I’m not talking about the ghost towns of the Old West with wooden buildings battered by the wind and tumbleweeds blowing across layers of sun-baked dirt. I’m not even sure those towns exist outside “The Brady Bunch.”
What fascinates me are the places that once thrived only to slowly fade away. Places that once had stores selling RC cola and pink frosted gingerbread planks. Places where old people sat on their front porches and watched a very small world pass by. Places where people sang hymns on Sunday mornings and took naps on hot summer days.
A lot of ghost towns in Louisiana involve a saw mill.
Lumber companies would build saw mills and construct an entire village around them. My grandmother’s grandparents lived in a Texas saw mill town. Everything was owned by the saw mill, including the workers’ homes. When her grandfather died of a heart attack during his lunch break, the company kindly allowed his widow to live in their humble home until her own death.
Some saw mill towns even had their own schools and cemeteries. The communities tended to be short-lived. Once the mill closed, the town died. People drifted away in search of work.
Saw mill town in Louisiana include: Alco, Ashmore, Barham, Blanche, Carson, Chasmore, Fisher, Holdup, Hutton, Kurthwood, Lecompte, Longleaf, Longville, McNary, Meridian, Neame, Peason, Seiper, Victoria and Ward.
Not all of these are ghost towns. Lecompte is still around and serving fabulous pies at Lea’s.
Even though we live in Baton Rouge, we got married down the bayou in Thibodaux. One of my grandmothers was recovering from cancer surgery at the time. The other was in her 90s and didn’t travel well. So, Thibodaux it was since they both lived in or near that small town.
As an added bonus, the cathedral (technically called the co-cathedral) is GORGEOUS.
And, I was born at the old St. Joseph Hospital in Thibodaux back in the days when nuns helped deliver babies. The hospital was conveniently located next to the cemetery just in case that gall bladder surgery didn’t go so well. But I digress.
St. Joseph was built in the 1920s. It took several years for the church to be completed. The interior is jaw dropping.
The exterior isn’t so shabby either.
But the interior is stunning. The ceilings were just a stark white until the 1940s, when the church redecorated.
On a side note, we got married just after Christmas, when the church was still decorated with poinsettias and evergreen. This was on purpose. It saved on the florist bill. Just a handy tip.
If you’re ever in Thibodaux, take a peek inside. You will think you’ve been transported to Rome.
I’ll admit it. I’m obsessed with the Titanic disaster. If I could dive down to the wreck and explore it room by room, I would.
Turns out I’m not alone in my fascination with the tragic chapters in history.
Gendisasters.com specializes in curating the events that touched our ancestors’ lives. They’ve archived the newspaper articles on accidents, air disasters, bridge collapses, fires, floods, hurricanes, steamboat explosions and more.
What can I say? Our lives aren’t terribly newsworthy until disaster strikes. My father first made the newspaper at a year old when he ended up in a hospital sick ward. To this day, I’m not sure why that was newsworthy. I guess cute, sick babies sell papers.
Gendisasters catalogs accidents by state so it’s easy to click on articles. Even better, they’re further cataloged by town.
I have to admit: I had no idea Louisiana’s experienced so many steamboat explosions.
You can visit the past in old postcards. The present is a little trickier since smartphones and social media have edged out postcards.
My 3-year-old niece collects postcards. Do you know how hard it is to find a postcard these days? Well, let me tell you.
We went to Disneyland last year. Since my niece is very much into Disney and often flounces around the house dressed as Elsa, I scoured Main Street, Frontierland, Tom Sawyer’s Island, you name it and couldn’t find a single postcard. Finally, a cast member – who wanted so badly to be helpful – conferred with another cast member and directed me with such optimism to a little shop in Fantasyland filled with everything a wannabe princess could need – except a postcard.
A few years ago, I went to China, the land where tacky souvenirs are made. I found scorpions on a stick, pearls, silk dressing robes, Chinese candy, magnets, playing cards, vases, fans and plenty of figurines. Postcards were scarce until we went to the Silk Market (more of a flea market than piles of rippling silk) in Beijing, where I wandered the stalls while a colleague was measured for a custom-made silk smoking jacket. I stumbled across a stack of postcards and bartered them down in price (I love China). Then, EVERYONE in my group wanted to know where I found postcards. See, there’s still a market for them!
Postcards used to be much more common. In fact, if you scour eBay, you’ll find snapshots of towns in past decades. They’re even helpfully categorized by state and town. It’s neat to see city streets through our grandparents’ eyes.
Alas, I couldn’t find any postcards for Louisiana on eBay. So, I looked on etsy, which has loads of them.
