Sunday Talk: Mission of Southwest Louisiana historians

By By Bobby Dower / American Press

The Calcasieu Historical Preservation Society and the Southwest Louisiana Historical Association ­— to organizations dedicated

to documenting the history of our area — recently merged.

Adley Cormier, who has been president of both organizations, talked with the American Press about the consolidation and the

mission of Southwest Louisiana historians.

American Press: Talk about the Calcasieu Historical Preservation Society and the Southwest Louisiana Historical Association

and what brought them together.

Adley Cormier: They

were once the same organization. The Southwest Louisiana Historical

Association pre-dated the Preservation Society and

they were set up in 1953. It was essentially designed to help

promote the history of Southwest Louisiana. They would actually

commission histories, they actually self-published several

histories of Southwest Louisiana. They worked with Joe Gray Taylor

and Donald Millet over at the History Department at McNeese, and

they tried to have an academic basis for exploring the heritage

of Southwest Louisiana.

As it moved on, they also did things

like post historical markers — the Borealis Rex’s historical marker and

one of the Gerstner

Field markers and places lie that. They marked things. But about

the early ’70s there was a part of the group decided they

actually needed to look at preservation issues as well as physical

bricks-and-mortar-type preservation issues as well as looking

at the history from an academic standpoint.

They sort of together worked to develop

the first Palm Sunday Tour of Homes and from there, the organizations

didn’t split,

because many of the members were members of both organizations for

a long time, but the Preservation Society began to do more

bricks-and-mortar issues and they also took some of the marking

projects.

Lately, the academic side of the

mission of the Historical Association began to sort of fade away. It

might be because the

Louisiana historians that were really important like Joe Gray

Taylor and Donald Millet passed away and folks like Truman Stacy,

and other people who were really big in that organization and a

Mike Jones, who brought a journalistic end to it, they began

to be interested in other things or maybe not as interested or

there were other organizations doing the same thing from a

statewide perspective.

When you start looking at Louisiana

history, you look at it as a state and there’s something to be said for a

statewide approach

to history. Southwest Louisiana is, I don’t really want to say the

odd child out, its history is not necessarily synonymous

with the rest of Louisiana. It wasn’t even part of the Louisiana

Purchase. There’s always been this sort of left-outedness

with Southwest Louisiana, but in any case, when the large

historical movements come along the history of the state is viewed

as the history of the state. The history of Southwest Louisiana is

only part of that story.

As that membership, I don’t want to say

died out because that certainly sounds bad, but as members moved on or

did other things,

the Preservation Society which was actually moving toward a more

activist role in the Palm Sunday Tour of Homes, and developing

historic districts and working with tourism, there was still a

good bit of override. Finally the organizations, the Historical

Association felt that they would be better served to take their

resources and just merge back with the Preservation Society,

which is what has happened. Their goods and resources and even

their website is now being — not taken over — but it’s in the

Preservation Society’s care.

There’s still a very expanded website

for the Preservation Society that continues all the links with the

Historical Association’s,

a very ample website. We still work with McNeese’s Archives,

maintaining all the publications that Mr. Stacy put together

and Mike Jones put together and other historians put together.

In fact, we’ve even expanded the program because the Preservation Society had a little bit more money and a little bit more

resources to work with and we’re continuing with the signage issue to try to alert the public and provide education to the

residents of Southwest Louisiana as to their fabulous history. And we have picked up the mantel and are moving it forward.

Members of the Historical Association that were still up and kicking have been all taken into the Preservation Society. They

are members of the board and all this kind of stuff. There’s been a very amicable sort of thing; it’s not been a fire sale

by any means.

The Preservation Society just has a little bit better, younger platform to work with, in terms of a volunteer basis and a

little bit more tech savvy in terms of getting the message of preservation out. And that preservation issue now includes a

good bit of the history, which is also part of the organization.

I was involved with both organizations

for a while. I was president of both organizations at the same time

which was kind

of an odd duck, but during that period we realized that we had

more in common that we had dissimilar. The merger has allowed

us to expand our pallet of offerings and to focus on issues that

involve folks in Southwest Louisiana right now. The Calcasieu

Historical Preservation Society, which is the full organization’s

name, popular known as CHPS, the Palm Sunday people, still

uses the Palm Sunday Tour of Homes as our big opening to the

public.

We still do the quarterly meetings and we just had one on a Saturday morning at the old Catholic Cemetery to bring attention

to that neglected part of our heritage.

