Heritage resources define community, even in their loss

It’s in times of hardship that a community’s character is revealed. The destruction of the Kate Chopin House by fire this past Wednesday was a harsh test of character for the heritage community in Natchitoches Parish, Louisiana–where I was born, and live still.

The Kate Chopin House was a Creole-style structure in Cloutierville that was named for the groundbreaking feminist author who lived there during the 1880s. The house was important enough to have been named a National Historic Landmark by the United States Department of Interior in 1993.

Just days ago, the house was a testament to what small-town heritage organizations could do. Without the Association for the Preservation of Historic Natchitoches, the house would have been gone decades ago. Local memory had faded so that not many folks remember the extent to which the house had deterioriated before APHN became steward of the property in 1979. The organization invested in several restoration projects, including the installation of central air and heat in 1999.

Indeed, countless people have invested their time and hearts into the restoration of this structure. So much had been done. But the real tragedy lies in how much more could–and would–have been done to make the Kate Chopin house a preservation showcase for the country. There was much to love about it–the architecture, the history, the literary tradition.

Witnessing the house’s utter destruction–not to mention the loss of the entire contents of the Bayou Folk Museum–was a hard pill to swallow. So many locals had donated family heirlooms to the museum that it literally defined the community.

And it’s still defining us even in its loss. By Wednesday evening, representatives from most of the heritage groups in the parish had been to the site and were finding ways to help. Early Thursday morning, students from the Heritage Resources programs at NSU were moving surviving contents to a safe location. The National Park Service offices provided funds and manpower as well. Even Stine Hardware donated many needed supplies to assist the response effort.

And thank heavens for forethought! For folks like Dusty Fuqua who led a Cane River National Heritage Area grant to document the museum’s major contents through his Cultural Lore organization. It was a laborious effort that was only recently completed, and an earnest example of why folks in the heritage community do what they do.

Where do we go from here? With so little left, folks assisting with the recovery effort are taking special care of every item that is pulled from the rubble with some semblance of its original character intact. It’s a process of expanding our collective knowledge about proper conservation response.

And through this process we recognize that even through the smoke of our biggest cultural loss in recent memory, we have more resources, better knowledge and stronger determination to do the right thing. There’s a measure of comfort in that realization.

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