Thursday, December 17, 2015

december 12, 2015

CATAHOULA LAKE was once so deep that its bottom was beyond the reach of even the most accomplished Indian divers. No wonder they thought it was bottomless. The lake was a body of water unlike any other they’d known. Who could blame them for believing it was a portal to eternity?
    Today you can reach the bottom of the lake all too easily — it’s getting shallower every year — but in another sense, the lake, and the legend of the lake, only gets deeper and deeper. I’ve been digging up photographs of Catahoula for over three years now, and whenever I think I’ve reached the bottom, the bottom gives way again.
     To celebrate the timeless spirit of Catahoula, and to commemorate the trove of vintage photographs I’ve discovered, I’ve written a book called picture catahoula. It’s a hardcover collection of over 400 photographs and other historical documents from the golden age of Catahoula. Think of it as a kind of community-wide family photo album.
     I was hoping that the elves would be wrapping the books up with bows by now, but they’re still busy sewing and binding the parts together even as I write you this letter, so it’ll be a few more weeks until I’m able to share it with you. Meanwhile, I wanted you to have something to unwrap for Christmas, so I put together this little package of Catahoula goodies for you to open instead. Consider it part one of a two-part present.
     Enclosed you will find a photocopy of a pay roll from 1932, courtesy James Camille. This old-school spreadsheet documents a two-week period during the construction of the West Atchafalaya Protection Levee, a 74-mile-long structure built in response to the widespread devastation the state experienced in the Great Flood of 1927. The massive public works project required thousands of hours of man-power over several years to complete, and many men from the area, including my grandfather Sylvain Theriot, helped to build a section of the levee between Henderson and Catahoula. 
     You can see that the total time worked, the rate of pay, and the amount due are recorded on the pay roll to the right of each worker’s name. Ten-hour days were standard in those days, and even at thirteen cents an hour, they were grateful for the work. The nation was in the grips of the Great Depression.
     My father remembers his father telling him about the suddenly destitute businessmen from Baton Rouge who would show up to the levee project in search of employment. It didn’t take long for them to shed their suit jackets and ties, pick up a shovel and start shoveling. What other option did they have?
     I’ve also enclosed two old maps of Catahoula — one from 1924, the other from 1941 — showing a new subdivision of property along the western shore of the lake. The reserved road is known today as St. Rita Highway. The bridge you see in the upper right hand corner isn’t the big bridge across Catahoula Lake, but a smaller bridge that once crossed the coulee by the church. It’s since been replaced by a large culvert you barely notice anymore.
     There’s a small triangle near the bridge, its three sides formed by the public road, the catahoula coulee, and the boundary of the mill site. This triangular piece of property in the heart of downtown Catahoula is still recognizable today as the grounds of St. Rita Catholic Church. We can scarcely imagine what St. Rita Highway must have looked like in its infancy, ninety-one Christmases ago, seventy-four Christmases ago, but these old maps offer a tantalizing glimpse.
     You’ll also find a set of postcards enclosed. I designed them by combining old photographs of the Atchafalaya Basin with the backs of vintage postcards I picked up in France two summers ago. And you’ll find a five-by-seven photograph of Catahoula taken by me earlier this year.
     I look forward to sharing the book with you when it arrives in the next few weeks. Merry Christmas to you and your family, and long live Catahoula. May we keep diving and diving and never reach the bottom of it.