Sternberg sets off down the River Road once again

RIVER ROAD RAMBLER

By Mary Ann Sternberg

LSU Press, $24.95 hardcover, electronic versions available

There must not be a pothole in River Road (U.S. 61) between New Orleans and Baton Rouge that Mary Ann Sternberg hasn’t tested. Her venerated Along the River Road, Past and Present on Louisiana’s Historic Byway is in its 3rd edition (also just out from LSU Press). The scenic River Road is dotted with antebellum plantations, quaint towns, quirky attractions and out-of-the-way eateries. It’s steeped in Mississippi River lore and the people are friendly and often colorful, proud of their ethnic backgrounds. No wonder the area has been a magnet for history lovers, writers, photographers and casual meanderers. Sternberg is a bit of each.

Along the River Road is a detailed travelogue, including maps, directions, etc.

It might sound heretical, but River Road Rambler is better than Along the River Road. It’s very short — 138 pages — and is a first-person narrative of some of Sternberg’s favorite sites along the River River Road. It’s like she took the cream off the top of the bigger book and put it all in this delicious small volume.

From a scaled-down replica of the Lourdes grotto in St. Michael’s Church in Convent to a whole company town preserved in the Colonial Sugars Historic District in Gramercy, Sternberg offers her own unfiltered impressions of what’s best along River Road. She was charmed by the Lourdes replica, “Where else, my friend asked, would they have created a massive rock wall made of bagasse clinkers? And where else would the unseen support for the arch above the altar have been formed using an inverted sugar kettle — one of those broad, open metal cauldrons that were critical in nineteenth-century sugar processing and now decorate so many Louisiana gardens? And when else will you see an altar totally studded with bright, pearlized clam shells from the river that are nailed in place to create the effect of an oddly textured mosaic?

“The answer, of course, was nowhere else. This was a religious site uniquely and richly River Road.”

Sternberg knows that as much as we love such unique places, there’s no guarantee the they will be preserved. She writes eloquently of the plantation that once stood at Conrad Point on the River Road “just south of Baton Rouge.” A home of great elegance and beauty once stood there, The Cottage Plantation, until it was claimed by fire in 1960, and “only the prominent verticals of brick chimneys and columns finally remained.”

Gone too is the garden of Valcour Aime, who wanted to build “an English garden with Chinese influences” along the River Road near Oak Alley Plantation in the 1840s. “The resulting landscape was unlike any other American garden of the period. It was enclosed with a high brick wall lined with fragrant shrubs. A massive iron entryway from River Road opened onto a broad shell driveway leading to the house, which was crisscrossed by other smaller drives. Discrete gardens and sweeps of lawn had been created to appear informal and natural. Interspersed throughout were water features — a manmade stream and ponds fed by water pumped from the Mississippi — and follies such as a small mountain, a grotto, a fortress, and a pagoda.” Sternberg got a guide and tramped through the overgrown remains of the garden, finding only traces of the lost wonder. Wisely, she concludes, “Despite the ravages of nature and man over a century and half, this property still bearing Aime’s imprint is honored best as its present owners allow it to slowly disappear in its own way.”

The 15 stories that are included in this book are Sternberg’s favorites. There’s a visit to Carville, a stop at the hardware store that was once Donaldsonville’s Jewish Temple, a tragic-comic account of Le Pelican, Donaldsonville’s ill-fated replica of a ship from the King William’s War in 1667. Sternberg rides the Plaquemine ferry and plumbs the irony in the history of Destrehan Plantation.

Each story is engrossing, personal and gracefully written. Sternberg says what she thinks and says it well, and you can’t help but feel that you should think the same things when you see places like the Colonial Sugars Historic District.

“After my visit to the Colonial Sugars Historic District, I knew that it would never rival Colonial Williamsburg, the famous living history village in Virginia. But the sugar complex, unique along the River Road as well as within the United States, deserves appreciation. As I drove away, I silently offered good wishes to LSR (Louisiana Sugar Refining LLC) for a long successful future in the business of refining sugar, even as I also fervently hope that the remnants of its company town would always continue to be part of it.”