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!).
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.