Day Tripping - April 2017
Abita Springs, Louisiana
Natural charms and a quirky personality will have you planning your next trip back before you've reached home.
- story by Anna Hirshfield, photos by Ellis Anderson
The Art and Farmer's Market
The peaceful, nature-oriented lifestyle that Abita Springs offers has compelled artists, farmers, and historic buffs alike to settle down here. The Abita Springs Art and Farmer’s Market is one telling showcase of the diverse kinds of people who are drawn to the small town’s character.
In addition to fresh, seasonal vegetables and local plants for sale, the array of products and services offered includes freshly squeezed lemonade, Hawaiian jerky, hot tamales, psychic readings for $5, finely crafted silver jewelry, organic skin products, hand-painted mugs and martini glasses, a kombucha stand, and a decadent array of cupcakes and chocolate-covered strawberries.
With the market open on Sundays from noon to 4pm, it is easy to spend your afternoon here, wandering around and observing all of the unique booths that are set up amidst the children on scooters and tarot card readings.
Abita Springs Trailhead Museum
Located in the same plaza as the farmer’s market is the Abita Springs Trailhead Museum, home to an array of artifacts and information about the town’s cultural history. The museum offers a perfect starting point for your trip and a vivid, condensed history of the town you are about to explore.
Several cases and displays line the narrow halls. One is filled with spearheads from the Native Americans who inhabited the area over 2,000 years ago, and another recounts the legend of a weary Princess Abita, who was revived with the help of the healing powers from the spring.
Abita Springs became recognized nationally in the 19th century for its healing powers. The Native Americans believed in the water’s ability to cure ailments, and white settlers in the mid-1800s capitalized on the magical essence of the spring.
One testimonial of the spring’s powers was written by J.R. Hoy in 1899: “I reached Abita in a very debilitated condition, which medical science was unable to check. My attending physician told me that I would die if I remained here, and advised me to go to the Abita Spring and drink the water freely. In the course if a month, my health was fully restored…”
Along with the advantages of the natural spring water, natives also prospered from the variety of wildlife that lived within the miles of long leaf pines.
With trees sometimes growing over 100 feet tall and three feet in diameter, this habitat was home to many species, several of which became endangered once the pioneers moved and cleared the forests for developmental purposes.
Abita Springs is just one area in the country that has an ongoing conservation effort to protect the last remaining patches of longleaf pines.
The museum hosts the annual Abita Springs Busker Festival each spring. "Busker" is another name for street musician, if you're not in the know. These musicians make a living by being able to stop passing pedestrians in their tracks, and this free festival honors the spirit of those intrepid troubadours. This year, the event takes place on Sunday, April 23rd, making it the perfect warm-up for Jazz Fest in New Orleans.
The Trace and the Abita Brew Pub
The Tammany Trace bike path is one of the more significant draws for travellers interested in coming to Abita Springs. The 31-mile trail was constructed from a section of abandoned railroad, the path now stretching from Slidell to Covington. On “the Trace” you will see bikers, joggers, walkers, back-packers and horseback riders enjoying the surrounding scenery.
When you’re ready for lunch, the Abita Brew Pub is conveniently located by the town plaza. A casual setting, with windows that face the lush biking trail, the pub offers up a large menu. We enjoyed crab claws sautéed in amber ale and rosemary barbecue sauce, a blackened shrimp and avocado salad with a remoulade dressing, and the Shrimp Agnes dish, plated with jumbo fried shrimp and a honey pecan sauce.
The Brew Pub was actually the home of the original Abita Brewery until 1994. However, as the popularity of Abita beer skyrocketed the brewery itself was relocated to accommodate the high demand. The brewery’s new location in Covington offers both guided and self-guided tours, but the pub in Abita Springs remains as a favorite spot for both locals and visitors to enjoy a meal and sample one of the many beers on tap.
The Abita Mystery House
The most memorable attraction in town is the Abita Mystery House. Headquartered in a vintage gas station and spread between several buildings behind, this home-grown museum is composed of unexpected and mesmerizing collections, ranging from toy figurines, a stellar hot sauce collection and bizarre dioramas, like “Martians at Mardi Gras.”
The House of Shards is a small cottage covered in broken up pieces of mirrors, pottery, patterned glassware, and pretty much any thing else that could have been shattered and recombined to create this striking mosaic.
Buford the Bassigator is the beloved, 26-foot long “pet” of the Abita Mystery House. His sheer size and textured figure may be amusing at first, but stare too long and he’s sure to become haunting.
After examining the exhibits, peering at the paint-by-number masterpieces, and reading the witty signs that cover the walls, you will soon realize that you’ve spent the better part of an afternoon in this small, other-worldly space.
Artist John Preble, curator and owner of the Mystery House, says he and his late wife, jeweler Ann O’Brien, picked up the concept from a museum they visited years ago in New Mexico.
“I loved the idea so I decided to copy it with a Southern twist.”
The gift shop could be considered its own exhibit, displaying strange oddities that double as souvenirs - items you’ve probably never encountered in any toy store, and certainly in no museum.
In the center of this sea of eccentricity, a large case of Ann O’Brien’s fluidly designed jewelry seems an island of serenity. O’Brien passed away ten years ago, but silversmiths working under Preble’s direction continue to handcraft the classic designs.
Although Preble credits the city of Tinkertown, NM as his inspiration, the Mystery House is undoubtedly one-of -a-kind.
“Since we opened, random people find stuff and like to drop it off - people walk through it and they get the idea.” He points to an ornate, brass chandelier sitting out front of the museum. “Somebody just dropped that off the other day,” he says.
And There's More...
Other popular seasonal attractions in Abita Springs include the Abita Springs Opry, a series of concerts dedicated to Louisiana “Roots” music. Performances are held six times each year; three during the Fall season, three during the Spring. The line--ups vary, featuring musicians performing everything from Cajun to Irish music.
One reserved seat costs $18, while season’s tickets for three performances are $54. Make sure to buy your tickets well in advance, as they tend to sell out quickly.
If you’re a bicycle enthusiast, don’t miss the Louisiana Bicycle Festival. It is a vibrant showcase of eccentric and antique bikes. The group ride through the town has now become a beloved tradition. There’s an annual Busker festival too, celebrating street musicians who are drawn from around the South.
Interested in learning traditional Cajun dance? Be sure to schedule your trip on an evening when the Northshore Cajun Dancers meet up. Complimentary dance lessons are given from 7:00 - 7:30pm once a month. After the lesson you’re encouraged to stay for the live music at 8:00pm and showcase your newly learned skills on the dance floor.
Lively and calming, quirky and classic: perhaps it’s this juxtaposition that makes this small hamlet perpetually popular as a place for rejuvenation. At the heart, is its mythical beginning, circling back to the healing powers of the spring:
“Some hundred years have passed away, and still the same sweet scene-
The same old cypress branches, the grey moss and the green.
Where should be placed a Temple, is but fond Nature’s bower,
And flowing calmly onward, the stream of wondrous power.”
(From the Trailhead Museum, dedicated to the spring and to Princess Abita) :
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