Hello, my name is Dustin Fuqua, and today I’m going to be telling you a story I like to call “Picking Up the Pieces: Resource Documentation and Post-Disaster Recovery at the Bayou Folk Museum Kate Chopin House.”
The context of this project is Natchitoches Parish, Louisiana, and in particular, the Cane River Region. Note the historic maps indicate a lot of landmarks that you’ll see, different American Indian names and different French and actually Colonial Spanish names as well. All the landmarks noted in these historic photos bear place names that reflect our French Creole and American Indian heritage.
Natchitoches Parish is situated along the Red River in the northwestern part of Louisiana. Cane River, an oxbow of the Red River, and the surrounding Cane River National Heritage Area is home to numerous properties listed on the National Register of Historic Places, seven National Historic Landmarks, and the Natchitoches National Historic Landmark District. So the area we’re talking about today is rich in heritage.
I work for an organization, an agency of the National Park Service, called Cane River Creole National Historical Park. The park is comprised of the Oakland Plantation and Magnolia Plantation units. Both of the plantation units were inhabited by the same founding families for over 200 years and maintain status as National Bicentennial Farms.
The Park maintains rapport with the descendants of the planters, overseers, enslaved, tenants and sharecroppers, and the other traditionally associated people. The Bayou Folk Museum is a site within the Cane River National Heritage Area. The site, a National Historic Landmark, is comprised of the Alexis Cloutier and Kate Chopin House, Dr. Worsely’s office, a blacksmith shop and cultural landscape features.
Bayou Folk Museum was originally established by Mildred McCoy, a local heritage enthusiast, to serve as a museum devoted to the preservation of the local Cloutierville heritage. Ownership of the site was transferred to Northwestern State University of Louisiana for a short period in the 1980s, and finally to the Association for Preservation of Historic Natchitoches, who also owns the well-known National Historic Landmark called Melrose Plantation.
Though the primary structure and primary contributing feature was originally constructed in 1806 by Alexis Cloutier, the founder of the Town of Cloutierville, the primary contributing feature of the site was also home to the famed writer Kate Chopin for at least eight years.
Seizing on an era of resurgent interest in local folk life, APH and the owners decided to rename the property to the Kate Chopin House in the 1990s as part of a promotional trend. Yet, the structure maintains significance in its architecture and links to the Red River Campaign of the Civil War and other notable historic events.
In homage to Kate Chopin and to the people that she called the “Bayou Folk,” I’ve included some Louisiana French Creole linguistics in this presentation. So note some of the linguistic representations you’ll see on the slides. I was able to acquire funding by way of the Cane River National Heritage Area in a 2007 competitive grants program for the purposes of developing a Heritage Resource Management Plan.
The Preserving Nostalgia Project enabled me to establish intellectual control of the museum collection as well as to document the heritage resources and site conditions therein. The Heritage Resources Management Plan included up-to-date resource documentation, a museum catalog, protocols for stewards and a database for collections management. Special thanks to Cultural Lore, a comprehensive planning agency, that directed this project.
The Bayou Folk Museum site meant much more to the Cloutierville citizenry than just a house museum dedicated to a woman that only lived there eight years. The Bayou Folk Museum with its contributing structures and cultural landscape features was a community museum devoted to the preservation of shared Creole heritage.
The former curator of the Bayou Folk Museum once told me that the Cloutierville vicinity had been “preserved by poverty.” Though the area is still rich with an abundance of Creole architecture and vernacular historic structures, the character of the Cloutierville vicinity has indeed changed much over the past 10 years.
Structures, including the Kate Chopin House and the Carnahan Store, a property listed on the National Register of Historic Places and photographed by the Historic American Building Survey, have both been lost to fire. Other structures such as these in the images were preserved by, quote-unquote, passive neglect until recently. In fact, the home in the image was demolished in 2010.
With regard to the final report document, note the table of contents that’s included on this image. Grant project work further involved developing a synthesis of existing documentation and research based on numerous local collections. Included in this slide are sketch maps and site plans that I developed to document the provenance of museum collections and archives at the Bayou Folk Museum.
