Janine's Journal: Discoveries in The Big Easy

It’s amazing what a different perspective and a little traveling can provide. Janine Pumilia explores the wonders of a recent trip to New Orleans.

My parents thought nothing of taking us out of school, now and then, to pack up the travel trailer and explore national parks, historic landmarks and weird little sites along the way. “It’s the best kind of education,” said my mom, who taught 9th grade English when she wasn’t roving.
I think she was right. I’m still learning through travel, thanks to my get-up-and-go hubby and travel partner, Gary.
We planned our 10th anniversary trip to New Orleans two years ago, never suspecting that someone would set fire to an O’Hare control tower on our day of departure. Getting to the Big Easy was no longer so easy, but we managed to snag one of the last train tickets from Chicago to New Orleans, that same day, a 19-hour trip. And riding the train was fun!
It’s impressive what Amtrak can do with a 3×6-foot “roomette.” Two seats by day, two bunks by night, and a big picture window for watching sleepy southern towns roll by, with their Rexall Drugs billboards and turtle-filled bogs. We had a great time chatting with strangers in the dining car, including honeymooners from England and a water quality engineer on his way to a conference.
In New Orleans, after an excellent lunch and a few 25-cent martinis at Commander’s Palace, we wandered through the Garden District, gaping at lovely old homes with ornate black iron fences. We strolled Lafayette Cemetery No. 1, with its creepy above-ground crypts, the backdrop for Anne Rice books and movies like Double Jeopardy. Many of this cemetery’s dead perished from yellow fever. Between 1817 and 1905, the illness claimed 41,000 city residents, a reminder that the mosquito was (and still is) the deadliest animal on earth.
To cool off, we ducked into a small bookstore brimming with local history books. I read about the 1865 explosion of the steamboat USS Sultana, the largest maritime disaster in U.S. history; more lives were lost than in the 1912 sinking of the Titanic, which took 1,500 souls. On the Sultana, 1,800 of 2,400 passengers were killed on the Mississippi River, near Memphis, many of them newly discharged Union soldiers freed from prison camps, including notorious Andersonville.
Can you imagine surviving the bloody Civil War only to be blown up on the boat ride home?
Apparently Ship’s Captain J.C. Mason had ignored a warning that two boilers needed replacement. He was in a hurry to pick up more passengers from Vicksburg, since the government promised to pay $5 for each enlisted man and $10 for each officer delivered to the North. So he merely patched the faulty boilers and crammed his boat with men to six times its capacity. Nice guy.
I know a bit about the Titanic, but I had never even heard of the USS Sultana and it’s important lesson about greed (and the need for government regulations.) I wonder why.

National World War II Museum

Over the next few days we’d learn much more about the best and worst of human behavior, as we toured swamps, plantations and the National World War II Museum.
You don’t need to be a history geek to thoroughly enjoy the latter. It was founded by late historian/author and Illinois native Stephen Ambrose (Band of Brothers, D-Day) as the National D-Day Museum, in 2000. Ambrose secured funding from Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg to get it up and running, and their creative fingerprints are all over it. There’s a spectacular 37-minute 4D film titled “Beyond All Boundaries,” narrated by Hanks, with special effects that put you in the heart of battle.
Like all wars, World War II is a convoluted, BIG topic. The context of its lead-up and the prevailing attitudes in America at the moment of its eruption are an important part of the story. So was America’s pathetic military readiness, at the start of the war, and her phenomenal “catch-up” efforts, once committed to the fight. The museum does a great job of breaking down chunks of information in meaningful and memorable ways.
Why is this museum in New Orleans? For one thing, Ambrose lived there. For another, the Higgins Boats that proved so vital to D-Day operations were designed, built, and tested there. By 2003, Congress designated the museum as “America’s National World War II Museum” and its scope expanded. It’s affiliated with the Smithsonian, privately owned and donor-supported.
I appreciated the tone of the museum, which didn’t glorify war so much as exhibit somber reverence for the 65 million human beings who lost their lives. The focus is the American World War II experience, both in battle and at home, as explained through first-person accounts, clever interactive exhibits and a huge collection of artifacts ranging from personal letters and possessions to propaganda posters.
Real World War II airplanes suspended inside a huge atrium can be viewed up-close from above, below and at eye level, along with tanks, trucks and many more vehicles.
History is lost to emerging generations so quickly; I’m glad this museum was built with living witnesses as consultants.

