"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Cane River B&B

My name is Elizabeth Bolen and I own the Cane River B&B in Natchitoches, Louisiana. My guests come here for the Christmas Festival of Lights, an event a lot like Mardi Gras with crewes, floats and music. They also come for marriages and anniversaries or to study the history of the region – the early French settlements from Quebec, the Spanish land grant plantation houses, and the Creole migration from New Orleans.

I decorated and furnished every room differently. On the vanity table in the Southern Room I put a diary of a young Civil War bride whose husband had been sent to Vicksburg. I put a small potpourri next to it, imagining that the dried flowers might be just like those that the bride’s husband had given her, and that the scent might be like that of those she had pressed in the book. I put a silver hand mirror nearby and a comb and brush for her toilette at night. Next to the potpourri I put a photograph of a young man, an officer in the Confederate Army who could very well have been her husband. The picture was very small, and you can only see his stiff collar and a few of the brass buttons on his tunic. I covered the table with lace embroidery and next to the diary put a pen, an inkwell, and a Bible.

The Magnolia Room has a floral motif. I put silk flowers on the end tables and a large vase of gardenias touched with perfume on the dresser. I put two Victorian urns of a dozen long-stemmed roses on the mantelpiece, one red and the other white. The bedspread is a floral print, and each of the throw pillows is of a different flower. The wallpaper is a very Southern scene with a white mansion, horse-drawn carriages, live oaks, and a garden filled with phlox, asters, and roses.

The Sitting Room is in the back of the house. I imagined the same young war bride spending her afternoons there. I put a lot of old photographs on the walls, many of Civil War soldiers. I and found pictures of women who could have been her mother, aunts, and sisters and placed them on the mantelpiece. I wanted to make the room comfortable and lived-in, so I gave her a rocking chair and wicker sewing basket, a small library of poetry, extra large pillows and a mahogany bed tray painted with Southern scenes.

I came here from Washington, Georgia ten years ago. My husband had always wanted to renovate historic houses, was a good carpenter, and felt that he could easily sell them at a profit to buyers from Baton Rouge or New Orleans. When I first saw the house the walls were covered with mold, the floors chipped and scraped. Half the main bannister was missing. The filigree wrought iron railing on the balcony was rusted, and the wood flooring was stained and buckled. The house had not been lived in for years, and before that the squatters from Vermilion Parish had been simply too much trouble to evict. My husband knew that to have any chance of getting the house on the National Historical Register and to make real money from the sale, he had to restore the house to its original condition. That meant preserving the original wood, painting the interior walls as close as possible to their original color, and replacing the rotten moldings with good copies of the originals.

The very best historical houses are furnished with pieces original to the house; but most on the Register are appointed with furnishings from the period. The Historical Society gave us a book of early 19th Century Natchitoches homes. It was meant to guide us in both the renovations and the furnishings. Most of the furniture and appointments of the period were too austere for my taste. There was nothing that looked comfortable, nothing romantic. All the paintings featured in the book were of severe men and stern women sitting in a parlor across the room from each other, very chilled and distant.

The house of course had survived through many historical periods, so I felt there really was no reason why I shouldn’t decorate it in the style of a later and warmer one, like that just before the War. I imagined Confederate officers coming to court the young ladies of the house who would be waiting in the parlor, their cheeks flush from standing by the fire, their dresses flowing to the floor, and bodices cut as low as the times allowed. I furnished the parlor with high straight-backed chairs for the gentlemen and put out crystal glasses and decanters for sherry and silver services for tea and cakes with just this scene in mind.

It was the diary that inspired me to furnish the house the way I did. When I finished, there was nothing austere and forbidding about the house. It was genteel, accommodating, and welcoming.

After my husband left, I moved to the front bedroom. It has a balcony overlooking the street, and if the weather isn’t too cold at Christmas, I can step outside and watch the guests arrive. I always imagine how it must have been in the days before the War – polished black phaetons with finely-groomed horses drawing up to the gate, our gas lights lit, the door decorated with a wreath and holly berries, the Negro butler opening the door, and the master of the house greeting his guests. It would have been warm inside with fragrances of flowers, perfume, firewood and pine.

My room is at the top of the stairs across from the Southern Room. I know that many B&B owners prefer to have their quarters away from the guest rooms, but felt that would make the house too impersonal. I am very discreet and only go up to my room after the guests have gone to bed, and most don’t even know that I live upstairs.