In some instances I was able to build upon existing documentation by HABS and National Historic Landmark nominations. Field collections and digging revealed museum data compiled during the Mildred McCoy era that attribued many objects to specific donors and traditional cultural places, including long-lost plantations, legendary venues, and sites now nestled deep in the Kisatchie National Forest.
You’ll note the image in the slide is actually floorplans that were developed prior to the National Historic Landmark nomination process at the Bayou Folk Museum. You’ll note the three contributing structures are represented in the slides.
Here’s the Bayou Folk Museum’s Kate Chopin House. It’s actually a two-floor structure. There is a doctor’s office attributed to Dr. Worsely, a female doctor, in the early 20th century, and also a barn that was converted into a blacksmith’s shop for exhibit purposes.
We’ll talk a little bit more about the artifacts later in the presentation. With the mixed provenance of collections in mind, I chose to arrange the collections thematically. I made every effort to utilize existing documentation from the Mildred McCoy era and beyond and was able to locate some management documentation.
In some instances, I was able to reference the Bayou Folk Museum’s lost catalog numbers with new data to determine the provenance. I use the term “lost catalog” to refer to the Bayou Folk Museum’s previous catalog. As I understand, a project had occurred in the 1980s by which a local Northwestern State University student decided to perform a collections management project at Bayou Folk Museum, thereby cataloging all the objects that he could find.
Well, this was in the days of early technology where we had typewriter copies and only limited paper copies of documents, and lo and behold, both of the documents were lost. There were only two copies, is one of the stories I’m told, and they were both lost. So with that we lost the catalog data that was pretty much already attributed to a lot of these objects. So in order to find out more about them, a lot of original research was also necessary.
One component of the Bayou Folk Museum collections profiles component included baskets. In the images you’ll note we have some baskets that are made by both American Indian and Creole or African American traditionally associated people. The images on the left represent the American Indian baskets, which are made of split river cane and actually has split oak woven in it as well. So American Indian baskets, we have river cane baskets. The plantation-era baskets are more constructed of white oak. And then the image on the right depicts a basket that is something like a lot of the local scholars have never seen. It’s using exotic materials like non-native bamboo and other woods mixed together.
So there were some really interesting baskets in this collection. Regardless of the analysis of the baskets, contributed to ongoing research conducted by NSU and Dr. Pete Gregory and Dr. Dana Lee. Interestingly, a number of local plantations maintain very similar basket collections. The topic of the plantation basket collections of Cane River may be referenced in Dr. Gregory and Dr. Lee’s work called “The Work of Tribal Hands” by Northwestern State University Press. There’s a chapter entitled “Mystery Baskets of Cane River” that I authored included in this book, and we mentioned the Bayou Folk Museum baskets as well as other examples from Cane River National Heritage Area sites. With the project I was able to identify and document several objects of cultural significance attributed to local Creole artists.
In the image you’ll note a mortar that in French Creole we call a “pille.” Note the pilles were recovered following the catastrophe at Bayou Folk Museum and are currently on exhibit at Melrose Plantation. Pilles, or mortars, were used with the pilon, or pestle, to grind sassafras leaves for making gumbo filé. The tradition is still maintained by the Cane River Creole folklorist Oswald John Colson and other local traditional people.
In developing the themed categories, I identified and documented several objects related to slavery. Note the vintage interpretive text document below the artifact reads “slave ankle strap.” This was plowed up many years ago off the Marco Plantation below Monett’s Ferry. This plantation was named for Marco Giovinivich, who migrated to the Cane River area from his native Austria. He was reputed to be one of the largest owners of slaves in the Cane River country. This is a hand-made strap and has the original key which still operates the simple lock. So the image depicts a slave ankle strap, or a slave shackle, intended for the ankles of a human being.
