The Narcisse Prud’homme Plantation
The Narcisse Prud’homme Plantation Home or Beau Fort as it is known today is one of the jewels of the Cane River National Heritage Area.
Beau Fort is an early Creole-influenced residence built between 1790 and 1821. It is one of the oldest plantations located along Cane River in Natchitoches Parish, Louisiana and reflects the region’s French Creole history and architecture.
Beau Fort acquired its name from a local legend that the home was built upon the original site of Fort Charles, one of the first forts in the area. Over the course of two centuries, Beau Fort has been immaculately restored and preserved so that future generations may enjoy its unique architecture and history.
The Unknown Architects Of Beau Fort
Ancient Building Materials
The Natchitoches Tobacco Boom & The Beginning of Beau Fort
Spain governed the colony of Louisiana for nearly four decades from 1763 through 1802, returning it to France for a few months before the Louisiana Purchase conveyed it to the United States in 1803.
Beginning in 1770, the Spanish crown promoted the growth of the Louisiana tobacco culture by requiring the royal tobacco monopoly in Mexico to purchase the entire crop from the Natchitoches area. Soon the Louisiana product was in high demand, its quality to be judged to be among the best in North America.
When Spain acquired Louisiana in 1763, only 49 Natchitoches planters harvested 80,000 pounds of tobacco per year. By 1791, 83 planters in the Natchitoches area yielded more than 700,000 pounds of tobacco.
Tobacco production flourished so quickly that by 1789 warehouses in Spain and Mexico had huge surpluses on hand. Mexico stopped importing Louisiana tobacco altogether and Spain cut its quota to 40,000 pounds, leaving Natchitoches planters without buyers.
The Rachal Home Site
Through a Spanish Land Grant accorded in the 1780’s, Louis Barthelemy Rachal was deeded the land on which Beau Fort was built. During that time period, it was common to receive land grants in Spanish colonial territories after living and cultivating a piece property for a period of time.
The land Rachal was deeded lie adjacent to the Cane River. At the time, the Cane River was a main tributary of the Red River.
Rachel farmed the land along with his wife, Marie Francois Grillette, and their children. The main cash crops of Rachal’s farm included the well-known Natchitoches tobacco, dried indigo (used for making blue dye), and wax myrtle (used for making candles).
On March 3, 1807, following the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, Rachal received a patent to the land from the United States government.
The Joyous Coast
Upon Louis Rachal’s death in 1833, his estate was sold to the neighboring, successful cotton planter Jean Pierre Emmanuel Prud’homme.
Jean Pierre Emmanuel is widely credited as being the first farmer west of the Mississippi River to cultivate cotton. Eventually, because long-staple cotton of excellent quality grew readily in the region, the technology for processing it was available (cotton gin), steam powered riverboats enabled export of the crop, and labor necessary to cultivate cotton existed (slaves), cotton became the main crop of the Cane River region.
The area from Natchitoches to Cloutierville in Louisiana along the Red River became known as Le Cote Joyeuse, the “joyous coast” because of the bountiful cotton production.
But not everyone experienced the “joys” of the coast. While the local lucrative cotton industry was built upon the backs of enslaved people of color, the “joys of the coast” were largely reserved for successful planters and their progeny.
The Prud’homme Main House
The modern day Beau Fort plantation home was built upon the Rachal land by Jean Pierre Emmanuel Prud’homme for his second oldest son, Louis Narcisse Prud’homme, and his family. Louis Narcisse married Marie Therese Elizabeth Metoyer in 1806 and from 1807 to 1817 the couple had seven children.
Louis Narcisse went on to increase his holdings and acquire Cherokee Plantation for his daughter and son-in-law, Clairesse and Emile Sompayrac. Oaklawn Plantation was also built for Louis Narcisse’s son, Achille Prud’homme.
After the death of Louis Narcisse, his son, Louis Narcisse, II, assumed control of the plantation. At that point in time the French tradition of “primogeniture” was followed and Beau Fort was passed on to the oldest living son of each generation.