While my room was decorated with the same care as the others, all the furnishings are my own. I have my own vanity table with the comb and brush I used as a girl. My own grandparents’ photographs are on the walls. My diary, covered in pink lace and secured with a little brass lock and key, is on my bedside table along with the books I read as a child. I created a sitting area in the sunny corner of the room like the one my mother used and put her oval Victorian mirror, her tortoise shell combs, her cut glass perfume bottles with their crystal stoppers in it. On the writing table I put my souvenirs – two tickets to the rides at the Augusta fairgrounds and one from the Atlanta Symphony.

I put newlyweds and anniversaries in the Southern Room, the one opposite mine at the top of the stairs. It was the room with the diary, it has a balcony that opens onto the street, and warm light comes in from the side windows in winter. In the warm weather we kept the French doors open especially when the magnolia tree is in bloom. Magnolia blossoms come out one by one in unexpected places – at the very top, on one of the low-hanging limbs, even in the very middle of their leaves. Even with a only a few flowers the sweet lemony scent is everywhere. Our lilac also blooms in early Spring from the old vines that were planted over a hundred years ago and now creep up to the dormer windows almost to the roof.

I pride myself on my breakfasts and my two favorites have been written up in Southern Living. One is coddled eggs with garlic cheese grits; and the other is vanilla waffles with fresh cream and strawberries. I always serve breakfasts in the formal dining room. I have all of my mother’s china, glassware, and silver displayed in a Victorian cabinet, and I use it for my breakfasts. I was told that most of my guests don’t appreciate fine china and silver, and that worse, they might get stolen; but these knives and forks had been used by my family for over 100 years, and I was not about to lock them away.

As a child I would wonder which plate I would get for dinner. They all had been hand painted with scenes from England – scenes that were not all that different from the paintings I had seen of the Old South with grand mansions, horses and carriages, and elegantly dressed women. I always hated to put food on them, and asked my mother to please not cover up the ladies or the horses.

I knew that many of my guests felt a bit uncomfortable by the formality of the dining room, the service, and my breakfasts, especially if there is only one couple at table. I often thought of taking down the portrait of John Carter, the builder of this house and relative of the Carter family of Virginia. He had come to Natchitoches in the 1825 when the city was a growing center of trade both to the Gulf and with Mexico. The Red River was still log jammed thirty miles upstream, but its flow downstream was enough to allow barge shipments of sugar cane to the Mississippi and to Baton Rouge and New Orleans. The portrait had been hanging in the dining room since we bought the house, survived through the squatter years, and withstood many more of humidity, mold, and dust before that; and it had become too much a part of my life and the life of the house to take it down.

I knew that an early 19th century house should be furnished more simply than the way I did it. Even though we have been Catholics down here for centuries, some New England Puritanism must have come down and stayed for a while. Although a simple table setting with perhaps two silver candlesticks has a certain elegance, I felt that my guests should be able to enjoy all the wonderful things I have collected. I kept the two candlesticks, but added a candelabra, a large vase of silk flowers, silver salt cellars, cut glass water pitchers, silver butter dishes, an antique tea service, and a Russian samovar.

Before my husband left he said that I was becoming too preoccupied with the house; that he never intended it to become an obsession, that it was a business pure and simple – satisfy the Historic Register Committee, decorate it with a few period pieces and one or two originals from the house, hold it for a few years, and sell it to young buyers from New Orleans; but he was completely mistaken. He never really understood me or the house. The house was never just wood planking and moldings, iron railings and pocket doors to be planed, righted, and scraped. People had always warmed themselves by the fireplaces, sat on the balconies, entertained in the parlor, made love in the bedrooms. The diary, the photographs of young soldiers, the antique chairs and furnishings recreated not only what this house was but who lived in it.

Beginning two years ago fewer and fewer guests came to the house. Perhaps it was because I had never really learned about the Internet and how to market myself; or perhaps interest in Natchitoches was waning. I never did like how the City renovated the downtown. It is spiritless and dead despite the gas lamps, the gift shops, the facelift of the historic facades. It is an artificial city now, reinvented as a tourist destination because, like many towns of the South, industry and jobs have gone. We have no university, no major hospitals.