You’ll note the documentation occurred before the fire, before the catastrophe, in which I catalogued the object, and lo and behold, Artefact Trouvé, I was able to recover this artifact following the catastrophe. Also present in the Bayou Folk Museum collection was a number of grave markers reportedly recovered from nearby Shallow Lake Plantation.
The markers were most probably constructed by enslaved African blacksmiths and marked the graves of the planter class as well as the Creole du Couloir. The markers were recovered and are currently on loan to the National Park Service at Cane River Creole National Historical Park. So the image depicts grave markers that were recovered from a local cemetery. The grave markers were made by enslaved blacksmiths. Most of them date to the middle 19th century.
With regard to significance, one may ponder over the notion of why some things are worth preserving while others may not be. In some instances I tend to base significance on material representations of things that no longer exist. As such, the images depict currency once used at plantation commissaries and lumber company stores in Natchitoches Parish. Very few of the structures represented by their respective plantation or lumber company currency exist today. These tokens represented in some cases entire towns such as Montrose, Monett’s Ferry, Chopin and other local communities. So each of the tokens, as they call it, or scrip, represent a different plantation store or a different lumber company store.
Plantation agriculture was very prevalent in the Cane River Region, but just to the west of us in what is now the Kisatchie National Forest was a booming lumber operation in the late 19th and early 20th century. Most of the lumber company stores are long gone. The communities in some cases still bear place names like with the post offices.
The post office may be named after the old community. But for the most part, all of the sites that are associated with these tokens are no longer here. And now, unfortunately, we don’t even have the token representations of these sites.
I keep alluding to a catastrophe. Well, on October 1, 2008, at approximately 4:00 a.m., a fire began that razed the Kate Chopin House. The Cloutierville vicinity is primarily inhabited by the descendants of the Natchitoches colonial settlers. The homes along Louisiana Highway 495, many of which were constructed in the 19th century, are somewhat close to one another. The fire awoke many neighbors, including Theron Sallard, who captured the video footage of the devastating fire. The image represents a video file. We actually have a video of after the fire started that one of the local citizens — in fact, the neighbor that lives across the street was able to capture.
So it’s very rare in a disaster management situation that you have not only documentation of a heritage site prior to a catastrophe, but also during and after a catastrophe. I feel that the Bayou Folk Museum is, I hesitate to say a “good example,” but I would say an example of a disaster management situation.
The images in the slide tell it all. You can see that a structure, once over two stories high with a bottom floor constructed of slave-made brick and an upper floor made of the earthen architecture bousillage, was just reduced to rubble in a matter of hours. One of the only extant features left after the fire was the chimney. You see the tall chimney stack there on the image on the left. The images depict some of the surviving architectural fabric on the front elevation of the Alexis Cloutier Home or the Kate Chopin House.
You’ll note the slave-made low-fired brick. So after any catastrophe, whether you have a plan in place or not, a steward must embark in a disaster management situation. So the umbrella of disaster management covers a lot of different things. A lot of times you’re not planning for it and they just happen, but regardless, you have to manage the situation.
So, really, in catastrophes and all disasters, you’re going to conduct disaster management operations. One of the first goals I would suggest in a disaster management situation would be to first establish points of contact. Chances are that in a catastrophe such as a fire the local law enforcement, local fire officers, and other local security officers would probably be on site to, in fact, handle crowds of people, passersby, and just to provide public safety.
So they would more or less become the hierarchy, the primary point of contact, the on-site recovery personnel. But then you’ll find that other roles must be established, so as an owner of an organization. In this case the owner of the Bayou Folk Museum is an organization, an organization of people that primarily live in the City of Natchitoches about 25 miles away, and they’re not actually able to get to the site as fast as they would like to, so they have to rely on local people.
So a lot of different roles will be established, whether you want to establish them or not. The difficult process comes in coordinating the roles. So in a disaster like the Bayou Folk Museum losing the Kate Chopin House to fire, a lot of people actually showed up to support the disaster management efforts. Of course, you had the law enforcement and the fire/security folks and all the local interested people, but then you had people that just genuinely love the site and people that just were very sincere in their care for these objects. A lot of the local folks that donated collections to this site over the years came to help out in the disaster after the fire. So you almost need to develop an incident command structure where you start establishing points of contact.