By the start of the Civil War, Louis Narcisse, II, and his wife Caroline Noyrit, farmed more than 1,000 acres with their ten children. In addition to serving as living quarters, Beau Fort also functioned as a front office for their thriving enterprise. The plantation complex included numerous dependency buildings, such as barns, sheds, and slave dwellings.
The plantation survived drought, Reconstruction, the boll weevil, and the Great Depression. The descendants of Narcisse Prud’homme continued to operate it after the Civil War with the labor of many freed slaves, who stayed on as hired hands or sharecroppers well into the 20th century. As late as the 1960’s, more than a dozen families lived in small cabins in the immediate vicinity and worked the land. Cost effective, large scale mechanized farm equipment eventually replaced the local labor pool.
The Cloutier Restoration
In 1920, the Prud’homme heirs sold Beau Fort to Charles Edgar Cloutier. In 1937, Charles Cloutier’s son, C. Vernon Cloutier, and his wife, Helen Elizabeth Williams, moved into the home. On a freezing New Year’s Eve in 1937 after their Christmas wedding, the Cloutiers moved into, as Mrs. Cloutier would later describe, “a home where floors collapse, walls teeter, and ghosts dance.” According to the accounts of Miss Cloutier, at one time before the restoration of Beau Fort, hay was stored in parts of the house. During prohibition, a distilling operation headquartered in the home produced illegal liquor.
“Miss Beth” Cloutier, as she was affectionately known, would become the first person in Natchitoches to restore one of the original plantation homes. Miss Beth was something of a Renaissance Woman. Her education began at St. Mary’s Academy, continued to Sacred Heart Academy in New Orleans, and Northwestern State University where she majored in home economics and French.
Miss Beth attended the Sorbonne in Paris, France, where she received a diploma in French history of arts and architecture. Returning to Natchitoches, she served for 6 years as a supervisor in the French and English departments at Northwestern State.
Over the course of decades, Miss Beth transformed Beau Fort into a picturesque historic landmark for Natchitoches Parish, noteworthy for gracious living and wonderful parties. In 1976, Beau Fort was placed on the U.S. Department of Interior’s National Register of Historic Places.
The Brittains Open Beau Fort To The Public
After Miss Beth Cloutier’s death, her niece, Ann Brittain, acquired Beau Fort and opened it the public. The home hosted historic tours, political gatherings, over 500 weddings, and a host of other special events.
The uniqueness of the home coupled with its vast collection of French Creole furnishings and fine art drew busloads of visitors to Natchitoches Parish.
By opening Beau Fort to the public, the Brittain family helped introduce Natchitoches to tourists from all over the world. Beau Fort would become key to establishing the little community of Natchitoches as a premiere tourist destination.
The Vadnais Renovation
In 2003, Molara and Kenneth Vadnais of Santa Barbara, California purchased Beau Fort from the Brittain family. The Vadnais set about to renovate the home by preserving original features at any cost, while upgrading those parts of the home that were modified in the past to modern standards commensurate with retaining “the feel” of the old house. Local famed historical artisan, Joel Braud, was commissioned to oversee all aspects of the renovation.
The Vadnais replaced all of the plumbing and heating and undertook extensive rewiring. Flooring was replaced with like wooden materials from demolished old buildings. The interior walls in some areas of the home were covered with gypsum wallboard. The kitchen, which was added to the building in the 1940s, was extensively remodeled. The bathrooms were demolished and redone.
In the front East Room, the original bousillage was exposed and lime washed as it would have been with the original construction. As workers removed wallpaper and wood sheeting to uncover the original bousillage, a most interesting historical discovery was made. Near the fireplace, workers found a hand hewn drawn sketch of a young girl that had been made on the original raw bousillage. The drawing was covered for protection with a picture frame, and remains viewable by visitors. Although by an unknown artist, the little drawing is a remarkably direct connection to the original inhabitants of the house.