Saturday, February 8, 2014

Why is There No Biography of Cammie Henry?

Steve and I recently revisited Melrose plantation just south of Natchitoches, La.  We'd been there before but we revisit every so often because it is so beautiful and peaceful there.  We've never been there in the winter, so there's that.  I recommend the spring because everything is in bloom then which makes it even more beautiful.

The plantation has a very interesting story in that it was owned by a free woman of color:

In 1742, Marie Thérèse Coincoin, was born a slave into the household of Natchitoches’ founder Louis Juchereau de St. Denis. St. Denis later leased the twenty-six year old Coincoin to a young French merchant named Claude Thomas Pierre Metoyer to be his housekeeper. A nineteen year relationship ensued, resulting in ten children. Eventually, Metoyer purchased Marie Thérèse  and several of their oldest children giving them their freedom. 
With her freedom, a yearly allowance, and a parcel of land given by Metoyer that adjoined his downriver plantation, Marie Thérèse began raising tobacco, cattle, and harvesting bear grease. In the coming years, Marie’s fortunes grew by virtue of her and her sons receiving land grants and purchasing slaves. They became the leading family of a community called Isle Brevelle, populated by “gens de couleur libre”, free people of color who thrived as business people, plantation owners, and slave owners.

It's all fascinating, but what interests me most are the years of Cammie Henry.  She and her husband bought moved to the property in 1899 and began a period of restoration to the buildings.  She was a preservationist and went all over the parish rescuing historic cabins and outbuildings from other properties and bringing them to Melrose.  When her husband died in 1918, Cammie Henry continued her preservation efforts and also opened Melrose as a haven for artists and writers.  At times she might have some 27 people staying in the various cabins and rooms in her home.

We've done the Melrose tour a couple of times where the tour guide brings you around, in and out of all the buildings, and tells the story of Melrose and it's most famous painter Clementine Hunter.  There is a wonderful recent biography of Clementine Hunter but what I can't figure out is why there doesn't seem to be a biography of Cammie Henry.

I just can't find one.

I can find biographical sketches.  I can find articles.  But what I'd really love is a biography of this very fascinating woman who made it her life's work to preserve history.  Her more than 250 scrapbooks filled with historical clippings and other ephemera are legendary and are currently housed at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches along with her other private papers - some 1,400 folders worth.  Melrose is now owned by the Association for the Preservation of Historic Natchitoches and is open daily for tours.

But I wish there was a biography.  I wish there was a book that would transport me back to those days when Melrose was buzzing with creativity and interesting people.  It is said that Cammie would gather everyone for dinner each night around the big table and they would all converse.  She would as each one, "What did you accomplish today?"  Guests only had three days to say, "Nothing," or "not much..." before they were invited to leave.  She did not tolerate slackers.  But how peaceful it must have been out there in the wilderness, the river running slowly past the front of the house, the live oak trees filled with birds....

I want to know more about this woman who recognized how important it was to preserve history: not just newspaper clippings, but native Louisiana plants, local weaving techniques, regional books and writers, folklore, local legends, guns, quilts, pottery, looms, and buildings.  I just can't believe someone isn't sitting in the archives at Northwestern writing a book about her.

I sure hope so.

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