When I saw this grave at St. Patrick’s in Gibson last weekend, the vase was empty. I studied the name on the marker – Father Tayler Clement – and thought he must have been a priest. I imagined he’d come to this little bayou town from a far-flung place, ministered to the largely Catholic population, died and was buried here goodness only knows how many miles from home. So I gifted his grave with a bouquet of Dollar Tree flowers.
Someone tell me to stop making assumptions.
It turns out that “Father” Clement was a married man whose news obit focused more heavily on his widow’s insurance payment than on his actual death. Still, the newspaper characterized him as popular.
Mr. Clement married Orsena Faucheux in 1895, just five years before his death. They had a summer wedding.
And that’s all I know about Mr. Clement. At least I now know that he wasn’t a priest.
This is a story that starts with lunch on an October day and quickly turns sad. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Like a lot of Cajuns who tired of living hand to mouth, half brothers Joseph and Louis Bernard didn’t stay on the bayou where they were born. They found work as carpenters for the railroad in New Orleans.
On Oct. 2, 1928, they found a comfortable ledge in the yard of the railroad shed and tucked into their lunches. A switch engine backing a string of nine empty rail cars disrupted their meal. The brothers’ tools were on the tracks in the path of the switch engine.
It’s not clear which brother jumped down to retrieve the tools. All that’s known is the one who did slipped and fell – and his brother jumped onto the tracks to pull him to safety. The train was on top of them in a flash.
Joseph, who was 70, died immediately. Little brother Louis, who was 59, died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.
Their bodies were taken to the Catholic cemetery in Chacahoula for burial. Their markers are still there in the little bayou town.
I went to Gibson today to spruce up my grandparents’ graves. While there, I walked the small cemetery to see if I could find Lizzie Schmitt/Schmidt’s grave.
Lizzie was the baby sister of my granny’s great grandmother, Anaise Templet Giroir. After her mother died when she was just a baby, she rotated among the relatives before marrying and settling in Gibson. It took me a bit to prove she was Anaise’s sister. My guess is their mother died in childbirth having Lizzie and the family didn’t get around to baptizing Lizzie.
I’d never seen her grave in the Gibson cemetery, but an old catalog of the graves showed markers for her, her husband and at least some of their children.
Using the mention of the graves being in their own enclosure as a guide, I studied the cemetery and soon came across a row of graves squared off by a low border of bricks. None of the graves were readable, which would be why I didn’t remember coming across Lizzie.
I went down the little line of markers and noticed one had a nameplate. It read Mrs. Jos. Schmitt. That would be Lizzie. I’d probably seen it before I knew her married name and it hadn’t registered.
I stuck some white flowers in the ground next to her marker. It’s sad when markers get neglected and forgotten.
Am I the only one who carries extra flowers to the cemetery?
When I think about the founding families of Gibson in Terrebonne Parish (yes, I’ve been on quite the Gibson tear lately), a few names come to mind: Sick, Walther and Fandal. They were the major landowners in the days after the Civil War. In fact, a lot of the homes that stand today in Gibson are on parcels of land cut from those families’ original holdings.
The Fandals started with Frederick “Fritz” Fandal, who immigrated from Germany and somehow found his way to a tiny swamp town in Louisiana. Supposedly, he invested the profits from hunting alligators into buying property. Eventually, he started a lumber mill and fathered a dozen children. Today, there’s still a street named for him in Gibson although it’s misspelled as Fandall.
Half a century after his death, Fandal’s story was retold in a local newspaper article about his great-great grandson’s tragic death. You can read it below.
In the summer of 1856, Zoe Emma Mille vacationed on Last Island at the tip of Louisiana with her parents, brothers, sister-in-law and a niece/nephew (the gender’s been lost to history). She was the only member of her party to survive the hurricane that struck the island.
Emma is remembered as the last living survivor of the Last Island hurricane (which hit in the days before hurricanes were named) – and that may be true. She was 97 when she died in 1936.
A year before her death, she shared her story with a New Orleans newspaper.
If you’ve been to Louisiana in July or August, then you can understand the appeal of an island awash in the breeze from the Gulf of Mexico. Located off the coast of Terrebonne Parish, Last Island had a big hotel and privately owned cottages. Emma’s father owned one of those cottages. It was their first time vacationing in it.
They boarded the ferry at Plaquemine and arrived to an island packed with vacationing families. Every cottage seemed to be occupied.
Quickly, though, the Milles started to worry. The waves were too high for wading. The wind was blowing hard. The temperature soared, a light rain began to fall and the wind picked up even more power.
It soon became clear this wasn’t a summer storm. A hurricane was hitting and would rip the island into pieces.
Other cottage occupants fled to the big hotel. The Milles stayed put because the baby was sick. That afternoon, crowded together in one room, they felt the house shake. Then the waves crashed in.
Emma saw her sister-in-law sweep past her. She was clutching her baby. They – along with Emma’s parents and brothers – drowned. Only Emma survived. She was one of the few who drifted back ashore after being washed out to the Gulf.
Another vacationer – Dr. Alfred Duperier – fled the hotel when the hurricane hit and dashed into a cottage, where he tied himself to an armoire. The next morning, he found himself on the beach looking at the ruins of the hotel.