And all of these people that are coming to offer help, you really seize on the help. Rather than someone coming and saying, “Oh, I want to help, what can I do?” and you don’t know what you can have them to do, well, keep them handy and figure it out. A lot of times it will be a traditional person that may be able to tell you about in this instance some of the artifacts, where that came from, and if an object was technically on loan or if it was a bona fide accessioned object in your collection. So these are all important things that we have to remember when we’re coordinating roles.
And, of course, documentation is very key prior to, during and after. A lot of times we’re quick to document our accomplishments in that we were able to preserve this and save this, but seldom do we find ourselves documenting our disappointments and our errors. It’s important also to document some of these errors. That way other folks can learn from what we’ve experienced.
One of the next aspects of a disaster management situation would be salvage and recovery. In this instance, what can we save from this fire? Are there any significant artifacts that can be saved? What can we do to help preserve the heritage of this area?
Though the zeal to save can be overwhelming, one should never disregard their own personal safety. I was overwhelmed by emotions and did not take the time to ensure my own safety, as can be noted in the images in which I’m wearing no personal protective equipment.
I, more or less, heard of the fire, was nearby, and ran to the scene. This is just an image in which I’m depicted, but I would say do not do this. Don’t try this at home, because no gloves — I mean, you could just have a case study on all the things wrong with me in these images. So don’t do this.
Always take the time to get some personal protective equipment. In dealing with a disaster, more or less for the first time myself, especially with a site like this that I really cared a lot about and had a lot of love for, a lot of care for, I had spent a lot of time over there and really began to learn about the collection and learn about the people, well, when you have to deal with a disaster, after something like this, you’ll develop some unorthodox techniques, let’s just say. So whereas you might have to have a certain kind of wheelbarrow to tote out a flaming hand-hewn timber, well, you might just rig something else to get that accomplished.
So let’s talk about one of these techniques that I call the “sense of smell.” So fast forward a few weeks after the fire. Let’s go to late October 2008. There were a few rainy days, and then there was an onset of contracted salvage and recovery services. A choice was made to salvage brick and timber materials to the furthest extent possible for preservation and adaptive reuse. Remember, this organization maintains another National Historic Landmark property called Melrose Plantation and the timbers could theoretically be reused.
The salvaged brick could also potentially be reused. Thousands of hand-made bricks, likely made by enslaved workers, were salvaged brick by brick. Note the images on the bottom left depict a piece of equipment. The equipment was actually only used to pull out useless or otherwise far-too-damaged objects like just burnt up timbers and that kind of thing. Otherwise, everything was taken out, more or less, brick by brick and piece by piece. So in doing so, we noted that due to the manner of how certain features had fallen and deteriorated, some areas within the hull of the structure seemed to reveal intact views and strata.
These contexts maintained pockets of preserved material, ingredients of melted bousillage, blended with powdery brick and masonry to bake a firm crust that, in fact, preserved the materials beneath. How could I be certain that the areas maintained the preserved materials, you may ask? Because I could smell them. Prior to the fire, prior to the catastrophe, and prior to my project, there was a curator that actually lived on site in a caretaker’s cottage, and she had pets, and over the years after she left, prior to my project, the cats were around the place, and, you know, they pretty much lived around the Bayou Folk Museum, and, in fact, inside the Kate Chopin House at times.
So for a while there was a lingering smell of the presence of cats around the structure. So when I say that I can find intact features based on smell, I mean that as I’m going down the rubble piles that you notice in the image on the bottom right, as you pull those brick by brick and covering by covering, you can smell actually like areas that were, in fact, saved by rubble piles falling on them, and these areas contained unburned materials. It sounds crazy, I’m sure, but you would never think that the sense of smell could actually be used in a disaster recovery effort, but, in fact, it can.
