My first stop on a recent visit to Pointe Coupee Parish was to see the author of this gorgeous new book, my good friend Randy Harelson. He and his partner, architect Richard Gibbs, had just finished a major renovation of a classic Creole house set on an acre of lawn above the False River (shown above and on page 96). I nearly cried when I pulled up, it was so beautifully framed by ancient magnolias dwarfing the facade, wrapped with airy porches and classical columns, all its shutters and French doors flung open to breezes off the water. Freshly planted satsuma trees flanked the front walk. Hollywood couldn’t dream up a more idealized vision of the Southern house than this one, I thought.
For as long as I’ve known him, Randy has been great steward of historic houses and landscapes. In New Roads and Old Rivers, he shares an awe and reverence for his native land, one of the oldest settlements in the Mississippi Valley, dating to the 1720s. Historian Brian Costello brought a lifetime of research to the project, and photographer Richard Sexton, whom I’ve also known for years, captures the Parish’s timeless beauty and vitality, along with some haunting decay. This is a must-read for appreciating how the great Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers continue to shape and define Louisiana’s distinct history, culture, and sense of place.
Scroll down for a sneak preview of some of Randy’s favorite photos and stories from the book.
French doors in the dining room of Wickliffe, circa 1820, open to a view across a wide lawn to the old riverbed abandoned by the Mississippi River when it changed its course and cut off False River in the early 1700s.
The front porch stretches fully across this classic Creole cottage. Paint scrapings indicate that red window sash and green shutters adorned this house long ago. Agave or century plants, popular in the 1800s, ornament the front yard. A line of old-fashioned chinaberry trees adds charm to the side of the house.
The broken-gable roof is characteristic of the classic cottage form in Pointe Coupee during the 19th century. Two centuries ago, almost every roof in the parish was sheathed in wood shingles or shakes.
Labatut House sits just over the levee on the edge of the Mississippi River. Behind the house are the deep agricultural fields, the French long lots, which give Pointe Coupee its sense of immense space and openness.
When it was built around 1830, the lovely Labatut House sat far back from the Mississippi with an allée of live oaks leading from the river to the house. Over the years the course of the river moved closer and closer, taking the trees, and eventually requiring the protective levee and river road to transect the front yard of the house.
Mist rises from the surface of False River early on a spring morning. False River is a lake about 16 miles long in roughly the shape of a horseshoe. Before 1700 it was a 22-mile-long meander bend of the Mississippi River. Once the river changed its course, it began to flow past the old channel, and the river became a lake. Within a few years the channel at either end of the lake began to fill with silt and debris. Areas of the chenal (channel) were kept open for water access. For a long time plantations on False River used the lake and the chenals to transport their produce to the Mississippi. This process required portage, carrying the product across dry ground from the edge of the lake to the river.
Today the lake is primarily recreational. Boats with or without water skiers share the lake with fishermen, kayakers, and folks enjoying the view from the dock. About 20 feet deep generally, False River reaches depths of 65 feet in the middle. Near the ends, “the flats” are shallow enough to walk across. Fishermen catch bass, bream, and catfish as a rule.
North Bend is an early Creole raised plantation home owned by Julien Poydras from 1800 to 1824. New, it was four rooms wide on both floors, with broad galleries (porches) front and back. About 1850 it was made larger with one more room added to each floor on the western end. Typical of French houses, there were no interior halls or stairs. Circulation was from room to room or on the outdoor galleries.
The old cypress pieux fence is often seen enclosing Pointe Coupee gardens. True to the period of the house, this one encloses a parterre garden accented by crape myrtle, camellia, sago palm, and banana. In the nineteenth century the cypress fence would have kept animals out of the homegrown vegetables, herbs, and flowers.
To pre-order New Roads and Old Rivers, visit LSU Press.