoration. (I am proud to say that I have been a long-time member of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.)

Evergreen is not only a working plantation again, but an educational center where students learn about antebellum life, where archaeologists search for artifacts about its cultural history, where tourists can glimpse into the past and where filmmakers, like Tarentino and others, can create award-winning films of days gone by for the cinema.

The statue stands in the corner of the parterre garden looks to the rear of Evergreen's 'big house'.
The statue stands in the corner of the parterre garden looks towards the rear of Evergreen’s ‘big house’.

Deck the Halls with Mardi Gras!

Mardi Gras is this Tuesday. No doubt there will be usual media coverage of the annual festivities in the city of New Orleans. You know the ones I mean–throngs of celebrants jamming the famous Bourbon Street, revelers showered by beads thrown from balconies and floats, inebriated masked partiers caught doing things that would otherwise embarrass them or their mothers. These are the popular media’s imagery of the holiday. But there is another side to Mardi Gras that few outsiders may know about or experience that includes activities and parties leading up to Mardi Gras during the two weeks prior, known as Carnival.

Homes in New Orleans, like this one, are decked out for the Mardi Gras holiday.
Homes in New Orleans, like this one, are decked out for the Mardi Gras holiday.

Homes and businesses throughout the city are festooned with Mardi Gras decorations much like homes are decked during the Christmas holidays in other parts of the United States.  Banners are draped, flags are posted, wreaths are hung all in colors of purple, green and gold, the official Mardi Gras colors as established in 1892. The purple represents justice, green stands for faith and gold for power. Garlands of beads, both large and small, are looped above thresholds, flung over fence posts, hung from tree branches or wrapped along balcony railings. Giant-sized masks, Fleur de Lis and Krewe coats of arms are fixed on doors and gates. Shop windows everywhere, of course, sport Mardi Gras-themed displays. Some residents enjoy putting up even more elaborate displays of lights or even mannequins dressed in costume. It’s quite a show.

Throughout the ciity's French Quarter and Garden Districts, beads in Mardi Gras colors contrast against the balck wrought iron fences.
Throughout the city’s French Quarter and Garden Districts, beads in Mardi Gras colors contrast against the black wrought iron fences.

While visitors can pick up beads in any French Quarter shop catering to tourists or at the outdoor French Market down on Decatur Street, New Orleanians have other sources. There’s a fabulous corner shop on Magazine Street in what is known as the Irish Channel–the Brad & Dellwen Flag Party. The little, narrow store is packed with flags of every kind but especially those bearing Mardi Gras colors, the Fleur de Lis and other New Orleans specific themes.

Elaborate wreaths such as this Fleur de Lis hang from the balconies in the French Quarter during the Mardi Gras season.
Elaborate wreaths such as this Fleur de Lis hang from the balconies in the French Quarter during the Mardi Gras season.

For beads, garlands, wreaths,tabletop decorations and about everything else, they head off to Accent Annex in the Metairie area of the city, just off the freeway. A visit to this place is in itself an event. This huge store has aisles of Mardi Gras supplies, many at a fraction of the cost that you’d pay otherwise at the tourist shops in the Quarter. The store has every sort of decoration imaginable and anything that you might need to make your Mardi Gras party a hit. I make it a point to stop at the store to load up on Mardi Gras party supplies whenever I’m in New Orleans.

Crafty New Orleanians make their own Mardi Gras decorations or wreaths. I scored a wonderful wreath one year crafted by a woman who lived in the area across Lake Pontchartrain, known as North Shore, and who had placed her homemade goodies for sale at a booth one year in the French Market. I carefully carried it home in a large plastic bag when I flew back.  Now I hang it on my own door during Mardi Gras season just to remind of the decorated homes there.

As they say in New Orleans, ‘Happy Mardi Gras,  y’all!”

A trip to buy beads and Mardi Gras decoartions at Accent Annex is great fun.
A trip to buy beads and Mardi Gras decorations at Accent Annex is great fun.