A Kentucky Adventure

If you read my last blog, you know about my trip through the Mississippi Delta to Memphis and then on to the home of Country Music, Nashville, Tennessee. After checking out the honky tonk scene on Lower Broadway Wednesday night, I hit the road Thursday for Indianapolis, by way of Louisville, Kentucky.

As I said last week, due to circumstances I was traveling by myself, which presented me with the opportunity to take my time and engage in some ‘touristy’ type stuff. One of the things I have wanted to do for a long time is take the time to travel the Kentucy Bourbon Trail. Kentucky is known around the world for two things: thoroughbred horse racing and bourbon. Bourbon is known as “America’s native sprit”. The Scots have Scotch whiskey, the Iris have Irish Whiskey, the British have gin and the Russians have vodka. Bourbon is the only alcoholic beverage that is a distinct product of the U.S.A. And 95% of the world’s bourbon is fermented, distilled, aged and bottled in the State of Kentucky.

The Bourbon Trail is in the north central part of the state, between Bardstown, Lebanon and Lexington. It consists of seven major and seven craft distilleries. Each one offers tours of its facilities. When I stopped at the Kentucky Welcome Center, I picked up a map of The Trail and gave it a look. Since I was headed up I-65 toward Louisville, and my schedule was loose but was still, nonetheless, a schedule, it looked like by best shot was around Clermont. So, off I went.

There is both quiet a bit of science and art necessary to make bourbon. But what makes bourbon bourbon? Actually there is a legal definition for those that are interested. Bourbon is a type of whiskey distilled from grain mash. To be considered bourbon, the mash must be between 51%-80% corn. Most distillers use a mash bill around 70% corn. Once the whiskey has been distilled, nothing but water can be added, preventing the use of anything that can enhance flavor, add sweetness or alter color. Also to be considered bourbon, the distilled whiskey must be aged in new charred white oak barrels for a minimum of two years. Most premium bourbons are aged between 5-12 years. Bourbon is bottled between 80-125 proof. Only water can be added to ‘proof down’ the product, which is usually aged at 140-180 proof. Sounds simple huh?

I got off the interstate at Clermont, headed to Four Roses. Four Roses is a small distillery. It is about four miles off the interstate. On the way, I passed the big cat daddy of them all, Jim Beam. More on that later. I go to Four Roses to find that the tour I had chosen was of their warehouse and bottling facility. The actual distillery is located about 20 miles away in Lawrenceburg. I made it in time for the 2:00 o’clock tour, paid my 5 bucks and off we went. The first thing you notice there is a much of small, squat squarish building. Turns out those of the ‘rick’ houses where the bourbon is aged. At Four Roses, that aging takes at least 5 years.

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If you want some more background, you can find it here Four Roses

After quick drive around the property, the first stop was the barreling house. Four Roses receives two tanker truck loads of clear, distilled liquor from Lawrenceburg each day. It is offloaded into holding tanks in the barrel house, where it is quality tested, proofed down with water and then used to fill the new white oak charred barrels. The barrels, which hold 53 gallons each, are filled, marked and then moved to the loading dock for transport to one of the rick houses. On the other side of the barrel warehouse were old, dirty barrels that had just come back for bottling. When they are ready, those barrels come back from the rick house and are emptied into a reservoir and then pumped into holding tanks in the adjacent bottling plant. More on bottling in a minute.

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The Barreling Room

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Empty old barrels

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Full new barrels ready for the rick house

From there we went to tour one of the rick houses. The rick house is the place where the art and magic of making good bourbon really takes place. Aging is the process that takes raw, clear ethyl alcohol and turns it into bourbon. All whiskies are clear when they are tapped off the still. It is the aging process that defines their final color, sweetness and taste. Remember those new charred white oak barrels? Both the oak wood and the charring play an important part. As the bourbon is aged, the charring on the inside of the barrel acts like a charcoal filter, giving the finished product is smoothness. It also give it its distinct caramel color. As the product ages for years in the barrel, the alcohol seeps into the wood, causing the liquid to absorb the natural wood sugars present in the oak barrel staves.

It turns out that Four Roses is the only bourbon distillery that uses single story rich houses. They believe that this keeps the temperature more constant and does away with the necessity of rotating barrels from higher to lower floors during the aging process. Turns out the temperature difference between the floor and upper reaches of a multi-story rich house can be as much as 30 degrees in the summer time.

