We’re back! – Digging for pennies and finding diamonds

  JOY!… The site’s arduous resurrection has finally happened. Wasting no time, I’m gonna dive right in, and I may as well do it with a bang.  

What I’m working on right now is the Lake Charles chapter of my grandmother’s life. She told me very little about her growing-up years. And the only childhood picture there was of her showed her face in the deep shadow of the noonday sun, her features unrecognizable.  But I knew where her house was, and I found her world, anyway, pouring through the McNeese photo archives of Lake Charles in the 1900s and 1910s, one eye-opener after another. Likewise with the Sanborn fire insurance map from 1909, 2 years after her family moved to Lake Charles from the family’s sugar cane farm on Bayou Teche in St Martin Parish. I’ll celebrate this whole blog resurrection and christen the Lake Charles chapter in particular, with possibly the best thing I will ever find in my Lake Charles research. I don’t see how I could top it.

Sanborn map 1909, detail, #20 & 26 – 617 Moss, the middle house on the right side.

The Sanborn map showed me her house in perfect outline, 617 Moss, between Mill and Division, the middle house on the right side.  I’d grown up with Tisolay’s photo of her house, and was delighted to see on the map an added tidbit that couldn’t be seen in the photo, the outline of a 1-storey back porch off the kitchen door.

617 Moss, with the giant Sweet Olive tree shading the bedroom wing from the western sun.
Google Earth Sept.2019, after Hurricane Laura. Blue roofs, oak trees missing, others stripped of every leaf. 617 Moss, with roof repairs already underway, would get hit again 33 days after this photo was taken.

It also showed me the outline of a big house on the opposite corner, across the street, whose broad, L-shaped verandah had enormous rounded extensions at the front corners. I’d seen a magnificent house like it in the archives and went in search of it.  Plugging the address into the McNeese archives didn’t show me anything. The present-day Google Earth view only showed me a well-kept lawn where the house had been, which I already expected from the many times since 2019 that I’d checked on Tisolay’s house since the one-two punch of hurricanes that hit Lake Charles a few summers ago.

Bel house at 527 Mill St in 1909, from the McNeese archives

But the town’s 1911 directory had an index by street that listed that address as belonging to a J A Bel, a name I recognized as one of the town’s big lumber magnates.  And McNeese had plenty on the much-documented Bel house, including a full shot of the house dated the same year as Sanborn, 1909, exactly as Ti would have seen it. She could have been sitting in her front window at home, not yet in school at age 4, when the photographer took this shot, maybe seen the horse and carriage in this shot pull up in front of the house. 

There was something about the architecture of house that was unlike what I’d seen from the same period in New Orleans, but I couldn’t put my finger on what it was until I saw a close-up of the verandah in a second photo from the McNeese collection captioned ‘Bel house garden party’. 

Bel house garden party, from McNeese archives. Says 1920, but it isn’t.

Fifty or 60 young adults and teenagers were lined up in rows, by height for a portrait, extending out from the corner of the verandah which showed a second set of columns, smaller and only 1 storey high, set inside the ring of larger ones. They held up the 2nd floor verandah without any connection to the large main columns in front or the roof above them, which fascinated me.   

The caption dated it to 1920.  The caption was wrong. 

I don’t know why my eyes went so unerringly to a small face that quietly said, “here I am, my darling”, but the span of 70 years between the face of the 8-yr-old girl in the front row, sitting cross-legged in the grass, and the face I knew better than my own, fell away, irrelevant. As the little girl’s face slowly submerged beneath two lakes of tears, the thought blipped into my mind that I should tag McNeese’s photo somehow, saying that it couldn’t have been from 1920, because my grandmother was 8 years old in 1913. 

1913 – Marie-Stella Champagne, b.Jan.19, 1905 – front row center 
1983, age 78

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