We had to adopt more unorthodox techniques in working at a site where the space was already limited, and then with the disaster going on, you couldn’t work anywhere near the rubble. You had to just kind of find a place to work. So I think about the paper resources after the fire. Think about the fragility of paper. Then catch it on fire and douse it with water and mix it all around. Then think about the costs involved with preservation and perpetual care of damaged archives. Think about how much paper of various mediums, content filled the old house.
Salvage paper was collected, dried and containerized. Significant documents, including the original edition of Kate Chopin’s books, were managed using the freeze process. But for the most part, we literally had to lay plastic out and go through page by page and determine what was actually worth preserving because none of the paper documents were in good condition, let’s say, that survived the fire, but you have to make some hard choices when you’re out there and what do you cull and what do you keep?
What you end up keeping can be a burden over the years, and what do you do with all these burnt pages? Why are we saving this? Can we just digitize this and get rid of it or whatever? But you have to make those kind of decisions when you’re responsible for a disaster management effort.
While much of the structure’s upper floors were burned, the architectural materials of the ground floor constructed of hand-made brick preserved. Much of the heavy cypress timber structural components withstood the fire in situ atop the brick creating a ghost frame of the upper stories.
However, in an effort to salvage the historic timbers, an individual was allowed to utilize a backhoe to remove the usable materials. In doing so, the operator used the backhoe to essentially scrape away the burning materials away from the brick frame. According to the State Fire Marshal, the use of heavy equipment results in a destruction of any evidence that may have caused the fire.
Therefore, in thinking in terms of the organization’s mindset, yeah, let’s salvage what we can, and you have someone come to you and offer you a piece of equipment and say that they can get the timbers out, no problem, and it sounds like a great idea, let’s do it, but that can trigger chain reactions of other things. So going inside of that ruin pile actually took away any kind of evidence that we could have said whether this fire was, in fact, accidental, electrical, an arson or what. So because of that, we really have no evidence to say what caused the fire.
I mentioned the writer Kate Chopin that once lived at the Alexis Cloutier House. She was an author, a folklife scholar, if you would, and she wrote a lot about the local community and a lot about Louisiana heritage, and she actually used a lot of the Louisiana French language in her writings. So I thought it would be a fitting phrase to use, the French Creole term “n’oubliez pas,” or “don’t forget.”
So we’re flashing forward now several years after the fire. It’s been about five years. And when you go out there today, the site more or less looks like the images depicted in this slide. There are a handful of standing features still left. In the bottom floor, there’s some brick that’s still standing. There are cisterns, the tops of cisterns, you’ll notice on the image on the top right. So when I think about other sites and what people have done with preserving a site after a fire, some things are possible. I’ve seen where some sites have ghost frames of some of the architectural timbers to resemble what the facade used to look like, or these kinds of things, but I would just ask the community and the organization to n’oubliez pas… don’t forget.
The site is actually still listed as a National Historic Landmark. It still retains its NHL status. And although the primary contributing structure is reduced to a ruin, the site still maintains an original doctor’s office and a repurposed blacksmith’s shop, as well as a substantial museum collection. In fact, as part of a disaster management workshop that I’m working with with the National Center, we’re going to be having a workshop to discuss disaster management techniques on site at the Bayou Folk Museum in the coming month. So there’s some more information available at the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training web site. Back to talking about our site and what do we do with the site… there are a lot of questions that we want to ask.
So there’s a few things that we don’t want to forget in the meantime. Any time you have a situation where you’re a steward of a heritage site, you just got to keep in mind that different people have different levels of significance that they place on things, and in this case, the local community was very hurt by the loss of this place.
So you have to be able to ask yourself:
Did I do enough beforehand?
Did I do enough during?
Did I do enough after?
So think about that with your site that’s still there and ask yourself, you know, these kind of questions.
Always remember to document to nauseating detail. It may seem relentless that you are cataloging all these horseshoes or all of these ceramic chards or these historic nails or whatever, and it seems relentless and pointless, but that documentation will help you out afterwards if something does happen.
