Sunday, March 29, 2015

history of catahoula, part four

FAMOUSLY PICTURESQUE, Catahoula Lake has long felt exotic. What is this snaking waterway agelessly gathering moss on the rim of a swampy wonderland, always out of time, ticking a few beats behind the forward march of civilization?

     In 1901 Louis Olivier moved his family to an uninhabited island on the strange lake’s eastern shore, lured by its promise of relief from the relentless pace of modern living. Sawing cypress, building pirogues, pulling crawfish from shaded canals, I imagine he found what he was thirsting for — greater closeness to Dame Nature, sacred immersion in the elements.
     Then in 1907, following in the footsteps of Louis, Aurelien Doucet retraced the same path back to Eden, trading family friction for a life of quiet wildness. Claiming and clearing the land around the widest part of the sylphish lake, he planted the seeds that would soon develop into a vibrant little community.

     The lake was a kind of magnet, attracting Cajuns from neighboring bayous as it had once attracted Chitimachas. Bourque, Blanchard, Barras, Boudreaux, Courville, Dugas — the growing tree sprouted branches. And when the protection levees were built after the Great Flood of ’27, carved from the flood-prone Basin, the young community blossomed.
     On a 1924 map showing a subdivision of property on its western shore, the long lake is labeled Lake Catahoula. But in a 1945 photograph of the new school’s first grade class, it’s Catahoula Lake that’s written on the rectangle of slate angled near the students’ bare feet. And throughout the 40’s and 50’s it’s Catahoula Lake, not Lake Catahoula, that’s printed across the bottom of each wallet-sized school portrait.

     As the community grew beyond the lake’s shores, the word Lake was dropped from the name altogether. On a 1955 flyer announcing show times for the Lake Theatre, the address is simply — Catahoula.

     The names and the shorelines may have shifted over the centuries, but the same moss and fog have always haunted its steep banks. When my parents started dating in the early 60’s, my mom would drive from Parks to my dad’s family’s home near the levee, and even though Parks was only a short distance away — less than five miles from Catahoula as the crow flies — driving there, to her, felt like entering an alternate dimension. The gravel roads appeared to take her back in time. If you go there today, they still do.