Melrose Plantation and surrounding area. The town, "Natchitoches"
(upper left) is pronounced "Nack-uh-tish". If you want
to be spotted as a greenhorn tourist right away, you can pronounce
it "Natch-eye-toe-chiss" The town "Cloutierville"
(lower right) is pronounced "Clue-chee-ville", not
"Clue-tee-er-ville". And "pecan" is properly
spoken "Puh-cahn" not "Pee-can". My grandparent's
fishing camp, "Happy Landing", is shown at the end
of the dusty road and just over the Cane River bridge.
From Alexandria, Louisiana,
where I was born December 23, 1936, it took about an hour to
drive to Melrose Plantation where Clementine Hunter lived most
of her life. From the time I was around eight years old, my grandmother,
Blythe Rand of Alexandria, began taking me to Melrose when she
went to visit her friend, Mrs. John (Cammie) Henry, the owner
of the plantation. Mrs. Cammie and my grandmother had become
friends many years before through their mutual interest in weaving
To get to Melrose from Alexandria we would drive in my grandmother's
old gear-shift Chevrolet along an asphalt highway that was so
hot in summer the car's tires would sink into the tarry surface
if you stopped too long. Near Montrose, Louisiana we would turn
onto a dirt road that wound through the cotton fields toward
Cane River and Melrose. I might at this point mention that Cane
River is really not a river. It is technically a lake. It once
was part of a river but became separated from its course and
filled up with water and no longer flows. Sometimes it is referred
to as Cane River and sometimes as Cane River Lake. But they're
both the same thing.
If there had been rain, the dirt road leading to Melrose was
a river of mud. If the weather was dry, the road was ankle-deep
in dust. As the car traveled along, clouds of dust would swirl
out behind each rear tire like twin horizontal tornadoes. If
another car passed, we would be enveloped in a dust storm so
thick my grandmother would have to stop the car, brush off the
windshield, and wait until the road was visible again. Since
cars back then had no air conditioning, we had either to roll
up the windows and suffocate, or roll down the windows and choke.
To try to avoid the situation, my grandmother would pull off
the side of the asphalt highway and wait until no cars could
be seen coming down the dirt road. Then she would put the car
in gear, step on the gas, and race toward the bridge that spanned
the river-- hoping for the best.
The bridge was a rickety affair that resembled a wide, wooden
version of a railroad track. The structure of the bridge consisted
of vertical pilings on top of which long beams ran from one bank
of the river to the next. On top of these beams more beams were
laid sideways like railroad crossties. Between these beams were
spaces through which you could look down and see the river. Instead
of the tires running on rails, they ran along two plank runways
barely a foot-and-a-half wide. If one of the tires slipped off
the runway, the car would buck along the cross beams like it
was going over a cattle gap, making the bridge vibrate and shake
like it was going to collapse. When my mother, Frances Rand,
was with us, she was so nervous she would always get out and
walk. I just closed my eyes, gritted my teeth, and played like
I had never been born.
But I had been