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Nov 5

Written by: Nixon Adams
11/5/2009 8:17 AM 

            I read an article recently about a poll taken to determine which overused utterances used in our everyday conversations annoy people the most.  Near the top of the list, of course, was “you know,” which is the Modern English equivalent of the much older Anglo-Saxon-Germanic-Serbo-Croatian- terms “er,” “uh,” and “hmm.” But I don’t think they should count “you know,” you know.  To me this is just the little spinning hour glass in your cranial computer letting listeners know that there’s some sort of thinking going on and useful information will be forthcoming shortly, or possibly, some day.

             Other common expressions cited were profundities like “well, at the end of the day,” “it is what it is,” and “if you talk the talk, you got to walk the walk.”  I guess the one that conveys the least useful information to me is “it is what it is” … because if it wasn’t, what would it be?  In fact, a recent university study showed that “it is what it is” almost always.  The only time “it isn’t what it is” is in government applications, when frequently “it isn’t anything remotely resembling what it is.”

             I do believe, however, that if you talk the talk, you gotta walk the walk. So after my article last month exhorting readers to observe Bernard de Marigny’s birthday on October 28th, I felt compelled to drive the drive to Fontainebleau State Park on that date to pay homage to the Grandest Creole myself.

             If you’ve not visited the park in the last year or so, since the addition of the new Visitors Center and Museum, cabins and camping facilities, and other new structures, amenities, and nature programs, you really should. The place is really starting to become the incredible community amenity envisioned by former State Representative Diane Winston and the rest of the northshore legislative delegation a decade or so ago in a crusade to get the multi-million dollar funding necessary to make this 2800-acre repository of historic, cultural and naturalistic treasures the crown jewel of the state park system.

             This has been neither a quick nor an easy task.  In addition to the usual long fight for state budget priority, the park has been repeatedly raked by natural disasters in recent years.  Pine beetles in the 1990s devastated most of the conifer forest, and Katrina and the other hurricanes of this decade visited awful damage upon the remaining trees and structures. 

             However, with the recent construction program and a massive tree replanting effort, Fontainebleau is on the way back.  Visitors can camp, rent luxury lakeside cabins, take guided nature walks, and view all manner of wildlife: deer, wild boar and feral pigs, bald eagles, osprey, great horned owls, alligators, turtles, snakes – it’s a zoo without fences.  There have even been sightings in the area of manatees, bears and panthers.

             To have a large park like Fontainebleau so close to a major metropolitan area … readily accessible by interstate highways … together with the vast adjacent acreage of the Northlake Nature Center, the Big Branch National Wildlife Refuge, the St. Tammany State Game Refuge on the Southeast Hospital property, Pelican Park, the Camp Salmen property and the thousand or more acre healthy, wildlife-filled marsh used by the City of Mandeville for its environmentally friendly wetlands assimilation sewage treatment facility … all of this points to this area becoming a major destination for ecotourism and other recreation in the future.

             But to get back to history.  All of the area mentioned above between Bayou Castine and Bayou Cane - 4800 acres - was acquired by Marigny in 1829 as part of his grand northshore development plan.  On the land west of Bayou Castine, he would build his resort community that was to become Mandeville.  To the east would be his personal plantation, Fontainebleau.  Marigny, an ardent Francophile, named it after a lovely forest outside of Paris that he admired.

             He bought the property from the family of Don Antonio Bonabel, a heavy political hitter under Spanish Colonial Governor Carondelet who had acquired it by land grant.  In addition to being his northshore retreat, Marigny also planned to make it a working sugar plantation.  The property had a residence, other outbuildings, and possibly the sugar mill already on it.  Marigny added a brick-making facility and other structures.  Only parts of the walls and chimneys of the sugar mill near the Visitors Center are readily visible today, but foundations and remnants of other buildings continue to be uncovered.  The modest “plantation” residence was probably destroyed soon after the above 1915 photograph was taken, but it also could have been torn down during Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) work in the 1930s.

             Although Marigny’s resort town was a big success, his ideas for a sugar plantation were not.  Upon not all that insightful reflection, one can probably see why.  Fontainebleau looks nothing like the land used successfully for growing sugar cane in the Cajun Country to the west, and Marigny was not able to harvest enough to make the operation pay.  According to Park Ranger Richard Scott, at one point he resorted to transporting cane grown on one of his southshore plantations by steamboat across the lake for processing in the Fontainebleau mill.  This questionable business plan, coupled with lingering credit problems from the great national financial panic of 1837, caused Marigny to lose the land in the early 1850s.

             In the late 1800s major logging operations came to the mostly untouched long leaf pine forests of St. Tammany, and in the early 1900, the property was acquired by the Great Southern Lumber Company.  Timber harvested from Fontainebleau and elsewhere was sent to the Bogalusa area, where the company operated the largest sawmill in the world between 1908 and 1938.

             Fontainebleau’s rebirth came in the 1930s, when the Louisiana state park system was created and the 2800 acres for the current park was acquired.  This coincided nicely with the creation of the CCC, which was designed to put young adults to work and help the country out of the Great Depression.  Between 1938 and 1942, when the park was finally opened, the CCC began the reforestation of the park and built still-standing structures like the pigeonaire at the park’s entrance and the pavilion near the lake.  Other amenities on the master plan, like the golf course, were never built.

             When the CCC started building the park, the Governor of Louisiana was Richard Leche, who owned homes in St. Tammany and took a great interest in the area.  Some would say too great an interest.  Leche was sentenced to ten years in federal prison in 1939 (pardoned in 1953) for his involvement in what were called the Louisiana Scandals. Among several transgressions involving favors for friends and supporters, Leche began construction of a “private” golf course on the property north of Hwy 190 where the Northlake Nature Center and Pelican Park now sit.  The course was never opened, but remains of the clubhouse are still on the Nature Center property, and old sand traps can be seen around the Brown Pelican Gym at Pelican Park.  In a bit of historical irony, the use of state land for the Nature Center and Pelican Park was only possible because of the personal interest and intercession of Governor Edwin Edwards.

             One final historical tidbit.  The original name of Fontainebleau was Tchefuncte State Park because … well, because Governor Leche liked the name – probably because he had a home on the Tchefuncte River.  It was while the park was so named that workers discovered large shell middens containing bones, pottery shards and other evidence of a unique Native American group that existed in the area between 600 BC and 200 AD.  Because of the discovery in the park, this was called the Tchefuncte Culture. 

             Well, that’s the history of Fontainebleau.  Take it or leave it.  It is what it is, you know. 

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