Saturday, February 24, 2018

Lyle Saxon, Weeks Hall, and Shadows on the Teche

Shadows on the Teche, 1938
Fantastic news!  The good people at the Books Along the Teche Literary Festival have offered me a media pass to cover the festival this year and I could not be more excited!

The festival will be April 6 - 8 in New Iberia's historic district but their website promises events all throughout the parish. Their agenda is jam-packed with events I don't want to miss and one of the highlights for me will be the opening reception:  a Cajun Cochon de Lait (pig roast) with music by the Bunk Johnson Brazz Band, hors d’oeuvres and adult beverages at Shadows-on-the-Teche, a National Trust for Historic Preservation site.

Shadows-on-the-Teche was the home of the Weeks family and was built in 1831 and completed 1834 for David Weeks and his wife, Mary Clara Conrad Weeks.  According to Richard Lewis, curator of visual arts at the Louisiana State Museum in New Orleans, the land was granted to Weeks's father, William,  in 1792 through a Spanish land grant.  William continued to purchase property throughout the area and eventually accumulated over 2,000 acres.

David Weeks and his father grew some cotton but focused primarily on sugar cane in the early 1820s. William retained carpenter James Bedell and mason Jeremiah Clark to build the Shadows but he died before the house was completed. When his widow remarried, she kept her property separate from that of her second husband. When she died the plantation passed to her son, William F. Weeks who died in 1895; then it passed to his daughters, one of whom was Lily Weeks Hall.  She died in 1918 and her son, William Weeks Hall returned to the plantation from Paris.  He acquired all family shares and at the age of 25 became the sole owner of the plantation.

Weeks Hall spent the rest of his life restoring the plantation to its original grandeur.  He used family papers and a complete set of construction records to achieve this, according to Richard Lewis in his book, Robert W. Tebbs: Photographer to Architects.  Architects Richard Koch (1889-1971) and Charles R. Armstrong (d. 1947) were retained to restore the home "to its 1830s appearance."  When Weeks Hall died in 1959 he bequeathed the home to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.  Koch and Samuel Wilson, Jr. did restoration work for the National Trust in 1961 and since then the gardens have also been restored.

Like Cammie Henry, Weeks Hall spent his life preserving and restoring a plantation home and buffering it against the encroaching modernism that he saw around him.  Both Cammie and Weeks Hall used their plantation homes to paint a picture of the past in which they both lived, while also keeping one foot in the present.  Complicit in this for both of them was their common friend, writer Lyle Saxon.

Lyle Saxon and Weeks Hall, a fine artist and painter, were lifelong friends and when Lyle Saxon had an appendectomy that turned out to be much more complicated than initially believed, Weeks Hall stepped up as a blood donor for Lyle.  Chance Harvey, in her biography of Saxon, says that after this they referred to each other as "cousins."  Lyle even joked, "If you think this is going to make me paint any better, you're crazy."

In The Friends of Joe Gilmore, Saxon devotes an entire chapter to Weeks Hall and chronicles a literal "moonlight and magnolias" visit to the plantation with his servant, Joe Gilmore:
"And so we sat there on the broad gallery sipping [mint]juleps while Joe and Mose brought in the bags...After dinner we strolled out to the summer house overlooking the bayou and some of Weeks' friends came to call.  The moon was nearly full and the bayou was filled with shining ripples.  Great trees arched over our heads where we sat in the shadow."
Lyle's friend and illustrator Edward Suydam was also present that night and Lyle calls the evening "nearly perfect" as ladies in white linen dresses and men in summer suits drifted across the lawn while servants mingled among them balancing trays of drinks.

I'm fully expecting to "see" Lyle Saxon and Weeks Hall when I visit The Shadows in April!

There is so much history and so many truly cool things to see in New Iberia and the surrounding area that I'm certain one weekend will in no way be enough.  Now that the book is finished I plan to make several trips south to more fully explore the stomping grounds of Lyle Saxon and Cammie Henry.

Cammie was born in Assumption parish (she sometimes says that she was born in Ascension parish) and taught school in Donaldsonville after her graduation from the Normal School in Natchitoches.  There are plenty of places around that area to explore as well.  Another trip!

