Friday, October 31, 2008

Living in Crowley's History

Crowley, LA, was established in 1887, and today has more than 200 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. So, we thought we would take a walk around town to see some of the historic homes.

The Morris-Davino House was built in 1902. The tree seemed to fit in well with the home today.

When the Toler-Barousee House was built in 1892 it was two stories with two galleries and eight fireplaces. Years later the house took on its present appearance. Compared to some of the more majestic homes, this home seemed modest, but probably more easily livable.

Built in 1906, the Lawrence-Hoffpauer House has remained unchanged throughout the years.

Crowley's first physician and mayor, Derrick January, built this house in 1893.

Descendents of Wayne and Geneveve Thompson currently live in this house, which Gary and Vivian Brooks built in 1900 and sold in 1927. The wrought iron fence surrounding this property was as beautiful as the home itself.

The Clark-Miller House fits its descriptive name: ". . . when 'the Victorian palace' was built in 1898 it was the most ornate dwelling in town." We spent several minutes just staring at the porch and gingerbread on this palace.

Crowley seems to be a livable, walkable city.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

A Plan and a Bonus

Some days begin with a clear destination in mind, and sometimes the anticipated destination is a mere introduction to an unexpected discovery.

We set out to tour the Duchamp Opera House in St. Martinville, LA. The former lobby of the opera house is a retail store (antiques and gifts), but at the end of the main isle, we saw the staircase to the Opera House.

Modest by today's standards, the Opera House offerred its guests an intimate setting for a range of performances. It was our guess that about 100 chairs would occupy this space.

Entrances and exits surrounded the stage. Following a couple of them led us through a maze that must have been interesting to navigate in the dark.

One of our turns led us to the dressing room with its walls of the names of plays, cast autographs, and comments of the actors/actresses. There didn't seem to be much room for another season's worth of etchings.

We spoke with the woman who ran the retail store in the lobby about the Opera House's history and about our interest in restored theaters and opera houses. She said that we needed to see the Teche Theater a couple of doors away.

A short walk and an open theater door led us to Terry Dupuy, owner of the Teche. Terry met us at the door, and as he walked around the lobby, he began talking about his plans for the theater. He was clearly a man with a vision and the skill to realize it.

The theater has a 3000 square-foot concert area with a stage and seating for about 250 people. Terry's goal is to produce a show similar to "Austin City Limits" (PBS show featuring artists appearing in Austin, TX) featuring local musicians (Cajun and Zydeco music) that would originate in the Teche with an audience.

The nationally-known "Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys" will appear here the last Saturday in November.

The theater is also equipped with a recording studio. Terry can record groups in either live concerts or in the sound studios. Terry has produced CDs of local artists and has worked with one of our favorite groups, "The Basin Brothers," several years ago. At his chair in the control room, Steve appeared quite capable of realizing his goal.

He teaches high school and college classes on music production in the theater, and another of his goals is to establish the Teche as a educational center for movie and TV production. (He added that Louisiana is second to Hollywood in locations for movie production.)

Terry also filled us in on the history of the Teche. In 1908, the building had been the home of a horse and buggy dealer. In the 20's, it had been transformed into a theater. In a room called "the Vault," Terry showed us two carbon arc projectors. He described the steps in the process of removing the first reel once the second reel started, rewinding that first reel, and putting the third reel on the first projector before the reel on the second projector ended.

Terry also showed us the separate entrance, ticket booth, snack bar, seats, and rest rooms that were established in the theater for Black patrons.

Terry then took us down the street to the cafe that he had purchased within the past month. The cafe, once the town bank, looked to be "in transition," but Terry said he will be opening in two weeks.

On a wall in the cafe, we found a photo of the "Teche" sign as it appeared over the theater marquee.

An interesting end to the day--getting hooked on the restoration of the previously unknown Teche Theater.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

"Where Life is Rice and Easy"

The city of Crowley, LA, had a choice: build a new city hall or renovate the existing Crowley Motor Company building and use some of its space for city officials. Fortunately, the city fathers (most recently, mayor Greg Jones) and mother (the city's first woman mayor, Isabella Delahousseye, 1997-2006) chose to set up their offices in this beautiful building. In addition to city hall offices, the Rice Interpretive Center and the J.D. Miller Recording Studio call this building home.

We met Charlotte Jeffers, the Tourism Coordinator, who provided us with an enthusiastic introduction to the city--its history and its future.

