Report from Louisiana: Shameless Book Plug

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Report from Louisiana: Shameless Book Plug

[cap­tion id=“attachment_109483” align=“alignleft” width=“200”] Cane River Bohemia: Cam­mie Henry and her Cir­cle at Mel­rose Plantation[/caption]

By: Pat Austin

SHREVE­PORT – It’s been a very sur­real week for me, and while I don’t like to write about myself (except when I’m beg­ging for books for my class­room library), how often does one pub­lish a book, any­way? Well, unless you’re Stephen King, and trust me, I’m not. But, I was lucky enough to have LSU Press pub­lish my first book which came out last week, and I want to tell you a lit­tle bit about it.

It’s a biog­ra­phy of a fas­ci­nat­ing woman named Cam­mie Henry who, after her hus­band died in 1918 and left her a widow with eight chil­dren on a work­ing cot­ton plan­ta­tion in cen­tral Louisiana, she opened her home to writ­ers and artists of the bud­ding South­ern Renais­sance. Cam­mie and her hus­band lived at Mel­rose Plan­ta­tion on the Cane River, sev­en­teen miles south of Natchi­toches and there’s no doubt that the atmos­phere there is infused with cre­ativ­ity and inspiration.

My book explores Cammie’s friend­ships and rela­tion­ships with many of the peo­ple who came and worked there. Every time I toured or vis­ited her home (it’s a house museum now, owned by the Asso­ci­a­tion of the Preser­va­tion of His­toric Natchi­toches), I was curi­ous about Cam­mie and wanted to know more about her.

Books had been writ­ten about other famous women asso­ci­ated with the house, but not Cam­mie. The house at Mel­rose was built by Louis Metoyer in 1832; Louis was the son of freed slave Marie Therese Coin­coin. Louis died before con­struc­tion was fin­ished and his son com­pleted the house. The story of Marie Therese is amaz­ing, and she has been exten­sively researched by Gary and Eliz­a­beth Shown Mills. Their excel­lent book, The For­got­ten Peo­ple: Cane River’s Cre­oles of Color, is sim­ply fascinating.

After the Metoyer period, the house was bought by a neigh­bor­ing fam­ily who held it until 1881. In 1884, it was bought by Joseph Henry who would later be Cammie’s father-​in-​law.

One of the Henry employ­ees was renown prim­i­tive artist Clemen­tine Hunter whose father worked for the Henry fam­ily. Clemen­tine came to Mel­rose as a teenager and later worked for Cam­mie Henry. It was through the expo­sure to Cammie’s artist friends that Clemen­tine, the story goes, picked up some aban­doned paints one day and began to paint plan­ta­tion life as she saw it.

The Asso­ci­a­tion for the Preser­va­tion of His­toric Natchi­toches held a ribbon-​cutting event this past week­end for the Clemen­tine Hunter house on the grounds of Mel­rose which has been pre­served and restored exactly as it was when Mrs. Hunter lived and worked there. There’s a ter­rific biog­ra­phy of Clemen­tine Hunter with beau­ti­ful color plates of her work writ­ten by Art Shiver and Tom Whitehead.

So, tours of Mel­rose always talked about these three women: Marie Therese Coin­coin, Cam­mie Henry, and Clemen­tine Hunter, but there was no book about Cam­mie. I wanted to know what a typ­i­cal day at Mel­rose looked like when Lyle Saxon was sit­ting in his cabin typ­ing his books out on his type­writer, swel­ter­ing in the heat, look­ing out over cot­ton fields. I wanted to hear what Cam­mie and her mother talked about while sit­ting on the upstairs gallery look­ing over the Cane River. I wanted to hear the laugh­ter of the employ­ees in the kitchen or in the gar­dens. I wanted to sit with Cam­mie as she opened her vol­umes of mail each day.

Cammie’s archives at the North­west­ern State Uni­ver­sity library in Natchi­toches are amaz­ing. This women kept every piece of paper and ephemera she ever touched. She cor­re­sponded with writ­ers and book­sellers all over the South in search of mate­r­ial for her library, which is exten­sive and holds many rare vol­umes and man­u­scripts. Her daily mail was massive.

What I learned at the end of my research was that Cam­mie Henry was a dynamic woman, accom­plished in gar­den­ing, (she had one of the pre­mier gar­dens in the South on the grounds of Mel­rose); she was a librar­ian, a doc­u­men­tar­ian, a wife, a mother, a care­taker. She was a preser­va­tion­ist before that was a cool thing to do. She restored many aban­doned cab­ins and had them moved to her prop­erty for vis­it­ing artists and writ­ers. She sal­vaged parts of homes that were to be demol­ished and used them at Mel­rose. She reju­ve­nated the lost cot­tage indus­tries of weav­ing and quilt­ing and even grew Nan­keen cot­ton and ramie to see how that would work in her weav­ing. She raised her eight chil­dren with the excep­tion of one son who died in 1918 of the Span­ish flu. And that tragedy is doc­u­mented in her archives as well.

And through it all, though as I said this is a woman who kept every­thing she ever touched, there are no pho­tographs or let­ters of her hus­band in her archives. And that piqued my curios­ity, too.

Well, I could go on and on, but I won’t.