Once again, The Books Along the Teche Literary Festival will be April 6-8; get your tickets here and make plans to go!

For Further Reading:
Robert W. Tebbs: Photographer to Architects (LSU Press, 2011)
Shadows on the Teche Plantation (Karen Kingsley, Knowla)
The Shadows on the Teche: History 
Lyle Saxon and the WPA Guide to New Orleans (Lawrence N. Powell, 2009)

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Thursday, February 22, 2018

Books Along the Teche is the Perfect Weekend Festival

Shadows on the Teche
Books and literary festivals are right up my alley: I love them!  I love book bazaars, book festivals, book fairs, the whole thing.  And it's a good thing I do since I have a side hustle as a writer.

So, when I came across this announcement about the Books Along the Teche Literary Festival in April, well, my heart skipped.  How perfect is this event?!  It will be in New Iberia in the spring and it doesn't get any better than that, except wait!  It does!  The festival is named for local son James Lee Burke.  I've been a fan of his Dave Robicheaux character for years.  In fact, that's one of the things that drew me to Michael Henry's books; his Willie Mitchell character reminded me a lot of Dave Robicheaux.

Nearly every event at Books Along the Teche looks enticing.  On Friday, April 6, the festival starts at 9 a.m. with a food tasting and everyone knows Louisiana food is fantastic.  In the afternoon there is lunch and then a tour of Iberia parish featuring Dave Robicheaux's "haunts and jaunts."

Louisiana author Ernest Gaines will be the featured guest this year and on Saturday afternoon he will lead a reading and then host a question and answer session.  Gaines is the author of A Lesson Before Dying and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, among many other works.  The film adaptation of Miss Jane Pittman will be featured in a free screening Friday afternoon.  Now, how cool would it be to meet Ernest Gaines!

What would also be at the top of my list is the Jazz it Up opening reception Friday night featuring a cochon de lait and a jazz band but best of all it will be held at Shadows on the Teche, the plantation home Weeks Hall who was a friend of Lyle Saxon and a fascinating character!  This plantation is on my bucket list.  Lyle took Cammie Henry there to see it a couple of times and to meet Weeks Hall.

This festival is filled with events that would keep me running and spinning all weekend!  There is an Academic Symposium, panel discussions, an author's fair, a 5k run (I would skip that one), and even Bouree Lessons!

If I were dreaming up the perfect festival, this would be it.

If you are able to go, I would highly recommend it!  I'd love to go but the package ticket price is $190 and is out of my reach at the moment since this is the year that everything in my house is broken.  (So far this year, since January 1, we've had to replace the blower in the furnace, the washing machine, a living room window, sections of plumbing in the kitchen, had to do some electrical work in the kitchen, replace the battery in one car, and the list goes on and on, right down to phone chargers.)  Given all those expenses, spending money on festival tickets and a hotel seem rather out of my league right now.

New Iberia is beautiful all of the time but especially so in the spring.  This could not be a more perfect weekend trip.

If you go, send pictures!

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Saturday, February 17, 2018

Weekly Instagram Feature: New Iberia Travel and Tourism

Crepe Myrtles in the Louisiana sun
One of the great driving forces in marketing these days is, believe it or not, Instagram.  We've always known what a powerhouse social media can be but take note: Instagram has over 700 million monthly users as of April 2017.  Sure, some of those users are teenagers but the research shows that most teenagers prefer Snapchat over Instagram.  More and more, Instagram is becoming the place to market your brand or to launch your entrepreneurship.

There are some powerhouse players who are using Instagram to great advantage: some are big brands you've already heard of like Nike and National Geographic, but smaller, independent sellers are seeing fantastic results from a carefully curated Instagram feed.  New York stylist and former Radio City Rockette Hilary Rushford decided a day job cubicle wasn't for her and formed the Dean Street Society which is a motivational company helping people develop the best of themselves, whether it's personal style, entrepreneurship, defining a business model, or marketing.

