Standing atop the levee in Butte LaRose, a long, narrow settlement on the western edge of Louisiana’s Atchafalaya Basin, my traveling companion and I considered our options. Breaux Bridge and Bayou Teche lay well behind while St. James Parish, home of the Christmas Eve bonfires we’d traveled to see, still lay ahead. Before us stretched an intricate web of bayous, canals, river and swamp, the natural heart of Cajun country.
With a good boat, good weather and a guide raised up in the swamps, we might have been able to thread our way eastward by water, to the other side of the Basin. But for the automobile-bound, topography is destiny. To cross the Atchafalaya and reach the Mississippi levees, we’d have to trade gravel and blacktop for concrete, throwing in a few bridges along the way. “I guess we’ll head north to I-10, take it across the basin and then head south again at Grosse Tête,” I said. “Sounds good to me.” My friend brushed the last crumbs of French bread from her lap. “I was hoping you weren’t going to wait for James Carville to show up on his flaming alligator.“
Retracing our route across the pontoon bridge I’d laughingly dubbed Le Pont Steampunque in honor of its quirky appearance, we turned north along the river, passing camps of every sort (“camp” being a word used to describe homes found in and along Louisiana’s waterways and wilderness areas). It was surprisingly quiet. Apart from hunters and dog-walkers, few creatures were stirring, although the couple working the counter at the local convenience store assured us plenty of weekenders were back on the river for the holiday.
Reaching Interstate 10, the main east-west route from Los Angeles to Jacksonville, Florida, we found traffic heavy on the parallel bridges crossing the Basin. Savvy travelers, we’d made a stop for all the necessities before beginning our swamp-crossing. A modern eighteen-mile bridge may not seem like much of a challenge, but accidents do happen, especially where bridge lanes merge near the Whiskey Bay Pilot Channel and the Atchafalaya River itself. When bridge traffic stops, stories are born. Cadence Lanté posted a photo of her Basin bridge experience on Flickr and added,
The longest I have been stopped on the bridge was nearly three hours. Any time there is an accident, all traffic stops and people get out and walk around and visit. I usually get stuck about once a year. ALWAYS fill your tank, go to the restroom and have food and drink along before getting on this 17 [sic] mile long bridge!
While Laissez les bons temps rouler! may not be your first reaction to a traffic accident, there’s no question Louisiana life can be a little laid-back, a good bit humorous and often quite charming. Consider, for example, the matter of “The Sunshine Bridge”.
We discovered the bridge after a trouble-free transit across the Atchafalaya Basin. Turning off Interstate 10 and winding southward with the river through the towns of Plaquemine, Bayou Goula, Modeste and Donaldsonville, we finally crossed the Mississippi on the original “bridge to nowhere”, a beautiful span that carried little more than farm traffic and sugar cane trucks after its completion in 1964.
Prior to its construction, the only way for traffic to cross the river between the Huey P. Long bridges at Baton Rouge and New Orleans was by ferry boat. When the new bridge replaced the Donaldsonville ferry, many thought it should be named for James Davis, who served two terms as Louisiana Governor. Davis demurred, asking instead that the bridge be named for one of his greatest non-political accomplishments. Davis was a musician, and his biggest hit, You Are My Sunshine, apparently was as popular with Louisiana’s bridge-naming authorities as it was with my family. The Sunshine Bridge it was, and is, and the next time I pass over it, I’ll sing a chorus or two in honor of the good Governor.
South of the Sunshine Bridge, the highway flows in tandem with the river it traces, unforced and easy. Only miles now from Gramercy and Lutcher, focused on the bonfires ahead and lulled by the slightly soporific effect of watching miles of levee unwind, we might have missed a bit of bonfire history had the stand of enormous live oaks not caught our eyes and drawn our attention.
Glistening slightly in the thin December sunlight, their artful drapings of Spanish moss were beautiful.
Then we saw the house, surrounded and embraced by the marvelous oaks.
A scaled-down version of Great River Road plantation homes, the house was completed in 1836. It served as the President’s House for the College of Jefferson, an institution chartered in 1831 to educate the sons of plantation owners along the Mississippi River.
A fire destroyed the original Main Building in 1841. After rebuilding in 1842, the College of Jefferson was back in business. Twenty years later, during the conflict some still refer to as The War of Northern Aggression, the Main Building was occupied by Union Forces, from 1862 to 1864.
In 1864, Valcour Aime, reputed to be the world’s leading sugar producer, possibly the richest man in Louisiana and certainly the owner of the Jefferson College property, transferred the College to the Marist Fathers. After Federal forces withdrew, the school was reestablished as St. Mary’s Jefferson College and continued operating under that name until 1927. In 1931, the Jesuit Fathers of New Orleans purchased the College, renaming it Manresa House of Retreats. The President’s House became Ignatius House, and this historical gem in the heart of St. James Parish now is regarded as one of the premier retreat centers in the world.
