An Escape! Jazz Fest to St. Bernard Parish

 
            Jazz Fest is wonderful, for literally tens of thousands of people every year. For me, however, except for the visits from some close friends, it is confining. The culprits are two-fold: the proximity of my New Orleans apartment to the pedestrian entrance and my long driveway. In effect, that combination of two circumstances creates for me a kind of house arrest; they make me a veritable prisoner of my own apartment.
            This year, the last day of the fest, a Sunday, there was only one guest car which I expected to be in the driveway, meaning no need to safeguard keys, no necessity to juggle cars around, no being the usually gallant host to hand out beers and bottles of white wine.
            My first day of parole started with a trip to Target supermarket, which accepts glass for recycling. I had so much in my car’s trunk that I swear the hood looked like it was rising up in the sky. At Target, I borrowed a hand cart, but had to make two trips to empty the trunk of bottles.
 
Escape!
            Thus done, what should I do with my new-found freedom? I thought about going to Mississippi early, but that did not fit plans to do some research in Lawrence County courthouse, not open until Monday. I considered City Park for my walk, but that does not take but about one-half hour. What about a drive in the country, I wondered. I had been to St. Bernard Parish again only recently, but it is always a pleasure. Then again, I just went there for the umpteenth time.
             Then it hit me. Sunday morning’s Times-Picayune had a major article about an arrest for murder in a fascinating saga that dated back to 1985. I recalled some details out of long-term memory, but what interested me mostly was that the crime apparently took place at the victim’s pet cemetery, way down in St. Bernard.
            What I remembered predated 1985 by a long shot. I thought about the many times when Vic, Roland and I would go exploring down there in Beowulf, Vic’s ’32 Chevrolet, the one in which I once found a few blades of grass growing underneath the passenger seat, the one that had “free-wheeling” on the dashboard, the one that looked like a mid-point evolution between a horse-drawn carriage and a modern car.
            We octogenarians can remember some things from long-term memory better than where I put the car keys that are in my pocket. What I thought about were the little graves, and tombs, and memorials of cats, and dogs, and birds, and even a boa constrictor. We could see them clearly from that lovely, narrow little road that runs along Bayou Terre aux Boeufs. I am talking about pre-1950, the year we all three graduated from Holy Cross High School and had to go on to more serious things, like college and then the draft for the Korean Police Action.
            That’s a long time ago. But the vision in my head was clear. I had not thought about the pet cemetery on any of my more recent sojourns into the history of St. Bernard. I have been a couple of times to the annual Los Islenos festivals, and more than once to the St. Bernard cemetery further down, one of Louisiana’s earliest, dating form 1757, where some of the Beauregards are buried, and also the brother of one of my ancestors in the Olivier family. Jackson Barracks and the Chalmette battlefield were common visits in recent years, but they were almost next door.
            The Azalea Original Pet Cemetery simply had not been any longer in my consciousness.
            So, a destination. Something to once again feed the wanderlust beast.
            For those readers who don’t know this area of early Louisiana, I issue a challenge: get in your car and find some of the prettiest sights and most fascinating history that you will ever experience in a short trip of only twenty – that’s 20 – miles from New Orleans. Clock it on your odometer; that’s all that it is, unless you make a couple of side trips, which are indeed worthwhile if you so elect.
            I suggest that you begin your trip through the down-river Faubourgs called Marigny and Bywater, travelling along St. Claude Avenue. You will cross from the upper 9th ward into the lower at the Industrial Canal, connecting the Mississippi River with Lake Pontchartrain. There you will see mechanical water locks, allowing adjustment to the levels of the two bodies of water. If one looks toward the river from the height of the bridge, he might see the main building of historic Holy Cross, now empty because of Katrina flooding.
            Continuing on St. Claude, don’t miss Fats Domino’s house just off the corner, on Caffin Ave. In addition one who has the time for a side trip might go toward the river to see two lovely “steamboat Gothic” houses on Egania St.
            Soon you will pass a large, imposing complex, unmistakably Jackson Barracks. There are some fine historical, columned buildings there, going back to days when Robert E. Lee visited as a junior officer of the United States. From the top of the river levee – again a side trip – the spotless parade grounds are worth a viewing.
            When you pass “the barracks,” as they are known locally, you will enter St. Bernard Parish, the first village being Arabi. Chalmette is next, and a quick trip off St. Claude on Friscoville Ave. will enable a viewer to see a couple of buildings that look less like houses and more like what were once gambling houses. They date back to when St. Bernard was wide open, attracting the attention of Senator Kefauver and his committee, who caused a cleanup of both St. Bernard and Jefferson Parish about 1950.
            Near the river and just off Friscoville are two great plantation homes, one now serving as the office of the Domino Sugar Refinery, and the other, the LeBeau house.
 
Chalmette
            At Chalmette, St. Claude become St. Bernard Hwy, and continues to follow the meandering of the river. Very soon, a historical marker will invite a passerby to entire the Chalmette battlefield park. Beautifully maintained by the National Park Service, it is the authentic, bona fides site of one of the most important, as well as the most lopsided victories of the country in it infancy. Here, Gen. Andrew Jackson, “Old Hickory,” and his assorted army of Creoles, slaves, freedmen of color, Choctaws, and pirates of Jean Lafitte stopped the British invasion in the War of 1812, preventing a New Orleans takeover by the British. The odds of the thrown-together American army beating redcoats that had fought under Wellington were long. But the odds when it was all over were longer: somewhere over 1,000 British were killed as against less than 20 of the Americans.
            Even now, it is still hard to understand, but as I tell my grandchildren, if it had not been so, we might all be speaking English now instead on nint’ ward.
            Proceeding down the highway, a tall smokestack comes into view. It is a reminder of how little we knew about pollution just a generation or two ago. It was built by a Kaiser Aluminum Plant when it was thought that if a stack were high enough it would take care that the surrounding village would not suffer any deleterious effects.
            The stack is also a reminder of the legend that about 600 British dead were buried in shallow graves nearby. Maybe it was not there; we do not know exactly, but they were buried somewhere in those fields which had been a sugar cane plantation. Others were taken on board the departing ships, Gen. Packenham’s disemboweled body in a barrel of rum. Some from the decimated Scottish Highlanders may have been buried on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
            Glorious as part of American history, but a sad tale of another fruitless war wasting the youth of a country.
 
