Explore Ascension Parish, Louisiana, home to historic Donaldsonville, artist Alvin Batiste, the Jambalaya Festival, Cajun Village, and Houmas House Plantation.
I was a guest of Tour Ascension, but all thoughts and opinions are my own.
UPDATE: Be sure to check out A Louisiana River Road Plantations Driving Tour for photos and descriptions of seven Ascension Parish River Road plantations. A map and suggested routes included!
Table of Contents
- 1 Explore Ascension Parish Louisiana
- 2 Donaldsonville
- 2.1 Alvin Batiste
- 2.2 Ascension Parish Courthouse
- 2.3 Ascension Parish Jail
- 2.4 Ascension of Our Lord Catholic Church
- 2.5 Donaldsonville Riverwalk
- 2.6 Historic Fort Butler
- 2.7 Crescent Park
- 2.8 B. Lemann and Brothers Store
- 2.9 Dr. John H. Lowery Medical Office
- 2.10 Bittersweet Plantation
- 2.11 St. Peter’s Methodist Episcopal Church
- 2.12 Mistretta Grocery Store
- 2.13 River Road African American Museum
- 2.14 Slave Cabin
- 2.15 True Friends Hall
- 2.16 Restoration and Preservation Projects
- 2.17 Historic Cemeteries
- 3 The Raylin House
- 4 Donaldsonville Dining
- 5 Gonzales
- 6 Cajun Village
- 7 Houmas House
- 8 Gonzales Dining and Lodging
- 9 Map It!
- 10 A Louisiana River Road Plantations Driving Tour
- 11 Design Your Own Louisiana Road Trip
- 12 We Would Love to Hear From You
- 13 Pin this Post!
Explore Ascension Parish Louisiana
Ascension Parish, Louisiana, is situated between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. It straddles the Mississippi River, Interstate 10, and the Airline Highway.
Like Lafayette Parish, the first destination on my recent Louisiana road trip, Ascension is one of 22 parishes in Acadiana, a region of the state with Cajun French population and culture.
In case you are wondering, Louisiana is subdivided into districts called parishes, rather than secular counties like the rest of the country. This is due to the historical influence of the Roman Catholic church in the state.
During my road trip through Ascension Parish I explored historical Donaldsonville, attended the Gonzales Jambalaya Festival and Jambalaya World Championship, and took side trips to the Cajun Village in Sorrento and the Houmas House in Darrow.
Donaldsonville, Louisiana, is my kind of town. As I walked the streets and toured the rustic buildings of this historical Mississippi River port city, I truly felt like I had stepped back in time.
Like most 19th-century southern towns, Donaldsonville’s agricultural economy was dependent on slave labor. Sprawling cotton and sugar cane plantations lined the banks of the Mississippi River above and below this former state capital.
In 1861, Louisiana seceded from the Union and joined the Confederacy. Shortly thereafter, in April of 1862, New Orleans surrendered to Union forces, and four months later, upon orders of Admiral David Farragut, the city of Donaldsonville was utterly destroyed.
After the war, Donaldsonville rose from the ashes and built what many consider to be the finest collection of historical buildings along the Mississippi River north of New Orleans. Most of these structures, whether currently occupied or not, survive to this day.
Donaldsonville also has a notable multicultural history. Native Americans, Acadians, Creoles, Spaniards, Italians, and Germans have all played a role in the town’s history.
In 1868, attorney, minister, and former slave Pierre Caliste Landry was the first African American elected mayor in the United States. He went on to serve in the Louisiana House of Representatives and Senate.
In 1872, local Jewish families built a synagogue, established a cemetery, and founded several prominent businesses.
I explored historical Donaldsonville over a period of two days, on a combination walking and driving tour.
And that was just the beginning.
