I was traveling on Interstate 20 the other day and made a stop in West Monroe, Louisiana. I’ve always loved Antique Alley there and never seem to have enough time to cover the whole strip.
I was glad to check out Miss Kay’s Sweets & Eats. The Duck Dynastypersonality recently opened a bakery and lunch spot in a renovated 1920s-era building that was once West Monroe’s first gas station. I was in a hurry so I grabbed some potato salad to go. (I’m a tough potato salad critic, so if that’s an example of the quality of other items on the menu, I’ll be back!).
I enjoyed the mural on the side of the building (see top of page) and was glad to know the West Monroe Farmers Market wasn’t far away and open six days a week, so I hopped on over. Here are a few pictures from that quick trip.
With the enticing displays of watermelons at the grocery store, you may not feel the need to drive to a produce stand or farmers market to find a juicy sweet one.
But sometimes you find yourself on a Louisiana country road in July, passing handmade signs advertising hay for sale, fresh farm eggs and, less frequently, melons.
I was on such a road, Highway 4 in Bienville Parish, the other day when I came across all of those signs, including one for Plunkett Farms Watermelons near the General Store of Castor.
It actually advertised watermelons and black Angus, but since I didn’t have the need (or room in our Camry) for the latter, I concentrated on the melons.
Highway 4 is already off of the beaten path, but you have to go even farther –another half mile or so on a dirt road–past the main house, rusted tractors and sycamore trees to get to Plunketts 20-acre watermelon patch.
There I found Ronald Plunkett and his helpers under a canopy shading them from the harsh afternoon sun. The melons weren’t piled up there, but I was invited to ride in a cart to the field to pick the one I wanted.
Plunkett himself goes out early in the morning, hand picks the ripe ones and piles them up at the edge of the field. By the time he opens at 7 a.m., there’s often a line of truck peddlers waiting to buy them. Plunkett’s father began growing watermelons 68 years ago, and the Plunketts have sold to Brookshire’s and Walmart until the vendor rules got too onerous for him. He has another 25 acres of watermelons planted elsewhere.
We were on our way to Jonesboro that day, and I would have loved to have chatted more but I did get to ask Plunkett and his helpers how to pick the perfect watermelon–whether you’re in the field, at a farmers market or at Kroger.
“Look for a brown scar. I don’t know why but that’s how I have the best luck,” said one guy. I did a little research online where one report suggested brown scarring or webbing meant there was more pollination of the flowers that produce the fruit on the watermelon vine. More pollination = more sweetness, many reports say.
Other tips I’ve read about include:
(1) a creamy yellow “field spot”
(2) a brown rather than a green stem and
(3) uniformly shaped, whether round or oval.
I asked Plunkett for his best advice:
“If it’s shiny on the outside, it’s not ripe. It dulls as it ripens,” he said.
Whatever method you use, Plunkett said the least is the thumping.
“You’re not doing anything but making your finger sore.”
Castor is about an hour southeast of Shreveport and 18 miles west of Saline, a town known for its watermelons. Along my drive the other day, I found some other signs. One advertised Saline Watermelons and gave a telephone number. Another house with a patch outside simply had “Melons” painted on a white sheet. Bienville Parish is a colorful slice of rural Louisiana. If you want to learn more, read here or here.
Something is always going on at Faith Farms & Arena on Highway 527 in the southern Bossier Parish community of Elm Grove.
Every other Sunday afternoon there’s a farmers market with a neighborly feel. I went just before the Fourth of July and found fresh tomatoes, sweet corn, juicy watermelon and beef for the grill. Plus, there was plenty to take home for the freezer — purple hull peas, pintos, crowders and such.
The farm has been owned by Larry and Debbie Roberts for more than 20 years and is now managed by grandson Colton Wilkins, who has cattle and horses and typical agriculture crops of wheat, corn & hay.
But there’s so much more to this family-run operation that will keep you coming back again and again.
Colton’s mother, Candy Wilkins, the Roberts’ daughter, is the event manager and has been adding activities during the past year to meet the need for more family entertainment. Besides the biweekly farmers market, there’s:
*Farm animal petting zoo, play area and pony rides. (You also can bring your own horse ($10 fee) have a good place to ride.
