St. Mary Parish Spotlight
11/18/2014 03:56PM ● Published by Aimee Cormier
Gallery: St. Mary Parish Spotlight [10 Images] Click any image to expand.
By Shanna Perkins • Photos by Cajun Coast Visitors & Convention Bureau
St. Mary Parish is beautiful and yes, it is on the bayou, but it is so much more than just another beautiful place on the bayou. “We’re a microcosm of Louisiana,” says Carrie Stansbury, Executive Director of Cajun Coast Visitors and Convention Bureau. “We have swamp tours, historic homes, two Main Streets, casinos, an amazing golf course, good food, interesting museums, a scenic byway and great hospitality.”
Walk Back In Time – History of St. Mary Parish
St. Mary is so saturated with history that pieces of it can be found in every corner of the parish, and no two pieces of its story are the same. The Louisiana State Museum Wedell-Williams Aviation & Cypress Sawmill Museum, 118 Cotton Road, Patterson, offers a look back into the dynamic and innovative past of the Parish.
The Cypress Sawmill Exhibit allows you to explore the humble origins of the industry that was such an essential part of the Parish’s founding. Drift through immense artifacts like cypress boats and a steam engine or examine primitive tools that more closely resemble torture devices. Look through the hollow center of a mammoth cypress tree older than the United States. Photographs, films and maps are available to accurately convey the stories of the sawmills.
Go from artifacts to avant-garde as you cross into the newly opened Handcrafted Treasures From The Louisiana Crafts Guild art exhibit. “A basket begins with a tiny coil called a worm. From this wee beginning an adventure unfolds,” Cynthia Killgore’s quote is painted on the wall and serves as an allegory for the museum itself. The artistic adventure showcases jewelry, paintings, sculptures and other eclectic art, all created by local artists. The pieces run the gamut from classic to contemporary, yet share a common influence – Louisiana.
As you follow the museum’s trail to the last display, set your sights high. The Wedell-Williams Aviation Exhibit tells the high-flying story of Harry Williams and Jimmy Wedell. It’s a story of hardship, risk, silver screen starlets, millionaires, success and tragedy. The Williams-Wedell legacy played a definitive role in the development of speed aviation. The exhibit pays honor to the local legends with replicas of their famous planes. Other significant aircraft and memorabilia are displayed to properly paint the picture of the golden age of air racing.
While taking in the parish’s history, stop and say hello to “Mr. Charlie.” It, not he, was the first submersible drilling rig used in offshore production and has since been retired to the International Petroleum Museum and Exposition or the “Rig Museum,” 111 First St., Morgan City. “Mr. Charlie” still serves as a vital part of the offshore industry; the facility is used as a training site. A tour of the museum offers a sneak peek at life offshore.
If you’re looking for an indigenous experience, set your GPS to 3289 Chitimacha Trail, Charenton. The Chitimacha Museum showcases the heritage of South Louisiana’s original inhabitants. “The Chitimacha Native Americans still live on indigenous land in St. Mary Parish,” explains Stansbury. “They were once thought to be extinct. They’re reclaiming their language, which I think is pretty wonderful.”
Exhibits give an in-depth look at early Chitimacha lifestyles and customs. You can also learn about how the self-governing tribe exists today within the Sovereign Nation of the Chitimacha. The tribe is known for some of the finest basket weaving skills in North America and they still practice and display this art.
Down the Bayou – Outdoor Adventures
It’s possible that St. Mary’s residents exude such laissez faire because the parish is surrounded by so many waterways they’re practically island natives. The surplus of swamps ensures there is never a shortage of ways to enjoy the water.
“Although I’m biased, I think the basin in St. Mary Parish is the most beautiful,” gushes Stansbury. Locals and visitors alike can enjoy saltwater, freshwater and offshore fishing, sometimes all in one day.”
The Atchafalaya National Heritage Area, that’s “uh˙CHA˙fuh˙lie˙uh,” has been referred to as “America’s Foreign Country.” Congress designated it as an area where an abundance of natural, cultural and historic resources create a nationally valued landscape. How you explore the rural Riviera is entirely up to you. As the locals will likely ask, “Whatcha’ feel like doing?”