My first stop in Donaldsonville was at the studio of Alvin Batiste. Batiste is a self-taught folk artist whose prodigious work has earned him renown as Louisiana’s premier primitive artist. Encouraged by his mother, Alvin began drawing at age three. His mother’s influence as a storyteller is evidenced in the subjects of work, including Louisiana history, daily life, Bible stories, and stereotypical cultural motifs.
Batiste paints from a place of innocence and joy, allowing us to see the world through his eyes, and no subject is off limits in his work. As I perused his prolific works, I witnessed the holy, the irreverent, and the common transformed into art.
Batiste had covered all the local bases. I saw the Gonzales Jambalaya Festival, a scene from the Bonnie and Clyde production, and many more Ascension themes on display.
And as my Donaldsonville visit progressed, Batiste’s work would surface without warning in unexpected places.
Ascension Parish Courthouse
The 1889 Ascension Parish Courthouse is built in the Romanesque revival style and faces Louisiana Square. Donaldsonville is the parish seat, and the red brick building holds court and houses historical records.
Courthouse records date to the 1700s. I was privileged to see records written in French, as well as a marriage contract for a Jean Lafitte, although the relationship to the pirate is unclear. The most shocking documents, however, detailed the purchase of 272 slaves by Louisiana legislator Henry Johnson and landowner Jesse Batey in 1838. Jesuit priests at Georgetown College had negotiated the sale to keep the nation’s top Catholic university afloat.
Ascension Parish Jail
The 1867 Ascension Parish Jail, situated directly behind the courthouse, is the fifth jail built on property donated by town founder William Donaldson.
When first constructed, the jail included a sheriff’s office, courtroom, jury room, and recorder’s office. The brick structure was in service for 109 years, until condemned by the Grand Jury in 1976. There are no jail tours, but I was able to get a peek inside the building through the kindness of an Ascension Parish employee.
Although the jail is no longer in service, it has been a film location for movies such as The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, All the King’s Men, and most recently Bruce Beresford’s 2013 mini-series Bonnie and Clyde. Other sites around town have been film locations, as well.
Ascension of Our Lord Catholic Church
The current Ascension of Our Lord Catholic Church was built between 1875 and 1896, yet it is the third structure built on church property established in 1772 on orders of King Charles III of Spain. The parish and church name honors the ascension of the resurrected Christ into Heaven.
The Gothic revival architecture features twenty Austrian marble columns, three cast iron bells, a 113-pipe organ, and original stained glass windows depicting a nesting pelican.
Renovations have continued through the years, including installation of contemporary stained glass windows and a painted Native American motif in the dome over the altar. Father Jean Honore Dubernard, who pastored the church for 17 years and oversaw construction during his tenure is buried in a crypt beneath the altar. The crypt is a fixture in the Chapel of Perpetual Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament located beneath the sanctuary and is accessible through the rear of the church building.
The Donaldsonville Riverwalk is a lighted brick-paved walkway along the cusp of the Mississippi River levee. The day I walked it, the water level was high, and the riverwalk was a great vantage point for watching the ships and barges coursing up and down the river. It is easy to imagine steamboats and paddle-wheelers doing the same back in the day.
Historic Fort Butler
Soon after Donaldsonville fell to Union forces in 1862, soldiers, freedmen, and fugitive slaves built a star-shaped log and earth fort at the mouth of Bayou LaFourche on the Mississippi. In 1863, Confederates attacked Fort Butler, but the ensuing battle was a pivotal victory for the Union. Today, the original fort is gone, but separate monuments honor Confederate losses and mark the location where African American soldiers defended Fort Butler to the death.
The recently renovated Crescent Park is a waterfront venue based on the original 1806 city plan. Once the site of the 1853 Donaldsonville Market, the setting is now home to paved walkways, landscaped lawns, and a central open-air pavilion.
B. Lemann and Brothers Store
In 1836, Jewish businessman Jacob Lemann founded what would become Louisiana’s oldest family-owned department store. The business moved into this building designed in the Italianate architectural style in 1877. This building is the backdrop for a car chase scene in the Bonnie and Clyde mini-series.
