Allen Parish, Louisiana is home to a wealth of Cajun traditions and unique tourist attractions. After featuring the community several times in the past, Business in Focus caught back up with Allen Parish Tourist Commission’s Executive Director Adagria Haddock to get the scoop on the Parish’s new Cultural Center and hear the latest news.
Opening this spring, the Allen Parish Cultural Center features four main exhibits that showcase the region’s rich heritage. Visitors enter the Center’s military exhibit, which features The Wall of Honor to remember local veterans’ service to their country. Local artist and Vietnam Veteran Gary Nupp drew 8”x 10” portraits from the service photos of veterans to create the wall. The room also displays uniforms from different military branches, including a Tuskegee Airman uniform. One of the more unusual collections is a set of vintage bedpans donated by a military nurse whose patients used them during World War II. “I haven’t found anybody that has this particular exhibit,” says Haddock. “I think we have the only World War II bedpan exhibit in the state.” Visitors will also see a knife and crossbow made by the Montagnard people of Vietnam, an indigenous minority who fought alongside American forces in the Vietnam War and an exhibit from the Afghanistan War.
The Tee Swamp, where visitors are treated to a realistic walk-through experience of a Louisiana swamp, is next. They step through a screen door onto the porch of an old, tin roof cabin overlooking a room of green lights resembling water and blue lights giving an evening time experience, with swampy, pine and flowery smells. Two life-size photographs taken of an Allen Parish swamp and field make up the mural that covers the walls, and the floor creates a realistic experience of outside in the swamp… but inside.
Many taxidermy animals bring this swamp to life, such as a beaver building his dam, a seven-foot alligator stalking a nutria rat, and a Bard owl quietly watching the activity, while quail, pheasants, and bobcats prowl the nighttime scene. The atmosphere is dim and quiet, invoking a mysterious evening in an isolated wilderness filled with history and legend. “We want it to be kind of spooky,” Haddock says.
A motion activator triggers a voice that says, “It’s been a long time since a body passed this way,” and a Cajun ghost shoots onto the wall. “He tells the story of what it was like for the Cajuns [when they] got kicked out of Nova Scotia and had to come to live in the swamp,” Haddock says. The ghost continues with an overview of Cajun culture including the traditional cuisine.
Traditional Cajun food features unique ingredients native to the Louisiana swamps. Tourists looking to get the full experience can try cooking these dishes, and the Cultural Center provides postcards with recipes such as turtle sauce piquant (snapping turtle stew), squirrel head and nutria (water rat) gumbo, deep fried frog legs, and beaver tail soup.
The ghost talks about the Rougarou being out tonight and the great light that gets you lost in the swamp. He goes on to describe how important music is to Cajun history and culture and then points visitors toward the next Cultural Center exhibit, the Legend’s Music Museum. This exhibit features a vintage jukebox showcasing musicians from Louisiana, concentrating on playing zydeco (dance music with roots in French, African American, and Afro-Caribbean traditions, often featuring the accordion and washboard), swamp pop (developed in the 1950s from a combination of French Louisiana musical traditions, country, rock ‘n’ roll, and R&B), and Cajun music (folk music featuring the button accordion, the fiddle and the French language, with historical roots in Acadian ballads) and highlights the music greats of Allen Parish. The Tourist Commission left plenty of space in the room for dancing while visitors play the jukebox’s vinyl records. “We encourage it,” Haddock says.
The music exhibit also includes life-size cut-outs of local musicians. Delmar Sonnier, Willis Prudhomme, and Bernie Alan form a band on a stage with a fiddle, harmonica, and accordion respectively. An accordion and a scrub board with spoons sits in front of the stage, ready for visitors to play or to include in a photo op with the musicians. A cut-out of Katy Webster lounges across a piano for another photo op. This gifted piano player made “every key on it sing” and rose to fame while touring with Otis Redding. You can find these local musicians, and more, listed in the vintage jukebox.
Next, visitors enter the Coushatta Heritage Exhibit. This room is dedicated to the history and culture of the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana. A case displays the beautiful, coiled pine needle baskets for which the Coushatta Tribe is known. A (taxidermy) garfish – an animal closely associated with the Coushatta Tribe – rests in the bottom of the case. The gar fish was used for food and jewelry making.
