Shaded by bald cypress trees and moss-laden oaks, thronged with alligators, and resonant with the calls of frogs and birds, the Bayou Teche slowly winds its way 125 miles through south central Louisiana. Until a few thousand years ago, this waterway was the main channel of the Mississippi River. But as it became increasingly clogged with silt, the Mississippi altered its course—a process known as deltaic shifting. What remained in the former bed was a slow-moving waterway, no longer a river but not a swamp, something in between—a bayou.
The Chitimacha Tribe, who began settling along its banks around 500 CE, offered another story of the bayou’s origins, one involving a monstrous, miles-long serpent that terrorized their villages. Their legend holds that when their warriors slew the snake, its turning and writhing created the bed of the Bayou Teche (“teche is the Chitimacha word for “snake”).
In the 1700s, French, Spanish, and Anglo-American settlers began moving into the area. They were followed at century’s end by the Acadians—French Canadian exiles who would come to culturally dominate the region known today as the heart of Acadiana or Cajun country.
Travelers along Louisiana Highway 182, part of the Bayou Teche Byway, will find themselves immersed in Cajun culture. Family-owned establishments serve up steaming bowls of crawfish etouffee and oven-fresh loaves of French bread. Small museums and stately historic homes showcase stories of life along the bayou and the rise of the sugar and rice industries in the nineteenth century. And one-of-a-kind attractions, including the Tabasco factory and a revolutionary offshore drilling rig known as “Mr. Charlie,” afford behind-the-scenes looks, respectively, at one of Louisiana’s iconic brands and the state’s booming petroleum industry.
Bayou Teche Museum
This smart museum in downtown New Iberia reveals the historic centrality of the Bayou Teche to life in the region. Models of watercraft, from workaday pirogues to grand steamships, speak to the importance of waterborne travel and commerce. Other exhibits spotlight local industries, illuminating the process of sugar production and the history of salt. The museum also pays tribute to a pair of native sons whose artistry reached far beyond the bayou: author James Lee Burke and artist George Rodrigue. The former is honored with a reconstruction of Dave Robicheaux’s bait shop, which figures prominently in his popular series of detective novels. And the latter’s relocated studio features a paint-splattered floor, an unfinished Blue Dog painting, and works from his childhood in New Iberia.
Shadows on the Teche
This Classical Revival home was constructed between 1831 and 1834 for wealthy sugar planter David Weeks. In 1958, it became the first National Trust for Historic Preservation site in the Gulf South. Standing in the heart of New Iberia’s historic district and overlooking the Bayou Teche, the property was home to four generations of Weekses and is furnished almost entirely with the family’s American Empire pieces from the 1830s and forties (a mahogany dining room table set with Vieux Paris china and amber-glass tableware, a walnut petite armoire filled with young ladies’ clothing). A short film, screened hourly at the visitors center across the street, presents a short history of the town, the family, and the area’s sugar industry
Conrad Rice Mill
A visit to the oldest operating rice mill in the nation begins at the neighboring KONRIKO Company Store (KONRIKO is an approximate acronym for Conrad Rice Company, coined in the 1950s). After viewing a film on the history of the Cajuns and rice planting, take a guided tour of the three-story mill, constructed of cypress in 1914. Head back to the store for complimentary coffee and samples of KONRIKO products, including the popular Wild Pecan rice, a Cajun staple developed at Louisiana State University and prized for its nutty aroma and subtle pecan flavor
A half hour southwest of New Iberia on Avery Island, the McIlhenny family produces and bottles its famous Tabasco pepper sauce, just as they have since 1868. Follow the process from the pepper plants all the way to the bottling line. Stop in at the museum to check out a host of vintage promotional items, including a 1935 sewing thimble, a copy of the sauce’s eponymous 1959 pulp fiction novel, and a 1995 Zippo lighter. Drop by the country store for a souvenir (perhaps a Tabasco bottle Christmas ornament), and sidle up to the tasting bar to sample Tabasco soda pop or ice cream drizzled with raspberry-chipotle pepper sauce. And don’t miss the 1868 Restaurant, which serves up Cajun classics such as gumbo and red beans and rice alongside a dozen varieties of Tabasco.