Much to our surprise, the roots of the bonfire tradition in Louisiana’s river parishes (St. James, St. John the Baptist and Ascension) lie tangled with the history of Jefferson College. Marcia Gaudet, who has written extensively about the practice, notes that bonfires probably were not customary among the original Acadian and German settlers of the area. Instead, they may have been reintroduced by nineteenth century French immigrants.
Father Louis Poche, a Jesuit priest and native of St. James Parish, remembers hearing from his family that the bonfire custom in Louisiana was started in St. James by the French Marist priests who came to Louisiana after the Civil War to teach at Jefferson College…
In a recent oral history project on bonfires, the German-Acadian Coast Historical and Genealogical Society found oral documentation that a former Jefferson College student, George Bourgeois, began building bonfires in Mt. Airy (near Gramercy) in 1884 and that he had known the custom as a student of the Marist priests (Guidry 1990).
There’s no question the French expression for bonfire, feu de joie or “fire of joy”, is relatively common along the levees. In France, feux de joie often accompanied celebrations on the eves of Christmas, New Year’s and Epiphany. While the practice has waned in France, levee bonfires in Paulina, Gramercy and Lutcher (as well as smaller community and family bonfires) surely are part of that tradition.
Some say the first bonfires were lit to ease the way for those attending midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. Others suggest their pupose was to help guide boats through wintertime fogs, and many believe without their light Papa Noël would have a hard time of it navigating the bayous and river. In the end, an even simpler explanation may help to account for their enduring appeal. When I asked a man setting up lawn chairs across from a fire-cracker-wrapped teepee, “What’s the best thing about doing this?” he straightened up and grinned from ear to ear. ” This how we pass a good time, cher! You know – we have fun!”
On the levee, a bonfire isn’t built in a day. These fires bear no resemblance to leaves burning in a side yard, or refuse and trash set ablaze on the back forty. These carefully constructed, teepee-shaped structures built of willow logs, bamboo, blackjack vine and cane reeds have their own traditions. The construction process seems to be as much an attraction as the actual fires, and more people than I’d imagined make multiple trips to the levee just to watch the progress as logs are hauled in, center poles set and calculations made.
There have been changes, of course. In 1984, Ronald St. Pierre, Mayor of Gramercy, decided to build a bonfire shaped like a Cajun house. By all accounts, 64,000 people showed up to have a look, and that was only the beginning. With a certain pride, St. Pierre says, “The year I built this river boat, I had traffic tied up from Gramercy to Gonzalez to LaPlace on I-10 and all the roads coming in.”
Personally, I would have enjoyed seeing St. Pierre’s cane wagon and tractor, or his replica of Howard Hughes’ “Spruce Goose”. But there were plenty of non-traditional bonfires this year, all equally delightful.
There was a distinctly non-Cajun reindeer…
There was Papa Noël in his pirogue, pulled by his eight faithful alligators – Gaston, Tiboy, Pierre, Alcee, Ninette, Suzette, Celeste and Renee...
There was a reminder of the true meaning of the season, accompanied by fervent hopes that the Holy Family and their visitors would be removed before the fires were lit…
There was a traditional teepee that looked as though it might have connections to the LSU engineering department…
And their supervisor…
There was an airboat, in case Papa Noël was late, or faced with thin water…
And an off-road vehicle that seemed perfectly at home perched atop the levee.
In the end, we chose not to stay for the fires. Our decision to lodge in Breaux Bridge rather than Baton Rouge meant we would be making a long drive home on unfamiliar roads, and that seemed unwise. Instead, we walked the levee, admired the handiwork, chatted with other levee-walkers and imagined what it would be like to see the Christmas Eve darkness filled with light. Perhaps next year we’ll return, and a new tradition will be born.
Later that night in Breaux Bridge, with dinner over and the town shuttered-up for Christmas Eve, I stepped onto the gallery of the old boarding house. Rising dampness muffled even the sound of an occasional car shushing across the lift bridge and softened the laughter rippling across the bayou.
Picking my way down the steps and through drifts of unraked leaves, I made my way to the Teche, to the landing where travelers disembarked in days when the bayou remained navigable and commerce flowed between its banks. Watching the water whorl and flow, I thought about the levee, where the fireworks were ending and the bonfires had burned themselves into ash. The airboat, the stable, the reindeer, teepees and truck – all were gone.
Some years ago, William F. Fagan interviewed Mayor St.Pierre about his own extraordinary bonfire creations. Fagan noted the creativity of the projects, and the amount of time, effort and skill that had gone into making them. Looking at a photograph of St. Pierre’s great bonfire train, the “Gramercy Express”, Fagan asked, “All this, Mr. Mayor, just to burn?” With a smile, St. Pierre replied, “Just to burn.”
Thinking of that smile, I smile myself. Perhaps a lifetime of bonfire experience has given the good Mayor a glimpse of an even larger truth. We, too, are bundles of memory and hope, structures of longing and expectation built upon the landscape of history. It is our fate to burn, to be consumed by one kind of flame or another. If we are blessed to be set alight with torches of curiosity, commitment, passion and care, we have a chance to become the best kind of fire – a fire of of joy, lighting the way for travelers in the dark.