Website, app help public discover Acadiana’s past

Tucked away in a shady neighborhood off Pinhook Road is a statue of a ram amid a broad grassy median, the vestige of an elaborate public garden that was behind the home of one of Lafayette’s early mayors, Robert Mouton.

Mouton, an avid horticulturist who served two terms as mayor in the 1920s and 1930s, had filled the garden with flowers, trees and other sculptures, and decades ago, tourists could pay $1 for a tour.

There is little remaining evidence of the old Les Jardins de Mouton, save for the ram, which most residents have likely never seen unless they’ve taken a turn down Mall Street.

“There are all these little hidden treasures around town,” said Eric Scott, a graduate student in public history at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

Those treasures are now a little easier to find thanks to a website and smartphone app developed by UL-Lafayette’s public history program.

Acadiana Historical is a digital collection of photographs and histories of significant historical and cultural sites in Acadiana, organized in mapped “tours” — historic cemeteries, properties on the National Register of Historic Places, public art in Lafayette, Acadiana plantations, sites written about in Solomon Northup’s 1800s memoir “Twelve Years a Slave.”

“It’s really phenomenal that you can bring these stories back to life,” said Robert Carriker, director of the public history program. “It makes the place come alive.”

The website and smartphone app, which is available for Apple devices and Google Android, were launched last year and have been gradually expanding with the research of public history graduate students.

“It’s always a work in progress,” Carriker said.

The virtual tour guide will point tourists and locals alike to sites they might never have noticed, or at least never paused to consider.

Scott, who developed the tour on Lafayette’s public art that includes the Mouton ram, said he happened across a few pieces of public art he didn’t know existed and also uncovered some long-forgotten stories about what led to the creation of a particular mural or sculpture.

“You can learn about these pieces of art that you may have passed every day without giving it a second thought,” he said.

Scott’s tour draws on information gleaned from old news stories, as well as interviews with muralist Robert Dafford and other artists whose work adorns buildings in downtown Lafayette.

The tour includes one of downtown Lafayette’s first murals — “Downtown Reawakening,” a piece by Tanya Falgout depicting an abstracted overhead view of downtown as it looked in 1984, when early revitalization efforts were just beginning there.

Many visitors to downtown likely pass by the weathered painting unaware because it’s on a wall that can be seen only from inside city-parish government’s parking garage on Vermilion Street.

The Acadiana Historical cemetery tour highlights 10 of the oldest graveyards in Lafayette Parish that are still in existence, said public history graduate student Anne Mahoney, who developed the tour.

She said older cemeteries tend to be more interesting to historians than modern ones, in part because newer cemeteries often have rules that dictate the size and appearance of headstones.

The rules make it easier for paid caretakers to keep the grounds neat and trim, she said, but what has been sacrificed are the highly personalized gravesites of old.

“In old cemeteries, it’s kind of like a museum. You get to learn about their lives,” Mahoney said.

Take, for instance, this unusual encryption Mahoney cited from a grave at the old Lafayette Protestant Cemetery: “Because of the teachings of Christ I am a Christian. Because of the divergent views of Theologians, I am a Mason. God did not create the paradise of E’den on freedom of thought. He made it in the only way it could be a paradise, in freedom from thought. For thought is the battle arena where man sacrifices contentment for desire.”

One timely tour on Acadiana Historical traces plantations and other sites from Solomon Northup’s 1800s memoir “Twelve Years a Slave,” which was recently adapted into a popular movie.

Northup, a free man from New York, was kidnapped and sold into slavery in Louisiana, and much of his time here was spent in Rapides and Avoyelles parishes.

Many of the old plantations where he labored are gone, but the “Solomon Northup Trail” tour can lead visitors to the sites where they once were.

Public history graduate student Meredith Melancon said she put the tour online in December, a few weeks after the movie was released.

“It’s interesting timing, because I’ve really been working on it much longer,” she said.

Melancon said her tour on Acadiana Historical is largely based on sites researched by Sue Eakin, a historian known for her work in digging up the historical documents that verified the details of Northup’s narrative.

Melancon, a former middle and high school history teacher who lives in Bunkie, said she had used the historical sites in lesson plans to draw her students into the story, and she believes the website and app offer a good opportunity for Avoyelles and other rural parishes to capitalize on their history, even if the money is not there for museums and historical markers.

“There is really so much history here, but they can’t afford to do any big display,” she said.

Carriker said the hope is that Acadiana Historical will develop into a digital tool that, beyond being an academic project, offers something meaningful to the community.

“It’s supercool that you can go out in the field to this historic place and learn about it,” Carriker said.

“It enriches the landscape that we live in.”

For more information, visit acadianahistorical.org.