Avery Island is also home to a 170-acre garden and wildlife sanctuary created by Edward McIlhenny, son of Tabasco inventor Edmund McIlhenny, and opened to the public in 1935. Four miles of gravel roads wind around enormous oak trees and past lagoons filled with alligators, turtles, and wading birds. Specialty gardens feature rare palms and cacti, sixty types of bamboo, and 700 varieties of camellias, as well as the Cleveland Oak, a 300-year-old tree named in honor of the former president and measuring twenty-three feet in circumference. Other highlights include the 900-year-old Buddha surrounded by hundreds of azaleas as well as Bird City, a sprawling rookery that is home to thousands of egrets, herons, and other waterfowl
At this bakery situated in a red-brick building in the heart of tiny Jeanerette, a fifth generation of LeJeunes turns out French bread and ginger cakes using the same recipes and hands-on methods employed when the store opened for business in 1884. Follow locals through the side entrance (no one uses the front door), and pick up hot loaves of crusty bread fresh from the oven. Take notice of the large cypress desk, which has been in use since opening day and now serves as a checkout counter, and peruse dozens of browning newspaper clippings and family photos, which tell the story of this first Louisiana bakery to be placed on the National Registry of Historic Places.
One of a number of indigenous Louisiana peoples, the Chitimacha is the only tribe in the state still living on a portion of its original homeland. In 1971, it earned another distinction, becoming the first Louisiana tribe to adopt a constitution. Discover the history and artistry of the Chitimacha at this museum on their 900-acre reservation bordering the town of Charenton. Displays showcase clothing, from traditional skins to cotton designs unique to the tribe; a 500-year-old traditional dugout; and the tribe’s ten-article constitution. Perhaps the highlight of the museum is its collection of more than forty river cane baskets, fashioned by the Chitimacha in a number of shapes and styles featuring patterns of native plants and animals.
Yellow Bowl Restaurant
This restaurant a couple miles east of downtown Jeanerette began in 1927 as a stop for hungry travelers on the Greyhound bus line and continues to dish up Cajun classics. During lunch and dinner, the little butter-yellow building is packed with longtime patrons, who are happy to recommend favorite dishes. Topping almost everyone’s list are the fried crawfish tails and the crawfish bisque. Try them both by ordering the crawfish platter, which also includes a bowl of etouffee, a crawfish ball, and a serving of crawfish au gratin, the Cajun cousin of lobster mac and cheese.
The Fairfax House
A stately house constructed in 1852 in the heart of a Franklin sugar cane plantation today serves as the setting of a bed and breakfast. Large guest rooms furnished with antiques, sweeping porches overlooking tree-shaded lawns, and conversations with longtime innkeeper Cheryl Kemper are reason enough to linger. But hundreds of noteworthy structures, from antebellum mansions to Victorian cottages, in the surrounding historic district beckon. Pick up a map, get some suggestions from Cheryl, and follow the row of century-old cast-iron street lamps running down Main Street on a self-guided walking tour of the town.
International Petroleum Museum & Exposition
The undeniable centerpiece of this singular museum in Morgan City is a towering oil rig known as “Mr. Charlie.” Built in 1954, this first transportable offshore drilling rig revolutionized the oil industry and continued in operation until 1986, drilling hundreds of wells in the Gulf of Mexico. Today, Mr. Charlie serves the industry as a training center for offshore oil workers, engineers, Coast Guardsmen, and Navy Seals. It’s also a popular attraction, affording visitors the only opportunity in the world to go aboard a drilling rig. In addition to getting a behind-the-scenes look at life on the rig, guests will learn about the history and future of offshore oil drilling in Louisiana and around the world.
This article appears in the Fall/Winter 2019 issue of Southbound.