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The Colorful History of Lake Charles, LA Lives On

Source: waybackwhenmagazine.com – by Nancy J. Reid

Imagine swashbuckling pirates and privateers haunting the Louisiana bayous, moving their contraband, smuggling rum, and burying treasure. Now mix in the spice and music of the Cajun and Creole cultures and jazz it up even more with the glitz and glamour of Mardi Gras. Editors Lisa Smith & Nancy J. Reid experienced this super blend of fun, folklore and fine-living topped off with Southern charm and legendary hospitality, on their visit to Lake Charles during a recent Big Blend Roadtrip. 

Not only does Lake Charles boast a pirate history, but during the 1800s the virgin pine, cypress, walnut, hickory and oak forests of the area were discovered, bringing in lumber barons, or “Michigan Men” from the north. Mills sprung up and timber was shipped all over the world. The lumber boom resulted in the eclectic architecture still alive in Lake Charles today. The Charpentier district has more than 40 blocks of turn-of-the-century buildings of mixed styles, including Victorian, Gothic Revival, Bungalow, Colonial Revival and Queen Anne Revival, that show off turrets, towers, carved gables, leaded glass windows, and “gingerbread” trim. We took a carriage ride through Margaret Place Historical District where beautiful bungalow style homes show off columns, overhanging roofs, and lush gardens. Our guide was Adley Cormier of the Calcasieu Historical Preservation Society, whose knowledge of architecture and passion for the history of the area was well matched by the care and love the shown by the owners of these special homes.  

The enthusiasm of the carpenter-architects that built these early homes lives on in Lake Charles and is celebrated every year with the Annual Palm Sunday Tour of Homes. This year celebrates 100 Years in Margaret Place and as a special treat the interior of nine homes will be open for the Paul Sunday (April 1, 2012) Tour. Vintage cars will also be on display, and a full color program will provide detailed information about each home.  

Cattle drives, the Pony Express, a busy seaport, oil, railroads and rice all have a part in the history of Lake Charles. Some of the first families of Louisiana were Creole — a mixture of African-American, Native American Indian, and French, German and Spanish heritage. Some were Cajuns — descendents of French speaking Acadian exiles from Canada and the maritime provinces.  During our stay we made it a point to listen to the local radio stations where this unique melting pot of culture comes through in the swamp pop, blues, jazz, Cajun and Zydeco music of the region, featuring fiddles, accordions and washboards. It also comes through in the food–jambalaya, gumbo, crawfish, cracklins and boudin. We had the opportunity to taste some piping hot gumbo at Le’ Cafe at L’Auberge Casino Resort, and some addictive cracklins (fried pork rinds) and  zesty boudin from Hackett’s Cajun Kitchen. Boudin is a favorite finger food of the area, there is even a Boudin Trail. Boudin is a mixture of pork sausage, rice, onion, spices, put into casing-melding Cajun, German and Creole cuisine into a sausage treat that traces its history back to Canada, by way of France. You can order it hot and spicy, mild, smoked, with shrimp–and each chef will have their own set of recipes. 

A great way to experience the best of this blended culture is to attend the annual Black Heritage Festival. Celebrating diversity, the festival features Zydeco, Jazz and Gospel performances, as well as displaying African art, serving up Creole & African-American cuisines, and dedicating a Kid Zone just for the kids. You can also visit the exhibit, Art of Africa: Objects from the Collection of Warren Robbins until March 10, 2012, at the Historic City Hall, admission free. 

Another way to soak of the remarkable history of this region is to take a walk or drive on the wild side. The Creole Nature Trail All-American Road is a 180 mile natural corridor of one of the most unique wildlife habitats in the world.  Home to alligators, birds and waterfowl, fish, mammals, wetlands, marshes, beaches and bayous–this is a must-do during a visit to Lake Charles. We were fortunate to have two guides–Captain Sammie and a handheld GPS Ranger™ provided by the Lake Charles/Southwest Louisiana Convention & Visitors Bureau. This app provides you with directions, history and attraction information.

Captain Sammie is a local wildlife guru that can identify every bird, knows the local history and folklore, knows just where to look for whatever you want to see, and is full of tales and stories of the marshlands. He walked us through the Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge and introduced us to the Cajun “Aiyee, Aiyee!” live-off-the-wetlands lifestyle. The Cajun pirogue, or flat-bottomed boat, is designed to snake through the shallow waters of the marshland and can be easily carried on land. Traditionally it is pushed through the water with a pole… Just like Hank Williams sung in is classic song, Jambalaya….”me gotta go pole the pirogue down the bayou.” 

Of course, you can’t talk about a destination so steeped in French tradition and history without talking about Mardi Gras. Lake Charles, also known as the Festival Capital of Louisiana, has taken Mardi Gras to a who new level. Mardi Gras celebrations in Lake Charles began in 1882, when Momus, King of Mardi Gras, landed his “royal yacht” at the foot of Pujo Street and proceeded through the city in a “chariot.” Way back then, about 2,000 residents watched the parade which consisted of eight units, two bands and a horse-drawn fire engine. Now Lake Charles is the only place in the state where the public can see all royal courts from the krewes (organizations or clubs), in full regalia. Throughout the season, all krewes hold balls with music, skits and revelry, several of which are open to the public. The celebrations, unlike that in New Orleans, are family-friendly and the season lasts from early January through late February. Feathers, frocks, block parties, a lighted boat parade, hundreds of krewe floats, king cakes and Cajun cuisine, Zydeco–it all comes together like a good gumbo–one big party. But wait, there’s more…

Lake Charles archives it’s costumes in the Mardi Gras Museum of Imperial Calcasieu. Since 1998 the museum has grown to six rooms, houses the largest Mardi Gras costume display in the world, has animated narrators, and even a float you can climb. We were accompanied through the museum by A.C. Boudier, a man much dedicated to the tradition of Mardi Gras. 

Our guide throughout our entire trip was Kaylen Fletcher of the Lake Charles/Southwest Louisiana Convention & Visitors Bureau. Kaylen’s love and pride of her hometown area was apparent and she was the epitome of that Southern hospitality for which the region is so well known.

 

Legend has it that the infamous pirate Jean Lafitte actually hid his contraband somewhere along the shores of Contraband Bayou, which runs right through the McNeese State University campus and empties into Prien Lake. L’Auberge Casino Resort is located near the mouth of the bayou, as are part of the city docks of the Port of Lake Charles. Since 1957, the city of Lake Charles, has kept its pirate history alive in its annual festival, Contraband Days. Held during the first two weeks of May where pirates rule, the festival features actors portraying Lafitte and his crew, they sail into the Lake Charles, break through the cities’ defences, and capture the mayor –and as fitting with any pirate story, the mayor is forced to ‘walk the plank’. 

Click here for video history of Lake Charles

Resources:
Lake Charles/Southwest Louisiana Convention & Visitors Bureau
www.visitlakecharles.org
Hackett’s Cajun Kitchen
www.hackettscajunkitchen.com

Creole Nature Trail
www.CreoleNatureTrail.org
Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center
http://www.fws.gov/refuges/profiles/index.cfm?id=43612

Black Heritage Festival & Gallery
http://bhflc.org/

Calcasieu Historical Preservation Society
http://calcasieupreservation.com/
Mardi Gras Museum of Imperial Calcasieu
www.swlamardigras.com
Historic City Hall Arts & Cultural Center

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