Footsteps to the past
By Meghan Holmes
Photography by Michael Barrett
Most people know Lafayette, Louisiana, for its rich Cajun cuisine, its fascinating cultural history and its famous blend of Cajun and Zydeco music. Nestled in the heart of the state’s Cajun Country, it is billed as “The Happiest City in America.”
Once called Vermilionville for the Vermilion River that flows through it, the river name also belongs to the city’s living history museum and folk life park. It is a place that tells the stories of the cultures who originally settled it in 1765, giving visitors the opportunity to tour restored homes and meet artisans who demonstrate the essential crafts of early settlers. The park also includes a restaurant: La Cuisine de Maman, a gift shop and event space.
Visitors enter through the park’s welcome center and gift shop, La Boutique, which offers a selection of Creole, Cajun and Native American arts and crafts. Artisans construct many of the items on site, including rosaries, quilts, soaps, lotions and wood carvings. Books for sale there offer more about the culture of the area, everything from the Junior League’s cookbook to studies documenting African Americans in Lafayette. Information panels showcase the indigenous herbs of Native American healing traditions, adapted into Creole and Acadian homes because of their demonstrated efficacy.
Beyond the welcome center, guests wander from building to building, encountering artisans along the way who describe what the area’s homes, churches and schools were like more than 100 years ago. One of the first structures visible is Beau Bassin, constructed circa 1840 with a blend of Creole and Greek revival styles. Lynn Gery demonstrates traditional textiles and talks of how early settlers constructed their homes.
“They used bousillage – a mixture of clay and Spanish moss, to make the walls,” says Gery. “They formed bricks with the mixture. Spanish moss had to be cured to kill the plant, so that bugs could no longer live in it. The dry moss was used in pillowcases as well as thread to sew up a suture. It was even used in the seats of the Model T Fords.”
On display in Beau Bassin is an Acadian loom built some 150 years ago. The Acadians came to south Louisiana following expulsion from Canada, where they wove wool and flax. In south Louisiana, they learned to weave cotton.
“I do all my quilting by hand, pieced with needle and thread. Right now I’m working on a pinwheel pattern,” says Gery. “My grandmother taught me to quilt when I was six, and I use a similar frame to the one I learned on. Quilting is one of my fondest memories. I miss my Pappy when I’m quilting because he threaded our needles. His eyesight was better.”
In bayou parlance, a light-colored quilt on the porch meant good news, while a dark color indicated a request for prayer. “People traveled via pirogue then,” says Gery. “They would boat up and ask what was wrong and then spread the news to everyone else.”
The village also includes a reproduction schoolhouse meant to resemble those built around the turn of the 20th century. “The building has been reconstructed, but the desks were built in 1899,” says Jules Guidry, who goes by Nonc (uncle in Cajun French) Jules. On a large blackboard lining one wall, the phrase, “I will not speak French,” is written again and again. Around the turn of the 19th century, Cajun children were typically forced to learn English in school in the area.
“I was born in 1950 and my mom and dad only spoke French,” says Jules. “I learned English in school. In the 1940s kids were whipped or had to kneel on the floor. Sometimes they would have an accident in their pants because they couldn’t ask to go to the bathroom in English. Cajun French was considered country and lower class, and as a result we lost a whole generation of speakers. Educators cut them off from their language.”
Things changed in the latter half of the 20th century following the establishment of French immersion programs and French speaking organizations. “Now young kids play the music and they’re all bilingual and they sing in French,” says Jules, who also plays the accordion and the triangle. “Now people promote being Cajun, and tourists want to hear our music and eat our food.”
Vermilionville’s La Chapelle des Attakapas gives visitors a look at the region’s earliest Catholic churches, modeled after structures constructed in St. Martinville (1773) and Pointe Coupee (1760). Craftspeople sometimes demonstrate rosary making using Job’s tears, or the lacryma jobi plant. The plant once grew wild throughout the region and is planted outside the chapel.
“Job’s tears are seeds that look like stones,” says artisan Janette Neveu. “They come in three colors and they grow on a bush that looks like a corn plant. You won’t find it anywhere anymore, though it is native. The seeds are naturally polished, they already have holes, and the more you touch them the shinier they get. You can’t break them with a hammer. I make mine with silver I get in New Iberia, but years ago it would’ve been a wooden cross that the husband whittled and put on there.”
Today the chapel hosts civil wedding ceremonies, where brides and grooms sometimes pull up on horse drawn carriages to maintain period authenticity. Vermilionville hosts various events, including community programming and workshops.
“The park itself attracts tourists from all over the world, but Vermilionville also has a mission to serve the local community,” says Erin Segura, director of communications. “We have a monthly series where people can learn how to make traditional crafts, as well as a weekly Cajun jam where anyone can come perform and listen. We have been open for 27 years now, so you see people who started playing as children who are still performing, and really learned to play alongside talent that’s found in our community but also known worldwide.”
Other events include classes in boudin making, a monthly film series, Cajun dances and yoga in French. “We also have a healing traditions lecture series, where master gardeners come in and discuss the history and use of native plants,” says Segura. “We want to show visitors part of the wide variety of traditions that make up these cultures and engage with the local community to maintain the strength of those traditions. It really is a living history museum, where we recognize the value of these traditions in our community, and want them to thrive.”
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