Instagram works best if you define your brand, determine your niche, and do your research on your intended market. To that end, I'm going to use this space once every week or so to run a series of great Instagram feeds that I have discovered: people who are doing it right. These are just feeds that I follow and find entertaining, educational, or helpful: nobody has asked me to put them here.

The first page I'd like to give a high-five nod to is the Iberia Parish Travel and Tourism page.

Currently these are the top photos on their home page:


Their posts caught my eye because it just defines Louisiana for me.  The first photo of a Tabasco pepper and a King cake is pure Louisiana love!  In these twelve photos we see Louisiana food, a plantation, entertainment and nightlife, trees draped with Spanish moss, and the featuring of local businesses which is all any travel and tourism page should be.

If you scroll through the rest of their feed, you'll see bayous, churches, community theater, and of course Mardi Gras!

The reason this feed works is because it's consistent: everything comes back to the brand which is "come visit New Iberia!"  Their photos exude Louisiana atmosphere and flavor.

Their homepage also includes a link to their Facebook feed which successfully integrates their social media presence.

Your Instagram bio is limited to 150 characters so it's important to be creative in order to capture the interest of your intended market.  The bio for Iberia Tourism reads:
Iberia Tourism Official profile for Iberia Parish Travel. Adventure Louisiana's HOT side and get ready to ditch the beignets for the hot sauce!
One of Louisiana's iconic brands comes from Iberia Parish: Tabasco Hot Sauce.  In New Iberia you can tour the Tabasco factory and museum.  Tabasco tour not for you?  There's also golf, garden tours, an historic district, shopping, museums, and plantations.  What's not to love?!

It was through this page that I learned about the Bayou Teche Literary Festival, thus achieving their goal of education and tourism.  I'm dying to go to this festival April 6-8, 2018.   Author James Lee Burke is featured this year and I've been a Dave Robicheaux fan for years. The festival events will feature food demonstrations, Dave Robicheaux tours, a 5K run, an Academic Symposium, authors and artisans fair, and Bourre lessons, just to name a few.  I'm in!

The bottom line is that this page does great job marketing its brand.  Their photos are consistently brand related and beautiful to look at which is critical because Instagram is such a visual medium. 

The page currently has 637 followers.  If you want a little taste of Louisiana in your Insta-feed, go on over and follow Iberia Tourism!

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Is There a Revival of Independent Bookshops?

The Book Merchant, Natchitoches (2010)
Cottonwood Books in Baton Rouge is a small, independent bookseller that has figured out how to survive against the big chain stores and the internet, both of which nibble away at their sales.  This article in the LSU Daily Reveille focuses on how the bookshop is thriving and I am envious.

I always wanted a shop just like  J. Michael Kinny's place in Natchitoches: The Book Merchant.  It was on Front Street and had a large display window facing the street which looked out on Cane River. The deep window was always filled with attractive displays of books, a sprinkling of antique items, and a fluffy cat sleeping in the sun.  Sadly, the shop closed in 2012. It broke my heart.

The shop was exactly like the one I always dreamed I would have; there were inviting comfortable couches and chairs throughout, attractive displays of books on fine oak tables, warm lamps pooling light onto the gleaming hardwood floors, local art on the walls, and two cats.  J. Michael was always friendly and hospitable; I never went into the shop that he didn't have a recommendation for me of some local author or book of local interest.

And that's how Cottonwood Books is surviving - they have a niche.  Their niche is first-editions and hard to find books.  They, too, have a knowledgeable proprietor to help and engage you. It's working: they've been open over 30 years.

In Shreveport we don't have any independent booksellers that I am aware of.  We do have D&B Russell on King Highway which offers unique used books and they have a great Louisiana section.  Their little corner in King's Ransom Antique Mall is always inviting with chairs to sit in and stacks of intriguing books. It's very quiet and I've found some real treasures in there.

The struggle for indie booksellers is real: there is the obvious problem of the internet making books instantly accessible but booksellers also have to deal with rising rent costs and the rising costs to retain employees.  But perhaps there is hope for them.  Discount chains like Barnes & Noble are now struggling to remain relevant against even cheaper prices on Amazon. In our local Barnes & Noble I see as many Funko Pop toys and Legos as I do books.