I think that there is a very positive

future for the historical and preservation movements in Lake Charles,

much of what is

remaining in the community and in the parish and in the

five-parish region because the Historical Society covers the entire

Imperial Calcasieu region if you want to that term. I know that

Allen, Beauregard, Jeff Davis and Cameron don’t like the term

Imperial Calcaseiu because it speaks of royal imperative, but that

was the historical name of the area was. We tend to use

that term still.

We’re concerned with the history of

Southwest Louisiana and that history having been for a large part of

Calcasieu Parish

we’re interested in helping organizations to preserve their

individual heritages like with Cameron Parish and the Sabine Lighthouse.

We work with other historic preservation resources there and with

Jennings and with DeRidder, but we’re also interested in

preserving and promoting historical resources within the parish

and that includes DeQuincy’s and the wonderful resources there

and in Iowa and in Vinton. We want to tell the story of Southwest

Louisiana to the people who are lucky enough to live here

and the people who are lucky enough to move here because it’s a

fascinating history and while it may not be as old as the

rest of Louisiana, it’s fascinating in and of itself.

Louisiana is an interesting state and,

in fact, next year, we will be celebrating 300 years of the French in

Louisiana with

the founding of Natchitoches. We want to show that we are part of

the state, we are connected and our history is as important

as that of Natchitoches or New Orleans or Covington or any other

place that deems itself to be very historical.

Frankly, we want to get the story out

so we applaud all of our forbearers that provided it, men like Donald

Millet and John

Gray Taylor and Robert Benoit, Truman Stacy, Mike Jones. There are

many others, many of whom were connected with this newspaper.

We applaud the efforts of entities that

provide their resources to the community. The McNeese Archives with

Kathy Bordelon

and Pati Threatt, the Genealogical Historical Library which works

great guns in trying to get the story out, but also the

wonderful resources like the American Press’ archives, which

really is a remarkable treasury. ... It’s a wonderful resource

because many communities don’t have that sort of opportunity,

(their’s is) not a family-owned central paper, it’s owned by

a syndicate and they can care less about that particular history

of an area, they just want to make a profit. To have that

(American Press archives) connection is wonderful and I think

that’s one of the things that preservation and historical resources

need to do is to help organizations that try to get the story out,

the whole story out. That’s a tough thing to do because

there are a lot of people that don’t want the whole story out

perhaps. We sometimes have to bide our time until the right

moment comes across. ....

There are some initiatives that are in

the works for the combined organizations. One is something that we call

Lost Landmarks

and we are going to begin another program. The Historical

Association did this. They marked the sight where the ferry landing

was for the Borealis Rex and the Hazel and Newport Industries was

one of the marks and we are going to continue that with

three that will be installed some time this winter. One will mark

the site of the Majestic Hotel, one marking the site of

a string of important buildings on the west side of Ryan Street to

include the Weber Building, the Paramount, the Arcade and

the Miller Building and there will be a larger marker for that,

and then one to mark the site of Ball’s Auditorium in upper

Lake Charles because those three stories need to be told to the

public. All that we have now is vacant lots and we have the

intention of continuing that program in the future. We have to

thank the Convention and Tourist Bureau that’s been done on

a grant so we are very grateful for that support.

We will also have in the works what we

are calling a Blue Dot History Program where we will identify it by

number and a Blue

Dot that will allow people to access the information on a CHPS

website and it will tell the story of that particular sight

and connect the dots with other sites that are similar. So we will

have, for example, a blue dot at the Old Catholic Cemetery

and connect that dot with other historic cemeteries throughout the

parish from Big Woods and perhaps even include the five-parish

region because now our charge is a little bit bigger than

Calcasieu Parish and make the connection between the Sugartown old

camp cemeteries and Big Woods and Woodlawn and the other

cemeteries that are in the five-parish region.

But then we might have a dot on Nellie Lutcher’s house site and connect musically all the connections so that one dot will

lead to other dots that will tell the story of certain great movements in the area.

One dot on Rosa Hart’s house and to make a connection to that with the arts and so forth. We plan on working that and trying

to make that with an app that you can pick and image it and it makes those connection.

We are trying to give it a little bit of an edge to move the message of history to being the precursor of today into the 21st

century so that history is something that we live with and it helps to provide a foundation for the future.

American Press: How many members do you have?

Cormier: The

Preservation Society, right now, has I think 1,600 addresses which

would be either active members or people who are long-time.

We picked up all the lifetime members.

American Press: Wow, I never imagined it was that large.