Now an orphan, Emma left the island on the same boat as Dr. Duperier. He carried her in a chair off the ship because she was too weak to walk. Emma stayed with Dr. Duperier’s mother until her brother-in-law could collect her.
Before she left, Dr. Duperier gave Emma a book of religious poems. Inside was a note: “As Divine Providence saved us miraculously, it must be that we were destined for each other.”
I learned something new when I stopped by the Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux to purchase some real estate (our burial plot next to my grandparents). The Archdiocese of New Orleans used to handle the church registers for Thibodaux and the surrounding parishes. Houma-Thibodaux wasn’t created until 1977.
Now, most of the records are at the Historical Research Center in Thibodaux. The archivist there is incredibly helpful as small town folks tend to be. He’s also a busy bee.
One fantastic thing he’s done is to put baptism indexes online for St. Francis de Sales Cathedral, St. Eloi Catholic Church and Montegut’s Sacred Heart Church. The indexes only cover the early 1900s, but I assume – and hope – more resources are coming!
In my opinion, it’s really important for genealogy to be accessible. Ancestry.com is great, but it’s a bad idea just to take someone else’s family tree and assume it’s correct. You want to look at the original source material and verify things for yourself.
My dream is that clerks of court will one day put all indexes online so researchers can easily find if probate records, marriage licenses, property transfers and civil suits exist in their ancestors’ names.
I prepared for Hurricane Laura by cooking everything in the fridge and laying down the garden statues. I was bracing for a week-long power outage and general mayhem. Turns out, we never even lost power. We’re lucky to live in Baton Rouge, which is far enough inland to escape the storm surges but sometimes not the strong winds of hurricanes.
Hurricanes are a deadly part of life in south Louisiana. I am hopeful that anyone who lives in Cameron Parish got the heck out of dodge before Hurricane Laura made landfall.
Years ago, when I was a newspaper reporter, I remember flying over Cameron Parish with Gov. Kathleen Blanco’s husband, Coach, and the rest of the press corps after Hurricane Rita. Coach was a great storyteller. As we swooped over the Cameron Parish Courthouse in a Black Hawk helicopter, he pointed it out as the only building left standing in the town of Cameron after an earlier hurricane. Hurricane Audrey decimated every other building in town and ripped babies out of their mothers’ arms.
Mother Nature can be cruel, as those of us who call this boot-shaped, water-logged state know well. And the ones who live in the coastal parishes are especially vulnerable.
I thought it fitting to revisit one the deadliest hurricanes to ever hit Louisiana. The storm hit in 1856, before hurricanes were named.
Back in those days, a barrier island off the coast of Terrebonne Parish was a summer resort. Vacationing families could escape the heat and enjoy Gulf breezes and white sand. It was known as Last Island, presumably because it was the last bit of land before the Gulf. However, a barrier island also is the last place you want to be during a hurricane. Barrier islands are called such because they act as a barrier for the mainland from storms.
In August 1856, a Category 3 hurricane hit and destroyed every building on the island, including a large hotel owned by John Muggah. Half of the 400 people on the island perished. The island itself disappeared. Today, it’s a series of small islands inhabited by birds.
During the hurricane, some people clung to trees while others were hit by debris or blinded by whipped up sand. The hotel held on at first before ripping apart. Many of the survivors made it out by making their way to a ship that was supposed to ferry people to safety but didn’t reach the island early enough and wrecked. Within days, the wreckage would be one of the few remaining landmarks of Last Island.
This is a Gibson I don’t know. The photos were taken during the 1927 flood and were in the photo album of Eva Walther Baker until Hurricane Katrina destroyed them. Fortunately, a descendant had copies. She kindly shared these with me in hope of finding out more about them.
Aren’t they fascinating? Sadly, I don’t recognize any of the buildings. The house in the very top photo looks familiar, but that might be because I’ve seen a hundred like it over the years.
Certainly, I don’t recognize the house behind the man in the pirogue. I almost wonder if it was a boarding house.
Like I said, I walked the streets of Gibson as a kid, but I never walked these streets.
Eva’s parents were Frederick Walther and Emma Blessing Walther. The Walthers were an old Gibson family who ran the town store. The Walther family home still stands in Gibson. It’s next to the post office (or the new post office as it will always be in my mind) and the school.
Eva’s grandfather was a photographer in New Orleans, and the Walthers seemed to have access to cameras when few others did. We have them to thank for these wonderful photos.
My hope is that someone will recognize these photos or some of the places and faces in them. If you do, please give a shout!
I found a book at the library the other day on the history of Catholic churches in Louisiana. I couldn’t locate my reading glasses so I borrowed a magnifying glass from the librarian and started perusing (no, it can’t be that I’m getting older; the type is getting smaller).
From the book, I learned that records for St. Patrick in Gibson only go back to 1887 even though it was a mission church as far back as 1845. Services apparently were held before a church existed.
The first entry for the Gibson church was for a burial. An African-American woman named Melia was buried in November 1887. No mention is made of her surname.
Father Hebert’s books note Melia’s death and burial.
This is all we’ll probably ever know about Melia. Her contribution to history is being a first – and only having a first name.