Donaldsonville, Louisiana: A Road Trip Back in Time
Going to visit Donaldsonville is a lot like going to visit your grandparents.
It takes effort on your part to motivate and get yourself there, and once you arrive, you might very well look around and wonder why you made the drive. The town’s appearance is tattered and at first glance it’s not immediately obvious what there is to do.
But if you stick around, and if you are willing to listen, you will be drawn in. And when it comes time to leave, you’ll be surprised to find that there is a part of you resisting, a part of you that wants to linger, a part of you that knows there are more stories yet to hear, old stories, stories you didn’t think mattered to your fast-paced, contemporary life, stories you didn’t think had any power to pull you in. But it turns out that they do.
Historic at Its Core
Rickety shotgun houses line the neighborhood streets of Donaldsonville and Railroad Avenue, the old main street drag, looks a little down on its luck. It is not a stretch of the imagination, however, to picture the place as pretty. In fact, if you pause and look around, you’ll notice restoration projects in the works.
A number of private homes have been given facelifts that modernized the indoors but retained an exterior finish in keeping with local flavor. Several buildings in the retail district have also been refurbished.
The cavernous old bus station right on the main drag is a current preservation chore. When I walked down the street in June, teenage boys with summer jobs were busily scrapping paint from the windows. They were just two out of a sizable crew working to turn the space into a sort of present-day tavern.
They have their work cut out for them. It’s been a long time since Donaldsonville was young. Europeans have been in the area since 1699, even though the town in its present state wasn’t founded until 1808.
A River Town
The mighty Mississippi curls around Donaldsonville’s downtown and a grassy dyke slopes nearby. The city, though, escapes much of the flooding that threatens so much of Louisiana’s land along the river’s edge as it approaches its end; Donaldsonville sits on a rare high point, which means its historic core has been protected.
The river supplies irrigation to the surrounding fields, which are filled with high-reaching sugarcane. Back in the day, Donaldsonville was ringed by sprawling plantation homes and the city was even the site of two battles during the Civil War.
Although it’s true that Donaldsonville is in the countryside, it is also within easy driving distance of both New Orleans and Baton Rouge, which makes it a perfect day-trip option for anyone looking to break out of the big city tourist routine.
Local kitsch on display
Donaldsonville, as unlikely as it may seem, is a cultural mecca — albeit in its own way.
A fine starting point is The Historic Donaldsonville Museum. Its air smells musty and its displays are kitschy, but at the same time, the collections cast a quaint charm over visitors, especially once you realize that many of the items on display were actually donated by local citizens themselves. This means you’ll find wedding dresses, personal portraits and school displays amongst old-time washing machines and Civil War-era maps.
The museum occupies a former department store building on an impressive corner lot. If nothing else, a visit to this odd little museum is an excuse to get inside one of Donaldsonville’s oldest storefronts.
Plus, the site also houses the welcome center, which means you’ll find brochures on other nearby attractions. One to look out for is titled “Donaldsonville Walking Tour.” It list and maps all the significant and restored buildings in town.
If you keep your eyes peeled while inside the Donaldsonville Museum, you might spot some black and white photographs of school children attended by flying nuns. The nuns hailed from the nearby Catholic Church, The Ascension of Our Lord.
The church looks like a building that should actually be in a big city. It appears completely out of place in this scrappy-looking town. But that’s exactly the point. The building’s impressive size and regal design are symbolic of its people’s faith, which stretches back to the 1772, when a chapel was first erected on the site.
Construction on the current building started in 1875 and took over 20 years to complete.
A member, a local man who was introduced to my visiting group as Mr. Boo, gave us a tour of the cathedral. He pointed out the sanctuary’s finer details, including the stained glass windows, some of which are still the original works.
The church’s cemetery is on the National Register of Historic Places. Several of its graves predate the Civil War and both Confederate and Union soldiers are buried here.
If you’d rather pass your time among the living, however, there are a few local personalities you’ll want to meet.
The first is Alvin Batiste, a local painter. He has set up both his studio and gallery inside Rossi’s Frame Shop, right on Donaldsonville’s main street.
Batiste’s work carries many labels: primitive, folk, country, back yard. No matter how you slice it, though, his paintings are bright and bold.
Batiste is self-taught and because of this, his paintings retain a child-like aura, much like Mr. Batiste himself, who is anything but flamboyant, even though his work has been commissioned by Billy Bob Thorton.
Batiste will come out from behind his canvas and chat with curious passersby. If you don’t probe, he’s not likely to venture from his standard story about what it was like to meet Billy Bob.
Ask him open-ended questions about all of his art work hanging nearby, however, and he’ll lead you down the aisles, pointing out his favorites and explaining his motivation for painting each one. If you’re lucky, he might even play you a tune on his guitar.
Another shining local star is Kathe Hambrick. Hambrick founded the River Road African American Museum, which is also located on Donaldsonville’s main street.
A former corporate gal, she left the suit world behind to start a museum that would showcase the contributions of African Americans in Louisiana’s Mississippi River Valley. She dedicates much of her time to working with school children, teaching them about the hardships of slavery and the realities of the Underground Railroad.