*Sunday lunch and Monday/Wednesday suppers. Candy’s husband Buck is usually frying catfish for lunch on farmer’days ($10). Meals are offered for sale (eat in or to go) on Monday and Wednesday nights for an affordable $7 to $10.
*Kernel Kobb’s Corn Maze. Beginning Sept. 23 through Oct. 31, Kernal Kobb’s corn maze will bring more activity here along with haunted house — the Gentleman Death’s Shocktale Show, run by Shreveport’s longstanding Gas Light Players theatre group.
There’s a plethora of activity throughout the year–horse riding events, Valentine’s Dinner, an Easter egg hunt, Polar Express family movie night, bible studies, concerts and charity benefits.
You don’t have to drive far from Shreveport-Bossier City to experience a little country life. If you only have a few minutes, drop by and pick up some fresh produce or a meal to go. If you want to while away an afternoon arrive early, eat lunch in and air conditioned portion of the arena, let kids play or ride ponies and enjoy a fun Sunday summer afternoon on the farm.
Next Farmer’s Market Dates: July 16 & 30 noon to 4 p.m.
I just went berry picking at Shuqualak (pronounced “sugar lock” Farms in Frierson.
There’s usually plenty of berry options at local farmers markets, but there’s something about donning the straw hat and watching the sun rise as you head to a rural berry patch to pick your own.
Broox and Judy Burris run the blueberry and blackberry operation started by Broox’s father in 1986. The land has been in Broox’s family since 1916. He’s the fourth generation owner.
During berry season, the farm is open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. seven days a week. There are about four acres each of blueberry and blackberry bushes. Check out the Shuqualak Farms Facebook page for up-to-date status.
Since I did get up before dawn, I was the first customer that day. I got a chance to chat with Judy, a fun person and a great source of information on how to get the best berries. “A gentle touch and they fall in your hands. If you have to tug, they’re not ripe enough yet.”
Shuqualak is a town in Mississippi. Broox’s father came across the town while traveling and felt it would be a good name for the farm since he called his wife “Sug” and the Choctaw Indian name meant “hog heaven.” He asked the mayor of Shuqualak if it was OK to use it.
So it’s Shuqualak Farms, but you won’t find any hogs there, no sugar cane — just blackberries and blueberries bursting with flavor as well as antioxidants, fiber, Vitamin C, Vitamin K, manganese and a host of other nutrients that put them on many “super food” lists.
Shuqualak Farms is off Highway 175 and a 20-minute drive from the edge of Shreveport. I have ridden this route several times with bicycle groups. Just before you get to the Shuqualak Farms turn, you’ll pass Bit’s Country Store, our bicycle group’s stop for breakfast.
Whether you’re on a bicycle or not, I suggest you stop in and grab a sausage egg biscuit. The biscuits are melt-in-your-mouth fluffy.
Highway 175 intersects Harts Island Road, a popular Shreveport bicycling route. It’s about 11 miles from the LSU Pecan Station to Bit’s Country Store and less than a half mile from the store’s biscuits to Shuqualak’s blueberry and blackberry bushes.
In Louisiana I’ve always thought April was for strawberries, May was for blackberries, June for blueberries and July was the best time for peaches. But that may vary from year to year and by fruit variety. Like autumn fall color, berry season is short so you want to pick while you can.
“Mother Nature has the final say. This year we didn’t have a winter so the blueberries that normally just begin to get ripe June 1 have been early this year,” Judy said.
After you’ve filled your bucket, return to the Blueberry Barn, an old farmhouse built before the turn of the century, and sample a blueberry popsicle. You can buy some to take home or buy the syrup to make your own.
Blueberries and blackberries are $14 for five quarts if you pick your own. Blueberries also are usually available pre-picked for $20.
There’s also smaller kid’s buckets, picnic tables, harness buckets so you can pick with two hands, even canes to borrow for balance.
Locating Mt. Driskill, Louisiana’s highest point, is no easy task. For starters, it’s only 535 feet so finding a summit that juts up from the “hills” of eastern Bienville Parish is difficult from the road.
And since it is the third lowest state summit (behind Florida and Delaware), Mt. Driskill is hardly a tourist attraction. Directions aren’t prominent until you get to the trailhead in the parking lot of a church.