I have a book launch event this week – my first ever and I’m ner­vous to the point of being ter­ri­fied. I want every­one to love Cam­mie and be as inter­ested in her as I am! But, no mat­ter how the book goes over, I know that I’ve told her story. It’s there now for any­one who wants to know about her and her life. She was a dynamic and fas­ci­nat­ing woman and I feel priv­i­leged that she chose me to tell her story. (And she did – I’m not mak­ing that up, but that’s a story for another day!).

Shame­less book plug: get your copy of Cane River Bohemia either at Ama­zon or LSU Press!

Pat Austin blogs at And So it Goes in Shreve­port and is the author of Cane River Bohemia: Cam­mie Henry and her Cir­cle at Mel­rose Plan­ta­tion. Fol­low her on Insta­gram @patbecker25.

Cane River Bohemia: Cammie Henry and her Circle at Melrose Plantation

By:  Pat Austin

SHREVEPORT – It’s been a very surreal week for me, and while I don’t like to write about myself (except when I’m begging for books for my classroom library), how often does one publish a book, anyway?  Well, unless you’re Stephen King, and trust me, I’m not.  But, I was lucky enough to have LSU Press publish my first book which came out last week, and I want to tell you a little bit about it.

It’s a biography of a fascinating woman named Cammie Henry who, after her husband died in 1918 and left her a widow with eight children on a working cotton plantation in central Louisiana, she opened her home to writers and artists of the budding Southern Renaissance.  Cammie and her husband lived at Melrose Plantation on the Cane River, seventeen miles south of Natchitoches and there’s no doubt that the atmosphere there is infused with creativity and inspiration.

My book explores Cammie’s friendships and relationships with many of the people who came and worked there.  Every time I toured or visited her home (it’s a house museum now, owned by the Association of the Preservation of Historic Natchitoches), I was curious about Cammie and wanted to know more about her.

Books had been written about other famous women associated with the house, but not Cammie.  The house at Melrose was built by Louis Metoyer in 1832; Louis was the son of freed slave Marie Therese Coincoin.  Louis died before construction was finished and his son completed the house.  The story of Marie Therese is amazing, and she has been extensively researched by Gary and Elizabeth Shown Mills.  Their excellent book, The Forgotten People:  Cane River’s Creoles of Color, is simply fascinating.

After the Metoyer period, the house was bought by a neighboring family who held it until 1881. In 1884, it was bought by Joseph Henry who would later be Cammie’s father-in-law.

One of the Henry employees was renown primitive artist Clementine Hunter whose father worked for the Henry family.  Clementine came to Melrose as a teenager and later worked for Cammie Henry.  It was through the exposure to Cammie’s artist friends that Clementine, the story goes, picked up some abandoned paints one day and began to paint plantation life as she saw it.

The Association for the Preservation of Historic Natchitoches held a ribbon-cutting event this past weekend for the Clementine Hunter house on the grounds of Melrose which has been preserved and restored exactly as it was when Mrs. Hunter lived and worked there.  There’s a terrific biography of Clementine Hunter with beautiful color plates of her work written by Art Shiver and Tom Whitehead.

So, tours of Melrose always talked about these three women: Marie Therese Coincoin, Cammie Henry, and Clementine Hunter, but there was no book about Cammie.  I wanted to know what a typical day at Melrose looked like when Lyle Saxon was sitting in his cabin typing his books out on his typewriter, sweltering in the heat, looking out over cotton fields.  I wanted to hear what Cammie and her mother talked about while sitting on the upstairs gallery looking over the Cane River.  I wanted to hear the laughter of the employees in the kitchen or in the gardens.  I wanted to sit with Cammie as she opened her volumes of mail each day.

Cammie’s archives at the Northwestern State University library in Natchitoches are amazing.  This women kept every piece of paper and ephemera she ever touched.  She corresponded with writers and booksellers all over the South in search of material for her library, which is extensive and holds many rare volumes and manuscripts.  Her daily mail was massive.

What I learned at the end of my research was that Cammie Henry was a dynamic woman, accomplished in gardening, (she had one of the premier gardens in the South on the grounds of Melrose); she was a librarian, a documentarian, a wife, a mother, a caretaker.  She was a preservationist before that was a cool thing to do.  She restored many abandoned cabins and had them moved to her property for visiting artists and writers.  She salvaged parts of homes that were to be demolished and used them at Melrose.  She rejuvenated the lost cottage industries of weaving and quilting and even grew Nankeen cotton and ramie to see how that would work in her weaving.  She raised her eight children with the exception of one son who died in 1918 of the Spanish flu.  And that tragedy is documented in her archives as well.

And through it all, though as I said this is a woman who kept everything she ever touched, there are no photographs or letters of her husband in her archives.  And that piqued my curiosity, too.

Well, I could go on and on, but I won’t.

I have a book launch event this week – my first ever and I’m nervous to the point of being terrified.  I want everyone to love Cammie and be as interested in her as I am!    But, no matter how the book goes over, I know that I’ve told her story.  It’s there now for anyone who wants to know about her and her life.  She was a dynamic and fascinating woman and I feel privileged that she chose me to tell her story.  (And she did – I’m not making that up, but that’s a story for another day!).

Shameless book plug:  get your copy of Cane River Bohemia either at Amazon or LSU Press!

 

Pat Austin blogs at And So it Goes in Shreveport and is the author of Cane River Bohemia: Cammie Henry and her Circle at Melrose Plantation.  Follow her on Instagram @patbecker25.