The museum’s side yard has become a plaza paved with engraved bricks boasting the names of jazz greats. While New Orleans is often hailed as the birthplace of jazz, Donaldsonville and its surrounding towns claim many famous jazz artists by birth, including Plas Johnson, who was the lead saxophonist on the original Pink Panther Theme song.
Stroll a block and half from the jazz plaza and you’ll find another extension to the museum; the Freedom Garden is patch of land where Hambrick is growing edible and medicinal plants that both working and runaway slaves would have relied upon in order to survive in harsh conditions.
Chef John Folse, a noted Louisiana celebrity, has a spot in town. Don’t expect to see him, however, unless you’ve got plenty of cash. His Donaldsonville restaurant, Lafitte’s Landing at BitterSweet Plantation, only opens its doors for groups of six of more who are willing to guarantee a $500 minimum tab.
For tourist without this kind of superfluous cash, a more approachable local chef is Cynthia Schneider. Schneider and her husband own and operate the Grapevine Café and Gallery, a bustling restaurant where local art hangs on exposed brick walls. Cajun and Creole are the names of the game on the Grapevine’s menu and it’s easy to see from the packed tables that locals approve of the recipes.
Whatever you pick for your main course, make sure to save room for dessert. Schneider was invited to New York City to bake her white chocolate bread pudding for a James Beard Foundation event. It’s good enough for top chefs and surely that means it’s good enough for you. Like everything else in Donaldsonville, if you give it a try, you won’t be disappointed.
How to Get There
Donaldsonville is about a one-hour drive from both New Orleans and Baton Rouge.
What to See and Do
River Road African American Museum
Church of the Ascension of Our Lord
Historic Donaldsonville Museum & Donaldsonville Welcome Center
Houmas House Plantation and Gardens
Where to Eat
The predictable McDonald’s, Subway, local Chinese joint and the like are available on the outskirts of town. Refined sit-down dining options are available, too, and more restaurants are in the works.
Grapevine Café and Gallery
Lafitte’s Landing at BitterSweet Plantation
Where to Stay
Cabahanosse Bed & Breakfast
The Victorian on the Avenue
Best Western Plantation Inn
B&B Mobile Home and RV Park
If you’d like to time your visit to Donaldsonville with a local event, here are some dates to keep in mind.
Art, Antiques & Authors
Juneteenth Family Reunion & Festival
July 3rd Fireworks
Donaldsonville is located in Ascension Parish. Tourist information about the town and its surrounding area can be found at the parish’s web site.
The Donaldsonville Chamber of Commerce is an active force in town, aggressively pushing historic restoration and crafting plans for a boardwalk park along the river. Its web site is incomplete, but obviously in progress.
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Clifford LeBlanc offers these suggestions on more sights to see in Donaldsonville:
1. Ascension Catholic Cemetery--site of many tombs and graves of distinguished and locally famous people including John Andrews and family -- he built "Belle Grove"; Landry Tomb, constructed by descendants of Joseph Landry, the first non-Spanish commandant on the Acadian Coast; LeBlanc Tomb, another large tomb put up by wealthy planters of Acadian descent; Bringier Tomb, housing the remains of that famous family, including Duncan Kenner. Dr. Prévost grave, contains the remains of the physician who performed perhaps the first documented open heart surgery and right there in Donaldsonville. The local hospital is named for him.
2, Site of former State Capitol building; also parade ground for Confederate soldiers.
3. Courthouse containing original conveyance records back to late 1700's. The clerk or his employees will show them to you.
4. Jewish Cemetery, which goes a long way back.
5. Lemann store--which you mentioned in connection with the little museum. Very interesting Italianate building and important in the architectural history of Louisiana.
6. Bel House-- a private building not on tour, but a remnant of the old Donaldsonville which didn't burn in the great fire. It's very much like a French Quarter building.
7. "Palo Alto", an antebellum house built by an Ayo but a home of the Lemann family for many years.
8. Within a very short distance the churches at Plattenville and Paincourtville built by Acadian descendants for their settlements. Unfortunately there has been some renovation, but the churches were
9. The old Cire house which John Folse renamed "Bittersweet" and opened as a restaurant/bed and breakfast after his original location burned.
10. St. Catherine church -- built for the black Catholics.
11. Episcopal and Methodist churches, quite unique in style. I'm sure one could easily find someone to open them for a tour.
12, "Nouvelle Espoir" or "New Hope", one of the original Landry plantation homes, not on tour, but which is on the river road above Donaldsonville and McCall plantation. Parts of this house may date back to late 18th-early 19th century.
13. Brick slave house remnants at McCall plantation just upriver from Donaldsonville. Very interesting buildings which once housed the slaves and were built out of brick, an unusual thing. The houses contained multiple families and were built with parapet walls. Not open to public, but easily
If one's stay occurs during the sugar cane grinding season, it is fairly easy to call one of the local sugar houses to obtain a free tour of the working mills. Usually a bit of sugar and/or syrup or molasses will be given or sold to the tourists.
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