Inger and Jeff Latreille
A Big Dose of the South
~Sunday, December 27, 2020~
We spent a lovely day at the Melrose Plantation also nicknamed the Yucca Plantation by long time writer and resident Francois Mignon (he apparently liked to nickname every building on the property). This plantation is situated beautifully next to the Cane River and acres and acres of pecan groves.
I didn’t realize pecan trees can get that huge. When we arrived, we immediately checked into the final tour of the day at 3:15. Just under the gun. There were exactly 2 spots left, and with our names on them.
The history of the property begins with Louis Metoyer buying the property back in 1790. In time, an interesting story unfolded. Louis’ son, French merchant Claude Metoyer leased a 26-year old slave, Marie Coin-Coin, where a romance ensued over a 19 year period and produced 10 children. Claude eventually purchased Marie and their children withdrawing them from slavery. Metoyer also gave Marie a parcel of land. With all that Marie and their children put into the property agriculturally, and the land grants that her children were given, her fortune grew. One of her sons, Louis Metoyer was deeded a particularly large Spanish land grant; 911 acres of land which has become the precious jewel known as Melrose Plantation. Louis began construction in 1815 on 3 structures...the Yucca house, the African House and a barn. Construction on the Big House began in 1832, but sadly he passed away that same year, leaving his son to finish the project. His son also passed away about 5 years later with no other inheritors. The estate at the time was worth around $100,000 upon his death. It was his cousin, Theophile Metoyer who purchased the property but due to the poor handling of his money affairs, he eventually went broke, leaving him to sell off various properties he owned to pay off creditors. Sadly, one of the properties was Melrose, sold for a mere $8,500 to their neighbors, the Herzog family. Isn’t that just devastating, after all of the painstaking work the Metoyer family put into it, not one family member was connected with the property ever again.
Unfortunately, the big house on the property succumbed to the devastating effects of the Civil War and was not rebuilt again until 1890. The new owners primary source of income was from cotton until the Civil War came literally knocking on the door in 1863/1864. After the war and subsequent rebuilding, the “old South” would never be the same. However, Fanny Herzog established a school of formal education for former slaves on the Melrose property, after the Union occupation. The Herzog family farmed at the estate until 1881, selling Melrose to a New Orleans businessman who only owned the property for 3 years before selling it to Joseph Henry. The Henry era lasted the longest (nearly 100 years). It was Henry who named the property “Melrose” from the poem “Melrose Abby”. When Joseph passed away, his son, John and John’s wife Cammie, bought the property from their heirs, which ignited the most sensational period at the plantation. Cammie was quite a woman, raising 8 children, restoring and expanding many of the buildings on the property. She also wove her own fabric, sewing clothes for her entire family, and she was an avid scrapbooker. In her lifetime she had put together a collection of 200 personal scrapbooks, which are now housed at Northwestern University in Louisiana. Even after her husband’s sudden death in 1918, Cammie continued on the agriculture of the plantation, but also invited numerous artists, craftsmen and writers like Lyle Saxon (who wrote “Children of Strangers”), to Melrose in the hopes of establishing a creative retreat. Most only stayed for a few weeks at a time, except one….Francois Mignon (real name Frank Mineah), who claimed he was a Frenchman, but was actually from New York. Frank (a.k.a. Francois), lived on the property for 30 years producing the Plantation Memos about plantation life from 1750 to 1970.
While Cammie’s artist retreat flourished, she also employed much help on the property. One was a woman named Clementine Hunter. While Clementine worked as a cook on the property, it was during the time of the artist’s retreat that she found some old discarded paints and brushes left by a guest artist. Illiterate, she began expressing herself through her paintings, depicting what life was like on the plantation. With encouragement from the guest artists/writers who quickly spread the word about Clementine’s talent, it didn’t take long for Clementine to earn her title as the most recognized African American folk artist in the United States.
Jeff and I felt truly blessed to be able to walk through her modest home on the property and see her original and most famous work…..The African House Murals. It’s hard to imagine that she worked on the plantation for 50 years before ever picking up a paintbrush and finding her passion. In all of her 101 years, she only left the plantation 3 times…..twice for eye surgery, and the third time for her 100th birthday celebration.
We were also very fortunate to have such a great tour guide. You could tell Nancy was very passionate about Melrose and even had first hand stories to share with us, of the days her physician father would make house calls to the plantation while young Nancy tagged along, getting into all sorts of mischief.
We found the story of this special place so intriguing since we know very little about the “Old South”. I was completely immersed as you can tell. Maybe I’m making up for all the times I wasn’t paying attention in my history classes. 😉I’m happy to report that I’m paying attention now.
After the Melrose tour, it was recommended by Nancy to visit St. Augustine Church.
This church is the first Catholic church to be built and independently financed by African Americans for their express use. And it is also the final resting place of both Clementine Hunter and her advocate, Francois Mignon. Before heading home, we took a walk along the Cane River with Sadie and captured another beautiful sunset.