Bradley Stevens Letter to the Editor on Hidden Treasures: Art, Culture and History Session
HIDDEN TREASURES: ART, CULTURE, AND HISTORY
I am privileged to be a member of the 2009-2010 class of Leadership Tangipahoa. We meet once a month to discuss issues relevant to our region, with particular emphasis on those pertaining to Tangipahoa Parish. Each monthly session has a central theme, and the discussions and site visits of each session focus on that central theme. The theme for our November session was Hidden Treasures: Art, Culture, and History. Not only was this session extremely informative, but it was also a great deal of fun.
We met at the Tangipahoa Parish Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, our host for the day. After a short meeting with Emily McKneely, Chairperson of Leadership Tangipahoa and Director of Sales for the TPCVB, and John Dardis, Coordinator of Leadership Tangipahoa, we set out for a day-long excursion visiting a few of Tangipahoa Parish’s “hidden treasures.”
Our first stop was the Center for Southeast Louisiana Studies located in SLU’s Sims Memorial Library. Dr. Sam Hyde, Jr., the Center’s Director and SLU’s Leon Ford Endowed Chair in Regional History, greeted us and gave us a quick overview of the Center’s collection, which includes publications, maps, photographs, and artifacts, many of which are originals dating back to the late 1700s and early 1800s. Dr. Hyde then gave a short lecture on the history of the Florida Parishes. The lecture covered, among other things, the Native American tribes of our region, the occupation and rule by France, Great Britain, and Spain, the subsequent rebellions against the ruling authorities, our region’s involvement in the Civil War, the post-war violence and lawlessness that earned Tangipahoa Parish the name “Bloody Tangipahoa,” and the impact of agriculture, including the dairy, strawberry, and timber industries, and infrastructure, including the railroad and the interstate system, on the development of our region.
Dr. Hyde also discussed the upcoming West Florida Bicentennial Celebration, which marks the 200 year anniversary of the 1810 rebellion against Spanish rule and the subsequent formation of the Republic of West Florida. Recent legislation sponsored by State Representative John Bel Edwards established the West Florida Bicentennial Commission, which is chaired by Dr. Hyde. The Commission has selected SLU’s Center for Southeast Louisiana Studies to serve as the headquarters for the year-long celebration in 2010. Various activities, including lectures, theatrical productions, monuments, and festivals, will take place throughout the year.
The Center is committed to preserving our region’s rich and unique history. Dr. Hyde is leading this effort, and I can think of no better person for this task. Dr. Hyde’s body of work speaks for itself – professor, accomplished author, guest lecturer, and renowned historian. His knowledge and expertise is only surpassed by his enthusiasm and devotion to his work. The Center AND Dr. Hyde truly are “treasures” of our community. Stop by SLU and visit them. History buff or not, learning the history of your region, your parish, and your family is very exciting.
Our next stop was the Louisiana Renaissance Festival. We met with owner, Alvin Brumfield, who explained how the festival came to be, the behind the scenes efforts necessary for such a production, and how the festival has achieved such a high level of success in such a short period of time. For six weekends in November and December, a cast and crew of up to 600, including professionals and volunteers, locals and traveling acts, transform the festival grounds into the Village of Albright. They dress in era appropriate garb and perform a variety of demonstrations, including glassblowing, blacksmithing, candle making, and woodworking. They also perform various acts, including comedy, juggling, skits, and even jousting. Vendors offer a variety of unique crafts/wares for sale, many of which are handmade right before your eyes. From jesters to jousting, there truly is something for the entire family.
Unfortunately, while the festival has enjoyed nine very successful years in our community, for some locals, it truly is a “hidden treasure.” I know this to be true because I myself had not been to the festival before our visit. However, having visited the festival grounds and witnessing what a fun, unique experience it provides, I will now be a regular visitor.
After leaving the Renaissance Festival, we traveled to the African American Heritage Museum in Hammond for lunch and a tour of the museum. We were welcomed by George Perkins, Executive Director of the museum, Mayor Mayson Foster, Councilman Willie Grant Jackson, and Dr. Robert Martin, Chairman of the TPCVB, before enjoying a wonderful meal prepared by museum volunteers.