We were told all this information on the way to the rich house. But seeing it from the inside was an awe inspiring experience. As we approached the door of the rick house, the first thing that strikes you is the wonderful, dreamy smell. It smells strong and sweet at the same time, almost like walking into a confection shop while candy is cooking. Turns out that is part of the process of the outside of the barrels giving off the wood sugars during the aging process. I swear, if the could figure out how to bottle that smell, it would be commodity in its own right.

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Inside the rick house

Walking into the rick house was quite a treat. Barrels of whisky in racks. The racks are 18 barrels deep and six barrels high throughout the warehouse. Its all made of wood. Quite a bit of craftsmanship in its own right. And all of those barrels are moved, stacked and unstacked by hand.

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The bottling plant was next.  Four Roses sells three brands of bourbon.  Yellow Label, which is 80 proof, Small Batch which is 90 proof and Single Barrel, which is bottled at 100 proof.

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While I was there they were working on Small Batch .

As we headed back to the gift shop, I asked how many rick houses there were. Turns out they have 24 of them. And each one can hold up to 20,000 barrels. I did the math in my head. That works out to 480,000 barrels or the capacity to age 25,440,000 gallons of bourbon at one time. I wonder how many LSU home games it would take to use up all of that? At the gift shop, we were treated to a little tasting and got a free glass for our trouble. I bought a couple of other souvenirs and headed back toward I-65.

I didn’t have the time for another tour, but I couldn’t get this close and at least not take a look at the Jim Beam operation. I drove past the distillery. It looked enormous. Think medium sized chemical plant sized. It seems the Beam family has been making whiskey in Kentucky since 1795. Today they are the largest distiller of whiskey in the world.

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Today the brand is named after a fifth generation member, James B. Beam, who built the company back up after Prohibition. When I got there, I decided it was appropriate to take a selfie with the man himself.

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The biggest difference between Beam and Four Roses was scale. You figure that out when you see the distillery and then turn off the road and see the Jim Beam rick houses. They are enormous. I don’t know how many barrels each one holds, but it has to be a lot. The pictures don’t really do them justice. They are much bigger when you are standing next to them looking up.

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After looking around and taking a few photos I had to head out. On my way back to the highway, I encountered something totally unforseen. So unforseen that I had to circle back and get a picture to verify it. You don’t have to be down South very long to understand how Southern Baptists feel about intoxicants, the Devil’s potion, whiskey, being at the top of the list of things that are strictly “verboten”. But there it was, right there in front of me. The Clermont Baptist Church, on Jim Beam property, sitting between and dwarfed by two enormous warehouses filled with bourbon. Only in Kentucky I guess.

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And First Place goes to…..

“And 1st place goes to….”. Every year at the Annual Watson Bird & Sausage Gumbo Cook Off, the crowd waits for those words. The anticipation is nerve racking. Everybody wants to know who won; who, on this day, had the best gumbo around. When the announcement comes, the celebration is boisterous and vocal. But, much like a beauty pageant, for the other competitors, it is bittersweet. You applaud and smile politely, giving a friendly nod to the winner. But in your heart, you are a little disappointed that it wasn’t your name that got called. I’ve been in that also ran group every year since this thing got started. But, that changed Saturday, January 30, 2015. Turns out that was OUR day!

The Annual Watson Bird and Sausage Cook Off is the brainchild and pet project of my friends Bobbi Jo and Berlin. They thought this up 6 years ago, mainly as just a way to get some friends together, have a good time, cook some good food and raise a little money for charity. The first year, it took place in their backyard. A total of 12 teams competed and the crowd was somewhere just south of 500 or so. Over the years, they built this event up. Four years ago, it got so big they had to move to a bigger venue. Now that venue is looking too small. This thing has grown to be “the” event of the Watson social season. (I know, I never thought I’d write that sentence either, but hey, times are a changing.)
Everybody looks forward to the event. It is a microcosm of what makes Louisiana, and Watson in particular, such a great place to live and raise a family. It brings together the three great cornerstones of what we are about around here. Good food, good friends and helping someone else who needs it. If you want to know more about the history and what happens at the cook off, you can read some of it here in my blog from last year.

COOK OFF BLOG 2015.