Dr. John H. Lowery Medical Office
The 1890 shotgun-style medical office of Dr. John H. Lowery now resides in Louisiana Square. Dr. Lowery was the first African American physician to practice in Ascension Parish. He became one of the city’s most successful businessmen, eventually accumulating fifty properties in town.
The former Bittersweet Plantation (c. 1850) is now the home of internationally-celebrated Cajun chef John Folse.
St. Peter’s Methodist Episcopal Church
Mayor Pierre Landry was the first pastor of the African American St. Peters United Methodist Church. According to the cornerstone, the original 1866 church was rebuilt in 1895. Of all the buildings in town, this structure was the most visually appealing to me, and I would love to see the property receive its due restoration and preservation.
Mistretta Grocery Store
The Mistretta Grocery Store (c. 1850) has at various times served as a saloon and brothel. Ladies of the evening would vocally advertise their services from windows on the upper floor.
River Road African American Museum
The River Road African American Museum was based at Tezcuco Plantation prior to the 2003 fire that destroyed the historic home. Fortunately, the museum collection was spared and moved to its current home in Donaldsonville. The museum is dedicated to preserving the history and culture of African Americans tied to the rural communities along the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge.
The RRAAM’s education collection is housed nearby at the Central Agricultural Schoolhouse, one of 400 original Rosenwald schools from across Louisiana that was salvaged and moved to this location. This site is also home to a lovely Freedom Garden, with plantings of edible and medicinal varieties historically grown by slaves in the region, some native to Africa. The garden honors the memory of fugitive slaves and Louisiana’s Underground Railroad. The property also features a sugar cane planting machine designed by African American inventor Leonard Julien, Sr.
A c. 1860 slave cabin is the only structure of its type located in Donaldsonville’s historic district. The house’s in-town setting remains a mystery to local historians.
True Friends Hall
The True Friends Hall (c. 1883) once served as a meeting place for black political organizations and fraternal orders. The associated benevolent society provided medical and burial insurance for members. The hall was also an entertainment venue for plays, dances, and concerts by artists such as Fats Domino and Joe Tex.
Restoration and Preservation Projects
Like many American cities, Donaldsonville is actively working to renovate and preserve historical buildings, such as the Lowery-Brazier House (c. 1890). Partnerships between local governments, historic trust foundations, and federal grants are key for these urban renewal projects.
A few Donaldsonville homeowners have created a contagion by picking up a bucket of paint and encouraging their neighbors to do the same. When everyone pitches in, a lot can be accomplished, as evidenced by certain historic shotgun-style homes where renovation has already begun.
There are three main historic cemeteries in Donaldsonville: one Catholic, one Jewish, and one Protestant.
As an eccentric traveler who is fascinated by cemeteries, the stories they tell, and the mysteries they hold, I was happy all three were included on my itinerary.
Ascension of Our Lord Catholic Cemetery
The Ascension of Our Lord Catholic Cemetery (c. 1775) is located several blocks from the church. This cemetery is unique in that it has never been racially segregated. It also is the final resting place of both Union and Confederate soldiers.
Bikur Sholim Jewish Cemetery
The Biker Sholim Cemetery was founded in 1856 on land donated to the synagogue by the Roman Catholic Church. Although there is no longer a sizable Jewish community in town, many prominent historical families are buried there. I was puzzled by the Himmler family name on one of the tombstones.
Donaldsonville Protestant Cemetery
Situated between the Catholic and Jewish cemeteries is the 1875 Donaldsonville Protestant Cemetery. In Christian tradition, graves typically run east and west as a metaphor for birth and death, the sun rising in the east and setting in the west. Bodies are positioned with the head facing east because of the Christian belief that Jesus will return in the eastern sky. I noticed a strange occurrence while scanning the burial plots. Some graves were positioned east and west, while others were positioned north and south.