Cormier: The thing is neither organization charges a huge amount of money to be members. There were waves of people who have come

in. The active membership, the people who actually volunteer to do things and show up, is probably close to 500 because it

takes about that many when we do the Palm Sunday Tour. All of those people are either members or contributors and when you

contribute time or resources to an organization in these busy days, you have to count them. We have had several successful

Palm Sunday Tours.

It’s a big spring event. We’ve gotten

national coverage and it’s a good thing in the spring. When you lock the

dates specifically,

it’s kind of a big thing and now that Lake Charles is kind of a —

the population of Lake Charles changes every weekend with

all the Houstonians who come here to gamble — because of that we

kind of have to rethink how we do these things.

When we did the one for Margaret Place

and we had the bus tour, the very first people that boarded the bus were

from Houston

who saw it in the Houston home magazine. They came to Lake Charles

because they had lived here at one time and they took the

trip.

When you do these big projects, it involves a lot of people. There are many people that are interested in heritage issues

in Calcasieu Parish and we are happy to have them.

American Press: While we are on the subject, how do people join?

Cormier: The easiest way is to visit us on line, www.calcasieupreservation.org . There is an application form there and links to all

sorts of other entities that provide resources. You can join online.

American Press: Is there an annual dues?

Cormier: There is, it’s not very much, I think it’s $10 or something like that.

What that does is you get a discount on

the Palm Sunday Tour of Homes and you get on the mailing list and get

information

about our fabulous quarterly meetings. We had one at the Masonic

Temple recently and talked about the Sabine Lighthouse and

issues there.

And the last one was a day thing over at the Old Catholic Cemetery. We spent some time tidying up the cemetery and reading

the census and learning the history of that particular site. It was set up in 1861 and the man who donated it, a fellow by

the name of Hutchins, is buried there. He was buried there four years after he donated the land.

The quarterly meetings are interesting, the Palm Sunday Tour of Homes is interesting and there are all the other projects

that crop up from time to time that deal with the history. We do a landmarking project that identifies and actually marks

houses and sites that actually have a documented history. The documented history goes to the McNeese Archives for academic

research. The thing is is that the McNeese Archives has been a big friend of the organizations over the years and it’s a repository

of the hard copy items of the history and research that has been done.

We do the marking projects. We have the

Calca Awards which are awards of merit to people who are undertaking

renovations of

structures or have done other things. For a time we did writing

project grants. The Historical Association did that mostly.

There was the Donald Millet Award and the Joe Gray Taylor Award.

Both of them have been discontinued the last couple of years,

but I am hoping that we can encourage that because I think that

people that write about Southwest Louisiana need to be acknowledged

and their works promoted.

Recently we worked to set up an actual

road marker for the site of Gerstner Field which is a great untold story

in Southwest

Louisiana — the World War I training base that trained 500

aviators for World War I, including aviators like Jimmy Doolittle

and Claire Chennault, who later had a whole base named after him.

He was an important Louisiana pioneer in warfare.

We also provide information for the

general public. The website provides access to all of our archives,

history, the houses

that are selected. Every year we do an endangered list of

structures and sites that we believe are important and they are

important to the heritage of Southwest Louisiana. We’ve had one of

these projects have resulted in buildings actually being

restored — Cash Grocery and Sales, for example, was on our

endangered list and now it’s on the National Registry and has been

restored and renewed. The Courthouse was on our list many, many,

many years ago prior to its most recent renovation.

Unfortunately, we’ve also lost some

buildings that were on the endangered list. It came to pass. Warren

United Methodist Church

— their old site on Lawrence Street which was demolished after

(Hurricane) Rita led the first hit and that was gone and there

was a great amount of history. Ball’s Auditorium was on the list

at one time.

We try to recognize those structures

that are important to telling the story. It’s so much easier to tell the

story when you

have a visual aid. It’s very difficult to look at an empty field

and say, ‘‘Well, this use to be the XYZ.’’ When you actually

have the building, even if it’s been adaptive reused for other

purposes and we’re happy to have adaptive reuse because it

keeps buildings alive, it’s important. That’s one of our missions,

too. We encourage that sort of thing.

And with the Palm Sunday Tour of Homes,

we try to select structures that tell a story and are sort of linked

together thematically.

A couple of years ago it was Margaret Place celebrating its 100th

anniversary as a street-car subdivision. Last year, it was

Shell Beach Drive. This year (2014) there will be houses in

Charpentier (District) and the Amelia Cormier subdivision which

is just south of downtown Lake Charles. There will be some houses

on that tour. I don’t know the story that that will tell,

but it will be all linked some way.

