Arsonists destroy tangible links to the past
It was heartbreaking to drive down Grolee Street in Opelousas and see the charred remains of a stately old mansion that stood for more than 150 years through war, storms, good times and bad, only to fall victim to an arsonist.
A week later I had to walk only a block to see the destruction done by arsonists to the old sawmill on Main Street in Washington – wondering “what’s next?” as I watched fire marshals pore over the ruins.
I don’t have the credentials or expertise to substantiate the claim that these fires are somehow part of the incredible spate of violence that we have seen across the country – indeed around the world – in recent months. The killings and the burning are equally incomprehensible to me.
The old home, at the corner of Grolee and North Liberty streets in Opelousas, was popularly known as “the old governor’s mansion,” because a Confederate governor stayed there for a few months during the Civil War. I can almost – with much emphasis on “almost” – understand that, with tensions being what they are, and heated arguments over the role and relevance of memorials of that period, someone might have thought that was sufficient cause to burn the building down.
I say “almost” because the mansion’s role during the war was only an incidental part of its historic significance.
The house was built about 1850 for Charles Homere Mouton and his wife Celimene Dupre Mouton. Homere served briefly as lieutenant governor before the war. When Union forces occupied Baton Rouge in 1862, the state government was moved to Opelousas for about nine months, and Gov. Thomas Overton Moore stayed as a guest in the Mouton home. It was never “the governor’s mansion” in the sense that we think of the mansion in Baton Rouge today.
It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places because of its architectural significance as “a rare and locally important example” of a Greek revival house, not because of who spent a little time there.
Over the last year, Raymond Reinecke has done painstaking research for what was to have been a meticulous restoration of the old home.
“There is nothing remotely like it, at least in this area,” he said. “You don’t find this type of house out here in the countryside. ... The only examples I have seen similar in type of its construction are maybe plantations around Baton Rouge or in the [New Orleans] Garden District,” many of which were designed by, or show the influence of, New Orleans architect Henry Howard. Among dozens of commercial buildings in New Orleans, he designed iconic plantation homes including Madewood and Woodlawn in Assumption Parish, and Belle Grove, and Nottoway in Iberville Parish.
The loss of the Homere Mouton home, in Reinecke’s view, and mine, “is the loss of an historical treasure.”
The Olde Wood Accents mill in Washington was not a historical treasure, but has been instrumental in restoring many of them. Its principal business has been milling old cypress and other lumber for reuse in homes and buildings across the country – including for the restoration of the Homere Mouton house. The fire marshal didn’t say the two arsons are linked, but he couldn’t say they weren’t.
But if I find these fires incomprehensible, it is even more incredible to me that someone would want to burn the historic buildings at the nearby Le Vieux Village in Opelousas. Scorch marks were found on an old Union Pacific Deport that houses an Orphan Train Museum, and workers found holes drilled into several other historic buildings.
The village also includes an old general store, a doctor’s office, schoolhouse, Acadian and French Creole homes, the old Palmetto Methodist Church, and the childhood home of former Lafayette bishop Michael Jarrel.
What in the world would cause someone to want to burn these buildings? They are noteworthy in themselves, but are even more important because by studying them we can gain insights into parts of our history that we could never get from dry records. We can better understand the stories of history when we can see the types of places where they took place.
We’ve seen and heard the word “senseless” far too often over the events of the past several weeks. It’s almost become a cliché. But I don’t have a better word to describe so much of what’s been going on.
Ours is a long and checkered history. We can be proud of some parts of it, less proud of others – and debate which parts are which. But none of it will just go away. Burning old buildings will not destroy the history they represent, but will deprive us of tools that might, just might, help make a little bit of sense out of some of it.
A collection of Jim Bradshaw’s columns, “Cajuns and Other Characters,” is now available from Pelican Publishing. You can contact him at email@example.com or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.