Crowley has earned the title "Rice Capital of America" by milling more rice annually than all other rice-producing countries in the world combined! So, it seemed only fitting that we spend some time learning about rice production. Several displays (below) and a video about rice planting, harvesting, and milling filled our knowledge-gap quite satisfactorily.

For example, about six inches below the surface of the Crowley rice-growing fields is a layer of clay that has very poor drainage properties. This enables the farmers to flood the rice fields and retain the water. Seeding can be done by machine or by plane, and on many farms, the farmers grow two rice crops per year. And in the non-growing season, farmers "seed" the fields with crawfish and "harvest" the "mud bugs" for a third cash-producing crop in a year. Life in Crowley does seem to fit the city's motto: "Rice and Easy."

But back to the Crowley Motor Company. This building housed a Ford dealership years ago, and there are many reminders of its early life. This photo shows how the Model T's arrived in Crowley. The cars were shipped in box cars without fenders and tires.

They were unloaded and transported to the dealership's freight elevator (left) and lifted to the third floor. Here, tires and fenders were added, and the fully-assembled cars were sent down the elevator to the showroom.

This Model T coupe sits on the mezzaine of City Hall--which has to be a one-of-kind display in any city hall in the country.

At one point, Mayor Jones came out of his office because he heard conversations in the hall and did not recognize the voices. His welcome, added to that of Ms. Jeffers, insured that we will be back for more visits to this lovely city in the next few weeks.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Le Grande Derangement

During a visit to St. Martinville, the sixth oldest city in Louisiana, we learned the reason for the Acadians of Nova Scotia seeking refuge in this area.

Increasing friction between British and French forces beginning in 1754 led to the British capturing Fort Beausejour. In 1755, the British, aware of the refusal of the sizable French Acadian population to swear allegiance to England, instituted Le Grande Derangement and deported the Acadians to France, British ports in the colonies, and the islands in the Caribbean. Families were frequently broken apart.

Even in the colonies, the French were not accepted. Many either made their way back to Nova Scotia or journeyed to the New Orleans area. The latter group became known as "Cajuns," and their expulsion formed the basis for Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's 1847 epic poem "Evangeline."

In the poem, Acadian maiden Evangeline Bellefontaine is torn from her betrothed Gabriel Lajeunesse on their wedding day. With a group of fellow exiles, she travels to Louisiana and searches many years for him. She finds Gabriel on his death bed. Reunited at long last, Gabriel dies as the two kiss. Evangeline dies soon thereafter, and the two are buried together in unmarked graves.

This oak, The Evangeline Oak, marks the legendary meeting place of Emmeline Labiche and Louis Arceneaux, the counterparts of Evangeline and Gabriel.

In the town square is St. Martin de Tours Catholic Church, the "mother church" of the Acadians, established in 1765.

Adjacent to the church is the priest's home.

Later, we visited the Longfellow-Evangeline State Historic Site just north of St. Martinville to tour the Maison Olivier.

The architectural form is called a Raised Creole Cottage, which shows a mixture of Creole, Caribbean, and French influence. The ground floor walls are 14 inches thick.

Our tour leader, Mary Guirard, provided a comprehensive picture of the Acadians expulsion and their life in Louisiana. At this point of the tour, she described the mattress as having one side filled with dried Spanish moss (summer side) and the flip side filled with feathers (winter side). She demonstrated how the feather side of the mattress is "fluffed up" by removing a "rolling pin" from the headboard and rolling it up and down the length of the bed with the help of a second person.

The kitchen was housed in a separate building and seemed well-equipped for this well-to-do Olivier family.

In 1934, the property became the first park of the Louisiana State Parks system.

Monday, October 27, 2008

The Grand Opera House of the South

As we entered Crowley, LA, we were greeted with a wonderful sight--the main street was closed in some parts, covered with gravel in other parts, and blocked by heavy machinery in still other places! "Wonderful" because these were all signs of a vibrant community. Parkerson Avenue, the town's main street, will have a landscaped median strip through the downtown area with additional landscaping at other points when the project is completed in about 15 months.

One of the buildings at the heart of this thriving community of about 15,000 people is the Grand Opera House of the South.

In 1898, at age 29, David Lyons took the first step toward bringing culture to the 4000 people in his hometown of Crowley. He purchased property for $500 and completed the Grand Opera House two years later at a cost of $18,000.

This reproduction of the staircase from the lobby evokes the feeling of a grand entrance.

On Opening Night, November 23, 1901, over 800 patrons saw a production of Harry Ward's Minstrels.

The steep slope of the floor resulted in good sight lines for all (main floor view, left, and balcony view, below).