Last year I had only two reservations for Christmas week and those were from out of state. I knew that if I didn’t get any more, I would have to close the house. Over the years my guests have had less and less interest in my efforts. Too many of them have been to Mardi Gras in New Orleans and expect the same here. Most arrive drunk and leave with little memory of their stay. My Christmas parties were talked about and written about as far away as Houston and Memphis, and I had gained a reputation as a hostess. I offered my guests mulled wine and cakes when they arrived, personally showed them to their rooms, and made a festive breakfast the next morning. I decorated each room with holly, put angels and a little manger scene with real straw on the mantelpiece, hung the Star of Bethlehem from the chandelier, and played Christmas music throughout the house. I wrapped the banisters with red ribbons and wound miniature Christmas lights around the stair posts. I put silver candlesticks at the top of the stairs and lit pine-scented candles on the landings and in the parlor.

Last year I decided to take a long-term renter, a young graduate student from a Northern university. He was studying the history of Natchitoches and in particular the owners of the town and plantation houses of the Parish. He asked if he could stay here because the house was located in the historic district and because it was one of the most important houses in the town. I was uncertain at first, not because I was concerned about the room – I had few guests, and summers were a particularly slow time – but because I was used to guests who stayed one or two nights at most. If I took the renter I would have to see him every day, hear him in the halls and in his room, and serve him meals. If he didn’t stay I would have very little income that year, and little to do in a house which was becoming very empty and quiet.

Having the renter disrupted my routine of greeting guests, showing them to their rooms, and serving them breakfast. I had to think about what to do – would it be rude if I didn’t join him for coffee? Would it be intrusive if I did? He seemed quite content to read the paper in the morning, but always looked up when I came in the room, shared an interesting headline, or told me something he had done the day before.

After a few weeks I had settled into a new routine. I eventually did have my breakfast with him and often tea in the late morning if he was working at home. Some evenings we would sit on the front porch or the upstairs balcony. All my guests liked him, especially those who had come for the history of the region. He knew more about Melrose, Oakland, and Cherokee than the people at the Historical Society, and when a guest had a particular or specialized interest in one of the houses that was not open to the public, he called the owner and arranged for a visit. He was respectful of the house and careful of the Southern Room where he was staying. Although he had rearranged the vanity table, mantelpiece, and secretary to make room for his books, he had not removed the diary, the comb and brush, or any of my personal items.

“Jacob Carpenter, the second owner of this house, never owned slaves”, he said one day at breakfast, “but he traded in them. He would buy slaves from the plantation owners of this Parish and sell them to those who were settling in the Mississippi Delta. He saw the weakness in the cotton market here once the Red River changed course, and made a profit by buying low and selling high. Slaves on small plantations like those in Natchitoches Parish had it relatively easy, but once they were sold to the big Mississippi lands, it was only cotton picking, plowing, and clearing cypress swamps.

“Once the War started he became a profiteer, selling weapons, gold, and opium to both sides. He financed raids on Confederate, Union, French, Spanish, and English ships sailing the Gulf, and sent contraband up Bayou Lafourche to the Southerners, and along the Atlantic Coast to the North – just like the pirates Lafitte.”

The stories refashioned the images I had of the occupants of the house. Nothing I heard should have changed them – the elegance, the decorum, or the formality – but I had difficulty fitting the real characters into the scenes I had of Christmas, debutante balls, and sophistication. It wasn’t that I was so na├»ve that I didn’t know about the War or was ignorant about Southern history or never imagined that people like this existed. I just had never envisioned them in my house.

“During Reconstruction Carpenter made thousands. Because he had lined the pockets of so many influential Northerners in his contraband days, he was treated well after the War. He got grants from the Freedman’s Bureau to help freed slaves buy land or tenant farms; but took a quarter of those grants for himself and the rest to bribe Union officials who ran the program. He bought up plantations that had gone into debt during the war, rode his tenant farmers like slaves, and made a greater return than any planter before the War.”

My renter’s university organized a seminar on Louisiana history focusing on the Natchitoches region; and his colleagues stayed at my B&B. For three days I overheard discussions about the period when Jim Crow laws were enforced and there was a hardening of anti-Negro sentiment and when the segregationist movement really began. The years that were being discussed were Victorian – the period pictured on my mother’s china and my favorite. I had decorated the parlor with tassled lamps, a mahogany carved love seat, and Japanese prints. In front of the fireplace I had placed a petit point fire screen and Victorian crystal, trays, and tables throughout the house.

“Elihu Fowlkes, the next owner of the house held political meetings here, and there was nothing genteel or formal about them. He was a latter day Restorationist; and wanted to restore the legitimacy of the Confederacy, reinstitute slavery, and repeal all Unionist laws and regulations”.