If kayaking and canoeing is your thing, you can paddle down one of the 12 trails of the Atchafalaya Basin Swamp. While traversing the 9,028-acre refuge, you’ll sail under cypress tress dripping with Spanish moss, view a bounty of birds and wildlife and experience the region National Geographic described as “hauntingly beautiful land.”
Explore the black waters of the Basin on board Cajun Jack’s Swamp Tours, 118 Main St., Patterson. The Cajun conquistador takes guests on a 2.5-hour tour deep into the Delta to places “where only a Cajun can find his way out.” If reeling in reds is on your agenda, you can customize a charter trip with the experienced guides at Blu Rebel Charters, 7209 Highway 182, Morgan City or Stillwater Outfitters, 169 Hammock Lane, Cypremort Point. For the experienced anglers and explorers, you can rent a houseboat, day boat, kayak or canoe from Cajun Houseboats & Rentals, Inc., 1201 Brashear Ave., Morgan City. You don’t have to choose just one adventure, spend the weekend at Cypremort Point State Park, 306 Beach Lane, Cypremort Point, and try them all out.
Brownell Memorial Park & Carillon Tower, 3359 Highway 70, Morgan City, is a 9.5-acre park that merges the area’s wild beauty with its natural tranquility. Sit on one of the benches in the park and watch Lake Palourde lap at the shore. As you walk down the bell tower path, you’ll be in the company of native birds and untouched, lush greenery.
“Visitors like to come here to relax,” says Mrs. Virgie, who isn’t sure of her title, but keeps things in line around the park. “It’s very quiet, this place. They like to sit by the water. If you sit by the water you can think a lot.”
Visiting Brownell Memorial Park & Carillon Tower is like being inside of a swamp-side music box. The magic of the park is at the center of the bell tower path. Rising 106 feet out of the untamed area is the stark white Carillon Tower. It houses one of the largest and most immaculate cast-bell carillons in existence. There are 61 bronze bells that were cast in Holland. The bells range in size from 18 – 4,730 pounds. The bells play every 15 minutes and will make you wonder how something so grand can sound so delicate.
Down on Main Street, Franklin
“One of the prettiest in Louisiana, all cool and green and white with old homes standing back on smooth green lawns,” is how famed New Orleans writer Lyle Saxon once described St. Mary’s Parish seat, Franklin. The city remains awash in charm with its signature white lampposts running through the center of Main Street.
As alluring as historic downtown Franklin is, over time the livelihood dwindled. There is a revival of interest happening in the downtown area thanks to boutiques like Chic & Shabby Collections, 716 Main St. Franklin.
“I had been thinking about opening a business for about a year or so,” recalls owner Betty Veeder. “We needed something going on down here. Plus, I had an empty building. So, I said, ‘This is it. It’s now or never.’”
Tonya Steil, owner of Giggles and Bows gift shop, reopened her store in Chic & Shabby Collections and is thrilled with the excitement local businesses are bringing back to Main Street.
“Main Street was dead. There was nothing here and we were all getting really upset,” Steil reflects. “And Betty and a group of us decided to get on the Main Street design committee. That was the first step. It’s created a new interest in Main Street and downtown. People are going to these businesses and they’re going to the Main Street Café. Betty has been a little spark for Main Street.”
The store gives local vendors and artists an opportunity to promote and sell their items. The selection of items is so wide it makes Chic & Shabby Collections a one-stop shop for gifts and collectables. Everything from furniture, antiques, original art, handmade jewelry, homemade jellies and pralines and just about anything else you can imagine is available there.
“I have to walk around every morning when I get here because people come in at night and put things in,” Steil says of the ever-expanding selection. “We never know when we come in what else is going to be here. It’s fabulous.”
As you stroll through Main Street, stop by Todd Art Gallery, 700 Main St., and admire the stunning work of photographer Francis Todd who says he believes Louisiana is the best place in the world, and his work proves that it just might be. Visit establishments which are a hodge-podge of old and new, like Texada’s Jewelry and Gifts, Merle Norman Cosmetics, Classic Accent Gifts, S’il Vous Plait and Four Seasons. End your long day of shopping and exploring with a relaxing and rejuvenating spa treatment at Argus Spa, 521 Main St.