Kimberly Gattle, the Executive Director of the Opera House, provided considerable information about the restoration. The theater seats were not the original wooden ones but were cushioned ones that had been obtained from Michigan.

The slight slope toward the stage was a unique feature of the seats along the sides of the balcony.

When Mr. Lyons died in 1940, the Opera House was closed and left virtually untouched for almost 60 years. In the Opera House's Musuem is an original tin medallion that appeared in the ceilings of the four theater boxes.

In the photo (right), the medallion is shown in one of the four boxes nearest the stage.

Over the years, performers had signed their names or left messages on a wall in a former dressing room. In the photo (left)are the following notations: "Capt. Racket May 27, 1903" and "Frank Brown" and what seems to be "Bronz Mankins Dec. 1938"

There are other signs in Crowley that signal a thriving downtown, and we will re-visit this town soon.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Frog Capital of the World

So we are standing in line . . .

waiting to be seated at Chef Roy’s Frog City Café in Rayne, LA. I am looking at the display of frog ceramics when I turn back to see Chuck smiling unaware that he was about to be attacked by something out of a 1950’s B horror movie. You know the kind--the movies where the spider/ant/grasshopper/bird is zapped by radiation and grows to 1,000 times its normal size. Loved those movies--still do. Anyway, this was a friendly frog and the danger quickly passed.

Jim and his wife Lynn are the resident managers at the Frog City RV Park in Duson. Jim recommended Frog City Café highly. And are we glad he did. We, along with what seemed to be half the population of Duson, Rayne, and Crowley, stopped in for lunch on Saturday. We learned that the lunch menu is only in effect Monday through Friday, and so we would have to order from the dinner menu.

Not wanting a full meal, we decided to order four appetizers (clockwise from the top)--the Popcorn Crawfish, Chef Benoit’s Cajun Eggrolls, Catfish Bites, and Mile High Onion Rings. All were prefect.

I am always somewhat leery about popcorn anything. Too often, batter covers a tiny, overcooked piece of food. These were awesome. Good-sized crawfish tails were seasoned, then battered and fried. Neither the batter nor the seasoning detracted from the sweet, mildly spicy, crawfish meat. The catfish bites were coated in a light cornmeal batter that had a modest amount of black pepper.

Both were served with a house-made tartar sauce that contained just enough mustard to give interest without overwhelming the fish. Now Chuck is not a tartar sauce man, so he told me that both portions of the sauce were mine. After the first taste on a piece of catfish, I suggested that he try just a little. Am I stupid or what? There went my second portion of tartar sauce.

The Cajun Eggrolls were inspired. Three house-made wrappers contained a mixture of crawfish, corn, and rice with just enough Cajun spice for interest. These came with a sweet-and-sour dipping sauce. And the onion rings--what can I say? Thank heaven the server asked if we wanted the half order and not the full. We would still be there eating. At first I thought there might be panko crumbs coating the batter--I am still not sure but these were crisp and fat free. Chuck asked if I tasted something sweet. The sweetness was nothing more than the natural sugars in the sweet onions.

The kitchen is run by Chef Beniot Morel, a native of Chalons en Chamgagne, France. Chef Beniot moved to Louisiana in 1997 where he went to work with Chef Roy who owned restaurants in Lafayette, Rayne, and Crowley. We expressed our satisfaction with the meal to Robert Credeur, owner and manager. He is a native of Mire, LA and had worked for Chef Roy.

This is a 5.0 Addie restaurant, and a return visit to sample the more complex items on the dinner menu is a must. Besides, there is a dessert calling my name. The Turtle--chocolate genoise cake surrounding vanilla ice cream, rolled in caramel sauce and roasted pecan pieces, and served over a pool of caramel sauce. Wow.

We took a short drive through Rayne to see the cemetery at St. Joseph's Catholic Church. The cemetery is an attraction (having appeared in "Ripley's Believe It or Not!") with people coming from around the world to see the only cemetery in the Judeo-Christian world that faces north-south rather than the traditional east-west position (the east metaphorically representing the beginning of life with the rising of the sun and the west metaphorically representing the ending of life with the setting of the sun).

We assumed the graves are above ground for the same reason they are in New Orleans--the water table is so high that they will not stay beneath the surface in heavy rains.

As we drove out of Rayne, we saw the frog welcoming visitors to "The Frog Capital of the World." Since frogs seemed pretty important, I gave a tip of my hat to stay on the good side of this dapper fellow.

