Monday, May 23, 2011

Discovery on the Heroes and Heritage Trail

The trademark red clay along the side of Interstate 20, which darts across the top of the Louisiana boot from Shreveport to Jackson, Mississippi, was dusted white with a rare light snowfall on the second weekend of February, 2010.

Above that odd sight, a newly installed sign not only informed passersby that Exit 81 leads to Grambling State University but also announced the Pelican State’s two newest tourism attractions: the Eddie G. Robinson Museum and the Heroes and Heritage Trail.

A unique conceptual network of historic attractions, the Heroes and Heritage Trail winds its way from the fishing hamlet of Lafitte, 24 miles below New Orleans at the southern end of Louisiana Highway 45, to equally small Oil City in the far northwest corner on Louisiana Highway 1, about four miles east of Texas and less than 20 miles south of Arkansas.

The route, ties together 16 local museums that were largely hidden gems for many years.  It was conceived by then-Secretary of State Jay Dardenne as a way to promote them absent tourism marketing funds. Elected Louisiana Lieutenant Governor in November, 2010, Dardenne unveiled the idea at the dedication of the long-awaited Robinson Museum, originally proposed more than a decade ago, on February 13 – the late coach’s birthday.

To encourage vacationers to embrace the Trail, Dardenne’s office came up with a game called Passport to Adventure.  It promises the “Ghost of the Castle” Sleepover, an overnight stay at the Old State Capitol in Baton Rouge, and a VIP tour of the site to those who visit at least 11 sites along the Heroes and Heritage Trail. 

While each museum is a destination in itself, the Heroes and Heritage Trail makes it easy to visit small groups of them in a series of driving trips.  And because the museums are funded and operated by state government, admission is free!

Many of the museums feature famous (and sometimes infamous) figures from Louisiana history – from notorious pirate and smuggler Jean Lafitte to colorful politicians, war heroes and celebrities. But only one focuses entirely on a single individual’s life and career, his achievements and contributions.

Eddie Robinson coached football at Grambling – and developed educated and disciplined contributors to society under Jim Crow and amid the tumult and aftermath of the civil rights movement – for 57 years. From 1941 to 1997 his teams won 408 games – the most of any college coach at any level through his retirement at age 78 – and his players achieved a level of renown that made Grambling, during those years, the “black Notre Dame” when it came to producing pro stars. 

The amazing career and remarkable life of the most significant black coach in the history of American collegiate athletics are impressively preserved with Hall-of-Fame-caliber presentations at the Eddie G. Robinson Museum. It is located in a renovated early campus building where “Coach Rob” also coached basketball for 13 years – winning 288 games and developing national scoring champion Robert Hopkins.

At other stops along the Trail:

-- The Delta Music Museum and Arcade Theater in Ferriday tells the story of three famous cousins – piano-pounding early rocker Jerry Lee Lewis, country icon Mickey Gilley and television evangelist Jimmy Swaggert – and documents the role of the Mississippi River in nurturing the distinct sounds of Southern music, from gospel to country to blues.

-- Chennault Aviation and Military Museum in Monroe – named for Gen. Claire Chennault, daring leader of the famed Flying Tigers in the Pacific Theater of World War II – preserves the history of Selman Air Field (now Monroe Regional Airport), where more than 15,000 American navigators were trained and Delta Airlines later was born.

-- The Louisiana State Cotton Museum in Lake Providence features an extensive array of interpretive exhibits, including life-size dioramas, farming equipment, a re-created “juke joint”  (a community room for slaves on a plantation), and more. All are packed into a replica gin house along with authentic plantation buildings, including a sharecropper’s cabin.

-- The Mansfield Female College Museum, 45 minutes south of Shreveport, exhibits the artifacts and memorabilia of the pioneering young women who attended the first female college west of the Mississippi. Founded in 1855, Mansfield Female College was closed during the War Between The States and its buildings used as a hospital for soldiers wounded in the Battle of Mansfield.

-- The Jean Lafitte Marine Fisheries Museum near Bayou Barataria is dedicated to both the legendary Jean Lafitte and the fishing industry that developed along the little strip of land bordered by swamp on one side and open water on the other after his demise in the early 1800s.   While there, adventurous visitors often sign up for a swamp tour by airboat.

A detailed description of each museum, and the rules of the Passport to Adventure game, can be downloaded using the following link: