There’s a lot more to Southwest Louisiana, about which I wrote last time, than Cajun honky-tonks, alligator-infested wetlands, and pepper-sauce factories. Tucked down in the corner, away from the spooky swamps, is Louisiana’s . . . pick your analogy . . . odd duck, loose cannon, eccentricity in an already-eccentric state, or wild and woolly — in its case, wild and beefy — frontier.
The people who live there call it “Louisiana’s Outback.”
When Napoleon Bonaparte sold his enormous New World colony of Louisiana, then amounting to what Adley Cormier correctly describes as “the middle third of the continent,” to the United States in 1803, this neutral ground between French Louisiana and Spanish Texas wasn’t part of it.
It was a no-man’s land, a sweeping prairie with razor-sharp tallgrasses more akin to Kansas than to damp Louisiana or dusty Texas. Immense pine and cypress forests grew there, too, and its rivers drained straight south into the Gulf of Mexico rather than running over towards civilization in New Orleans to the east or Galveston to the west.
Cormier, a retired state Labor Department official and meticulous historian, points out that you really couldn’t get anywhere of note from these rough plains. Trains were decades away, and it took three days of hard riding by horseback just to cross what became Imperial Calcasieu Parish.
Imperial. How’s that for a pretentious name for a big patch of weeds and woods? “Calcasieu” — pronounced CAL-kih-shoe — is an Attakapas Indian name that translates to “Crying Eagle.” You’d be crying, too, if stiff grasses had sliced open your leg or your horse.
This remote stretch of nothingness was claimed, without much inspection, by the new State of Louisiana in 1805, and after 35 years of halfhearted settlement, it became its own parish, or county. A big one, larger than either of two entire states — Delaware and Rhode Island. Thus the “imperial” part.
But no self-respecting emperor or empress would have set foot there, amongst the Acadian pirates, runaway slaves, English-speaking Americans called “Texians” who wandered over from Spanish Texas, and what Cormier calls “filibusters and rowdies from Mississippi and the Carolinas.” The few people you’d bump into thereabouts were likely running from the law or looking for a big piece of nowhere in which to mind their own business, farm a little, and raise cows.
There’s plenty more that’s colorful about the place, as Cormier recounts in a precise “timeline history.” But before I dip deeper into it, let’s jump ahead to describe what you’ll find in these parts now.
The City of Lake Charles, population 80,000 or so, is the hub of what are now five parishes carved out of the imperial one.
Originally named “Charley’s Lake” after a fellow who settled there, Lake Charles is not one of those roll-up-the-sidewalk-at-6 p.m. towns. Not only does it boast an array of lovely Victorian homes and a lakeshore promenade that Cormier swears rivals Parisian esplanades along the Seine — forgive him; we exaggerate about the things we love — it also packs 28 massive petrochemical plants and five liquefied natural-gas terminals out of sight and smell, three glittering casino resorts next to the interstate highway, a racetrack at which to bet your casino winnings or what’s left after your losses, fishing spots to die for, nature trails everywhere you look, and all kinds of niche stores that sell — to customers worldwide — things like duck calls and alligator skins.
Half the names in this corner of Louisiana, including Cormier’s, are Acadian-French. But he says Calcasieu Cajuns have a different outlook than their kin over toward Lafayette in Bayou Country to the east, where French is still freely spoken. There, he says, it’s all about preserving and promoting Acadian culture. In Lake Charles and environs, it’s about a day’s work wherever you can get it — even if it takes a goodly commute across the Sabine River to petrochemical jobs in bustling Beaumont and Houston in Texas.
Out in the country around Lake Charles, you’ll find vast, dreamy-green wildlife refuges. Cameron Parish, below Calcasieu — so empty at 5,000 people that there’s not even an incorporated town to be found — is, after all, the last place for Central and South America-bound songbirds to get a break and a bite before soaring over the Gulf, and for wintering pintails, wigeons, gadwalls, blue-winged teals, and other waterfowl to set down and stay a spell each winter.
