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Sunday, April 30, 2017
Southwest Louisiana ,
(Special to the American Press)

(Special to the American Press)

Sunday Talk: Mission of Southwest Louisiana historians

Last Modified: Sunday, November 24, 2013 1:03 AM

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, . 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.

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