by Kathleen Walls
When most people think of Southern plantations, their first image is of a strong, white, male owner, not literary or artistic women. Melrose Plantation in the Cane River Region of Louisiana, near Natchitoches, exists today as a cultural destination and was a major mover in the literary and artistic movement in Louisiana thanks to several strong women.
Marie Thérèse Coincoin, born a slave and later freed by the father of her 10 children, Claude Thomas Pierre Metoyer—who gave her a yearly allowance and a parcel of land when he returned to France to marry the “suitable” woman his family demanded—began the Melrose story. Her family owned Melrose Plantation from 1796 until 1847, when her great-grandson lost the family home.
The next owners were the Hertzogs. It was this owner’s sister, Fanny Hertzog, who upgraded the two-room raised cottage into a more typical eight-room plantation home. She also instituted a Freedmen School for the former enslaved people.
It was the matriarch of the last private owners, the Henrys, who created the Melrose that brings visitors from around the world and was a driving force in literature and art. Carmelite (Cammie) Garrett Henry collected historic cabins from all around the parish and brought them to Melrose. She then hosted visiting writers and artists in them, helping usher in what is known as the “Southern Renaissance.”
Tour guide, Jim Kilcoyne, offers some insider stories of the nine historic buildings open to the public. The name Melrose Plantation came in 1884 from Cammie Henry’s father-in-law, Joseph Henry, in honor of his favorite poem by Sir Walter Scott, “Melrose Abbey.”
Kilcoyne told of how after her husband died, Cammie Henry, somewhat of an intellectual, was lonely at Melrose. She needed to be there to manage its agricultural business so she began inviting some of the South’s most up-and-coming writers and artists to visit the plantation.
One of her favorite writers was Lyle Saxon, author of Children of Strangers, which portrays the Cane River region from the viewpoint of a young African American girl. He was Melrose’s writer-in-residence and a big influence in the literary renaissance at Melrose. Saxon is best known for his historical books, including Father Mississippi, Gumbo Ya-Ya and Lafitte the Pirate. The cabin where he stayed off and on until his death in 1946 is called the Yucca House. His furniture, including his sleigh bed, is on display there.
Prior to being a writer’s residence, Yucca House was the original Metoyer family home for Marie Coincoin’s son, Louis Metoyer, who began construction of the Big House in 1832, and his son, Jean Baptiste Louis Metoyer, who completed the Big House.
Another prominent resident of Yucca House, featured in many of the WPA writer’s projects, was a former slave named Israel Suddath and his wife Jane. They were former slaves who remained on as tenant farmers after emancipation. Israel was a favorite of WPA writers who recorded lives of the former slaves and would meet visiting writers when they arrived at Melrose and offer to interview them.
The last resident writer who contributed and often embellished Melrose history was Francois Mignon. He came for a six-week visit in the early 1940s and remained there for 32 years. Mignon claimed to be from Paris, France, but he was really Frank Mineah from Courtland, New York. He remained in residence after Cammie Henry’s death in 1948 until 1970 when the plantation was sold at auction to Southdown Land Company. His most famous work was “Plantation Memo.” Although he was not the most truthful soul, he did contribute much to the preservation of Melrose.
Some of the other famous writers who visited or stayed at Melrose were Harnett Kane, William Faulkner, Rachel Field, Ada Jack Carver and Roark Bradford. But one of the guests who made Melrose even more famous through an accident was artist Alberta Kinsey.
Kinsey left behind some of her paints, and an uneducated black cook named Clementine Hunter found them. With encouragement from Mignon, Hunter began painting the story of the plantation workers. She became one of Louisiana’s most famous folk artists and the first African American to have an exhibit in the New Orleans Museum of Art.
Her paintings are colorful, and her perspective tells much about the people depicted in them. One painting of a wedding shows the bride quite large, the groom somewhat smaller and the preacher tiny. Hunter based her subject’s sizes on what she thought of them. Obviously, she didn’t think much of the preacher. She portrayed scenes of the life she knew: weddings, funerals, baptisms, clothes washday, cotton picking and such. She would paint on anything from window shades to old plates and bottles.
Over her lifetime she painted between four and five thousand paintings. Although she never learned to read or write, she was given an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree from Northwestern State University of Louisiana in 1986. Ironically, in the 1960s she was not allowed to visit an exhibition of her work there due to Jim Crow laws. Her home is one of the tour buildings.
Her most famous works are the African House Murals. Mignon encouraged her to paint these on plywood sheets he mounted in the second floor of the Africa House. It was never used to house enslaved people but was a uniquely built storehouse for food.
The Big House is the most impressive building on the plantation. Added to over the years, it is quite large and furnished much as it was during Cammie Henry’s ownership. She added the hexagonal garçonnière towers at each end of the gallery and enclosed a back portion of the home to make her bedroom, indoor kitchen, indoor pantry and a sunroom where she did quilting.
The house is filled with historical treasures. There are portraits of Marie Coincoin’s grandson and granddaughter in the dining room. Incidentally, tour guide Kilcoyne revealed at dinner that Henry would ask her visiting writers what they had accomplished that day. If they said they had writer’s block and achieved nothing, she told them she would ask again the next night and if still had done nothing, they would need to leave.
There are photos of Henry with some of her writer friends, a photo of Clementine Hunter with a commendation from the Louisiana Senate recognizing her accomplishments and a portrait of her holding a chicken.
When Southdown Land Company bought the property in 1970, the company really only wanted the pecan groves. They donated the 6.55 acres containing the historic structures to the Association of Natchitoches Women for the Preservation of Historic Natchitoches. The association later changed its name to Association for the Preservation of Historic Natchitoches in recognition that men now were on its board and members.
Melrose Plantation is open year-round for guided tours Tuesday through Sunday. A self-guided garden walk is also available.