On our first attempt, we set out with Google maps. I had directions, but hubby wanted to drive through Ringgold rather than the planned Arcadia, which messed up my navigation. Even my Verizon had pockets of no service as we wandered around Bienville Parish.
We were close, but missed a sneaky turn on Highway 507 as we ran out of daylight. We wound up at Liberty Hill church and cemetery, which I thought might have been the entrance from my last visit to Mt. Driskill in 1986.
But, it wasn’t the right church. Rural churches look a lot alike, particularly in a 30-year-old memory. Since you don’t want to find yourself in those parts with less than a quarter tank of gas, we drove six miles to Bryceland Mall (that’s the real name) to fill up and headed back to Shreveport.
Next week we made a return trip with precise directions I had printed out. That took us to Mt. Zion Presbyterian Church and the Mt. Driskill trailhead.
It’s a pleasant hike the mile or so up with only two real inclines that caused much resistance. It would be prettier in the fall with the hardwoods sporting color, but the forestland on this cold January day suited us just fine.
Although finding Mt. Driskill wasn’t easy, once you get there it’s marked well enough so you don’t get lost in the woods. It’s on private property but landowners have granted permission for public use, even giving an alternative route for those who want a longer hike path.
Once at the summit, we found confirmation that this was, indeed, the highest natural summit in Louisiana. There’s a whole organization called Highpointers.org, whose members make it to every high point in every state. Highpointers had placed two benches at the mountaintop to catch the view of the Louisiana forest land and neighboring Mt. Jordan. Learn more here. In fact, the ashes of Jack Longacre, founder of the Highpointers, were spread on top of Mt. Driskill in 2003.
Directions from I-20 in Shreveport
— Take Exit 69 at Arcadia and head south through town
— Turn left on SR 147/Jonesboro Road and continue for 9.3 miles
— Turn right onto SR 507 and continue for 2.7 miles to the Mt Zion Presbyterian Church parking lot
Bienville Parish has a lot of interesting and quirky places. Read here
In Bienville Parish, the individual parts are greater than the sum.
It’s one of the smallest of Louisiana’s 64 parishes in population. The largest town has under 3,000 people. There is no Wal-Mart in the parish. No Kroger. No movie theater. No skating rink.
Yet the individual towns and hamlets and the places in between are rich in history, geography and character. Gibsland claims to be the Daffodil Capital of Louisiana and will celebrate that this weekend. An Arcadia restaurant claims to be the Fried Pie Capital of the Ark-La-Tex. Bienville Parish has the highest point in Louisiana, Mt. Driskill. Bonnie & Clyde were gunned down in the parish nearly 83 years ago.
My husband grew up in Ringgold, and we’ve been driving around the parish a lot lately tending to business. Here are some of Bienville Parish’s interesting spots.
Arcadia Pit Stops
Arcadia, the parish seat, is the largest town. My favorite stops are just off I-20’s Exit #69.
On one side is Gap Farms Travel Center . It’s rural Louisiana’s scaled-down version of the massive Buc-ee’s truck stop chain in Texas. You’ll find North Louisiana-made fish fryers, rocking chairs, icebox pies, country signage, gifts. And food–breakfast, barbecue and Friday night’s Big Hoss Challenge–you finish the 78-ounce steak within an hour and it’s on the house. For lighter appetites, there’s a 24-hour Burger King.
South of I-20 is Country Cottage, which looks anything but with its location in a former bar. It’s sort of a rural Louisiana Cracker Barrel with better food. Their’s a retail section, including lots of country lace, hair bows and children’s toys. I found a few collectibles with a distinct Louisiana flair–Louisiana Tech yearbooks from the 1960s when it was known as Louisiana Polytechnic Institute and a paper fan advertising O’Jay’s Beauty Lotion, a Shreveport product. Never mind the early 1990s decor with touches of mauve, this place is perhaps the best eatery along I-20 in Louisiana.
Country Cottage makes a valid, yet undermarketed, claim to be the Fried Pie Capital of the Ark-La-Tex. These fried pies are more than wonderful, better than the more famous ones you find in Texas and Oklahoma. They were out of their sugar-free flavors (I tried) when I stopped and had a Snickers fried pie. A week later, I had the coconut one. They have all sorts of flavors, even the “0h-So-North-Louisiana” deer meat pie.