It’s an active, interesting organization that does a variety of things and we certainly encourage those that are interested

in heritage issues, preservation, history, consider joins CHPS, the Palm Sunday Tour of Homes people

American Press: Talk about the importance of preserving history.

Cormier: Well,

it’s important to preserve history because without history you do not

have a foundation to build your current society

and move on. Particularly here in Lake Charles, we have, as far as

downtown Lake Charles, scant reminders of what the urban

core of Lake Charles used to be and I think it’s important that we

tell the story that towns do change as they grow, not necessarily

does all growth have to be done by demolition.

Some growth can be by adaptively

reusing structures and we are very, very big on that kind of reuse

because we believe you

should be building for the future, particularly since Rita, the

idea that you can build flimsy, slap-dash structures and expect

them to have a long-term life is a fantasy. We live in the part of

the country that we have to build for the future and in

order to do that, we need to take some of the lessons of the past

in terms of how to adapt to our unique geography.

We encourage structures to be adaptively reused, to be built so that they can be adaptively reused. The building itself has

the history of the building but what happens in the building also is important to remember.

To this point I want to bring up the

anecdote about Sacred Heart. Katherine Drexel Sacred Heart School that

just shut down

is a traditionally black, Roman Catholic elementary school that

was actually founded by one of the saints of the church, St.

Katherine Drexel. It served the community in Lake Charles for a

long, long time. And it was recently closed by an order of

the Diocese because of falling enrollment.

But the building itself tells the story

of that long involvement with the education of students in Calcasieu

Parish and the

building left alone and unloved is subject to vandalism, subject

to weather. So we would certainly encourage whoever the owner

of the building is to consider some sort of adaptive reuse program

to reuse the building and also to tell the story of what

that building was originally created for.

If we don’t do that, we lose part of

what’s important to explain what Southwest Louisiana is all about. And

in order to tell

that story, you just can’t just tell the education history without

mentioning that because that’s part of it. You’ve got to

tell the whole story and it’s best to tell the whole story with

whatever you have to tell the story and that building tells

that story.

Now there are many, many other stories: there’s the ones that the students can tell or the alumni can tell and would encourage

that, too. .. Memories change and people die and memories get lost.

While we are encouraging the building be reused, we are also encouraging that the history be looked at because if nothing

else it might keep us from doing something just as stupid in the future.

American Press: You mentioned the advent of technology. How is that helping you as far as preservation and what do you see

in the future?

Cormier:

There are a couple of areas that help. One is in the record keeping

part of history. Paper records are very, very, very fragile.

Even photographic records are very fragile. Technology offers us a

lot of alternative means of recording information and that’s

important to have.

You cannot expect that celluloid film will last forever. You can’t expect 8-track tapes to last forever. You can’t expect

even parchment will last forever. To have records duplicated in different technologies is important. The entire history of

the world can probably be put on a computer chip now and I think that’s a great thing because we need to have those chips

because a particular artifact can be lost.

On another level, technology has provided the people who do construction with new technologies, new materiels that can help

with the unique geographic problems we find ourselves in.

Traditionally, Southwest Louisiana was

an area built of wood. One of our first industries, pine cypress, cut,

much of the

Charpentier District, Margaret Place, the historic district and

the communities in Southwest Louisiana are built on woods.

Our heritage is a heritage of wood largely. That’s fine. But wood

can burn. Wood can be destroyed by storms. It can be destroyed

by termites.

The idea is that structures that are

currently being constructed in the proper way to use new material that

will be a little

more impervious to those sorts of issues. One of the best new

products is something called a fiber cement board or hardiplank

is one of the names of the products which provides a very nice

substitute for the traditional profile of clapboard siding.

There are improvements in windows that allow for true divided lights and true reflective glass, even with the slight waviness

that you have in the ancient glass.

There are millwright procedures that

allow for houses to look appropriate or can actually replace authentic

historic material.

Sometimes you have to do that. It’s not can we make it work; it’s

that we have to make it work using something that reflects

it better, particularly if we are replacing one window. So we have

those upgrades and I think the designers are becoming more

sensitive to the pallet of offerings that history sets up for us

as far as building profiles and building materials.

The technology, moreso, than the actual

physical improvements and building codes and construction building

materials, the

technology improvement allows for record keeping in different

formats. Architects and designers are so much more sensitive

to the historicity issue.

