Historic Natchitoches Mystique Adds More Flavor To Prep Classic Week

by Doug Ireland // Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame Chairman

For the first time, the Prep Classic will be staged in Louisiana’s oldest city.

Not New Orleans. Natchitoches is five years OLDER, founded in 1714 and by that time, bustling.

It can be a few degrees colder in winter, yes. But it’ll be 65 here this week, not long before Santa Claus makes his global run. Throughout four days of LHSAA football championship games, daytime highs should be about 60, while evening temps will sink only into the mid-to-low 40s. Cool, maybe even chilly after halftime.

But have no fears of the frigid conditions encountered in Shreveport in 2005 after Katrina forced relocation of the championships to Independence Stadium. We’ll have football weather, definitely no need for long johns or ice scrapers.

Now that your weather anxiety has been relieved, let’s get to reasons why you ought to be pleased to come to Natty, as it’s called by lots of people younger than 35 and/or those who don’t want to spell or say Natchitoches.

First, that name. It’s a result of the blended heritage of Native American, French and Spanish peoples whose paths crossed here beginning in the late 1500s. 

Even before it was officially named as a settlement built around Fort St. Jean Baptiste (which has been rebuilt so you can visit), it was a focal point on El Camino Real, the road that traders and travelers used to migrate toward Mexico, and what became Texas. In fact, at one early stage of Lone Star State history (use this to stump friends to the west), the capital of Texas was 14 miles west of Natchitoches, at Los Adaes. 

Natchitoches comes up right away in eighth-grade Louisiana History classes. Along with it being hard to spell, it’s tough to say. (Hint – sounds nothing like it looks.)

The story goes that a traveler on Interstate 49 stopped to grab a quick bite while passing through, and after ordering a Whopper, asked the attendant, “Hey, how do you say the name of this place?” 

“Burr-ggrrr King,” was the reply.

Well, Natchitoches is what happened when three cultures got together. And each had different ways to pronounce it. Luckily, it’s infinitely easier to say than to spell: NACK-uh-dish. You might hear Nack-uh-TOSH or something else, but stick with the dish. Or just say you’re going to Natty and act cool. 

Because this is a cool place to be. Not just my take, but something I continually hear from friends who stop by.

It’s not my hometown, but it’s definitely my home. Been here the last 31 years, and a total of 37 including college and a couple more in the ‘80s.

From time to time, I get asked why I’ve stayed in Natchitoches. But nobody who is visiting Natchitoches asks me that. It doesn’t take very long after arrival that you begin to see, and hear, and feel, and taste, why this place is a hard habit to break.

If this is your first trip to the 71457, please don’t cheat yourself and just go to Turpin Stadium and drive home. 

Granted, Turpin is in the heart of one of the prettiest college campuses around. Northwestern State was founded in 1884 (the third-oldest public higher educational institution in our state, behind LSU and Southern), and its’ original building was the antebellum Bullard Mansion, which overlooked the Red River bed down the hill. The Red began changing course in the early 1800s and left a navigable channel known as Cane River that was used by steamboats as late as 1904. Three of Bullard’s four columns still stand, and are illuminated nightly by floodlamps, this time of year bathed in Christmas colors. On national holidays, they stand red, white and blue, just 300 yards north of the stadium. They were a soft blue a few months earlier as NSU showed support for friends at McNeese and the people in and around Lake Charles.

An oxbow of Cane River, Chaplin’s Lake, is the east border of campus, and provides a picturesque setting next to where you’ll likely park, south of Turpin Stadium. 

But before you go to the game (and maybe after), you’ve got to come downtown. Must do.

The Natchitoches National Historic Landmark District actually has its southern edge on campus. Brick-paved Front Street, alongside Cane River, marks the heart of the 33 blocks that were a magnificent setting for the ever-popular 1989 feature film Steel Magnolias (Julia Roberts, Sally Field, and Dolly Parton headed the star-studded cast, and although exaggerated for humor’s sake, the story really happened right here).

The heartbeat of Natchitoches lies right on Front Street where multiple events take place around the year.

All year long, there are lovely homes to savor and Front Street buildings with balconies facing the river with the scenes reminiscent of the French Quarter and the Garden District in the Crescent City.

But this time of year, from the Saturday before Thanksgiving on past New Year’s Day, there are the Christmas Lights. Natchitoches is best known for its Christmas Festival, which spans six weeks when over 38 miles of multi-colored lights cover the Historic District in a spectacle that must be seen to be believed. The lights come on every night at dusk. Fireworks explode over Cane River every Saturday.

