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Exploring the Great River Road through South Louisiana

Great River Road

The Great River Road National Scenic Byway follows the course of the Mississippi River for 3,000 miles, from northern Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. The route passes through 10 states, including Louisiana, the only state where the Great River Road runs along both banks of the Mississippi River. The historic national byway connects New Orleans to Baton Rouge in South Louisiana, shaping culture and commerce. In the 18th century, huge agricultural estates prospered along the River Road before the start of the Civil War. 

The Great River Road Museum

The Great River Road Museum in Darrow, Louisiana, offers an honest retelling of the Antebellum period. It serves as a love letter to Louisiana, highlighting its infamous characters, customs, and claims to fame. 

Great River Road Museum

Located next to Houmas House, the largest sugar cane plantation in the South, The Great River Road Museum doesn’t sugarcoat how fortunes were made along the River Road.

Great River Road Museum

Exploring the Great River Road’s Rich History

My guide, Jim Blanchard, is an artist and historian whose research informs the museum’s exhibits. Some items on view are from his private collection. 

Karen With Jim Blanchard at Great River Road Museum

“We have about 20,000 square feet of exhibit space here, showing and focusing on the Great River Road from New Orleans to Baton Rouge. The rich soil on each side of the river created the greatest empires of sugar, sugar cane farmers, and sugar industry, which built Louisiana,” Jim says.

Great River Road Museum Inside

A large map of the River Road’s agricultural estates anchors the exhibit as the starting point for exploration. The narrative of each state unfolds on the surrounding walls with photos, timelines, and historical facts. 

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The Untold Stories on the River Road

“Many of these properties detailed here had owners of different races, including free blacks who were part of society. They owned plantations and slaves,” Jim says.

Great River Road Museum

The exhibit chronicles more than 600 homes along this stretch of River Road, most of which no longer exist. The museum doesn’t shy away from the historical fact that people owned people on the River Road properties that prospered growing sugar, indigo tobacco, and cotton. 

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The Africans in Louisiana exhibit shows all sides of the story. A scene depicting a slave auction unfolds at the entrance.  “Slave auctions were very popular at that time, mostly in New Orleans and Baton Rouge,” Jiim says.

Great River Road Museum

Disturbing imagery and effigies offer an honest retelling of life along the River Road, including a costume worn by the grand wizard of the KKK.

Karen with Jim at Great River Road Museum

“We have this costume on display to remind people of a terrible chapter in Louisiana’s history. It was wrong then. It’s still wrong today. We can’t go back and change it. What we can learn from it and move on,” Jim says.

 Great River Road Museum

Louisiana’s Origins: From Native Americans to Napoleon’s Legacy

The museum traces Louisiana’s origins from its earliest settlers, including the Houmas Indians who once inhabited this site, to the death mask of Napoleon Bonaparte III, who sold Louisiana to the United States. 

 Great River Road Museum

“Very seldom do people talk about the Native Americans who arrived here along the River Road in the 1700s as the region’s first explorers. We have three of the journals written by the native Louisiana Indians, which include drawings of plant life and animals. Everything is documented in those journals.”

 Great River Road Museum

Artifacts and Relics: Preserving Louisiana’s Civil War Heritage

A vast collection of artifacts and relics from the Civil War and the South’s Succession are on loan from private collections. “This is the first time this flag has been unfurled and put on display,” Jim says.

 Great River Road Museum

Throughout the museum, a cast of Louisiana characters in wax makes appearances. “We acquired these figures from the wax museum in New Orleans after it closed down. We’ve restored them and put them back in to tell the stories of Louisiana.”

Great River Road Museum
Great River Road Museum

“Governor Edwin Edwards lived right down the road before he passed away. He came here and spent the day with his wife and his son. And he posed with his wax figure, and it was just quite a moment.”

Great River Road Museum

We pause to listen to a restored pipe organ originally housed in the Lyric Theater in New Orleans, where jazz greats performed. Today, the organ produces computer-generated tunes on this stage.

Karen and Jim at Karen at Great River Road Museum

Unique Collections: Pipes, Steamships, and Ribbon Maps

One of the museum’s newest exhibits is a collection of more than 5000 pipes. “South Louisiana, along the river,  is the only place in the world where Perrigo tobacco is grown, and the collection shows pipes for smoking it.” 

Karen at Great River Road Museum

Steamships also shaped culture and commerce along the Mississippi River. A glass case holds unfurled ribbon maps depicting every family farm and plantation between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, popular steamship souvenirs.

 Great River Road Museum

From Mardi Gras costumes to nostalgic items, the museum also serves as a love letter to Louisiana. It’s funded by a Federal Department of Transportation Grant as part of the National Byways program to introduce people to Louisiana’s roads, bayous, and rivers. The owner of Houmas House put up a 20 percent match and donated the land to build the museum.

 Great River Road Museum

What to know if you go:

To learn more, watch my tour of The Great River Road Museum

If you plan to explore the River Road, The Great River Road National Scenic Byway pilot’s wheel signs will guide you to a network of Interpretive Centers, where you’ll learn about the important people and places along the Mississippi River. 

Picture of Karen LeBlanc

Karen LeBlanc

Karen LeBlanc is a freelance writer living in Orlando, Florida with many published bylines in magazines, newspapers, and multimedia sites. As a professional lifestyle writer, Karen specializes in art, architecture, design, home interiors and personality profiles. Karen is the writer, producer and host of the streaming series, The Design Tourist (www.TheDesignTourist.com) that brings viewers a global dose of design inspiration with episodes featuring the latest looks and trends from the world’s premiere design events and shows. She also publishes a quarterly magazine on design travel that you can read by clicking the link: https://thedesigntourist.com/the-magazine/ Her journalism background includes seven years on-air experience as a TV news reporter and anchor covering a range of issues from education to politics. Her educational credentials include a Master of Arts in Mass Communications from Northeast Louisiana University and a Bachelor of Arts in Communications from Louisiana State University. Throughout her career, Karen has written and produced dozens of documentaries and videos for educational, commercial, corporate, and governmental clients and appeared in many TV and video productions as a professional host.

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Karen LeBlanc

Karen LeBlanc is a travel host and writer with a popular travel show, The Design Tourist, and a companion lifestyle blog. As a widely published travel journalist and content creator, Karen is a member of the North American Travel Journalists Association. She also serves as the Design and Travel editor of the national lifestyle magazine, LaPalme. Karen believes that every destination has a story to tell through its local art, architecture, culture, and craft. This immersive creative exploration begins with authentic accommodations where the narrative of place unfolds through art, accessories, accouterments, furnishings, fixtures, and food. 

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