Perhaps a renaissance for indie books is on the horizon.  Betsy Burton of The King's English Bookshop in Salt Lake thinks so:

In fact, Burton said independent bookstores are experiencing a renaissance as large chains such as Barnes and Noble struggle against Amazon's cheap prices and instant gratification. "People actually like to go browse and turn the pages," Burton said. So, as the chains flounder (with ones such as Borders going under), those who prefer "being able to physically shop" are coming to the independent stores. 
She's not the only one seeing a revival:
But then the saga of the independent bookstore underwent a major plot twist: The customers came back. Between 2009 and 2015, independent booksellers across America grew by an astounding 35 percent, from 1,651 stores to 2,227, ABA figures show. And the upsurge shows no sign of slowing. 
There is truth in this.  I'm as guilty as anyone when it comes to utilizing Amazon, but there are some books I want to be able to hold in my hand, to smell the ink, the age, to feel the paper...I want to be able to flip through them and I want to be able to look at them on my shelf.  I want to save them and to treasure them.  I have first editions of Lyle Saxon's books which are one of the first things I'd grab if my house caught on fire. I have an antique, 8-volume, leather bound set of Samuel Pepy's diary.  I have a tiny red book of Evangeline inscribe on the inside by a Confederate soldier to his lady love, Elizabeth. There's nothing on Amazon like that.

These are volumes that make one's heart skip and causes the spirit to soar.

There is no greater joy to me than to be able to spend hours browsing shelves like those in J. Michael Kinny's shop, getting lost in the books of local history and genealogy.  There are Holy Grail books out there somewhere that I must find: I'd love to find a first edition of Caroline Dormon's Wildflowers of Louisiana.  At D & B Russell's shop one time I found a book by Harnett Kane inscribed to Cammie Henry, Jr.  Fate!  I grabbed it and did not let go.

And yes, I'm speaking of second-hand books here, but if an indie is to survive I think they have to find a niche as Cottonwood has done and offer secondhand books, first-editions, local writers, something.  If, as an indie, all you offer is current bestsellers, you will die.

I really miss the independent bookshops.  I'm not sure if I could ever pull it off but if all the stars line up someday maybe I'll just do it.  I'd try to locate it near a craft brewery so you can buy a book and go have a beer and read it. That way you can support two local businesses (and who wouldn't want to be next to a craft beer place?!)  I'll hang twinkly lights like Meg Ryan did in You've Got Mail;  I'll design inviting window displays and I'll have some shop cats.  There will be local art for sale and maybe homemade baked treats.  A few very unique antiques.  Overstuffed couches and warm rugs on the floors. You will come shop there and you'll find something that makes your heart skip a beat.

It will be fabulous!

Further Reading:
Bookstores escape from jaws of Irrelevance (Boston Globe, 12/2017)
The Independent Bookstore Revival in Brooklyn (Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 2/2018)
Why Indie Bookstores are on the Rise (Slate, 9/2014)

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Can Shreveport Attract Independent Baseball?

Postcard photo by Neil Johnson of Fair Grounds Field
I've got baseball fever.  Spring is coming; I can almost see it from here, and spring means baseball.

Shreveport does not have a professional baseball team; no minor league team, no independent team.

We had the Shreveport Captains, the Shreveport Sports, and  the Swamp Dragons, among others.  Now we have nothing. Our taxpayer-funded, once beautiful baseball stadium sits as an example of urban decay at the Shreveport fairgrounds serving primarily as a home for the city's bats (and I don't mean baseball bats.)  The stadium opened in 1986 and the last baseball game there was in 2011.

It is a crying shame.

In 2015, KTBS reported that the City of Shreveport still spends $200,000 per year to maintain the facility:
It costs $200,000 to maintain it but this isn't money the city is actually spending on the park. They're using staff and supplies from neighboring Independence Stadium to walk over and do things like maintain the exterior and power wash to keep down the smell of the poisonous bat droppings.
Now the field is covered in weeds and trash. SkyPixel has several drone photos of the park from 2015 which show an overgrown field, broken seats, broken windows in the press box, and with home plate and the pitcher's mound still covered as if someone is actually coming back to play.

