Heart of Louisiana: Cammie Henry

She may have been a woman ahead of her time.
Published: May. 21, 2023 at 3:25 PM CDT|Updated: May. 21, 2023 at 10:34 PM CDT
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BATON ROUGE, La. (WAFB) - She may have been a woman ahead of her time.

A century ago, Cammie Henry, the widowed owner of Louisiana’s Melrose Plantation, created a retreat for famous southern writers and artists, and she preserved everything that was important to her in hundreds of scrapbooks.

These library shelves are filled with hundreds of boxes that contain personal letters, photographs, and memorabilia collected by Cammie G. Henry.

“We’re starting in the late 1880s and going to, I think she died in 1948,” said Donna Baker.

Cammie Henry came from a wealthy family and was a longtime owner of the historic Melrose Plantation in Central, Louisiana. Throughout her life in Melrose, she was an avid scrapbooker.

“These are the scrapbooks 256,” Baker said.

Donna Baker, the head library archivist at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches walks me through the Cammie G. Henry Research Center. Henry put a great deal of effort into binding all of her 256 scrapbooks.

“She spent so much time doing the binding part of these that we’ve cut ‘em out for a couple of reasons. Some are for preservation purposes, if the paper is a little too brittle, and the other is to digitize this and make these more accessible,” Baker said.

The scrapbooks are a time capsule, a glimpse into what caught the interest of an affluent southern woman who was interested in nature, the arts, and literature. What really fascinated you as you would flip through these pages that were written a hundred years ago?

“That humans are humans no matter what time or what place. They care about what they love, they care about their families. They talk about issues of taxes and cost and what’s going on with their neighbors,” said Baker.

Some of the well-known southern writers of the early 20th century, like Lyle Saxon and William Faulkner, were attracted to Melrose, which Henry turned into an artist retreat. Here they could live comfortably as they worked.

“You were not to sit on your laurels and just enjoy her hospitality. She really was trying to push and to coach you to be the best artist you could be,” Baker said.

Melrose was also home to self-taught folk artist Clementine Hunter, who worked as a cook for Henry. Some of Hunter’s artwork is still displayed in Melrose. Now, Cammie Henry’s memories of the writers and artists who flourished at Melrose have filed away in the university archives in nearby Natchitoches.

“She herself was not necessarily creative in that way, but she did want to nurture that. She had the leisure, she had the resources, and she had the gumption, if you will, to follow those interests where they would,” Baker said.

And now researchers can immerse themselves in Cammie Henry’s world. Here, they can experience that interest in southern literature and art that blossomed in a peaceful and supportive retreat at Melrose.

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