Much more than a conventional plantation tour, to visit Kent House in Alexandria is to see cultural conservation in action, with its proactive application of demonstration and teaching skills to preserve our collective and individual memory of traditions, folkways, clothing styles and foodways of colonial and antebellum Louisiana.
Well-preserved family portraits and period furnishings fill the home and tell stories of their own, but it’s outdoors and in the vintage outbuildings where the workaday reality of the era is actually duplicated by gardeners planting traditional foods, open-hearth cooks following time-honored menus, Boy Scouts repairing chicken coops, rose gardeners pruning their “antiques,” a blacksmith shaping hot iron and herbalists nurturing their aromatics, culinaries and medicinals. All experts or eager apprentices, and — by the way — all volunteers.
The story begins with Pierre Baillio II, son of an officer at Fort St. Jean in Natchitoches, who received a Spanish land grant near Poste du Rapides in 1794. Construction of his French colonial home began the next year and would consume, it turned out, the remainder of the century: six rooms (plus galleries) in five years. Consider, though, that there were no lumberyards or hardware stores and that cultivation of his 500 arpents (422 acres) no doubt demanded most of his time and attention.
The home’s present name and shape were acquired in 1842 when Robert Hynson of Kent County, Maryland, purchased the plantation and added the wings that flank the home’s galleries, providing space for a master suite, handsome office, children’s rooms and “Strangers Room.”
Since then Kent House has had two near-death experiences, the first when Hynson’s oath of allegiance to the Union saved it when Alexandria was burned in 1864. Next, 99 years older and sentenced to death by wrecking ball, it was donated by the American Legion to a hastily formed Friends of Kent House group, which moved it a bit upstream (still on original land grant property) and began restoration.
Thus the oldest landmark in Central Louisiana became accessible to the public, the Friends group became a permanent font of generosity, and an incredible degree of community support and volunteer participation in Kent House activities became an enduring Rapides tradition.
Wednesday “school days” are prime time to see truly fascinated youngsters watching the skilled volunteers in action, and Wednesdays also bring authentic open-hearth-cooking demonstrations during the cool months of October through April.
First up on Kent House’s fall and winter calendar of events is Le Tour de Bayou on Sept. 14 through 15, consisting of 10- and 25-mile bicycle rides through the Bayou Rapides area, plus a 2-mile family ride and walk with a post-ride party. Register at bikereg.com.
Other happenings include the Herb Society’s Herb Day, Oct. 6, where experts share information with guests as dealers sell their plants and products; Reptile Day, Oct. 20, for young folks (sponsored by the Louisiana Forestry Association); and Ghost Day, Oct. 26, with spooky storytelling (presented by the Rapides Library).
Finally on Nov. 10 comes the 25th annual and now famous Sugar Day festival, when Kent House’s authentic three-kettle sugar mill goes into action amidst the food booths, music stages and craftspeople, with free home tours for lagniappe.
Kent House at 3601 Bayou Rapides Road (318-487-5998, email@example.com) is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, year-round.
October always lands in Alexandria with a load of seasonal events, kicked off by Funktoberfest, a craft beer festival on Oct. 6 honoring craft breweries and regional music in the large outdoor space at Spirits Food & Friends restaurant, 1200 Texas Ave. (funktoberfestcenla.com).
The Les Fest on Oct. 11, honoring the late zoo-meister Les Whitt, features top bands at the “wildest” venue in town, the Alexandria Zoo, plus a wild variety of foods from local restaurants and caterers (3016 Masonic Drive, 318-441-6810, thealexandriazoo.com).
Take the kids to the Forts Randolph and Buhlow State Historic Site on Oct. 27 to enjoy a “Spirit of the Harvest” event, complete with hayrides and a fleet of classic cars loaded with goodies for “trunk-or-treating.”
The big downtown Alex Winter Fete, with its parades, festivities and street lighting ceremony on Nov. 29, marks the official opening of the Christmas season, but that’s not all. It also serves as Day 1 of the city’s beloved 12 Days of Christmas tradition, with each day presenting a different form of activity or entertainment, like an “Old-Fashioned Christmas” event at Kent House and “River Feast” at Forts Randolph and Buhlow (depicting a Christmas meal likely to have been available to Civil War soldiers).
The catfish, softshells and gumbo are still worth the 8-mile drive west on LA 28 to that landmark on Kincaid Lake. tunkscypress-inn.com
Don’t miss the jumpin’ flavors of the burritos and burgers at Chef Brad Blackwood’s new downtown restaurant. cafedesoto.com
Pamela’s Bayou in a Bowl
Plate lunches built around smothered pork chops, turnip greens and such are earning her No.1 ratings right and left.
The classic standbys of the historic Riverfront District are still enticing: the lavishly restored Diamond Grill (thediamondgrill.com) and the Bentley Room with its innovative twists on “Southern Style” staples at magnificent Hotel Bentley hotelbentleyandcondos.com
If you like music for dessert, visit the Embers (embersdowntown.com), the oyster bar at Tunk’s, musician Charley Rivers’ new Cat Daddy’s Southern Table or the Spirit Food & Friends.