Our team name Is Los Amigos, which is Spanish for “the guys”. My friend and partner in crime Calvin Jones and I cooked in the very first cook off and have made every one of them since. We have always had a lot of fun, but the closest we ever came to getting the brass ring and gumbo immortality was the second year, when we took second place. Calvin and I make a good team. I do all the planning and cooking and he brings all the beverages and handles the PR. This year our team also included my youngest son Joel, and some very useful technical help and advice from my son Matt and his friend Rich, who are both excellent cooks in their own right.

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The funny thing is, I almost didn’t cook this year. After 5 years, there were a number of reasons why I thought I was going to sit it out this time. First, believe it or not, cooking in this thing Is hard work. There is all the prep work of getting everything together and getting it up there. Then on Saturday, you start before daylight, work all day and then have to clean up and pack up. Second, this is a very busy time of year for my wife, Jo Ann and I. The weekend of the cook off was looking like the only ‘free’ weekend we would have for about 3 months. And, to be honest, after 5 years of not winning, I was feeling a little sorry for myself. But that changed one night when Calvin asked me if we were cooking this year. I explained what I was thinking. His response was simple and to the point. “This will be the first year we ain’t cooked in it” Touche’ my brother. So the decision was made. Sign us up.
For the participants, the cook off experience usually starts on Friday evening, when you bring your tent and chairs to the grounds and claim your spot. Then, on Saturday morning, check in starts at 7:00 a.m. This year there were 50 teams competing. It looks like a small army, outfitted with all manner of cast iron pots, stainless steel boilers, propane burners and stoves, barbecue pits, ice chest full of chickens, ducks, sausage and onions and celery by the truckload. Thanks to Bobbi Jo and her dedicated staff, it is well organized and before 8 o’clock, everyone is in place and ready to go.
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We got set up and were ready to get started. We were around some good people again this year. We were right next to our buddy Jeff Gill and his Daddy.

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On the other side was Melissa, Heidi and “the girls”. Right on the other side of the Gills were some of my favorite local idiots. Jeff Betz and his crew, which this year included none other that “Big Sexy” himself, LOHS head coach Brett Beard.

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As the siren announced it was time to start cooking, everyone got into action. Not long after that, the spectators started drifting in. For a contribution of $10, they got to stay all day, eat all the free food they wanted and pass a good time. And they come, young and old. If you want to see pretty much anybody and everybody in Watson, you should come on out to the Gumbo Cook Off.
Our recipe this year was simple chicken and andouille, with a little duck sausage. We took it slow, being patient and not rushing things. We boiled our chicken and used the broth to brew our own homemade stock. Then it was time to really start cooking and make our roux. Ask any Louisiana cook and they will tell you that making a roux is both an art and a science. It is just flour and oil, but it is the most important part of making gumbo. Like the foundation for a house, everything else rests on it and if you get it wrong, everything else is going to suffer. You have to get the fire hot, but not too hot. It needs to be dark, but not too dark. We got it going and started to stir. I even managed to get Calvin to stir the pot and he did a masterful job. I sort of felt bad that I had to keep stirring during the opening prayer and the National Anthem. But our roux was at a crucial stage, and everybody knows when that is happening, you keep stirring even if the house catches on fire.
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Once the roux was just right, we started putting all the other ingridients together. Before long we had simmering pot of some of the best stuff you’ll ever put in your mouth. Then the trick was to be patient and not rush things. Go slow and let everything meld together. As we did that, we did some tasting and, with the help of Rich and Matt, made a few minor adjustments to the formula. After about 3 hours of simmering, we finally decided we had it right. Cut off the fire and put the lid on it. It’s ready.
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While we were cooking, there was a steady procession of friends old and new. We went about our work, stopping often to visit and do a little talking.