There’s more than pies–breakfast, a buffet, great country cooking, including the much-praised hot water cornbread.
Exit #69 is becoming a pit stop mecca. Recently, a new gas station/convenience store/ wine & liquor store called Super Save opened on the north side of the interstate. On the south side, there’s the new red Bonnie & Clyde Beer Barn complete with drive-thru daiquiris (It’s a Louisiana thing).
Bonnie & Clyde
Had the beer barn been around in May 1934, Bonnie Parker & Clyde Barrow may have driven their stolen Ford through for refreshments. Instead, they stopped for a sandwich at a cafe, eight miles away in Gibsland. Minutes later, they were ambushed on rural Highway 154 south of town.
That cafe is now the spot for the Bonnie & Clyde Ambush Museum, which was until his recent death, directed by the son of Ted Hinton, one of the posse that gunned down the infamous pair. Admission is $7.
The museum has artifacts from that fateful day, a lot of newspaper clippings and a replica of the Ford used in the landmark Bonnie & Clyde movie with Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. The actual movie car is now in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. The death car is now in a Nevada casino.
(There is another museum in town– the Authentic Museum of Bonnie & Clyde, which has been described as a “friendly rival.”).
The exact spot where Bonnie & Clyde were gunned down is on Highway 154 near the settlement of Sailes. Each year, on the weekend nearest the May 23 anniversary date, there’s a Bonnie & Clyde Festival complete with an ambush re-enactment and look alike contests.
Gibsland’s other claim to fame is Daffodil Capital of Louisiana, which is celebrated the first weekend in March with a Jonquil Jubilee. (The term “daffodil” refers to a broader group of flowers, but “jonquil” and “daffodil” are commonly used interchangeably). They’ll be lots of events around town this Saturday. Tickets are $10, which includes a driving map, entrance to some of the homes and exhibits along the route.
While in Gibsland, check out the Gibsland Grill, a popular lunch spot, and arts and crafts. A morning program by the Master Gardeners will feature garden talks and a daffodil show at Louisiana Tech, 30 minutes away. Other events include pancake breakfast, quilt show and tablescapes featuring daffodils.
While driving around, you may want to explore the tiny village of Mt. Lebanon, the oldest settlement in the parish and birthplace of the Louisiana Baptist Convention. One of the organizers was the great grandfather of President Lyndon B. Johnson, The Mt. Lebanon Baptist Church, organized in 1837, is still in use. The sanctuary is separated down the middle–one side for men and the other for women. After the end of the Civil War, the former slaves formed their own new church, Springfield Baptist Church nearby.
You have to drive farther south to experience some of the real flavor of the parish. You don’t want to miss eating breakfast or perhaps a ribeye steak at Mom & Pop’s, a restaurant attached to the “Bryceland Mall,” a gas station and convenience store at the intersection of Highways 517 and 9.
Even farther south is the Castor General Store, also affectionately known as the “Castor Wal-Mart.” It does have numbered aisles and sells groceries, hardware supplies and other necessities. In the summertime, go a little farther east of Castor on Highway 4 and buy watermelons at Plunkett Farms.
I also hiked Mt. Driskill in Bienville Parish, the highest point in Louisiana, a few weeks ago. I’ll save that story for next week.
Harts Island Road, a 6.5-mile straight ribbon of road in South Caddo Parish just south of Shreveport, is a favorite of local cyclists during any season, but it’s particularly scenic during fall when the cotton fields are full and the leaves start falling along the path. Here are 10 reasons why we like it.
2. Pretty Sunsets
3. Sunrise Isn’t So Bad Either
4. Flat and Shady
5. Speed Limit 25 mph
6. Fall Color
7. Today’s Industry
8. Pretty Pasture Scenes
10. Lovely Live Oaks
A round trip on Harts Island Road makes a nice leisurely ride of 60 to 90 minutes. It’s not the car-free traffic of dedicated paths like the ones on both sides of the Red River, but it’s close. The only motorized transportation is the occasional farm truck or car going to one of the dozen or so houses along the strip. You can lengthen the ride by heading west on one of three roads intersecting with Harts Island–Robson Road, Hwy 175 or Ellerbe Road but expect more traffic and higher speed limits.