In recent years there has been talk of demolishing the stadium which would cost about $450,000On the other hand, there are people in this community who would like to save Fair Grounds field and offer, if not professional baseball, something else there for people to enjoy.  There is a Facebook page, Rescue Fair Grounds Field, with over 500 followers, but nothing has happened.

In Shreveport we can still see baseball at the college level.  Both LSUS and Centenary have excellent teams and our community colleges also have baseball.  The Centenary field is within walking distance from our house and I can hear batting practice from my front yard. There is no sweeter sound.  We regularly attend those games and it is great fun!  Wouldn't it be fabulous if the baseball community came out to watch, too?  We sit among parents of the student players mostly.  There is little community support, although there is some.

There is no charge to get into a Centenary baseball game: it is free.

There is something about the game of baseball that is just magic to me.  I don't understand all of it and I'm not a lifelong student of baseball although I have always enjoyed watching it.

When we go to the Centenary games, I love sitting in the warm spring sun, getting that first blush of tan on my winter skin, listening to the songs on the PA system, the walk-up songs, the chatter and laughter of the parents around us.  Most of the time there are parents in the parking lot boiling crawfish or getting some BBQ feast ready for after the game and the scent infuses the air around us. I'll get some hot roasted peanuts and a coke, prop my feet up on the rail in front of me and get lost in the game before me.  The antics of the boys in the dugout are always hysterical; I love their camaraderie and love for each other and the game.  It's all-American.  There is nothing better.

I recently watched The Battered Bastards of Baseball on Netflix.  It's a 2014 documentary about the independent Portland Mavericks who played for five seasons under owner Bing Russell.  Narrated by his son (and former player himself) Kurt Russell, the film is a hilarious and nostalgic romp through the life of this team.:
Built around speed and reckless play, the Mavericks were initially looked upon as a joke - until Mavericks pitcher Gene Lanthorn threw a no-hitter in the team’s first game, and it was off to the races. The Mavericks proceeded to clobber their competition and set attendance records, becoming overnight media sensations covered by NBC, Sports Illustrated - even The New Yorker.  
 With a roster of ragamuffin players culled from open, public tryouts, the Mavericks shocked the baseball world in 1977 by achieving the highest winning percentage of any team at any level of the game (.667). The Mavericks became the team nobody wanted to play - a cocky, hard-partying Wild Bunch that regularly whipped squads boasting future major leaguers like Ozzie Smith, Dave Henderson, Dave Stewart or Mike Scioscia.
All that's missing is Annie Savoy.

But the documentary also makes one painfully nostalgic for local baseball.  One point the film makes is that the fans knew the players and the players were part of the community.  There is archival footage of the players in uniform sitting among the fans during the game. The locals supported the team in record breaking numbers. When corporate baseball came and forced the team out, attendance dropped like a rock.

So baseball comes and goes within a community.  It's a business -- a big business these days with million dollar contracts and personalities.  The price of a professional baseball ticket can set you back some serious change, but whenever we go to Des Moines we always go see an Iowa Cubs baseball game which is excellent baseball and costs a fraction of what you'd pay to see the Chicago Cubs, for example.

Is Shreveport a sports town?  Is it a "baseball town"?  We have hockey, rugby, soccer, even roller derby.  Will this town support minor league baseball? 

In 2016 a new independent league was announced: the Southwest League, which will include Louisiana.  They will reportedly begin playing in 2019 with six teams in Texas with growth expected in coming years. 

Could we tempt them to come to Shreveport?  Do we have anyone with the cash backing to lure them here?

Baseball started in Shreveport in 1872 and existed under various teams and leagues until 2011.  Isn't it time to bring it back?

What is stopping us?

Roy Lang:  Fair Grounds Field turns 30 Today (April, 2016)
What's to Become of Fair Grounds Field?  (KTBS, 2015)
Cal Ripkin, Sr.  Foundation
LSUS Baseball Schedule - 2018
Centenary Baseball Schedule - 2018
For the Love of the Game: Talking with Kurt Russell about The Battered Bastards of Baseball
The Southwest Baseball League