Franklin has more than 420 properties listed on the National Register of Historic Places. You can view 34 of them on a walking or driving tour of Franklin. The parish is blessed with Greek revivals from the 1800s, Antebellum and plantation homes. Estates like Grevemberg House, 407 Sterling Road, Oaklawn Manor, 3296 E. Oaklawn Drive, and The Fairfax House, 99 Main St., are so southern and drenched in history and opulence that you can practically smell the mint juleps on the breath of the ghosts who are surely near by.
The rust riddled and weather worn Long-Allen Bridge is constantly in view from downtown Morgan City, watching over the town like the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg in The Great Gatsby. Sandwiched in between Front Street and the Atchafalaya is the Great Wall. The 21-foot tall concrete, mural masked floodwall beckons tourists and locals to climb on top and walk along the river to watch the water traffic of ships docking and barges floating by.
Looking down Morgan City’s Front Street, you’ll see the normal markings of a historic downtown area – murals hailing their legendary seafood industry, flags proclaiming accolades and events, hardware stores and antique shops. You’ll also see modern establishments that speak to Morgan City as much as its history does. There’s Wildflower Boutique, 702 Front St., carrying the most current trends in women’s fashion. Up the street is the Artists Guild Unlimited Everett Street Gallery, 201 Everett St. The gallery serves as a means of promoting humanities and is a cultural hub for honoring artists and creativity. And then there’s Café Jo Jo s, but that’s another topic.
Gumbo Ya Ya – Where to Eat
Back to where we left off, Café Jo Jo’s, 201 Everett St. Chef Brian Blanchard opened the restaurant, which is named after his mother, in an old bank building in downtown Morgan City. His Cajun and Italian ancestry inspires his award winning dishes. The restaurant’s dark, refined atmosphere is in perfect juxtaposition with the port dock it mirrors. Café Jo Jo’s has an impeccably stocked bar and a staff who knows how to make and pour a proper drink. While sipping your cocktail and browsing the menu, you’ll be served fresh baked bread. Appetizers include items like Eggplant Jo Ann, fried eggplant topped with shrimp and crawfish and bathed in roasted peppers and cheddar cheese cream sauce or Louisiana Jumbo Lump Crabcake, that requires no explanation. Entrees include traditional and Cajun fusion pastas, fresh seafood, veal prepared five ways and filets stuffed with Italian cheese and seafood filling, swimming in a Cognac cream sauce.
Across town you can have another delicious experience in an atmosphere that is the complete antithesis of Café Jojo’s. Atchafalaya Café, 7310 State Highway 182, Morgan City, is a down-home diner where Cajun music plays, children run around and the televisions show sports and soap operas.
“Well, we originally opened downtown because we’re form New Orleans and you couldn’t get a descent roast beef po’boy on real French bread,” explains Bella Smith who is part owner with her husband Johnny. “So, that was our original motive.”
If you order the roast beef sandwich, prior to its arrival the waitress will warn you, “Just to give you a heads up. It’s good, but it’s a sloppy sandwich,” as she hands you a heap of napkins, all of which you will use. The savory roast beef rests on two cushiony soft pieces of “real French bread” and is served with your choice of French fries, sweet potato fries or onion rings.
“We kind of morphed,” admits Miller. “We really just wanted to be this little po’boy shop downtown and we kind of just started adding to the menu and adapting to the community and the clientele.”
According to their menu the clientele enjoys gator kickers, Atchafalaya chicken salads, seafood platters, home-style plate lunches, poboys, bayou pasta and bread pudding. But then again, who doesn’t?
