Sad news in Cloutierville, Louisiana: The home of Kate Chopin, the author of The Awakening and one of the first major American women fiction writers, burned to the ground early this morning.

It was a total loss. Quoting from The Town Talk:

History dates construction of the house by slave labor to 1805 to 1809. Alexis Cloutier was the original inhabitant. Oscar Chopin bought it in 1879 and, years later, moved his wife and their six children to the plantation.

Oscar Chopin died in 1882. Kate Chopin, known as a free-spirited woman, tried to keep it up but moved away in 1884. She sold the property and moved to St. Louis, where she began her literary career. “The Awakening” was published in 1899, and a host of short stories followed, many of which were based on people she had known from the Natchitoches Parish community of Isle Brevelle.

Photo: Leandro Huebner, The Town Talk

The Chopin House, home to the Bayou Folk Museum, was only twenty minutes from Alexandria.

The Rachals continued to own the property until Oscar Chopin bought the house in 1879 at a sheriff’s sale. Chopin was a cotton factor in New Orleans who decided to move his family to Cloutierville after his business had failed. His wife, Kate, was an assertive twenty-nine year old woman who had lived her entire life in St. Louis and New Orleans. She had already had five children, and she was pregnant with their sixth child.

Kate Chopin refused to conform to local traditions for women. She smoked, wore the latest fashions, had “Yankee” mannerisms, and reportedly flirted with other women’s husbands. Oscar’s relatives complained that he gave her too much freedom. When Oscar died of “swamp fever” in 1882, Kate continued to live in Cloutierville, despite being an unwanted outsider. She ran the general store and allegedly had an affair with Albert Sampité, a married man. In 1884, she left Cloutierville and sold the property five years later. Over the next fifteen years, Kate Chopin launched a literary career that culminated with the publication of The Awakening in 1899. Unappreciated as a writer in her own time, Kate Chopin is now regarded as one of the most important American writers of the late nineteenth century.

When I was in high school, I wrote for The Town Talk as a member of their Youth Council, and one of our more interesting assignments was to write about spending a night at the Chopin House. They told us that house was rumored to be haunted– I believe the name of the ghost was Gabrielle (please correct me if I am wrong).

Allegedly (or so we were told), a young girl died in the house during the late 19th century, and the old plantation was apparently haunted by her spirit. Now, to be sure, I don’t buy into any of that, but I must admit: The house did make some strange noises that night, enough evidence for those of us on the Youth Council to work with. I distinctly remember the sound of a piece of furniture being skirted across the floor of a room upstairs (it startled all of us), but then again, old houses are prone to make weird noises.

I’ve been told by one of my great aunts that my family can count Kate Chopin as a relative. I’ve never confirmed this, but hey, who knows?

Either way, this is very sad news, not only for the people of Central Louisiana but also for the literary world.

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