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River Road Rambler

A Curious Traveler along Louisiana's Historic Byway

Mary Ann Sternberg

Publication Year: 2013

The River Road between New Orleans and Baton Rouge hosts a fascinating mix of people, traditions, and stories. Author Mary Ann Sternberg has spent over two decades exploring this richly historic corridor, uncovering intriguing and often underappreciated places. In River Road Rambler, she presents fifteen sketches about sites along this scenic route. From familiar stops, such as the National Hansen’s Disease Center Museum at Carville, with its octogenarian guide, and the sui generis perique tobacco area of St. James Parish to the less well-noted yet highly distinctive Our Lady of Lourdes grotto in Convent and the gradually disappearing Colonial Sugars Historic District, Sternberg presents a new perspective on some of the region’s most colorful places. While many of the places remain easily accessible to any River Road rambler, Sternberg also presents others closed to the public, giving armchair travelers an introduction to these otherwise unreachable attractions. Throughout, Sternberg captures the ambiance of her surroundings with a clear, engaging, and sometimes quirky examination of the relationships between past and present. In a poignant piece on the Valcour Aime garden, for example, she delves into the history of this lavish, nationally acclaimed planter’s garden, created and abandoned in the mid-nineteenth century. Her visit to the now private and protected site, which has never been altered or replanted since its origins, reveals an extraordinary landscape—the relic of what Valcour Aime created, slowly overwhelmed by nature. The essay-like stories brim with insights and observations about everything from the fire that razed The Cottage plantation to the failed attempts to salvage the reproduction of the seventeenth–century French warship Le Pelican from the bottom of the Mississippi. River Road Rambler takes us along to River Road treasures, linking us to both past and present and bringing some delightful and unexpected surprises in the process.

Published by: Louisiana State University Press

Title Page, Copyright, Map

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pp. 2-5


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pp. 6-7

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pp. vii-ix

For the past two decades, I have rambled the River Road, which is my definition for making numerous leisurely excursions through this richly historic corridor. On most of these outings, I tried to ...


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1. Sacred Recycling

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pp. 3-9

A friend made a point of taking me to St. Michael’s Church in Con-vent. Behind the resplendent architecture, handsome paintings, and French hand-carved main altar of the main sanctuary was a small, quiet space that featured a grotto. “What do you see?” she asked with an impish grin. I looked around intently: five wooden benches facing ...

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2. Look What They Found!

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pp. 10-16

The story of the old St. Gabriel Catholic Church reminds me of the best episodes of Antiques Road Show, the television program in which owners bring unidentified objects to an expert for evaluation. In the most dramatic instances, they are told they have a rare treasure. The owner’s response is usually something like: My goodness, it’s been ...

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3. The Hardware Shul

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pp. 17-24

The Ace Hardware store sits tight on the corner of Railroad Avenue and Nicholls Street in Donaldsonville’s old downtown. And if you look closely, you can’t miss seeing that the building is an odd juxtaposition of architectural styles: a 1950s, one-story, shed-roofed ...


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4. For the Life of a Garden

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pp. 27-34

Francois Gabriel Aime, born in 1797, was nicknamed “Valcour” by a family nurse. He married Josephine Roman and the couple lived with the bride’s widowed mother. Valcour bought a nearby prop-died, Josephine’s second brother, Jacques Telesphore, inherited her larging, and furnishing their home. In 1842, with input from his ...

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5. The Story of Those Columns

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pp. 35-42

From the River Road, passersby may never notice the mysterious stand of architectural stubs in the shadows of a grove of old oaks. The site is almost lost within the surrounding sweep of pasture dotted ...


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6. My Guide at Carville Is Mr. Pete

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pp. 45-54

Some afternoons, Simeon Peterson parks his short, electric-blue bi-cycle in the covered walkway behind the National Hansen’s Disease Museum. He steps inside and removes his black straw fedora, trans-forming himself into Mr. Pete, docent on duty. He will guide you through the rooms of this unique facility, telling about some of the ...

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7. Once upon a Time in St. James Parish

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pp. 55-61

I arrived one day at the St. James Parish Historical Society Museum as two buses of second-graders spilled out onto the tight grounds of the museum complex. The children, buzzing with anticipation, had been studying pioneer life, and each year their social studies teacher made an appointment to bring them from New Orleans to the little ...


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8. With an Eye on the Batture

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pp. 65-71

One chilly November afternoon almost forty years ago, I was introduced to the Mississippi River batture. A family friend lured my hus-band and me and our three young children with an invitation for a great adventure over the levee. Like most people who live along the lower Mississippi, I have always regarded the levee as ...

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9. Le Pelican’t

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pp. 72-80

Beyond the decorative wrought iron benches and lamp posts that re-development brought to the levee top in downtown Donaldsonville lies a broad flat swathe of batture. Just beyond its ragged edge, a sea-green buoy bobs on the current. Near it, a chunk of dark wood noses above the water, looking like so many of the timbers that ride the ...

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10. The Queen and I

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pp. 81-88

On a warm June evening in 1977, I leaned across the polished wooden deck rail of the Mississippi Queen and waved enthusiastically to no the cognoscenti came to call her, was readying to cast off: her calliope brayed notes like a hoarse monster flute; her whistle shrieked and white smoke belched from the lacy filigree atop her black stacks. ...

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11. The Story of Captain Mike

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pp. 89-96

The sounds of a Mississippi River ferry remain as distinctive and familiar as they were many years ago when I grew up in New Orleans: the metallic clank of the boarding apron as the weight of a car rolls across; the bass thrum of the powerful engines as the ferry sets out into the river; the heavy roar of the engines as they reverse to stop ...


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12. The Ironic History of Destrehan

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pp. 99-106

The view from the second-floor gallery of Destrehan Plantation is lovely—a sweep of emerald lawn framed by leafy old live oaks and a backdrop of green levee that seems crowned with ruffled willows and blue sky. On the several occasions I’ve taken guests to see this oldest documented plantation home in the lower Mississippi River valley, ...

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13. A Place with a Past Ever-Present

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pp. 107-113

When I first visited Evergreen Plantation about fifteen years ago, it had only recently been opened to the public. Knowing that each River Road Plantation has a unique personality and an individual story to tell, I was curious to see what this one might offer. I couldn’t tell much from the road; all I could see through its stately fence was ...


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14. A Tale of Tobacco

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pp. 117-125

First, a disclaimer: I’ve never been a smoker and I believe implicitly in the Surgeon General’s warnings about the unhealthy effects of to-bacco and tobacco products. So it hurts me to confess that, despite this, I believe in perique tobacco. I love its rich and colorful tradition.Perique has been grown and processed in St. James Parish for ...

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15. Anatomy of a Company Town

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pp. 126-136

Through the years, I’d peered through the fences encircling Colonial Sugars in Gramercy with a growing curiosity. I wondered why this plant didn’t resemble other manufacturing complexes along the River Road. Of course, it had the traditional industrial geometry of pipes and steel, but within its defining fences were also a block of ...

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pp. 137-138

When I approached LSU Press with the idea of writing a collection of essays about the River Road featuring places and aspects that I director of the Press, enthusiastically encouraged me. I should thank her for committing me to the most challenging project I’ve ever undertaken. It was premised on personal experience, but I determined ...

E-ISBN-13: 9780807150795
Print-ISBN-13: 9780807150788

Page Count: 152
Publication Year: 2013

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • River Road (La.) -- History.
  • River Road (La.) -- History, Local.
  • River Road (La.) -- Social life and customs.
  • Historic sites -- Louisiana -- River Road.
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