Over the period that my renter was with me the house gradually changed. At first the changes were small – the pantry was full, there were newspapers in the study, books left in the parlor. The house smelled differently. The bottles of bath oil, scented soaps, and body lotion I put in the bathrooms were never opened. The floral sachets and potpourris in the bedrooms had lost their strength. I turned off the piped music when he was working; then turned it off entirely. There were more people in the house. Not only were there colleagues and associates from the university; but also others who had heard that Natchitoches – and the house – were gaining a reputation as an informal center for regional history and had come to visit. Christmas came and went without any elaborate preparations, and thanks to my renter all rooms were filled with his colleagues and friends. The week passed quickly and happily with a big Christmas dinner and an exchange of simple gifts.

After New Year’s the renter began work on the remaining periods of Natchitoches history. He told me how the city grew, declined, and grew again. Most of the owners of the house were not like Carpenter and Fowlkes. Aiken Smith was a banker who attracted investment from New Orleans and built most of the civic buildings in the town. Robert Dawkins built the first sawmill and helped to organize the logging industry. Franklin Owens was a cattle rancher from Texas who opened acres of range land to the west.

More than anything my renter brought a Northerner’s perspective to my recollections of growing up in the South. What I remember as calm and order, he described as quiet repression. History is on his side because the peace and innocence of my childhood were shaken and never righted; but like all the images I have of the past, the ones I hold of those years in Georgia, are hard to dispel. I am not sure why I should abandon them, even if I could. My renter has given me perspective, that’s all.

My renter left in the late Spring after a year. I don’t know how to describe our relationship. We were certainly more than friends but never lovers. I was almost old enough to be his mother, but not quite; and although I was solicitous of him, he taught me more than a son should teach a mother. In any event he did leave, and I have returned to my previous life; but I have not been able to go back to my old routines. I have had no desire to; and in fact the thought of putting the house back together the way it was depressing. Nothing about the house really changed while he was here – the furniture, lamps, portraits, and carpets remained where they were. Only the scented soaps, silk flowers, wreaths, electric candles, throw pillows, and potpourris have gone. “Knick-knacks” I overheard a guest say perhaps a bit unkindly. The unvarnished history I heard from my renter persuaded me that the house could and should stand on its own; and I began to get rid of everything but my best antiques. My conviction that the house was never of one period but many never changed, and the antebellum and Victorian pieces remained together.

If it were up to me I would accept only special guests like my renter; but I am not wealthy and do not have the luxury of choice. Unless I become more active with the Tourist Association, more literate with the computer, more aggressive with placements in Southern Living and Travel I will have fewer and fewer guests.

I have only one room filled now – an older couple on a trip through the South. They will travel to Natchez from here, then down to the Gulf Coast. They read all the books in the house on Natchitoches, visit the plantations along the River during the day, have drinks on the balcony, and go out for an early dinner. They are the kind of people who would have enjoyed the company of my renter.

They told me that after Natchez they will stay in Laurel in a B&B on the park near the Museum of American Art. I have visited Laurel and know the owner. Her guests are all like the Northern couple, quite happy to walk through the park, look at the historic homes in the neighborhood, and visit the museum. She has a big sunroom which overlooks the park, her garden, and the live oak tree in the yard. She and her husband have redone the kitchen, and now it is bright and practical. When I was there all her grandchildren had come to visit, and she was also hosting a meeting of the arts committee.

There are no “guest rooms” in her house unless there are guests; otherwise they are for her daughter and grandchildren or for her friends who come to visit. There is no formal dining room, and she has two Great Danes the children try to ride.

I think I could be very much at home in Laurel or perhaps more in Natchez or Vicksburg. Although Natchez has its Spring Pilgrimage, people come throughout the year to see the historic houses. In Vicksburg the B&Bs are never empty. Although we lived through the War, it is Northerners who never seem to lose interest. They know far more about slavery, Reconstruction, and the War itself than we ever have; but we live it and always have since the last shot was fired. There is a Confederate soldier’s statue in every town square. There are pictures of our grandfathers on the wall; the colored parts of town are no different from sharecropper days. We know the fields where Yankee soldiers slept; the houses they commandeered, the routes they took out of town. You can see that I haven’t entirely learned my lesson. I guess there will always be a part of me that likes the idea of a past that never quite was; and I suppose there’s nothing wrong with that.

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