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  • Ellen Byron

Secrets of Louisiana's Legendary River Road: An Interview with author and expert Mary Ann Sternb

On a recent trip to Louisiana's River Road , I learned some fascinating details about plantation life and saw how the tours have adapted to changing times and attitudes. But more on that in a future post. My tour bible whenever I explore this intriguing area is Mary Ann Sternberg's wonderful guide, Along the River Road: Past and Present on Louisiana's Historic Byway. I also love her recent book, River Road Rambler: A Curious Traveler Along Louisiana's Historic Byway. The first book maps out a a fun-to-read yet remarkably detailed trip up and down the east and west banks of the Missisippi. The second is a collection of essays focused on particularly unique sites in the area, some accessible to us looky-loos, others not. Either way, both are wonderful reads.

I was lucky enough to interview Ms. Sternberg about her books and fascination with this historic part of the country. She even shares some of her favorite local restaurants with me.

What inspired your fascination with the River Road? I’ve lived in either New Orleans or Baton Rouge for my whole life with the exception of 4 years away at college. In New Orleans one of the ways to entertain oneself or out of town visitors was to tour the River Road plantations. In the late ‘80s I was writing a tour guide to Louisiana and was talking to a man on the River Road about the area. He told me out all kinds of sites/attractions/etc. nearby the people who only see plantations open to the public miss all together. Since I didn’t know about them, this led me to look for a book that an area resident or a visitor could use to see the River Road broadly, not just as an antebellum plantation parade. Such a book didn’t exist…so I wrote it, in the hope that people would appreciate this 100-mile corridor along both banks of the Mississippi for its 300+years of history and its incredibly rich and colorful culture derived from Native Americans, French, Spanish, British, slaves, free people of Color, Islenos, and many more. It’s much more than the wonderful antebellum mansions open to the public—many others not open with stories to tell; small local museums; atmospheric churches and cemeteries; so many aspects regarding life along the river; the historic sugar industry; legends and lore—and more.

What plantations have been lost? Tezcuco burned, Germania became overgrown and disappeared…Ashland/Belle Helene is being saved by Shell but isn’t open to the public.

Which have been saved, and how was that managed? Whitney has been recently opened as a museum of slavery—bought by a New Orleanian with deep pockets who wanted to create this memorial. The owners of Laura have moved Columbia Plantation (never open to the public) upriver and are renovating it to its mid-19th century architecture. Evergreen was opened to the public—the only plantation with all of its original buildings including 22 slave cabins. (Evergreen Plantation pictured below.)

What inspired you to write River Road Rambler? After I’d spent so much time traveling the river, researching in libraries, archives, and museums, and riding the road with locals, it occurred to me that there were some places and attractions that are unique, or underappreciated. So I decided to research more about them and tell their stories. It was great fun, I learned a lot in the process, and people seem to really appreciate the stories.

Besides the plantations, what do you consider highlights of the River Road? The small, local museums are wonderful in that they each offer a slice of River Road life. The old cemeteries are fun—lots of old gravestones and mausoleums. I love everything about the river. And I can visit the River Road for several hours and feel like I’m far away from home, even though I may be less than an hour from my door.

What are your favorite local eateries in the area? Latil’s Landing at Houmas House is the best for elegance; B&C Seafood Market (the B&C "chef" pictured at left) and Hymel’s are great local holes in the wall with atmosphere and good food. The restaurant at Oak Alley is very nice. And Nobile’s in Lutcher, in a century-old store building, is a fun place. I’ve actually never had bad food anywhere, including a gas station that had a most delicious fried oyster po-boy.

What effect did Hurricane Katrina have on the area? It killed tourism out of New Orleans which hurt the economy some. And there was a good bit of physical damage just as there was across a huge sweep of south Louisiana, including Baton Rouge. New Orleans dramatically flooded because the canal walls collapsed and inundated the city. But the winds were powerful everywhere.

If visitors only have one day for the Road, what itinerary would you recommend? With only one day, it would depend on whether they were traveling upriver from New Orleans or downriver from Baton Rouge. A better idea is to think weekend—spend a couple night and go in both directions, on both banks of the river, depending on what one is interested in.

Is there anything else that you’d like to share with readers? Like perhaps a “best-kept secret” of the Road? The best kept secret of the River Road is that, if you like history and culture and intense local color, the River Road will be a great adventure.

You can take a look at all of Mary Ann's books here. (Just highlight and click on the link):

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