SALINE, La. — Less than two hours from Fort Polk lies a pristine swath of Louisiana wilderness that allows visitors a glimpse of what the area might have looked like when Indians, bison and bear roamed the countryside.
Briarwood, the Caroline Dormon Nature Preserve, located on the edge of Kisatchie National Forest just north of Natchitoches, is the legacy of one Caroline Dorman, a Louisiana native who spent her life improving the plot of land left to her by her father. She was a botanist, horticulturist, ornithologist, historian, archeologist, preservationist, naturalist, conservationist and author. Her work is a testament to one woman’s desire to allow future generations the opportunity to see the same beautiful forestlands that she enjoyed throughout her life. Rick Johnson is Briarwood’s curator today, following in the footsteps of his parents, Richard and Jessie Johnson, who managed the property after Dormon’s death in 1971.
“They were friends of Mrs. Carrie,” he said. “Dad would stop by as a kid and help out. When I was a kid, we would stop by and visit with Mrs. Carrie. I had the opportunity to learn from her and experience nature through her eyes.”
Johnson said Dormon was born on Briarwood in 1888.
“This was her family’s summer retreat,” he said. “Her dad was a lawyer in Arcadia and they would spend a few days down here every summer, coming down by horse and wagon.”
The retired Marine took over from his parents when they retired in August.
“But they still come here every day,” he said.
Located on the property is a Visitor’s center with artifacts recovered from the property, flower gardens, winding trails and Dormon’s log home, decorated as if the nature lover was still alive.
“The fireplace at the visitor’s center was part of the house Mrs. Carrie lived in until the winter of 1949-50, when she moved to her log house,” he said.
In the log house, visitors can see Dormon’s library, handcrafted items she made, scrapbooks she kept over the years and photographs. There is also the start of an old tool museum begun by Johnson’s father.
“He decided he would gather tools and implements that the local men used,” Johnson said. “It’s just something else to see when you pay us a visit.”There is also another small cabin that Dormon used as an “escape” for when she wanted to be by herself and not bothered by potential guests.“She enjoyed her solitude at times,” Johnson said.
Briarwood features an educational building for use by school groups, complete with projection screens and microscopes for inspecting the flora and fauna found at Briarwood.
Johnson said the preserve currently covers about 210 acres.“We have trails developed throughout the property,” he said. “More are being developed to open access to areas deeper in the woods.”The road leading into Briarwood — known as the Sparta Road — was originally an animal path, Johnson said.
“The native Indian tribes who lived in the area used it as a path, then early settlers to this area used it and it became a wagon road,” he said. “The road still runs through Briarwood and shows the wear of hundreds of years of use.” Johnson said there is always something new to be seen and found on Briarwood.
“We’ve had instances where a tree we thought was ‘one of a kind’ for this area had died, only to find another growing several years later in a different area,” he said.
“It makes working here a joy and a privilege.”
Briarwood is located 19 miles north of Campti or 2 miles south of Saline in the sandy hills of Natchitoches Parish.
Shown by guided tours, Briarwood is open every weekend in March, April, May, August and November. Hours are 9 a.m.-5 p.m. on Saturday and noon-5 p.m. on Sunday.
Special tours are by appointment only for groups of five or more. There is a small admission charged.
For more information call (318) 576-3379 afternoons or email Briarwood@cp-tel.net. For those with GPS, enter 216 Caroline Dormon Road, Saline, La., 71070.