Even if you do nothing else than take a short detour downtown after dark, it’s certain to be worthwhile. 

Natty has been known as the City of Lights since before World War II – when Gen. George Patton drove tanks down the bricks, during war games around town, much to the dismay of the genteel women of the community. (Trivia: Natchitoches Parish is the only place Patton ever surrendered. During one maneuver, his troops were well south of town on the east side of Cane River, trying to beat their opponents to Pratt’s Bridge, the only structure spanning the waterway for miles around. Patton’s advance scouts neared the bridge and encountered gunfire. They scurried back to the command post, reported, and after retreating, Patton was outflanked and had to give up. The gunfire that spooked his scouts? Not military troops. Three local teenagers spooked a covey of quail in a grove of pecan trees. No word on what happened to the dimwit scouts.)

Back to downtown. There are dozens of shops and art galleries and several wonderful restaurants, all of them affordable and not upscale. No jacket or tie required. If you’re looking to dine while enjoying an adult beverage, or TVs to check out other sports, there are several excellent and fun options on Front Street, along with Cane River Brewery near campus, and the Mariner’s Restaurant out on the La. 1 bypass, set on Sibley Lake. A good list of eating and lodging choices is available at Natchitoches.com. As you prepare for your trip, you want to use their info-packed Natchitoches.com/LHSAA link.

ALERT – how can I refer to all the good places to eat and not mention the most iconic one? That’s Lasyone’s Restaurant, aka Lasyone’s Meat Pie Kitchen, on Second Street. The Natchitoches meat pie wasn’t invented by the city’s founder, St. Denis, but it’s been perfected since 1967 at Lasyone’s, also a great spot for breakfast and lunch. Meat pies are tasty at all our restaurants, as a meal or appetizer, and even at convenience stores. 

Also must mention a couple more downtown staples: Merci Beaucoup, on Church Street, is a lunch spot also occasionally open for supper. When Oprah Winfrey made a surprise visit to Natty in 2003, she went crazy about the Cajun Potato at Merci Beaucoup, which has awesome desserts, too. Around the corner on Front Street are Mama’s Oyster House and Papa’s, with loaded po-boys, steaks and seafood, and salads, owned by former Cedar Creek HS football coach Corwyn Aldredge and managed by his son Justin, an All-America tight end at NSU. Their Bloody Mary is epic, and so are their desserts made by Corwyn’s wife Missy. Down the street is Maglieaux’s, which has patio dining overlooking the river … and there’s more quality choices within walking distance.

ALERT 2 – as chairman of the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame, I have buried the lead to this story! CORRECTION FOLLOWS. (You’ll appreciate it.)

Hopefully you will make time to enjoy the awe-inspiring Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame and Northwest Louisiana History Museum (LaSportsHall.com) at the north end of Front Street, at the traffic circle. It’s open on Saturday until that night’s 7 p.m. fireworks, then every day during the Prep Classic from 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m.  

Visitors check out multiple exhibits inside the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame

If you mention at the front desk that you’re here for a championship game, you get a $1 discount off the adult $6 admission, or the $5 for students, military and senior citizens. Kids 6 and younger are free.

It’s two stories of our state’s sports history, including lots of prep legends and storylines. There’s something in there that will connect with you. The building itself, designed by Crowley native Trey Trahan and his Trahan Architects firm, was named the best new architectural project in the world when the museum opened in 2013. Second was an addition to the Louvre in Paris. No other North American structure made the top 10. 

Figure on an hour to 90 minutes to make a nice walk through – it can be done a bit faster, or you can linger longer.

For all of the aforementioned appeal – and there’s much more, just check out Natchitoches.com – the biggest impression you’ll leave with, other than the championship game itself, will be how hospitable this quaint city is. It’s a blend of the two Louisianas, with a deep southern Bayou State flavor spicing the beauty of the north Louisiana landscape and its relatively laid-back lifestyle. Even with Covid restrictions, the university’s influence adds immeasurably to the character and flair of the community.

The warmth of the people of Natchitoches is deeply ingrained. Since it came into being, Natchitoches has always been a melting pot of people, those passing through, those staying for a bit, and those who settle. Folks here are welcoming, happy to see you. We’ve been greeting visitors for well over 300 years, and we can’t wait to have you with us.