A simple Google search yields tons of postcards for sale or shared.
For my birthday each year, we usually drive to Natchez, a town we both love for its quirky restaurants, shops and rich history. The pandemic changed those plans.
The restaurant and shopping options aren’t as plentiful in Natchez as they usually are. Plus, our favorite restaurant didn’t survive the pandemic, and we’re not going to be over that disappointment for a long time. So we went to New Orleans, where I felt like a big city girl in the Museum of Art, made a really poor lunch choice, wandered a Magazine Street antique store crammed with crockery and wished a barefoot, wild-eyed homeless man the best of luck in finding a ride to the shelter.
For the second day of my close-to-home birthday trip, we headed to Donaldsonville. It’s an only hour away but neither of us had ever been there. It’s an old city surrounded by sugarcane fields and industrial plants. The town itself has a downtown that’s seen better days and loads of old homes. Like most small towns in Louisiana, it’s a fading beauty of a place.
Then we headed back over the Sunshine Bridge and down River Road to St. Gabriel, one of Louisiana’s oldest settlement (now home to McMansions where former governors live and prisons where … , nah, I won’t make that joke since we’re rooting out corruption).
Here’s the thing about River Road in Louisiana. It’s frustrating. We zipped past the former leprosy colony (now home to the National Guard) and met the end of the road. River Road isn’t seamless. It dead ends in places. So you have to backtrack, detour and pick it up again. Think you can drive from New Orleans to Baton Rouge along River Road? Recalibrate your thinking.
Anyhoo, we finally arrived in St. Gabriel, which holds the oldest church in the Louisiana Purchase. It’s a beautiful story. The Acadians were tossed out of Nova Scotia and scattered to the wind. Some made their way to the American colonies. Others ended up in English prisons or French slums. Many of those who survived (and many didn’t) settled in Louisiana, where they built a church from the native cypress trees. Through the years of hardship and loss, they never lost their faith. The testament to their faith stands to this day.
It’s a small church that still houses the original bell, stamped with the year 1768. Behind the wooden building is a cemetery that must hold far more graves than there are tombstones.
Not everyone buried at St. Gabriel during the 1800s was an Acadian. Above is the grave of Charles Dakin, whose brother designed the Old State Capitol in Baton Rouge. Exactly why he’s buried at St. Gabriel is a mystery. Like his brother, Charles was an architect. They often worked as a team, designing hotels and churches in big cities like New Orleans and Baton Rouge. Yet, here he is, in a country graveyard, among settlers. Like them, he found a resting place far from home.
A few years ago, I took a picture of the inside of Miss Teen’s house in Gibson. This was her kitchen, where she made chicken spaghetti. The only bathroom in the house was off the kitchen – probably because it was an addition.
Miss Teen was an old woman who was friends with my granny. Her husband died years before she did. Because they were childless, she lived alone in this house and spent a lot of time on the front porch watching the world go by.
The house was a shotgun shack, and there was nothing fancy about it. One room flowed into the next. Most of the rooms had a bed in them.
I always liked Miss Teen’s house because of the details. Look at those beautiful columns in the kitchen. I had to stick my phone through a broken window pane to get this shot. Now I’m glad that I did. The house was torn down recently after sitting abandoned for decades.
A lot of old houses in small towns are disappearing across Louisiana. Beautiful carpentry disappears with them.
From my high school humanities class, I know that Miss Teen’s house was a shotgun shack. It wasn’t a narrow shotgun shack like you’ll find in New Orleans. This was a wider house with Queen Anne trim. However, if you fired a shotgun through the front door, the bullet still would go through the house and out the back door in a straight line.
Look at the high ceilings! It’s such a shame that this beauty is gone.
In search of my Granny’s bread pudding recipe from long ago, I decided to post a request in the family texting circle. Granny is long gone, and the woman never wrote down a recipe in her life. But I was hoping that – together – we might piece this one together.
Here’s the response I got:
My mother: Your Nanny (Aunt Olive who died last year) made it. She would’ve known. But her recipe was like Granny’s – however much you want of this, that and the other.
My aunt: I don’t have it.
My cousin (Aunt Olive’s daughter): Mom used bread, milk, sugar and maybe eggs. Maybe other ingredients. She would whip up her own meringue using egg whites and sugar, then bake it to turn the top a golden brown.
It’s the meringue that was lurking on the outskirts of my memory. That meringue made the bread pudding different from most other bread puddings.
This little bit of family history helped improve my recipe searching tremendously. I scoured the internet for bread pudding with meringue recipes – and the memories started flooding back. Yes, she used warmed milk. Yes, she set the pudding in a pan of water when she baked it. Yes, she used a cake pan. Yes, it only called for a few eggs.