After lunch, Laura Knighten and Lou Griner led us on a tour of the museum explaining the efforts in establishing the museum and describing the various exhibits present throughout. While some of the exhibits are on loan, the vast majority of the exhibits are owned by the museum. The exhibits include elaborate murals, photographs, paintings, sculptures, traditional clothing, publications, documents, and artifacts covering a wide range of events spanning hundreds of years. The exhibits also highlight many individuals of historical significance, including various kings and queens, artists, musicians, athletes, inventors, civil rights leaders, and politicians.
My personal favorite was the exhibit devoted to the 1967 civil rights march from Bogalusa to the State Capitol in Baton Rouge. I found this exhibit to be the most powerful because it depicts an event that directly impacted our immediate area. Specifically, the march traversed the entire Florida Parish region and passed directly through Tangipahoa Parish. As such, our region, and specifically our parish, was part of perhaps the most significant event in the local civil rights movement.
While the primary objective of the museum is to preserve the rich African American history and heritage for local residents, it also has an economic impact on Hammond and Tangipahoa Parish as it attracts visitors from outside of our community. We saw this first hand as we were joined by approximately 100 members of the Marrero Senior Citizens Guild who had traveled to Hammond to visit the museum.
Our next visit was to the Columbia Theatre in downtown Hammond where we met with Patti Treagle, Director of the Louisiana Children’s Discovery Center. Mrs. Treagle briefed us on the Center’s progress and displayed diagrams and sketches of the Center’s exhibits. The Center is currently undergoing more than $300,000.00 in renovations that are set to be completed in the Spring of 2010. Construction of the 40-plus exhibits is scheduled to begin in December at a cost of more than $600,000.00. Upon completion, the Center will be a top quality learning environment for the children of our region.
After meeting with Mrs. Treagle, we then met with Donna Gay Anderson, Director of the Columbia Theatre. Mrs. Anderson led us on a tour of the Columbia explaining the theatre’s history throughout the tour. Built in 1928, the Columbia was a vibrant part of downtown Hammond until closing its doors in the early 1980s. Fortunately, through a concerted effort of many individuals and entities, the Columbia and the adjacent buildings were purchased in 1997. After a major renovation, the Columbia reopened in 2002 as a state-of-the-art performance center. Owned and operated by SLU, the Columbia hosts a wide variety of productions throughout the year and serves as the main venue for Fanfare, SLU’s month-long celebration of the arts.
The Columbia Theatre truly is one of the crown jewels of our parish. If you have not had the opportunity to visit the theatre, you owe it to yourself to do so. Regardless of what production you attend, just seeing the Columbia in person is an event in and of itself.
We concluded our day at Amato’s Winery in Independence where we were greeted by owners Henry and Jessie Amato. The Amatos opened the winery in 1993 making only one wine – the same sweet strawberry wine they had been making at home for years. The winery has now expanded its line to include blackberry, blueberry, muscadine, cranberry, orange, peach, and semi-sweet strawberry wines. The Amatos make approximately 10,000 gallons of wine each year and have the capacity to bottle 400 cases (1,000 gallons) of wine per day.
Pared with a major distributor, Amato’s wines are found throughout our region. However, in addition to seeing Amato’s wines in your local supermarket’s wine selection, you may have unknowingly come across their products in other places. Amato’s is the sole provider of strawberry juice for Abita’s Strawberry Harvest Lager. It is also the sole provider of processed Tangipahoa Parish strawberries for Kleinpeter Farm’s strawberry ice cream.
As residents of Tangipahoa Parish, we are truly blessed to have such treasures amongst us. I encourage you to be a tourist in your own back yard and to support these attractions and others like them. After all, they are major contributors to the high quality of life we enjoy in Tangipahoa Parish.
On behalf of the entire Leadership Tangipahoa class, I extend our gratitude to those responsible for making this session such a wonderful experience. We sincerely appreciate you taking time to meet with us, and more importantly, we appreciate what you mean to our community. I also want to thank my sponsor, Edwards and Associates Law Firm, for supporting me in this endeavor and for supporting the Leadership Tangipahoa program.
Bradley A. Stevens