Going south on Highway 1, turn right on Hart’s Island just across from The Port of Shreveport-Bossier water tower. Drive less than a half mile to the Louisiana Pecan Research Station. If you’re interested in growing pecans, stop in and get some information. Otherwise, park along the side of the road, get on your bicycle and enjoy a beautiful fall ride.
What are your favorite spots along Harts Island Road or scenic bicycling routes you love around Shreveport-Bossier City?
When I became interested in bicycling again a few years back, I started reading up on old railroad beds that had been converted to bike trails.
No car traffic. Small towns, rural scenery, city waterfronts. Rest stops and water fountains along the away. Sounded great.
And it is.
My first rails-to-trails ride was on the Tammany Trace on an old Illinois Central corridor in South Louisiana. I rode the entire 27.6-mile trail and back during my 55th birthday weekend. It’s a beauty. Since that ride about four years ago, I’ve been to others, including the Katy Trail in Missouri, a 238-mile trail that stretches across most of the state. (For the record, my husband and I rode sections not the entire Katy Trail).
There are new trails to ride almost every day thanks to The Rails to Trails Conservancy, a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating a more bikeable and walkable America. Their website TrailLink.com contains a wealth of information on these trails–not only on rails-to-trails conversions but all traffic-free bicycle and pedestrian paths. You can find out about surface types, towns and things to do along the routes, user reviews and more. Most trails also have their own websites independent of TrailLink.com.
I have the TrailLink app on my phone that points me to nearby trails while I am traveling. A few like the Katy are crushed limestone, and we were glad we had hybrid bikes with wider tires when we rode. The trail was smooth but we couldn’t manage much more than 8 mph in places. I prefer the paved trails (either asphalt or concrete) with small towns to explore along the way.
There are plenty of rail-trails with all types of surfaces. According to TrailLink.com, there are now 1,997 miles of rail-trails comprising 22, 470 of miles in the United States. Another 777 trails are under construction.
Most rail-trails have speed limits of 15 mph or so, You aren’t competing with racing cyclists, but you are sharing the trail with pedestrians and, in some cases, equestrians and skateboarders.
There are some exciting rail-trails/greenways under development. The East Coast Greenway is a 3,000-mile project that will connect Maine to Key West, Florida and many Atlantic Coast cities between them. Closer to home, a 132-mile Northeast Texas Trail is being developed between surburban Dallas and the outskirts of Texarkana. Some sections are already open, but it’s a mix of gravel, crushed stone and asphalt. Study the map and read the comments on road conditions carefully before you head out.
One of my favorites to ride was the High Trestle Trailin Iowa, so named because it includes a 13-story converted railroad bridge over the Des Moines River. The bridge lights up at night giving the experience of riding through a tunnel. My current favorite is the one I rode most recently: Tanglefoot Trail in Mississippi down the path of a railroad built by William Faulkner’s great grandfather. The fun is experiencing small towns along the route. You can read about my experience here.
Next month I’m going on vacation to Washington and Oregon, and I’ll be trying a couple more rail-trails.
The Rails to Trails Conservancy also has a Rail-Trail Hall of Fame–currently at 30 trails. They are recognized for such things as scenery, maintenance and community support. Here’s a few from that list:
Elroy-Sparta State Bike Trail in Wisconsin. This is the original rail-trail, opening in the 1960s. Wisconsin has a vast network of rail-trails, and we are just going to have to go back to Wisconsin to explore them all. We did enjoy the Hank Aaron State Trail along Milwaukee’s lakefront and the rural Ahnapee State Trail in Door County, Wisconsin. The Elroy-Sparta is crushed limetone and features three tunnels. The 32.5-mile Elroy-Sparta connects with three other trails to form 101 miles.
But I’m partial to the paved trails, so I’ll be exploring these Hall of Fame trails soon:
Georgia’s Silver Comet Trail and Alabama’s Chief Ladiga Trail: These trails join together for 95 continuous miles. The Silver Comet, named for a popular passenger train that traversed the route during the 1940s and 1950s, is the longest at 62 miles beginning on the east at Smyrna just outside Atlanta. At the Alabama line, it joins the 33-mile Chief Ladiga and proceeds to its western end at Anniston.
