At the turn of the nineteenth century, Alexis Cloutier picked a parcel of land in the Natchitoches Parish to establish his plantation. From 1806 to 1813, Cloutier recruited slaves to piece together his plantation house, and slowly an imposing edifice of handcrafted brick, hand-hewn cypress and bousillage (a mixture of clay and grass used to fill the space between boards) rose from the muddy dirt of western Louisiana. Just as Cloutier’s house grew, so did his plantation. Cloutier’s success drew others, and soon a settlement grew along the Cane River near his home.
Cloutier may have founded a successful plantation and inspired a community, but the ambitious founder wanted more—he wanted a legacy. In 1822 Cloutier incorporated the tiny town and christened it, unsurprisingly, Cloutierville. Soon thereafter, he strove to establish his namesake even further. Cloutier petitioned to divide the Natchitoches Parish in two and to institute the new county seat in his own Cloutierville. Much to his dismay, Cloutier’s petition was declined. The huffy conquistador stormed out of the court and out of the city, never to return.
Though Cloutier certainly toiled to establish his legacy and namesake, it is a particularly ironic twist that even his own home is remembered not in his name, but for another resident altogether.
In 1879 a youthful and yet unpublished Kate Chopin (pronounced like the composer’s name) moved into what was then known as the Alexis Cloutier House with her husband Oscar and their five children (a sixth was born soon after their arrival). Almost immediately, Chopin began arousing more of a stir than the town had experienced since Cloutier himself had stirred up a whirlwind of dust and gossip with his departure.
Chopin’s neighbors muttered behind closed doors and cupped hands of the mother’s modern ways. Unlike the traditional, French-Creole ladies who populated the idyllic houses of Main Street Cloutierville, Chopin was noticeably decked in fashionable clothes. She partook in far too many masculine pursuits, like cigarette smoking, card playing and walking alone. Some of her neighbors even suggested that Chopin intentionally lifted her skirts higher than necessary when strolling the sidewalks in order to flash a risqué ankle at passersby. Chopin was, in all ways, entirely too modern for the ladies of Cloutierville.
But the Chopin family was not thwarted in their settlement of Cloutierville. Kate Chopin continued to stroll the streets of Cloutierville ankles bared, and Oscar endeavored to establish the family business. He managed both the plantation as well as a local general store—but poorly. In a few short years, Oscar’s feeble business acumen drove the family deep into debt. With a lack of fortitude severely juxtaposed against the unerring strength of his wife, Oscar contracted malaria and overdosed on quinine, leaving his young family to fend for themselves.
Even Oscar’s death in 1882 did not persuade Chopin to leave her adopted home. In fact, Chopin proved to be a far savvier businessman than her deceased husband. In just fifteen months, Chopin managed her family’s business concerns so well that she completely paid off the debt her husband had incurred.
In 1884, Chopin finally left her home in Cloutierville—not because of the wheedling of her neighbors, but at the urging of her mother (though some accounts claim a rumored affair with a local planter also influenced decision). She moved her family to her mother’s in St. Louis, but Cloutierville had forever impressed itself on the head and heart of Chopin.
Following her mother’s death in 1885, Chopin sank into a deep depression; her physician suggested writing as a form of therapy (and profit). When Chopin picked up her pen, she drew from her own past and experiences for inspiration, specifically her past in Cloutierville. Much of Chopin’s work rings with the Southern smack of Cloutierville, including “Bayou Folk,” “A Night in Acadie,” At Fault, and even her most notable work, The Awakening. Her words are rife with the culture, tradition, and folklore of the tiny Southern town she took by storm.
In 1979 Chopin’s former residence was opened to the public as the Bayou Folk Museum, also known as the Kate Chopin House. For nearly thirty years the house operated as a tribute to Chopin, but in 2008 a fire destroyed the 200-year-old home. Though the building no longer stands, Chopin’s words remain as testament to the house that was.