Here’s what I suspect the recipe was (I’ll try it out):
2 cups soft white bread cubes 1 quart scalded milk 2 eggs, slightly beaten, PLUS 2 egg yolks, slightly beaten 9 tablespoons granulated sugar, divided 1/2 teaspoon salt 1 teaspoon real vanilla 2 egg whites 1/4 cup melted, unsalted butter
Mix bread and milk together. Add the eggs and the egg yolks with 5 tbsp of sugar and salt. Add to the milk mixture with the vanilla and butter.
Mix well and pour into a slightly greased 1 1/2 quart casserole. Bake in a pie pan of water in a 350 degrees F oven for 45 minutes.
For Meringue Topping: Beat the egg whites until stiff and add the 4 tbsp of sugar to it. Pour in slowly.
Top the already baked pudding with it, making swirly peaks for decorations. Bake again at 300 degrees F until a golden brown.
Every once in awhile, I’ll come across the name of a town that is foreign to me while researching Louisiana newspapers.
I read about a terrible accident that happened in Trees, Louisiana, in 1919. I’d never heard of the place.
It turns out that Trees was an oil boom town in north Louisiana. It was in Caddo Parish on Caddo Lake near the Texas line. In fact, it’s still on the map (and there’s a Tree City Road) though there’s not much there nowadays.
Here’s the elementary school in 1937:
From what I can gather, Trees (really Trees City) got its name from the J.C. Trees Oil Company. The company’s headquarters was moved to Oil City in 1983 – and I mean that literally. The building that once housed the company’s headquarters now sits in Oil City.
Trees City burst into existence with the discovery of oil. Soon, tents were set up to house the oil field workers and their families. Buildings came later.
C.C. Talbot, the man whose family died, was an oil well driller. The night of the fire, the gas heater in his home exploded while the family slept. His wife woke up, roused her husband and fainted.
Poor C.C. was able to carry 5-year-old Mary Elizabeth and 6-year-old John Henry outside to safety. He went back for his wife and 8-year-old George but couldn’t get through the flames to them. Little Mary Elizabeth followed her father back into the house and died.
C.C. lived a few days and died himself from his injuries, leaving John Henry as the family’s sole survivor.
According to newspaper accounts, the Talbot family was buried in the Trees City Cemetery. I couldn’t find a listing for it online.
But I did find mentions of Trees City well into the 1970s. And then I found an obit of sorts for the town in 1986. It seems Trees City was one of those boom-and-bust towns that came and went with the oil field production.
Louisiana is a casual state. We’re more blue jeans and shrimp boots than black tie and ballgowns.
One of the sites I follow on Facebook posted this priceless letter to Leonce Poche, who used to own the LP Poche Cash Store in Louisiana. I don’t know if Mr. Poche just dropped off seafood at the Governor’s Mansion or if he had a prearranged appointment. I’m guessing he just dropped it off because you used to be able to walk right up to the front door. Years ago, there used to be a guy who would come by my office with fresh shrimp. He’d appear in the doorway and show me shrimp from his cooler. That’s how we roll in Louisiana.
The governor is Jimmie Davis, who once rode his horse Sunshine into the State Capitol. The horse rode in the elevator to the governor’s office.
First, I’ll warn you that what I’m about to share could result in an addiction.
I regularly fall down a rabbit hole with two Facebook groups. One is the Bayou History Center Inc., which shares photos and stories from south Louisiana, including Lafourche, St. Mary and Terrebonne parishes. The other is a preservation group dedicated to the ghost town of Rodney, Miss.
I can explain my fascination with the Bayou History Center’s content since I was born in Thibodaux. I have no ties to Rodney other than a slight obsession with the place. Rodney almost became the capitol of Mississippi. It lost by a few votes. It also used to have newspapers, an opera house, stores and a thriving population. It’s even said that Zachary Taylor was paying social calls in Rodney when he found out he had been elected president of the United States. After the river shifted course, Rodney dwindled away. All that’s left today are a few churches, a heck of an old country store (no longer open), abandoned homes and deer camps. You should visit if you get a chance though! We visited for my birthday a few years ago.
Both sites can suck me in for hours. What can I say? I love old photos. Rodney’s site is searchable. Bayou History Center’s site isn’t. Hint. Hint.
The great thing about these sites is people will dig up old photos that you didn’t even know existed and post them. They’ll post stories about photos that are shared. It’s oral history without the audio.
I’m sharing some photos (hope the sites don’t mind) and links to the groups. But I warned you! They’re addictive.