Speaking of sitting a spell, if you could relax in one of what Adley Cormier and his wife, watercolor artist Melinda Cormier, estimate are 65 places to sit and sip some lemonade in the tropical garden behind their home, they — OK, Adley — would tell you all about:
• Battle Row. That’s the local vernacular for Railroad Avenue, once a rip-roaring strip along the railroad tracks in Lake Charles where, if the warring saloon, brothel, and Bourré-parlor proprietors of several ethnic backgrounds weren’t settling what Cormier calls “Old Country disputes” with deadly weapons, their patrons were blasting each other instead.
• Seeking justice. Lake Charles settlers found that the nearest courthouse, 19 km (12 miles) away, was annoyingly inconvenient. So they lifted it, rolled it on logs down to the Calcasieu River, hoisted it onto a raft, and moved it to their new town.
• Finding justice. Hitchhiking with a male companion, Toni Jo Henry brutally murdered a man who gave them a lift in 1942. Not only was she convicted and sentenced to death, she was electrocuted right in the Calcasieu Parish Courthouse —on the front steps, some accounts say — in a portable electric chair that had been shipped from the state penitentiary in Angola, Louisiana.
• Iowa. Just east of Lake Charles is a little town that, curiously, is named after a Midwest Corn Belt state up north. Once the railroad finally crossed Louisiana’s great prairie in the 1880s, speculators exuberantly advertised its land as a farming paradise. In truth it was mostly layers of dust blown over from Texas, anything but divine. But families from the North Country took their chances. They learned that cattle found the grasses tasty, so the settlers stayed to ranch and farm, and named a town that sprang up after the place they left behind.
• Sulfur and Sulphur. Oil wildcatters discovered sulfur west of Lake Charles. Then German immigrant Herman Frasch developed a way to mine it by pumping hot steam into the ground, liquefying the odorous mineral, and sucking the slush to the surface. The “Sulfur King’s” process was so successful, it broke a long Sicilian monopoly of the sulfur trade. The town that grew around the mines was given the mineral’s name — fancified with the British “ph” spelling — much as “Landphair” is a high-toned version of the old Welsh “Llanfair”.
• Fire and rain. Like Chicago and San Francisco, Lake Charles endured a Great Fire. The conflagration in 1910 nearly burned the city to the ground, but the aftermath changed the town for the better. Attractive brick and stone homes replaced wooden firetraps. Likewise, several hurricanes — notably vicious Rita in 2005 — had positive long-term effects. The city adopted “smart codes” requiring stronger building materials and baseline elevations almost two meters higher than those before the storm. That’s been good for downtown, which lies on high ground.
Lake Charles also suffered the fate of many cities in the 1970s, when civic and business leaders became infused with the zeal of tear-down-the-old, throw-up-some-new “urban renewal.” They demolished perfectly useful, ornate buildings to make room for parking lots. They also ripped the façades off other structures and re-clad them in gaudy aluminum, and created pedestrian malls and one-way streets that caused what Cormier calls a “tourniquet effect,” squeezing the life out of downtown business.
But the picture is changing. Preservation is the new watchword, and charming new buildings are filling some of the empty lots.
The glittering casino lights off the highway or migrating terns overhead weren’t enough to lure me off the highway. I pulled off just for the grillades [GREE-yahds]. They are a South Louisiana delicacy: pounded pieces of veal or inexpensive steak, cooked with tomatoes and gravy in hot fat, and served over grits.
And what are grits? Check with me when I write about Georgia.
Ted's Wild Words
These are a few words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word that you'd like me to explain, just ask!
Bourré. An intensely competitive card game favored by residents of the French-speaking parishes, or counties, of Louisiana.
Filibuster. Long-winded speeches, especially to deliberately prolong procedures in legislative sessions. Less often, the word also describes those who deliver such windy remarks.
Wildcatter. An oil prospector who drills exploratory wells.