The Raylin House
The pre-1871 Raylin House is a fully-restored Queen Anne-style B&B owned and managed by Jeffery Bean and Michael Smith. It is one of Donaldsonville’s historic homes that has been lovingly renovated and preserved for posterity.
In addition to the home’s four fully-appointed suites, the property features a front porch, perfect for sitting and relaxing, as well as a backyard pool area with a bar and grill.
Depending on clientele, the property functions either as a B&B or as corporate housing, defined as extended stays that do not include breakfast. I rarely mention lodging rates in my articles, but you can’t beat the Raylin House weekly corporate rate of $350.
The Raylin House is filled with many fine antiques, works of art, and elegant decor, but my favorite piece perhaps, is the Alvin Batiste painting depicting Jeff and Michael actively restoring their home.
Louisiana is my favorite foodie state, and Donaldsonville’s dining establishments have reinforced that affection.
My first meal in town was lunch at Café LaFourche, appropriately named for its location on the bayou from which it takes its name. I sampled turtle soup topped with a sherry floater for the first time, but the highlight of the meal was Shrimp LaFourche, an angel hair pasta with a triple sec-flavored cream sauce.
The First and Last Chance Café
The First and Last Chance Café would not qualify as fine dining, but it is a fun local hangout in business since 1921. The café took its name from its position as the only stop on the Union Pacific rail line between New Orleans and Baton Rouge.
The Grapevine Café
The Grapevine Café is Donaldsonville’s best offering for fine dining in a casual atmosphere. The firecracker shrimp, crab cakes, parmesan chicken, and stuffed redfish are all excellent dishes. My most intriguing moment of the evening, however, was sharing the men’s restroom with an Alvin Batiste painting of Jesus walking on water.
Driving the Sunshine Bridge across the Mississippi River from Donaldsonville to Gonzales was like entering another world, even though I was still in Ascension Parish.
While Donaldsonville has historical charm, Gonzales is an enterprising modern city. The municipality’s growth began when the Louisiana Railway came through town, followed by Airline Highway, and ultimately Interstate 10.
Gonzales was finally incorporated as a city in 1977, and today it is home to commercial properties such as the Tanger Outlet and the Lamar Dixon Expo Center. But Gonzales’ greatest claim to fame is its title as the Jambalaya Capital of the World.
Jambalaya is a traditional meat and rice recipe seasoned with the “holy trinity” of onion, peppers, and celery. The dish achieved international exposure with the release of the eponymous 1952 hit single by Hank Williams, a song that has been covered countless times over the ensuing decades.
Jambalaya Park is a well-designed multi-purpose facility run by the City of Gonzales. The park offers recreational options for visitors of all ages, and true to its name, architectural elements incorporate the jambalaya cast iron pot and paddle motif.
The Jambalaya Park pool is undoubtedly the most popular feature of the complex, but visitors will also enjoy concerts in the amphitheater, playing in the splash park, and fishing along Bayou Francois.
My favorite park element were the clear meditation and reflection ponds stocked with blooming waterlilies and fish.
Jambalaya Festival and World Championship
As fate would have it, my visit to Gonzales ended up being the weekend of the annual Jambalaya Festival, a Memorial Day tradition since 1968.
Like most regional themed events, the Jambalaya Festival offers its share of carnival rides, food vendors, live music, and of course a beauty pageant. But the highlight of the festival without question is the Jambalaya World Championship cooking competition.
I arrived early on Saturday to witness the contest at its various stages and heats. All competitors are delivered identical ingredients for chicken jambalaya, and no additional seasonings are allowed. These two-member teams must do their own prep, build and maintain an open fire, and cook their jambalaya in a cast iron cauldron within the allotted time.
Presentation is key, and teams take great care to ensure that perfect chicken pieces and separate grains of rice are on top.
While observing the competition, I got to meet the judges, learn about the scoring process, and see a Jamablaya World Champion ring.
