We were mostly focused on history today, so it was appropriate to begin it at the Sentry Grill in Alexandria, where the 1950s still reign in all their chrome and Formica glory. Cheesy grits and an egg sunnyside up felt like a suitable order (though the fried hashbrowns looked more sinfully delicious); and then we walked through the town’s quiet streets to the Arna Bontemps House to learn more stuff.
We heard all about the mechanisation of the cotton industry yesterday, which resulted in a mass migration of labourers to the cities where, by happy coincidence, machine-filled new factories required workers. Proper wages and regular hours gave them the leisure to develop their culture and so began the Harlem Renaissance where Alexandria-born Arna, writer and poet, was a star. There was a summer school class of kids studying his ‘Lonesome Boy’ story, the teacher trying to help them learn from Bubber’s trumpet-playing experiences. Ah, classroom literature – good times!
There was more art at the River Oaks Centre, where local artists can rent studios (most of them remarkably tidy) – paintings, prints, glass, pottery. Most stunning though was the Biedenharn House. Back in 1894, Joe was the first to think of bottling Coca Cola ready to drink: previously you had to go to a drugstore to have syrup mixed with water by the infelicitously-titled soda jerk if you wanted to inflict the evil brown drink on yourself. Naturally, he made plenty of money from the business, which still funds the family.
The museum is small but well done; for me, though, it’s the house decorated by Joe’s daughter Emy-Lou that’s of more interest. It’s full of space, colour and beautiful things, stylish and feminine, and elegantly luxurious. Who knew there were dishwashers in the 1940s? She was an opera singer in Europe for 10 years, so it’s sophisticated and arty too – there’s a mirror with a Salvador Dali frame, for example, and gold Japanese wallpaper even on the ceiling. She also collected ancient Bibles, including a page of Gutenberg’s first effort, and a poster of Jesus made from the whole of the New Testament, amongst other painstaking creations.
Outside is gorgeous, too: a formal garden of Louisiana lushness, with fountains, statues, tall trees and fine grass, full of palms, trimmed hedges and neat paths. All funded by Coke, which you can buy for a nickel from a vending machine – and by Delta Airlines, since her brother Bernard was the largest shareholder when it was founded in nearby Monroe in 1924.
There was most history though at Poverty Point, a World Heritage site where archaeologists are still washing dirt to extract artifacts from the site, dating back 3,500 years. Here is where a settlement of hunter-gatherers mysteriously busied themselves for centuries, moving mind-boggling amounts of soil in baskets to build a complex of ridges and mounds, the biggest 21 metres high. The labour that went into it all is almost unimaginable – it was hard enough work just walking up the long slope in oppressive 30-degree heat – and all for why? No-one knows.
It’s also puzzling why a people who got around Louisiana’s absence of rocks by making pottery lumps to use for cooking in a hangi-scenario, who designed spear-throwing holders like those the Aboriginals used, who carved jasper owls for decoration, who traded over half the area of the US, never thought to plant a seed.
But humankind specialises in these mysteries, which still dominate the news: for example, the success of the Brexit supporters today; and the seemingly unstoppable rise of Donald Trump. The more history you learn, the more you realise nothing is impossible.