Sunday, November 5, 2017

The Heritage Celebration Presentation

Thirty one years ago, I presented an overview of St. Tammany Parish history at the "Our Heritage Celebration" sponsored by the school system. The opening ceremonies were held at the parish fairgrounds in Covington.

Below is the text of the talk that was given to the assembled school officials, teachers, and hundreds of students. To listen to an audio version of this talk, CLICK HERE.

"Where does one begin to tell the history of St. Tammany Parish? While much has taken place in just the last 100 years, the very earliest recorded activity goes back hundreds of years. If you take into account the many Indian artifacts found in the Fontainebleau Park area, then St. Tammany history goes back thousands of years. 

Much of what we know as "St. Tammany" history is actually tied into the history of New Orleans, and that's because the bulk of economic activity in this parish was supported by and existed because of the city south of the lake. Bricks, cotton, lumber, paints, all of that went out of St. Tammany into the building of New Orleans. Then, on the weekends, the people of New Orleans came to St. Tammany for rest, relaxation and recreation.

New Orleans was over there, and the best place to get away from New Orleans for the weekend was over here.

In the early 1900's the people of New Orleans turned to St. Tammany as a place to live every chance they could get, mainly in the summer, but also on the weekends. Thousands of New Orleans residents would cross Lake Pontchartrain, either by train, boat or motor car, and head for the hotels and country villas of Slidell, Mandeville, Abita Springs and Covington.

Today, the main industry in St. Tammany is the subdividing of land for residential subdivisions, but that's nothing new. Some of the biggest "movers and shakers" in St. Tammany history were men and women who bought huge chunks of land, carved it up into homesites, and sold it to individuals eager for their own "place in the country."

In the early years, to get here people had to take a steamer across the lake or take the train to Slidell and beyond. The Lake Pontchartrain Causeway first became the dream of a group of promoters in the mid-1920's who saw it as a quicker way to get the folks over here to buy property and build houses.

A 1926 Map

St. Tammany history would have been different were it not for the presence of the mosquito. The insect would swarm down upon the early settlers and leave a biting impression that was recorded in diaries and letters sent back home. New Orleans had its mosquitoes, too, and the yellow fever epidemics of the 1800's also contributed to the reliance upon St. Tammany as a healthy place to get away to. If you were going to be sick and bitten by mosquitoes, you might as well do it in a more comfortable cooler place. You might even stop by Abita Springs and try some of the health-restoring water there.

The earliest Indian records show settlements at Abita Springs, St. Benedict, Lacombe and the areas near Slidell. The Indian communities thrived on continual trade, and the many rivers that ran through St. Tammany offered an excellent means of transporting goods.

The first St. Tammany settlements tended to nestle around those trade routes. Slidell became a gateway to the rich resources of the Honey Island Swamp, with its great hunting and fishing. The building of the railroad was a key component in its history. Lacombe was known for its crabbing and fishing. Covington was the place where farmers from MIssissippi would roll their wagons full of harvest down Columbia Street to the Bogue Falaya River, load it onto cargo ships, and sail across to New Orleans where they sold it for profit. (Or they would sell it to the Covington merchants, who would then load it onto ships and take it to New Orleans to sell for profit.) Either way, the money received would have to last until the next harvest.

Sometime during all this, the Catholic Church found St. Tammany to be ideal for that little weekend or lifetime retreat. There were monasteries, nunneries, and churches, and Catholic communities of all kinds could be found tucked away in the woods of St. Tammany. Some of them are still here today.

Top state politicians also found St. Tammany perfect for getting away from the pressures of state government. Many of them had summer homes and weekend getaways along the rivers and among the hills of the parish. Some of those homes are also still here today. 

The pressures of life in early Louisiana were just as overwhelming as they are today, perhaps even more so. It was good to have a place to get away from it all. Dotted across the landscape were scores of "family compounds," where four or five houses were occupied by close relatives, often sharing the same water well and entrance road.

A friend of mine is doing a research project where he is tracing the descendants of Jacques Dreux, upon whose land the City of Covington was established. He has discovered a remarkable thing, and that is that many of the present residents of Covington are descendants of Jacques Dreux, and some of them don't even know it. In fact, many of the newcomers moving into the Covington area are turning out to be direct and indirect descendants of people who lived here more than 100  years ago.

That may explain what we are actually seeing in the growth of this parish. To a large degree, the many new people relocating from New Orleans to St. Tammany already have some connection with this parish's past. Either their great grandparents or great great grandparents or great uncles and aunts lived here or vacationed here. It's like they are coming home to a place they've never been before.

Even if you are not related to someone who lived here over 100 years ago, at the very least, someone in your family over the past couple of generations stopped at the White Kitchen on Hwy. 90 on their way through Slidell. 

The people who lived in St. Tammany's early 1900's
 had a good time. They worked hard during the week and played hard on the weekends. The majority of photographs from that time period show people gathered around doing something enjoyable: parading down the street, gossiping around the wood stove in the general store, swimming in the creek, fishing in the river, or getting off the train with their weekend satchel.

Much of the documentation we have preserved from the turn of the century are tickets to entertainment events, dances, concerts, excursion tours, boxing matches. St. Tammany people have been playing Bingo on Friday nights forever, it seems.

And the people who lived here 100 years ago didn't just vanish into thin air. They had children, and their children had children and THEIR children had children. And here you are.

History has a way of sneaking up on us. Tomorrow you will wake up and think back to the fun you had today at the Heritage Celebration, and this Heritage Celebration will have become history. Even as I speak, as each word is spoken, it becomes history. Four years from now, at the next Heritage Celebration, the students attending that event will be looking back at what you've done today, studying your projects, looking at your photographs, and they will be saying, "Well, we can do better than that."

It's true, what you do today will become a challenge to them in the future, and that's a good thing. It should motivate you to do the best you can today to give those young people in the future even more of a challenge to do better.

A hundred years from now, students of the future will be looking back at what you have today and wonder how you ever got by with such primitive computers and CD players and video games. In 100 years, folks will feel sorry for us because of all the inconveniences we had to put up with and the lifestyles that we lived that were so technologically "lacking" when compared to theirs.

But we can stand here today and think the same thing of the people who lived in St. Tammany 100 years ago. We can think of their way of life as primitive and inconvenient. After all, they didn't have televisions or fast food restaurants. They didn't even have air conditioning.

But, you know what, they did okay for themselves. We know that because we are here today as a result of their efforts and diligence. They made do with what they had, even prospered and enjoyed what they had, their families, their neighbors and the woods and rivers and fields they called home. They lived and died thinking of how much better their lives were when compared to the people who had lived 100 years before them.

And as a result, history keeps on flowing on. 

Studying history isn't just about reading who did what and what happened when. It's realizing that the people of yesterday had the same hopes and dreams that you have today. How they set about accomplishing those hopes and dreams may have been different, but if you look closely at what they said and how they did what they did, there may be a hint or two about how we can succeed in our hopes and dreams as well.

Our Heritage Celebration Memories