It’s always important to have back-up copies of catalog data. It’s always important to have off-site storage of certain significant things when you have a vulnerability.
Always remember that photos are priceless. Sometimes I tell myself I need to limit myself in the number of photos that I take and that one or two high-quality photos are a lot better than 10 medium-quality photos, but when it really comes down to it, the more photos you have the better. The more photographic documentation that you have, the more architectural documentation that you have and the data in terms of dimensions, et cetera, that’s priceless. You can never replicate that. So just keep that in mind.
And then when you’re doing a disaster project, just remember to think things through. You start doing things and it’s going to cause other things to happen. You have to communicate effectively. You have to work with all these different people we talked about. Folks are just going to come to help. Put them to work. Have them doing something that’s worthwhile. Then prior to a catastrophe, in your management of your site, you really should have an emergency operations plan in place.
If you’re with the National Park Service, you’re actually somewhat mandated to have an emergency operations plan. For instance, the park that I worked for, Cane River Creole National Historical Park, we have an emergency operations plan. These kind of plans should include, of course, things about personal safety, about the safety of any visitors or any staff people you’re working with. They should usually include a contingency of operation plans. Let’s say like if we don’t have a place to come back to work, where are we going to go? What are we going to do? That’s the kind of stuff you have to think about and that you ought to put in one of these plans.
And then you should really outline how the salvage and recovery efforts are going to take place, because there’s going to be some things that you’re going to have to do. If the site is unsafe, you may have to limit access. You may have to build a perimeter fence. You may have to hire security, these kind of things. So a lot goes into it, and we take it for granted, but it’s always good to be emergency-minded.
So what will happen to the site? What’s going to happen to the Bayou Folk Museum? I know in the meanwhile organizations like the National Park Service are going to be working with the owners to salvage what is there, to help with any kind of management that they want to do on site. You know, just we’re here to help in terms of technical assistance or lending a hand or whatever else we’re going to do.
But in terms of the long-term goal of what the organization is going to do with the site, I really could not tell you. It’s been an issue that — it’s the organization’s issue to deal with, and we’re here to help. We’re not here to guide. We’re not here to manage. We’re only here to help. So, otherwise, the site looks much the same as it did with the images I showed. It’s still in ruins. The site does have a lot of potential. And I just ask that the organization n’oubliez pas… don’t forget.
A few folks I would like to acknowledge in the project… Cultural Lore was the consulting agency that performed the work at the site. The Cane River National Heritage Area provided a grant to perform the pre-disaster project, the documentation. The National Park Service after the catastrophe provided resources… big stake body trucks, storage, technical assistance, all these kind of things. Also there was a lot of help from the local Northwestern State University’s Heritage Resources Program.
There’s actually a graduate program that was even doing work at the site on the project with me before the disaster. So while they’re students, at the same time, they actually worked on the disaster part as well. The National Center for Preservation Technology and Training.
A big thanks to Sean Clifford and Jeff Guin. They were on site when the disaster was going on, and they’re the credit for a lot of the great imagery you saw during the fire. The Natchitoches Parish Volunteer Fire Department, District 1 and other local volunteer firefighters. The people that responded to the site. It was a quick response. A lot of people were mobilized. A lot of people put in a lot of good work and a lot of help.
And the same was the case with the Natchitoches Parish Sheriff’s Office. They had to make the call to pull the chimney down. You noticed the standing chimney in one of those slide images. You kind of want to preserve something like that, but when it becomes a public safety issue, you have to go with what law enforcement says. So we really appreciated the guidance of Deputy Rosset at NPSO.
And also great thanks, of course, to the owners of the site. They allowed me to work on a documentation project by way of the Cane River National Heritage Area grant, and I was there for them afterwards, after the fire, and continue to be there for them, as well as the National Park Service and our partners.
So thank you for your attention, and feel free to contact me with any questions.
My contact information is listed on the slide in front of you.
Have a good day.