Rural Power magazine, September 1954
by Alton Broussard
Many hundreds of years ago the earth cracked open with a mighty rumble in the St. Martin Parish, leaving a yawning cavern about 500 feet wide, about two miles long, and a hundred or more feet deep. Subterranean water filled the mighty crevasse and formed what is perhaps the strangest body of water in Louisiana, Lake Catahoula.
To our knowledge, the Indians were the first to know and appreciate Lake Catahoula. In fact, legend has it that an Indian village was swallowed by the earth when the lake was formed. Perhaps that is why the mysterious lake was considered holy by the Indians, who named it Lake Cata-oula, or Lake of Sacrifice.
The savages thought that by bathing themselves and some of their possessions in the clear water of the lake, they could find favor in the eyes of the great god Manitou. For many miles around the Indians would make annual pilgrimages to Lake Catahoula, where they made offerings and sacrifices of various kinds to their gods. The redmen plunged into the lake to cleanse themselves of moral and physical impurities. They washed their amulets, arrows and small articles with the lake water in the belief that it would avert calamities and afford protection against the evil spirits.
Most unfortunate were those Indians who drowned in the lake during their strange ablutions. If one drowned his memory was blackened because his death was thought to be the judgment of the great god Manitou in atonement for crimes.
Lake Catahoula has experienced some changes since those distant days. Although its waters today are still clearer than surrounding lakes, rivers and bayous and its banks are steep and deep, the West Atchafalaya Spillway Levee has completely cut off the lake from its meager outside connection, thus seriously impairing its value as a producer of fish for commercial and sports fishermen. However, some benefits, in addition to flood protection, have been derived from the levee. Around the lake has developed a new spirit, a closer bond between and among people who live on its banks. A small community, Catahoula, developed as more and more fishermen, trappers, moss pickers and other swamp residents were uprooted by the spillway construction.
Although predominantly French Acadians, there are some families in Catahoula with such "foreign" names as Stockstill, Larson and Diamond. Strange as it may seem, these are former residents of Mississippi and Sweden. Mrs. James Guirard, a resident, authority, and writer of Catahoula, says the so-called Yankee and foreign names result from an infiltration of former loggers and other swamp workers in the now extinct lumber industry.
Mrs. Guirard says the Catahoula people are perhaps the happiest to be found anywhere. They are deeply devoted to their families and laugh and sing at the slightest provocation. The children are petted and loved and are literally kings and queens of the household, Mrs. Guirard related.
Being a small community, Catahoula centers its activities around the public school and the Catholic Church. The school has a fine combination gymnasium and auditorium which serves as a community center. As most families are Catholic, the church is the nucleus of many group meetings, social affairs, and religious activities.
In fact, one of the customs most peculiar to Catahoula is a religious one. Mrs. Guirard says that on Holy Thursday practically everyone in the community is busy making or helping to make pies. These pies, called "de tarts," are made mostly of sweet dough with cream fillings. The following day, Good Friday, everyone refrains from drinking water, coffee, or consuming any food until 10 o'clock in the morning. After that hour the pies and the dark, thick coffee so highly appreciated in Louisiana are served to one and all. This abstinence is strictly voluntary and self imposed as a penance.
Construction of power lines into Catahoula by the Rural Electrification Association has cause many changes in this unique community, according to Mrs. Guirard. Two innovations which have impressed Mrs. Guirard most are the use of electrically lighted Christmas trees and automatic washing machines.
Before R.E.A. brought electricity to Catahoula the use of Christmas trees was just about taboo because of the danger of fires from Christmas candles and kerosene lanterns.
Catahoulans, who have the reputation of being extremely clean housekeepers, have a feeling almost of reverence toward their washing machines. To support this feeling, Mrs. Guirard points out the many neat wash houses in the rear of just about every home in Catahoula. These little houses were constructed, maintained and decorated with greater pain and care then was exercised in the construction of the family homes.