Across Bayou Francois, the Jambalaya Mini Pot Contest was in full swing. This competition also has strict rules, required ingredients, and cooking over an open fire. But in this competition the meat is pork and sausage, and the vessel a one-quart cast iron pot.
I returned to the festival in the evening for my own taste test. In the opinion of this amateur, the pork and sausage jambalaya beat the chicken jambalaya, hands down!
In between my morning and evening visits to the Jambalaya Festival, I rode out to a couple of key sites in Ascension Parish. First up, The Cajun Village, a collection of specialty shops located in the small town of Sorrento.
As a history buff, I was captivated by the 1800s-era Acadian structures assembled on site, and especially the mammoth antique tractor in the barn.
Visitors can walk down a path to a fenced alligator pond at the back of the property.
Seven of the historic structures have been restored and now house a variety of specialty shops and a coffee house. My favorite was the Louisiana Pottery shop. A class was in session during my visit, and I was quite impressed with a first-time student’s clay sculpture of La Pietà.
Ascension Parish is home to the historical Houmas House Plantation and Gardens, located at a bend in the Mississippi River in the community of Darrow.
I first wrote about a stop at Houmas House when Jerry and I did a drive through Louisiana’s River Road Plantations. Later, my college roommate and lifetime friend Jim Swilley wrote about Houmas House in his guest post Confessions of a Traveling Cinephile. But this would be my first time to thoroughly explore this lovely historical property.
I have an affinity and spiritual connection to dragonflies. They appear to me often in my travels and have a special meaning to me. Giant dragonflies greeted me at the gift shop entrance to Houmas House, and I noticed recurring dragonfly art on display during my tour of the house and gardens. Later, owner Kevin Kelly shared his connection to dragonflies, and although his experience was different from mine, the meaning was equally as strong.
Exiting the gift shop into the gardens I was immediately struck by the immensity and stunning beauty of the 38-acre estate, a mere fraction of the plantation’s original 10,000 acres.
The 1840 Greek Revival house takes on a different appearance from every angle, especially the rear where it attaches to the original 1770s house. Dubbed “The Sugar Palace” for the plantation’s lucrative crop, the view is sweet from any perspective.
Houmas House was recently voted by readers of USA Today as the No. 1 Louisiana Attraction and as the No. 2 Best Historic Home Tour in the nation. Guides in period costume conduct daily one-hour tours through the 16-room mansion beginning every half hour between 9:30 AM and 7:00 PM.
The Houmas House has been thoroughly restored from years of disrepair, and virtually nothing is off limits on the house tour, including Kevin Kelly’s bedroom and office. Tour guides entertain guests with stories of the Sugar Barons who lived there, educate with facts and statistics from the plantation period, and describe interesting antiques, art, and artifacts, many original to the home.
The Houmas House has been a film location for many movies, television shows, and commercials. It is best known for its exterior shots from the 1964 horror flick “Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte.”
The bedroom where Bette Davis stayed during production is decorated with photos from the shoot.
Houmas House Plantation features three restaurants, a bar, and a wine cellar. I enjoyed the lunch buffet at the Burnside Café. Other facilities on the property may be reserved for weddings and events, as well.
The Turtle Bar was perhaps my favorite place on the grounds. The bar is located in one of the twin hexagonal garçonnières on the property. A garçonnière was traditionally the living quarters of young men on plantations to keep them away from young ladies in the main house.
I may or may not have enjoyed a take-away mojito during my tour of the estate.
Lodging for guests is provided by the Inn at Houmas House, a collection of period cottages that border an alley of ancient oaks. These luxury suites located near the Mississippi River levee feature modern convenience in old-world style. Breakfast and a guided tour of the mansion are included with guest stays.
Gonzales Dining and Lodging
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We Would Love to Hear From You
We enjoy dialogue with our readers, especially when they share off-the-beaten-path destinations and useful travel tips. Have you ever toured Ascension Parish, Louisiana? If so, we would love to hear about your experience. We invite you to leave your comments and questions below, and we always respond!