Longleaf Trace. This is one in my home state that I keep intending to try, but I have just not made it there yet. The route is mostly a rural 41 miles through fields and the trail’s namesake longleaf pine forests.
Seeing Longleaf Trace on the list makes me want to plan a trip tomorrow. Anybody want to ride with me?
On a clear Saturday in the hiatus between the summer and fall Shreveport Farmers Market, I drove to Mahaffey Farms east of Haughton to buy some meat. When you visit, farmer Evan McCommon will let you wander around his pastures as he wants you to get a close view of how his cattle, pigs and chickens are raised.
“If all agriculture was transparent, it would change the way people eat,” says McCommon, who is doing his part in “being the change” in Shreveport-Bossier City. Mahaffey Farms, is at the forefront of the farm-to-table culture in North Louisiana.
Mahaffey Farms uses no chemicals, no pesticides, no hormones. The farm’s practices go beyond sustainable. As McCommon says, sustainable implies keeping things as they are. Regenerative agriculture makes things better — the soil, the environment and the way a community eats.
Those principles will be explored during a Food for Thought program on Oct. 5 at the Robinson Film Center in downtown Shreveport. The event will include a viewing of Polyfaces, a documentary on an Shenandoah Valley Virginia farm that has inspired Mahaffey Farms. Food from Mahaffey will be served at dinner, followed by the film and then a post screening discussion led by McCommon.
The family farm dates back to the 1920s. McCommon’s great uncle developed a large farming and timber operation that flourished there until the 1950s. McCommon began taking steps to revitalize farming there about five years ago. Visit Mahaffey Farms website to read, watch and listen as McCommon tells about the evolution of the farm.
The farm store is a modest converted garage but the freezers are well-stocked with grass-fed beef and pasture-raised pork and chicken products. Fresh produce is slim this time of year, but at other seasons you may find heirloom tomatoes, pinto beans, collard greens, etc. And there’s lard — cooking lard and soap. Lard is, after all, fat rendered from pork, and Mahaffey Farms doesn’t waste much of the pigs it raises.
I came away with some pork chops, pork tenderloin, andouille, bratwurst and eggs. I also came away with a greater resolve to eat more local food. (Pork tenderloin has already been prepared in a farmer’s market pepper jelly glaze and declared a hit at our house).
Getting There: From Louisiana Downs, drive five miles east on Highway 80 and turn left at East 80 Paint & Body. You’ll actually be on Mahaffey Road. Drive about a half mile down, and the road will bend left toward the farm. You’ll know you’re there when you see a rusty heirloom tractor with the simple stenciled Mahaffey Farms sign.
Saturday hours are 8 am to 1 pm until the Shreveport Farmers Market opens again on Oct. 22. Weekdays, it’s open from 9 am to 5 pm Monday. (You may want to call 318-949-6249 to make sure someone is available to give a free tour). McCommon’s mother, Sandra Evans, has a bed and breakfast at the farmhouse, which can be booked on airbnb.com. Reviews are great for the farm fresh breakfast!
I’m lucky enough to live less than two miles away from Gullo’s Fresh Produce & Classic Bake Shop on Flournoy Lucas in Shreveport. Last year, I had to go the entire summer without Gullo’s as it had to rebuild from a fire.
I’m thankful a renovated Gullo’s Fresh Produce opened earlier this year. It includes an enclosed dining room so you don’t have to eat outside on the patio or under the pecan tree in the July heat.
I like to pop in from time to time when I need a few tomatoes, peppers or some other veggies. I usually leave with more than I intended — a jar of green tomato pickles or some locally made toffee.
There’s also “to go” casseroles and salads in the refrigerator and some baked goods.
But the real draw is the hot lunch menu. They are known for their hamburgers on sourdough buns that have frequently been included in Best Hamburger in Shreveport, even Best Hamburger in Louisiana lists. We went the other day. I was good and got the salad with chicken, Thankfully, my husband shared significant bites of his Friday special–hamburger steak, squash, braised cabbage (my favorite), sweet potatoes and homemade roll.
The new Gullo’s Fresh Produce has evening hours and and is open Sundays. And according to Gullos Facebook page, they are planning a Gullo’s #2 in downtown Shreveport.
Bicycle Trips, Road Trips, Farmers Markets and Lagniappe Along the Way