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Living historians breathe life into historic structures on Pioneer Day

A group of LSUS Alumni volunteer their expertise at local Pioneer Day

The seven historic structures sitting on LSUS’s campus between Ring Road and the University Center provide a glimpse into northwest Louisiana’s past. But on Pioneer Day, more than 50 living historians breathe life into the 19th-century buildings, recreating the daily activities of the region’s inhabitants.

Pioneer Heritage Center comprises seven plantation structures, including the Thrasher House (a log dogtrot) and Caspiana House (the big house from Caspiana Plantation), both listed on the National Register of Historic Places; a detached kitchen; a log single pen blacksmith shop; a doctor's office; a commissary, and a riverfront mission. The structures, exhibits, and artifacts serve as a history laboratory for students and teachers in the humanities and for community groups, tourists, and the general public.

The educational program of the Center has become a model for progressive museum education and has received a commendation for excellence from the American Association for State and Local History. During the school year, students from all grades receive interpretive tours that enrich their classroom studies. The Center regularly sponsors outreach programs such as internships, research seminars, museum professional development workshops, teachers' in-service programs, public symposia, and on-site lectures.

“Living historians can really tie things together,” said Marty Young, director of the Pioneer Heritage Center. “We want people to get a sense of a day in the life and what these people encountered when they got here. “Somebody might notice a primitive clay pitcher in our log dogtrot cabin, and they’ll walk outside and see a potter throwing pots on the wheel. We dressed in clothing from the period and had a seamstress discuss sewing machines and what they had to do by hand back then. They had their own way of doing things, but they got it done.”

Young is a blacksmith, and he fired up his coal-powered forge to show how pioneers crafted tools and other iron implements. “Coal became the primary fuel source after the 1860s,” Young explained. “Before that, people would use homemade charcoal, which they made by burning wood. “Both sources produced about the same heat, but the charcoal burned much faster and tends to spark when you put air to it.”

attendees inside a doctor's office at the LSUS Pioneer Heritage Cultural Center

Other folk-life demonstrators include pine needle basket weavers, quilters, flintknappers, wood carvers, potters, seamstresses, and musicians.

The musical group Circle of Friends will be played in the River Front Mission, which was built in 1930 by First Baptist Church and served the homeless and unemployed near downtown Shreveport.

Elvin Shields grew up on Melrose and Oakland plantations in a family of Natchitoches Parish sharecroppers. Shields, who served in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War, makes twisted-wire toys that were a tradition in the African-American community. Leo Perry, a member of the Choctaw nation, will be one of the flintknappers. Flintknapping is a tool-making method in which a person uses a rock or hammer to strike flint, which removes broad flakes.

The Bossier Parish Historical Center and the Louisiana State Exhibit Museum presented displays of items from the Caddo Native Americans. “It’s important to have as many voices represented as possible so we can present the biggest slice of life,” Young said. “Elvin’s specialty folk art is wire toys he made as a child, but he also is a fabulous storyteller and author.

“Leo is from Oklahoma and was born at what was then called the Indian Hospital. It’s very fitting that he can share the flintknapping art form.”

Other groups in attendance included Walter B. Jacobs Memorial Nature Park, the Scottish Society of Louisiana, and the Cane River National Heritage Area. Shelley Masog demonstrated how to make pysanka eggs, a Ukrainian folk art that involves dyeing, dipping, and waxing eggs.

A Dutch oven cooking group passed out samples of their cuisine as well. “We don’t have food trucks or anything, but Mike (Retch) makes a fabulous pineapple upside-down cake and biscuits,” Young said. “He’ll be cooking throughout the day and will have samples for folks to try. A lot of the vendors will bring wares to sell, including pottery, stone tools, and other things.

“We do encourage that because these folks are out here volunteering their time, so it’s great if they can make something through the sale of their goods. A lot of times people can connect with a vendor to have something specific commissioned at a later date.”

While Young hopes the demonstrations will capture the imagination of a younger generation, he also wouldn’t mind seeing younger people become interested in learning one of the displayed crafts. “It’s not uncommon for everybody in a particular group to be in their 60s or older,” Young explains. “We’ve lost a lot of demonstrators that have either become too old or have passed away.

“One example is Chief Rufus Davis of the Adai Caddo Tribe. He was a big proponent of spreading the Adai culture throughout the region. But I would love to have some 30-year-olds take interest in learning these ways so that they can be passed on to future generations.”

All seven historic structures will be open for viewing with a tour guide, including a log dogtrot cabin, the Caspiana House, a detached kitchen, a log blacksmith shop, a doctor’s office, a general store, and a riverfront mission.

The Caspiana House is the focal point and first building the Heritage Center received in 1977. Built in 1856, the Caspiana House was the main dwelling from the Caspiana Plantation, which is just south of what is now Ellerbe Road near the banks of the Red River.

In addition to the buildings themselves, demonstrations about the medical practices, cooking habits, commercial activity and more will be on display.

Pioneer Day is a long-standing LSUS tradition, but the event took place for just the second time since 2018. Rain wiped out the 2019 edition, and the 2020 and 2021 events were canceled by the COVID-19 pandemic. Young and his group did host the event in 2022.

“We’re trying to get back on people’s radars because there are a lot of things happening in Shreveport in October,” Young said. “The big takeaway I would want people to have is that even though we live in a modern society, there are alternative ways to get things done.”


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