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After earning a master’s degree in public history from the University of New Orleans, Natalie Roblin set her sights on historic preservation initiatives within her home parish of Avoyelles. Through engaging local governments and the community, she secured the designation in 2018 for Bayou de Glaises Cultural District and now serves as the liaison between the district and the Louisiana Division of the Arts. Roblin is driving change, awareness, and funding to the area. We caught up with her for an interview about her work in Avoyelles.

By Francesca Vega, Director of Civic Design & Cultural Districts

Please tell us about yourself.

I’m a seventh-generation Avoyellean who was born and raised in Hamburg (within the Bayou de Glaises Cultural District). My family and I answered the call to move back home in 2021 after living in New Orleans for several years. Growing up in a historic home, I’ve always had an interest and passion for history. After working in communications and marketing for several years, I went back to school to get my master’s degree from UNO. I work in marketing and public history, and much of the work I do has given me the opportunity to bridge the gap between research and the public.

How did you get involved with the Louisiana Cultural Districts Program?

During grad school, I interned with the Vieux Carré Commission under Renee Bourgogne and worked at Longue Vue House and Gardens for several years. I became interested in the role historic properties play in community and cultural preservation. There are several historic buildings in the district, and I was researching rehabilitation opportunities that were available in the state. That’s when I came across the Cultural District Program and began the process of applying.

Tell us the background of the Bayou de Glaises Cultural District.

We are one of the largest cultural districts in the state, encompassing the towns of Simmesport and Moreauville and the communities that surround those two towns. Because we are a district made up of several rural communities, there’s lots of overlap on people, projects and resources. So, we’re big, but also small. Agriculture is the main economic and cultural driver of the area, and we have several families who are third and fourth generation farmers. We named the district after the bayou that runs throughout the district. For centuries, it has connected us culturally and economically.
Before the flood of 1927, communities were built around Bayou des Glaises. Farmers planted on fertile land adjacent to the bayou, and bridges were built to accommodate the high and low stages of the water. The flood of 1927 was a significant turning point in the landscape of the district and is a significant historical and cultural marker for the area. Additionally, Louisiana French is still spoken by members of the community and is a prominent part of the history of the district.

How has becoming a Cultural District impacted your local arts community?

Becoming a cultural district has given us an opportunity to promote the arts and crafts community that exist within our area. It’s also encouraged us to think more creatively and broadly about the different types of artists that we have. Through the Cultural District Program, we’ve become more educated on folk art and have been able to identify local practices and customs that fall under this category. In doing so, it’s opened more opportunities for people to share their work and build connections between art and culture.

Are there any prevalent architectural styles or historic locations in the district? What significance do they hold?

Within the district, we have eight sites listed in the National Register of Historic Places, including a pre-Civil War dog trot style home, a historic floodgate, a historic school building that survived the Flood of 1927 and a fort. Perhaps the most significant to the district are the buildings and structures that survived the flood. In addition, there are properties that were once sites of plantations. In the future, we’d like to research these sites further in hopes of expanding upon the historical narratives to include the stories of enslaved persons.

The Louisiana Division of Historic Preservation awarded Bayou de Glaises Cultural District a grant for an oral history project in 2021. Can you tell us about the project?

If you ask anyone in our community what makes the district unique, one of the top answers is going to be our language — the French idioms and phrases sprinkled throughout conversations in English. Our community is largely French Creole descending from some of the first French families to arrive in Avoyelles in the 18th century. The Louisiana French dialect of the area is very unique and reflects the influences of the colonial French, African and indigenous inhabitants of the area over centuries. Of course, there are fewer and fewer speakers with each generation, and as an organization that promotes cultural and heritage preservation, we felt that one of our first projects should be to try and capture the language of our contemporary Louisiana French speakers.

We were able to collect nine oral histories throughout the district and other parts of the parish: eight in Louisiana French and one in English. The interviews were conducted by Louisiana French speakers familiar with the Avoyelles dialect. We then worked with Dr. Nathan Rabalais and Jonathan Olivier to have the interviews transcribed in both Louisiana French and English. We’ve had wonderful support and feedback on the project, and we definitely plan to conduct more interviews and expand our efforts to keep Louisiana French alive in our area.

In addition to working with the Louisiana Division of the Arts and Division of Historic Preservation, you also partner with the Atchafalaya National Heritage Area (ANHA). Tell us about what this has been like?

The ANHA has been an invaluable resource to us. They’ve become the friends we can call and say, “I have kind of a crazy idea,” and they say “Sure, why not?” Honestly, I can say this about every person we’ve worked with under the Louisiana Office of Cultural Development. In addition to the Division of the Arts, they have guided us on several projects. With them as a partner, we’ve been able to expand upon ideas we had for the district.

Last year we completed a promotional video highlighting the cultural assets of the district, which was supported by the ANHA, and we’re currently working on a public art installation
in Simmesport. The ANHA highlights the importance of the waterways to our culture and history, which is something we work to do in the district. Having their support and knowledge in thinking about ways we can utilize Bayou des Glaises as a cultural asset has been so wonderful.

What guidance would you offer to fellow Cultural District Liaisons facing challenges, obstacles or skepticism?

Don’t hesitate to consider your community. There is something special to be found everywhere and, chances are, if you’re considering a cultural district in your area, then you already have a mental database of all the things that make your town or community special. I would encourage liaisons to reach out to cultural districts that inspire them and connect with their liaison as sort of a mentor. It can be intimidating when you’re first starting out, but having someone who’s been through the process is such an asset.

Thankfully, we’ve had the full support of our community, but if you’re in a situation where you’re facing skepticism, providing transparent information to the public about your projects is a reliable way to build goodwill and encourage involvement. And last, but definitely not least, lean on your state resources. They will encourage you, connect you and reignite your passion
when you feel as though you’re hitting a roadblock.

What is your most ambitious dream for the Cultural District?

My dream has always been, and still is, to create a space in the district that serves the community. A place where people can gather and live and be in our culture. There is a historic general store/post office located in the district that we’d love to restore or at least preserve the elements that we are able to. It’s quite a daunting project, but we’d like to give it a try. Either way, a community space is the ultimate dream. Our preservation efforts are focused on researching and recording our cultural markers, but I also want our community to think of them as natural parts of themselves that they can rediscover and reconnect with, rather than moments in history that they have to study and work to remember. And I’d love to be able to provide them with a space to do that.

Additionally, 2027 will mark 100 years since the Flood of 1927, and although most residents of the district are at least one generation removed from experiencing the flood firsthand, it still permeates the narrative of our area. Another dream I would love to work on is an interactive exhibit throughout the district at locations where the flood most impacted the community and highlight how the community responded.