Thanks in large part to the work of interpretive ranger Richard Scott, the Fontainebleau State Park Visitor Center is filled with artifacts that point to the historic and archeological significance of one of Louisiana’s most popular state parks.
A stone bowl fragment illustrates the trade that went on between Poverty Point and the Indians who built the mounds along Lake Pontchartrain. Also on display are a 19-foot-long cypress log dugout canoe found in the Pearl River, plantation-era china and a Minie ball embedded in a tree from a Civil War skirmish near Madisonville.
Each item holds a story for Scott, of Goodbee, the last remaining interpretive ranger who helped build the collection. It is made up of private donations, loans from local families and his own finds in the 12 years he has been at Fontainebleau.
Scott is retiring this week, for health reasons, but remembers when he was hired in the year following Hurricane Katrina.
“There was a 5,000-square-foot empty building, exhibit wise,” he said. There were two other interpretive rangers then, and all have since retired.
“When I first got here, the managers wanted me to emphasize the Native American history,” he said. “There is a rich history here that dates back to prehistory.”
Displays of plummets, spearheads, projectile points, arrowheads and pottery shards are evidence of that work. His favorite is the bowl of clay cooking balls.
"They formed balls with the local clay and used impressions from their hands to make more surface area,” he said. The balls were fired "brick hard" then put in a pit and covered with a layer of dirt. Food was wrapped in leaves and laid on top of the dirt, then covered, to roast. He calls it “the original Crock Pot method.”
“About 80 percent of the items are local, and all are surface finds,” he said.
“It’s been an intensive sojourn for me,” he said.
Scott’s helped identify and date the items and even camped out in front of the Visitor Center to demonstrate how to use primitive woodworking tools.
"I've tried to do the best job I could," he said.
Scott came to Fontainebleau after having worked at Rosewood Plantation, Longue Vue House and Gardens and the Hermann-Grima/Gallier Historic Houses as the curator of collections.
With degrees in zoology and art history, he found the challenges at Fontainebleau to be a perfect fit.
The state purchased the 2,800 acres for the park from the Great Southern Lumber Co., he said. Built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, it was established in 1938 as Tchefuncte State Park.
It was renamed Fontainebleau in the '40s, after Bernard de Marigny, who purchased the property from the Bonnabel family to develop a sugar plantation. It came with 450 head of cattle, Scott said.
It’s said that Marigny called the plantation Fontainebleau after a park he visited outside of Paris. Marigny sold the property in a bank sale in 1853.
When Scott got to the park, he started rummaging through the out buildings for items to help tell its story. He found a screen door from the CCC camp, a bed from the barracks where the men slept and CCC tools, including an auger that drilled holes into stumps to insert dynamite. Also found were a 1950s-era wooden highway sign made for the park, and another in French that describes the plantation.
He found remains of the brick sugar mill, and remnants of the boiling train and succession of kettles used in rendering sugar from cane juice, he said. There are the remains of a brick factory in the woods, where bricks were made for the mill from the local clay.
“There are two mounds at the park that are very remote,” as well as shell middens, he said. Two-thirds of one site was destroyed by the CCC.
“They used the mounds for road bed because of the shells,” he said.
The state later excavated the third site in the 1940s and removed 50,000 artifacts, which are in storage, he added.
The abundance of clay helped the Tchefuncte culture make great pottery, he said. Their work, found near one of the mounds, is on display along with older pieces from the Clovis era.
“We have a paleo-archaic point that is the earliest evidence” of human occupation, he said. “The earliest culture was here at least 12,500 years ago, before the end of the Ice Age and before the formation of Lake Pontchartrain."
The history is his passion. “I would like to see Fontainebleau recognized more from a historical standpoint than as a recreation site,” he said of his work on the exhibits.
Park Manager Fouad Harb said a quarter-million people came to Fontainebleau Park last year. That counts the number who registered or passed through the park entrance, but many more who come by bicycle from the Tammany Trace or hike into the park.
He said Scott has helped interpret the history of park and nature to be found there.
“I love the Visitor Center myself. It’s fascinating what goes on there, and it’s an important attraction in the park.”
Sharon Broussard, with the state park’s office, said the interpretive programming will temporarily be put on hold and the Visitor Center will be closed until a new ranger is brought in.
“In the meantime, visitors can still enjoy the park’s beach area and trails and participate in self-guided birdwatching activities.”
Fontainebleau State Park is open daily at 62883 La. 1089. Entrance hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday and days preceding holidays. The entry fee is $3 per person and free for seniors 62 and older and children 3 and under.
For information, call (985) 624-4443 or visit www.crt.state.la.us/louisiana-state-parks/parks/fontainebleau-state-park.