I spent the day in Opelousas with my friend and fellow writer Jan Newman. It’s a small town, but lot’s to see. Opelousas claims to be the third oldest city in Louisiana, so there’s plenty of history, and the Zydeco Capital of the World, so they’re big on music. Located in St. Landry Parish, a bit north of Lafayette, it’s in the heartland of Cajun French country, so there’s all that, too. Good thing I had Jan along to interpret for me. She grew up not far from Opelousas, a Cajun farmer’s daughter.
We started at Le Vieux Village (The Old Village). The tourist center is there, along with a dozen or so old buildings – several houses, one dating back to around 1791, a church, a market house, doctor’s office . . .
A two-room schoolhouse from the early 1900s.
A well-maintained steam engine graces the grounds.
“What’s this?” I ask Jan.
“It’s a pigeonnier,” she replies. “It housed pigeons.”
“Oh, you mean like carrier pigeons, for messengers?”
“No, they ate them.”
The primary reason I wanted to go to Opelousas was to visit the Orphan Train Museum, located in a restored railroad station at Le Vieux Village.
Between 1854 – 1929, about 2,000 children rode trains from an orphanage in New York City to rural areas across the United States, including Louisiana. A few of these children were adopted, but most were indentured. Some families opened their homes out of love and compassion. Others, hopefully fewer, saw it as an opportunity for free labor. It’s a fascinating part of American history. In this Opelousas museum, Flo Inhern, whose father-in-law was an “orphan train rider,” gives a fantastic guided tour through the museum. Inside the museum you’ll see this beautiful mural by artist Robert Dafford, depicting the arrival of an orphan train in Opelousas.
We went to the Opelousas Museum and Interpretive Center, a small but interesting collection with everything from local Native American history (Opelousas is an Indian word), music and food (always), agriculture (cotton, rice, soybeans), and famous people from the town such as Jim Bowie, an Alamo hero originally from Opelousas, and 1972 Olympic gold medalist Rod Milburn. Did you know Opelousas is home to the Tony Chachere brand of spices and foods?
Upon a recommendation from the gal in the tourist center, we ate lunch at the Palace Café, an old fashioned hometown diner. I had a decent fried catfish poboy and fries.
There’s way more to do in Opelousas than we had time for. We were limited to the length of Andrew’s school day. An art museum sadly didn’t open until 1:00, and we didn’t get to the Zydeco Hall of Fame. But we did admire this mural (one of many in the town).