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Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Cane River Bohemia

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Author Patricia Austin Becker takes us back to Melrose

Melrose Plantation, located 17 miles south of Natchitoches, has long been a popular destination for those interested in historic Louisiana homes, beautiful gardens and Cane River culture.

A National Historic Landmark with a complex and remarkable 200-year history, Melrose Plantation was home to many notable women, including freedwoman and entrepreneur Marie Thérèse Coincoin and artist Clementine Hunter. Also among that influential group is Cammie Henry, who moved to Melrose as a young bride in 1899.

Cammie and her husband restored the large home, which had been uninhabited for many years before thier tenure and added the two iconic garconnieres on each end of the home to accommodate their growing family. Cammie’s gardens soon became a tourist destination and attracted visitors from all over the country. By 1918, Cammie was a widow with eight children.

Patricia Austin Becker has written an engaging biography of Cammie Henry, which was published in October 2018 by LSU Press. Becker had always wondered what motivated Mrs. Henry to open her home as an artists’ and writers’ colony after her husband’s death.

“Every time I toured Melrose, I would scan the bookshelves in the gift shop looking for a biography of Cammie and never found one. I simply decided to write one. I wanted to know what Melrose was like when Cammie lived there, when Lyle Saxon was sitting in his cabin writing his books. I wanted to hear her children playing in the yard, see Caroline Dormon painting in the garden, and drink coffee on the gallery with Cammie and her mother,” Becker says.

She spent four years going through Cammie Henry’s vast collection of papers and over 200 scrapbooks, which are located at the Cammie Garrett Henry Research Center at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches.

“I think Cammie kept every piece of paper she ever touched,” Becker explains. “There are leaves from a tree at Mount Vernon, confetti from VE Day in Paris, 30 years of letters between her and her best friend, naturalist Caroline Dormon, and with writer Lyle Saxon. She made scrapbooks compiling histories of many

Louisiana parishes, steamboats, plantation homes, many of which have been lost to the Mississippi River and, of course, books for each of her children.”

Since the book’s publication, Becker has appeared at the Louisiana Book Festival in Baton Rouge as a presenter, and she was the featured speaker at the Association for Historic Natchitoches annual banquet; the APHN now owns and manages Melrose. She will be the featured speaker at the North Louisiana Historical Association annual banquet in April.

“I love speaking to groups and telling them about Cammie’s accomplishments. She was a preservationist before it was a cool thing to do; she moved cabins from old plantations along Cane River to Melrose. One served as a writer’s studio, another as a bindery, and in yet another Cammie kept many of her looms and spinning wheels. She was an advocate of the lost cottage arts of weaving and quilting.”

“Cane River Bohemia” is available from LSU Press, Amazon and other booksellers.

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