300 years of Cane River Creole History
By Meghan Holmes
Photography by Marianne Todd and Rachel Leigh
In late 2016, Louisiana’s oldest permanent settlement saw the opening of its first boutique hotel. The Chateau Saint Denis Hotel opened in November, adjacent to the town’s event center in the heart of a 33-block historic district. “Before this hotel opened the only lodging options downtown were the Church Street Inn and various bed and breakfasts,” said Chris Post, director of the Natchitoches Event Center. “It’s been a long time since Natchitoches has had a property like this, and we’re very excited about it.”
When the Natchitoches (pronounced Nack-a-tish) Event Center opened a decade ago, directors searched for someone to build a nearby hotel to service hundreds of visitors arriving for conventions the site planned to host. “We can accommodate conferences with 200-300 people in about 40,000 square-feet of space, but prior to the Chateau Saint Denis Hotel there wasn’t a hotel to anchor the facility, and people drove 4-5 miles to other spots along the interstate for lodging,” Post said. “We really wanted to showcase Natchitoches’s 300 years of history along the Cane River Lake downtown."
Natchitoches Event Center staff connected with hotel owners Warren and Nancy Ruether based on the recommendation of a marketing research group. “They told them to find the guy who owns The Grand (hotel) in Natchez and manages the convention center,” said Nancy Reuther. “Years ago we actually had a little boat on the Cane River Lake that did swamp tours, so we’ve also really watched Natchitoches grow and love the town.”
The Cane River Lake runs through downtown Natchitoches and along several extant plantations outside town. A former pass of the Red River, the Cane is an Oxbow lake dammed at either end after the river changed course in the mid-1800s. Prior to the invention of snag boats in the 1830s, hundreds of logs impeded travel above Natchitoches in a 160-mile log jam called the Great Raft. Once the logs were cleared, the river began shifting. Its course now passes about four miles north of the town.
The Chateau Saint Denis Hotel sits about three blocks from the lake’s banks, where weddings are held in the summer and each December more than 300,000 Christmas lights go on display. “Natchitoches’ downtown is incredibly charming,” said Nancy Reuther. “You walk along the river, and there are cobblestone streets and gardens. The hotel is in walking distance of all that, which is one of its greatest assets.”
Reuther modeled the 87 hotel rooms’ furniture after early Louisiana antiques. “Because of the area’s history and people, and being along a river, I was reminded a lot of Monmouth (an antebellum home the Ruether’s have restored and own in Natchez) and downtown Natchez,” she said. “Early Louisiana antiques are rare, but I’ve always found them very appealing aesthetically. I did a lot of research on period furniture and chose pieces based on that. Knowing that Natchitoches is the oldest settlement in the Louisiana Purchase was also an inspiration.”
The hotel’s lobby, as well as the downstairs bar and breakfast areas, feature art and antiques Ruether has acquired from around Louisiana and Mississippi. She particularly likes Donaldsonville-based artist Alvin Batiste, displaying several of his works. “I bought my first painting of his 12 years ago, and I just picked up another piece I’m going to hang in the hotel,” she said. “I already have a triptych of his on display. It’s a plantation wedding and a big table and people dancing. I love his work.”
Some of the wall space in the lobby remains blank, waiting for Ruether to find the right piece. “You can’t decorate overnight. The art is very important, and you have to get to know the space and how the walls feel. The painting I just picked up from Alvin Batiste has a little girl picking pecans on a cotton plantation, which connects to his family history but also to the history of Natchitoches,” she said.
Pecans were one of many products plantations produced in the area. Family owned farms like Little Eva Plantation continue the tradition, but in the antebellum era, hundreds of slaves worked over thousands of acres along the Cane River Lake, gathering pecans, picking cotton and producing various other products. Two of those plantations, Oakland and Magnolia, now form part of the Cane River Heritage area where visitors can take daily self-guided tours. Another plantation along the route, Melrose, was constructed in 1832 by a Creole descendent of free people of color whose family still lives along Cane River Lake.
Melrose also hosted a thriving community of artists and writers around the turn of the 20th century. Clementine Hunter (1886-1988), a world renowned, self-taught artist, started as a field hand and then became a cook at Melrose. She found paints that an artist had discarded and began painting. Her most famous work, the African House murals, attracts 15,000 visitors to the plantation annually.
Hunter’s work is well known to Natchitoches residents and displayed prominently around town, including in the back room of Lasyone’s, along with 1960s photographs of the restaurant’s early beginnings, as well as 1980s shots of Darryl Hannah and Julia Roberts when they came to eat during the filming of “Steel Magnolias.”
James Lasyone founded the restaurant in the 1960s after perfecting his meat pie recipe. He started out as a butcher at Live Oak Grocery in Natchitoches. Today, family members Angela and Tina Lasyone run the kitchen and continue to serve two versions of their signature deep fried pie. One features a crawfish filing and the other a mixture of pork and beef, seasoned with a dark roux as well as onions and peppers. The restaurant also serves meat and three plates with Southern sides like Lima beans, broccoli rice casserole and red beans and rice.
Also close to the hotel in downtown Natchitoches, popular spots include the Pioneer Pub and Mamas and Papas, directly across from Cane River Lake. The area also boasts numerous shopping options including antiques, gift shops, contemporary cypress furniture, as well as men’s and women’s modern and vintage clothing. There are boat tours and paddle boats along the Cane, as well as walking tours throughout the historic district. Visitors can spend time exploring and leave their car parked at the Chateau Saint Denis Hotel. “The location is a great selling point, but the hotel itself is worth visiting,” said Post.