Another Cultural Center exhibit is still under construction. The Tourist Commission is in the process of turning a two and a half acre field into a propagation garden for bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds that visitors can explore via a walkway.
After touring the Center, visitors can peruse an electronic kiosk listing local hotels, flea markets, restaurants and more to help plan their next destination. A map can be created from your picks on the kiosk and sent to your phone with the push of a button.
The Myths and Legends Byway is another destination tourists are sure to enjoy. The 181-mile road meanders through the pine forests, farms and back roads of Allen, Beauregard, and Vernon Parishes for a lovely scenic adventure. Kiosks along the byway showcase local points of interest and colorful local legends. Stopping points include a range of attractions, from a National Forest and historic cemetery to gift shops, Mom and Pop restaurants, and museums. “You can pick and choose where you want to stop,” Haddock says. One of her favorite destinations is Strother’s Country Store, which sells traditional country cooking. “They have some of the best country cooking you’ve ever had.”
Allen Parish’s Leatherwood Museum is another must-see stop along the Myths and Legends Byway. Dating back to 1888, the structure had been used for a variety of purposes before becoming a museum, including as a railroad company house, boarding house, hospital, and private home. A bedroom is furnished with the original tiger oak furniture, and the dining room table is set with blue carnival dishware. Exhibits include early dental and medical equipment, photographs of the Great Louisiana War Maneuvers (a series of mock battles to prepare the American military for World War II), a military uniform collection, one of the largest arrowhead and point collections in the region, and a Native Wildlife room filled with taxidermy animals in their natural habitats. Visitors amble across a bridge through the recreated forest to see bears, deer, a coyote, a bobcat, raccoons, skunks, snakes, and more.
Not all visitors drive through the Myth and Legends Byway via car or truck. Through the year, Allen Parish hosts a steady stream of cyclists on bicycles, who tour the Southern Tier Bike Route, stretching from San Francisco, California all the way to St. Augustine, Florida. The Allen Parish Tourist Commission Administrative Office is a stop on the tour, which gives the team a chance to guide cyclists to Cajun cuisine. “It’s an avenue to promote [what] we call the roadie food, the convenience store food,” Haddock explains. The team sends cyclists to Landreneau’s Grocery & Meats, which has a smoked meat market with Boudin (sausage made with ground pork, rice, onion, green peppers, and Cajun spices), cracklings (fried pork or poultry fat trimmings), ponce (pig stomach stuffed with pork, spices, and rice), smoked rabbit, venison sausage and chicken sausage. “Whatever you want would be over there,” Haddock says. These authentic Cajun dishes can’t be found in many towns or cities and cyclists often return to Allen Parish to sample the traditional fare again. “A lot of times they come back, but they’re coming in a car and they’re bringing people with them.”
The Allen Parish Tourist Commission wants to continue to promote the region’s traditional Cajun foods. The team is in the process of creating a brochure called “Convenience Store du Jour” to guide visitors to authentic Cajun cuisine found almost nowhere else in America.
In addition to unique culinary opportunities, Allen Parish has a wealth of outdoor destinations and activities, particularly relevant as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to keep people outside to prevent the spread of the virus. The Ouiska Chitto Creek provides an ideal outdoor opportunity. Also known as the Whiskey Chitto, this 70-mile, gently flowing waterway winds past beautiful countryside, the Kisatchie National Forest, sandy beaches, several historical sites, and white quartz sandbars. Visitors enjoy fishing, kayaking, and swimming the creek’s waters, as well as picnicking and camping alongside it. They are likely to catch a glimpse of turkeys, deer, and raccoons, as well as other wildlife, while enjoying their outdoor activities.
From a brand new museum to authentic Cajun cooking, fascinating local history, scenic byways, and natural beauty, Allen Parish boasts a variety of draws, including outdoor activities that can be enjoyed while following COVID safety guidelines. Foodies, history buffs, nature lovers, hunters, fishers, and more will find plenty to do – and eat – as they spend a day in Cajun Country, in Allen Parish.