Wherever you are in St. Mary, you’ll find somewhere serving delicious Cajun food and fresh seafood. Try Scully’s Cajun Seafood, 3141 Highway 70, Morgan City; Cajun’s Seafood Restaurant, 1416 Northwest Blvd., Franklin; Le Cypress Vue Bayou Side, 103 Wilson St., Franklin or Landry’s Seafood and Steakhouse, 20371 Highway 90 Frontage Road, Jeanerette. It doesn’t have to be all shrimp and roux in St. Mary, which is proven by restaurants like Latin Corner, 201 Railroad Ave., Morgan City; Meche’s Donuts & Grill, 7259 Highway 182, Morgan City; Rita Mae’s Kitchen, 711 Federal Ave., Morgan City; C&M Sweets and Treats, 400 Catherine St., Patterson; Annie Mae’s Restaurant & Pastries, 1411, Barrow Street, Franklin and A Little Taste of Heaven, 211 Clark Road, Morgan City.
Laissez Le Bon Temps Rouler – Festival Fun
The Louisiana Shrimp & Petroleum Festival has been deemed as the celebration with the “Most Unusual Festival Named” and was Festival of the Year, Division III in 2006 and 2007. The festival began 70 years ago when a diminutive boat docked at the port of Morgan City and Berwick and unleashed a flood of jumbo shrimp, caught in the deepest waters ever traversed by a small boat. The original event honored the area’s hunters, trappers, fisherman, dockworkers and oystermen.
“Our festival is the oldest chartered harvest festival in the state of Louisiana,” says Louisiana Shrimp and Petroleum Festival President Nathalie D. Weber. “We celebrate the seafood and petroleum industries emphasizing the unique way in which these two seemingly different industries work hand-in-hand culturally and environmentally in our area.”
Along the way, it evolved into a four-day festival, held on Labor Day weekend, celebrating the local shrimp and petroleum industries. People come from far and wide to experience the food and the music. Vendors are stationed all over town, serving home-style Cajun cuisine. You can dine, of course, on shrimp, jambalaya, fried alligator, homemade burgers, boudin, seafood pistolettes and other bayou bites. The Shrimp and Petroleum Festival is renowned for its unique blend of live music. Zydeco, Cajun, Country and Pop artists take the stage to deliver a diverse soundtrack so that festivalgoers can dine and dance their way through the weekend.
If spending so much time in the bayou has you feeling a little water logged, St. Mary has plenty of excitement on dry land. Amelia Belle Casino, 500 Lake Palourde Road, Amelia, and Cypress Bayou Casino Hotel, 832 Martin Luther King Road, Charenton, go all-in when it comes to entertainment. Stay in one of their 102 contemporary rooms and luxury suites or set up shop in their RV Park. As they say, “There’s No Place To Play Like Cypress Bayou.” The game floor boasts some 1,300 games including slots, table games, bingo and a poker room. The stages at ROX and the Pavilion have hosted musical legends from Lionel Riche, Wayne Newton and Faith Hill to local favorites like Jamie Bergreon, Travis Matte and Wayne Toups.
The restaurants within Cypress Bayou have been called some of “the finest in Acadiana.” There’s Mr. Lester’s Steakhouse where portion control takes a kick in the teeth, the upscale Asian fusion restaurant RIKRAK, Café Bayou where you can get anything you’re in the mood for, Loco Mexican Grill, famous for their LOCO Rita, and Fresh for late-night cravings and coffee on the go.
If golf is your game, Golfweek listed the Atchafalaya Golf Course at Idlewild, 400 Cotton Road, as one of the top 50 courses in the U.S. The beauty of the Atchafalaya Basin surrounds the challenging championship course. When you work up a hunger after a few rounds, the Atchafalaya Restaurant Clubhouse overlooks the course and has a menu packed with Cajun favorites and has been called “one of the top restaurants in the area,” by New Orleans City Business Magazine.
St. Mary’s visitor center is a wealth of history with a touch of progression, just like the parish itself. The staff at the newly opened Cajun Coast Visitors and Convention Bureau, 900 Dr. Martin Luther King Blvd., Morgan City, love nothing more than helping locals and visitors alike design the perfect Louisiana experience.
The new Welcome Center is 15,000 sq. ft. surrounded by picturesque swamp scenery, perfect for photo ops. Future plans for Cajun Coast include interpretive displays that will have information on the history of St. Mary Parish, festivals, indigenous animals and other colorful aspects of the region’s culture.