Plantation Life

Yet another chapter of U.S. (and pre-U.S.) history unfolded when we toured two antebellum (pre-Civil War) sugar plantations outside of New Orleans, each formerly run by the despicable engine of slave labor – Oak Alley and Laura Plantation. The former includes a breathtaking corridor of 28 live oak trees more than 300 years old, mirrored by a 28-pillar manor house filled with furnishings and oddities authentic to the period. Special attention is paid to the stories and reconstructed quarters of slaves who once lived here, including Antoine, an expert gardener who grafted the first paper shell pecan. Antoine’s “value” was listed at $1,000 in the authentic slave register on display. It gave me chills.
Less grand but just as interesting is Laura Plantation, which was spared the wrecking ball by one thing: an unflinching Creole family history, written in the 1930s by Laura Locoul Gore, who wanted her descendants to understand Creole plantation life dating back long before Louisiana became a U.S. state in 1812.
So what exactly is a Creole? The term simply means “native born.” Although intermarrying of races was illegal in the French Catholic-ruled church state, it happened anyway (sometimes aided by those fancy masquerade balls in which race was hidden by masks). French, Spanish, Native American and African American blood mingled and a distinct new culture emerged, notable for its mistrust of all institutions except the family and the Catholic Church. To this day, Louisiana’s counties are called “parishes.”
The Creole family home doubled as the center of business life and many Creoles became quite wealthy and influential in the New Orleans region.
By contrast, the term “Cajun” traces back to French colonists who settled in the Acadian region of Canada, only to be killed or evicted by the British in the 1700s. Many relocated to rural areas of Louisiana. They weren’t “native born” but shared French ancestry with their sophisticated Creole relatives.
Unlike the British, who saddled themselves with the paternalistic “entail” system (for more explanation, watch “Downton Abbey”), a Creole family handed down the presidency of its family business to the child best suited to the task, male or female. Four generations of women ran Laura Plantation, quite successfully, since the 1700s, and this was not uncommon.
Laura Locoul was the heir apparent who broke away to make a modern life for herself in St. Louis, Mo., where she married, of all things, a Protestant. Although she deeply loved some things about Creole culture, she despised the brutality, greed and resulting family rifts that came with Creole plantation life. She died in St. Louis in 1963 at the age of 101. Today her plantation still produces sugar, but the home is set aside for historic tours.

Swamp Eco-Tours

One reason resourceful Cajun refugees thrived in their new landscape, after being driven out of Canada, was the richness of the swamplands. Even today, a person knowledgeable about swamps could survive on nothing but their bounty, according to the guide who led our eco-tour of 70,000-acre Honey Island Swamp.
Considered one of the most pristine of U.S. swamps, this permanently protected wildlife area is home to alligators, wild boars, black bears, turtles, deer, smaller mammals, owls, egrets, heron, bald eagles and much more. We saw plenty of wild pigs, ’gators and birds during our tour. We also saw the kind of shabby houseboat homes you see on TV but can’t quite believe are real. It’s legal for humans to live in this preserve only if their homes in no way touch land. Many of these homes fared badly when water tables rose by 14 feet during Hurricane Katrina.
We learned the difference between a swamp (land) and a bayou (water) and why alligators but no crocodiles live here. Gators like the fresh water and can handle cooler temps than saltwater-loving crocs.
The plant life of the swamp is fascinating, from the black willow tree, whose bark contains salicylic acid, a compound similar to aspirin, to the Spanish moss-laden cypress trees now threatened by man’s disturbance of waterways. At one time, the moss was harvested to stuff everything from auto seats to mattresses.
The cypress tree, with its bony “knees” sticking out of the water, plays a vital role in protecting Louisiana coastlines during storms. That’s why chain stores like Home Depot and Lowe’s have stopped selling cypress mulch harvested from the southern tier of Louisiana.
I thought about our Rockford Laurent House and its beautiful red tidewater cypress interior walls. Frank Lloyd Wright chose cypress because it was durable and inexpensive, in the 1950s; today, it’s nearly unaffordable. Too little thought was given to its sustainability.
While in New Orleans, I also thought about the many immigrants who settled our Rockford region after living in or passing through New Orleans, once steamboats could carry them upstream on Ol’ Miss. Some of my hubby’s ancestors were among them.
If you visit The Big Easy merely for its excellent cuisine and joyful atmosphere, you won’t be disappointed. But even tastier is the rich culture, history and landscape. Come to think of it, those are the same topics we explore right here in our region, in NWQ Magazine. No wonder I love my job!