Personally, I don’t want to build an 18th century building using 18th century methods and expect it to last forever. I think

we have to build buildings for today.

But when you are approaching an older

structure and are doing the necessary work to an older structure, you

want your material

and design to be as seamless as possible. Now if you are doing

additions to the building, you might want to make those additions

look a little different so that you don’t look at them and get a

false sense of history. The point is that improvements in

technology and improvements in training designers and the

improvements in training of historic district commissioners help

us to have a better sense of the value of today and the value of

yesterday in trying to keep the integrity of those two things

because you don’t want to have false historicity here in Southwest

Louisiana.

American Press: What ground haven’t we covered?

Cormier: Maybe the part that our past plays in how this area will grow. I think that there are a couple of viewpoints we have to look

at.

One is in terms of history and the

sense of place providing an economic generator to the area in terms of

attracting tourism

and attracting new business enterprises and individuals. In the

21st century, now that we are in a sort of a post-industrial

world, although we are still in the industrial world to some

extent, we’re in an information world and an information economy

and folks who are dealing with intellectual properties, folks who

are writers and web designers or whatever in the technological

world can choose to live anywhere they want to. By and large they

who can choose to live wherever they want to are going to

look at quality-of-life issues for the selections of where they

choose to live — places that have a distinct sense of place.

We have arrived — Lake Charles and

Southwest Louisiana. That sense of place can be one of the components to

that in its sense

of history and what it understands about itself. I think that Lake

Charles and Southwest Louisiana are finally getting a handle

as to what makes them tick and history provides part of that

approach.

I think that the methodology of the

changes particularly in industry in Southwest Louisiana, this has been

an area that has

always been very encouraging towards industry in general. Ever

since (Herman) Frasch for the example of discovering the Frasch

method (of mining sulfur) 12 miles down the road and to some

extent having given a jump start to the American chemical industry,

there’s a sort of an encouragement of new technology. That has

continued through the petro-chemical growth.

The fact that we are the center of a huge network of pipelines and natural gas usage and petroleum usage, but even today it

has moved on into LNG (liquefied natural gas) and other technologies that at one time was import, now it’s export — we are

dealing with those issues.

There has been a certain desire and not

necessarily in a boom/bust sort of way, although there have been booms

and bust in

Lake Charles, there has been sort of a curve that says we are

friendly to industry and industry has been friendly to us. And

that’s not a terrible thing. It would be nice if we would have the

curve of more diversification, but that’s OK, because to

some extent in terms of big industry we have diversified. Aviation

is one of those from Gerstner Field to Chennault International

Airport, there’s a curve there. You have to go through a lot of

different levels.

I think that gives us an idea that these curves are historical curves. You can see a beginning, middle and end.

You can see the Port of Lake Charles is having a big part in making the curve happen and that curve that started as a regional

initiative and now they are also big land owners and they are leasing land, the land that casinos are built on. So you are

beginning to see that they’ve been able to explore the possibilities.

This corner of Louisiana is filled with

possibilities. It’s a young corner of Louisiana. It’s not part of the

Plantation South,

it doesn’t have that tradition. It’s sort of a combination of Old

South and Texas and Wild West and ‘‘get out of my way and

let me do.’’

It’s always had that sort of a No Man’s

Land Concept, but not No Man’s Land in the sense of ‘‘I go there to

escape.’’ It’s

rather ‘‘I go there to start new’’ and I think there’s a real fine

line there that has to be explored. You come here to start

anew. And if you understand that, that sort of helps to create an

idea of what people were like.

Yes, there’s always that confusion of

who was here first — the Spanish, the French. It doesn’t matter. But

people came here

because they were trying to start new and fresh and when J.B.

Watkins brought all those poor folks from well-educated, paved

streets and stuck them in the middle of Sweet Lake, they made a

living there. They couldn’t get back to Iowa. But that’s the

thing, they started fresh, they started new. And I think that

gives us sort of a template for growth. That’s one aspect.

The other aspect is the sense of place,

the sense of these curves that are created and I think those curves are

going to continue.

They are not an end-all because we have a huge amount of physical

space. There’s 5,000 square miles in Southwest Louisiana

as long as we don’t get coastal erosion and wear everything away.

How we solve the problems of hanging on to the land, how we solve the problems of keeping these curves moving, how to solve the problems of attracting new people and encouraging the people we already have here. That’s the message that

history can help us because it gives us that template of how did it work in the past and what can we do for the future.