Delaronde’s Versailles
            Just past the smokestack, the ruin of a brick house appears in the median of the highway. It is the remnant of what had been the Delaronde plantation, where the mortally wounded Gen. Packenham had died.   Just across the road are the Packenham Oaks, in my book the most magnificent four rows of ancient oaks in all of Louisiana.  Planted by Delaronde hundreds of years ago, they once extended all the way to the river. When I was a kid, at the end there was still a wooden turnstile, where I imagine workers entered one by one, perhaps to account for their labors of the day.
            Just a hundred yards past the ruin is what locals call “Parish Road.” Correctly, it was named originally “Paris Road,” because it connected the Delaronde home, then called “Versailles” with another plantation, Fontainebleau, no longer extant.
            Passing Paris Road, the highway runs through what was once the extensive Villere plantation, which had been captured by the British before the battle at Chalmette. Jacques Philippe Villere eventually became the first native born governor of Louisiana.
 
Pecan Grove
            Unfortunately, the Villere house no longer exists, but one that does is Pecan Grove Plantation. It is not easily missed, even though somewhat obscured by the large and lovely grove between the house and the road.  Along the way, pecan trees by the hundreds can be seen in straight line after straight line as one drives through what someone has called “an arboreal tunnel.” The road is shaded by oaks all along the orchard, a truly beautiful sight. It is known as the Docville Farm.
            Other plantation homes have survived along this old road, which must have served even in the earliest days as the thoroughfare connecting the planters with New Orleans. There are not very many “grand” houses, like Pecan Grove, however, as many were actually much smaller structures, more like cottages, and an observant eye can spot these as you go. Watch for the architectural lines of the houses, often indicating what are called creole cottages. Also, sometimes these cottages may have been overseers’ houses, where the manor houses have not survived the test of time.
            These areas take the names Meraux, Violet, and Poydras, all picturesque in their own way. They border a narrow, two-lane road which has become known as Bayou Road, tracing the course of Bayou Terre aux Boeufs. Literally, this is said to refer to cattle; however, some of the early history that I have read clearly states that the boeufs were buffalo.
            Eventually, one comes to the town of Poydras, which is at a fork in the road. If one takes the right fork, he will follow the river, and this can be a good option, as there are a few of the major extant manor houses, not the least of which is Mary Plantation. (For those of you with bucks to spare, I am told it is for sale.) Another reason to continue to the right is that very near is Caernarvon, where the river levee was dynamited in 1927 to save New Orleans. (For more information, there is no better than The Rising Tide, by John Barry.)
 
The Poydras Crevasse
            Yogi Berra once said, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it!” My choice yesterday was the left fork, but just before heading to the town of Toca, I took a temporary right turn, crossed some railroad track and took Goodwill Drive so that I could revisit a peaceful, pretty area where houses back up to a pond. Besides being pretty, the area is interesting: the pond is not manmade, but was caused by a crevasse in a flood of 1922, a time of river flooding just prior to the big one of ’27. I estimate that it borders the neighborhood for about a half mile. Pretty and historic, it is just the right thing near the end of a Sunday afternoon drive.
            I was now approaching Toca, but I would be remiss if I did not call attention to the Islenos complex, consisting of the restored Ducros Library and the Los Islenos Museum, plus other authentic buildings that have been moved to the complex. All represent the culture of the 18th century settlers sent by Spain from the Canary Islands. A rich culture, some of their descendants still speak a kind of frozen Spanish, good enough to communicate with the Islanders of today. Remarkably, an interchange between St. Bernard and the Canaries continues with visits from either side, and a friend, Bert Esteves, himself of Isleno heritage, has recently accompanied one of New Orleans outstanding chefs to the islands in order to introduce their cuisine to the tables of New Orleans.
 
Toca: The Azalea Original Pet Cemetery
            My drive ended at Toca, because that is where the pet cemetery is, the locus of a current murder investigation as well as the memory I have of the ride down there in Vic’s Beowulf. You cannot see the tombs or the headstones or even the house anymore. It is all so overgrown. I was not disappointed that I could not see anything, however, for I have discovered in my travels through such places that it is the feeling I get, knowing what was there even if all is gone now from physical reality. It is existing if I can feel it.  
 
Charlie’s
            Turning around was not with the thought of going home. It was past lunchtime, and I had passed something interesting as I went through Violet. It was a big sign saying “Charlie’s” with a mention of seafood, and there were a number of cars out front. That is as good a sign of a good roadside restaurant as anything I can think of.
            I was right. Reading the menu was like reading poetry. “Shrimp and crawfish mirliton casserole” was surely poetic language, even if I can’t identify the meter. I had the leftovers today, and like reading poems, sometimes the second go-round is even better.
            There is much to see beyond Toca, but there will be other days. Maybe one day soon I will see the 1757 cemetery again, and lovely Kenilworth plantation, which I once painted while set up under an oak, and the Beauregard monument and the site of my ancestors’ plantation.
            I hope for other such days. There is so much to do.
           
 
rbg