I think we'll learn more about frogs in the next few weeks.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

More Than Music at the Jam Session

Mark Savoy builds cajun accordions and operates a music center just east of Eunice, LA. The Savoy Music Center is a modest building and Mark himself is, on the surface, a modest person. To stop there, however, would miss the intensity that he devotes to his work and the preservation of the Cajun culture.

At a young age, Mark (center in the photo at the left) was drawn to the accordion. I read that he said, "I fell in love with the sound of it. It did something to me. I can't really describe it; it's almost like a spiritual happening."

He began repairing accordions, eventually became one of the finest makers of the instrument, and was instrumental in the evolution the Cajun accordion, being the first to introduce fine Italian-made reeds rather than the cheap, inferior ones that had been used up to that time.

I don't understand the construction of the cajun accordion, but I understand he uses 46 reeds (4 per note instead of 2). Having such a large volume of reeds housed in the relatively small body is what gives the small Cajun accordion its "big" sound. I don't know if Mark built this accordion (right), but I wanted to present some idea of how beautiful this instrument is.

To us, the sound of the instrument is loud, sometimes piercing, but captivating. In the minds of many, it is the signature part of the sound in the music of the region. And it is the culture of the region that Mark is devoted to preserving. He vigorously "campaigns" for learning (Cajun) French and maintaining the traditions and musical origins of the culture among the younger generation of the region.

It is my guess that the Saturday morning jam sessions held at the Savoy Music Center serve as a classroom for the preservation of the culture.

In the audience were "regulars" and "first-timers." As two of the middle group, Kate and I have been drawn to the sound of the accordion and the unique rhythm of the music.

Among the players was a 12-year-old blind youngster who played the piano for over two hours of the three-hour jam session. His grandfather told me that the grandson also played the guitar, but three months ago said he wanted to learn the piano. Mark taught him the basic chords, and the boy took some lessons. This morning, he played the accompaniment line by ear for all of the songs the group played.

Admiration, inspiration, and fascination--all in one jam session at the Savoy Music Center.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Welcome to Yazoo City

Today was a travel day—from Canton, MS to Duson, LA. We spent two nights in Canton, but because of the rain, we did not get a chance to photograph the downtown historic district or visit the parts of town that served as scenes for the movies "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" (2000), "A Time to Kill" (1996), and "My Dog Skip" (2000). Canton, formerly known as "The City of Lights," is becoming known as the “City of Lights, Camera, Action.”

We had stopped at a campground in Canton so that we could meet a friend of ours who lives in Yazoo City. We had met Snooky Hogue during our Elderhostel program last November in Fairbanks, AK. She is the secretary of the First Presbyterian Church in Yazoo City and gave us a tour of the church. In this photo, Snooky is pointing to pictures of the first church building built in 1841. This building, along with several others in town, was destroyed in the “Great Fire” of 1904.

After the fire, services were held in the town’s opera house, and when the present church was built in 1905, members voted to install “theater” seats instead pews. The pipes of the organ, though impressive, are nonfunctional.

Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour is a member of this church.

It was a cloudy, rainy, chilly day, so when it came time for lunch we were hoping to find a "comfort food" restaurant. Snooky's suggestion of Stub's was perfect. The meal of moist, tasty chicken, creamy mashed potatoes, fried okra, the finest creamed corn I've ever had, and a piece of delicious apple pie just warm enough to slowly melt the ice cream was the perfect example of comfort food for a rainy day.

Stub's was the type of restaurant in which everyone knows everyone else--as evidenced by Snooky's greeting and being greeted by many other customers.

We drove around the plains surrounding Yazoo City and learned that this area and the 45 miles to the Mississippi River had been part of the delta centuries ago.

I believe these are some of the cypress trees growing in one of the lakes near Yazoo City (photographed from the car).

We also saw some catfish farms on our tour. Snooky's son is on the staff at Mississippi State University, and one of his responsibilities involves overseeing the catfish farms that the University is studying. He also consults with similar farms in northern Mississippi.

The much-needed rain was a welcome accompaniment to an enjoyable day of visiting with a friend.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Rollin' (Slowly) on the River

Dawn on the Mississippi with a little help earlier in the morning from some passing jets.

As we prepared to leave the campground and head south, we took a last look at the activity on the river.

The Madeline Cenac.

Some of the crew were painting this boat as it was working.

The Joseph Merrick Jones.

This was the only time I saw one boat passing another heading in the same direction.

As you can tell, I became enamored with these working boats and took photos of them whenever possible.

The Miss Nicole.

Sunset on one of the last nights in West Memphis.