 

 

 

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We spooned out plenty of gumbo during the afternoon and got some good compliments. I also had a chance to walk around and check out some of the competition. They were all good and after tasting 7 or 8, it is hard to say which one you think is best. Finally 2:00 o’clock rolled around and it was time to submit our gumbo for judging. We spooned it up, dark and steaming hot. At that point, all you can do is just wait and see.
Bobbi Jo, Berlin and the wonderful staff they put together work really hard to make this event one of the best. The amount of work they put in is amazing, both before, during and after the event. The funny thing is, most of those folks are the same old Live Oak High people we’ve known all our lives. Makes me proud to be an Eagle. And, there is a lot more going on around here than just cooking gumbo. The staff runs a 50/50 raffle, sells t-shirts, aprons, caps and other ‘logo’ merchandise. They sell beverages and other stuff, the profits of which all go to designated charity. These people rock!
Finally about 3:30, it was time. The winners were going to be announced. The crowd gathers around the bandstand and dance floor and it begins. First, they announce the winner of the raffles. Then they give out awards for the best decoration and other special prizes. Then they introduce the judges. You never know who the judges are until they announce the winners. But, over the years, Bobbi Jo has done a great job of recruiting a roster of celebrity judges who know gumbo and Louisiana cuisine. One year, Chef John Folse was a judge. Others have included renowned cooks, food writers, media personalities and just plain folks who love to eat.
This year’s judges included some of my local culinary heroes. Duke Landry is a former neighbor of ours, whose family started the Don’s Seafood eateries, is a World Champion Oyster shucker and recently opened Watson’s newest restaurant, Duke’s Seafood. Kendall Day is a former cook off participant and owns and operates Day’s Smokehouse, one of the finest specialty meat establishments around. Ramona Addison manages and operates the deli at Oak Point Fresh Market in Watson. Each of these folks know food and put out some of the best tasting stuff I have ever put in my mouth. Other judges included Richard Condon, a food writer and a representative of Tony’s Seafood. Quite a line up if you ask me.
Then it was time. I have always told people that the announcing of the winners goes something like this: When the announce third place, everyone cheers and claps. When they announce second place, everyone cheers and claps, slapping the second place team on the back. Then they announce first place. Most of the crowds cheers and applauds, while 49 other cooks are saying “this is bulls**t!” Only in Louisiana!
Third place this year went to Donald Lambert and his team, Faithful Companions. Donald is married to one of my old schoolmates, Linda.

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Second place went to Tom Peak and his team, Curve Ballers. Tom is an old Live Oak alumni and long time friend.

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And then, they were making “the announcement”
“And 1st place goes to LOS AMIGOS!” Oh WOW! You gotta be kidding me! After six years we finally did it. It felt pretty good being up on stage, folks cheering, knowing that we were the winners.

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Of course, some of my fellow competitors we happily yelling “this is bulls**t!” Hey man, it is what it is. It felt really good and we spent the rest of the evening celebrating and accepting congratulatory words from the patrons and other competitors. And we celebrated some more.


I was also proud that 1st, 2nd and 3rd place went to some old Watson folks. But what I was most proud of was the opportunity to participate again in such a wonderful event. I am pretty sure that the final donation this year, which goes to Quad Veterans Transitional Housing Program, will be in the 5 figure range. We might have taken taken home the plaque for first prize, but believe me, everyone was a winner!

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Let The Good Times Roll… Watson Style!

Saturday, I had the opportunity to participate in a great event, the 5th Annual Watson Bird and Sausage Gumbo Cook Off. I had the privilege of cooking in the first Annual Watson Bird and Sausage Gumbo Cook Off and have made every one since.  I even won Second place one year, and I would not miss it for the world.

Last week, I wrote about our trip to Cafe’ des Amis in Breaux Bridge. One of the things I talked about was the Louisiana value of “Joie de vivre” or the joy of life. Another Cajun saying is ‘to live is to eat’.  Both of those sentiments were very prominent in Watson on Saturday.

In case you don’t know about the Annual Watson Bird and Sausage Gumbo Cook Off, it is a big deal. It was started 5 years ago by Bobbi Jo and her husband Berlin.  They were looking for something fun to do with friends around here around the first of the year.  January is the ‘dead season’ in South Louisiana. After Christmas and before Mardi Gras is in full swing. It is also ‘gumbo weather’.  So, they decided to throw a party at the barn behind their house, invite some people to come cook gumbo and pass a good time.  And, they decided to make it a fundraiser for a worthy charity.

That first year, a couple of hundred people showed up, 15 teams cooked, first place paid $230, the proceeds went to St. Jude’s and everybody had a good time.  Saturday, a couple of thousand people showed up, 50 teams cooked, first place paid $1000, the proceed went to Raven’s House, a shelter for homeless veterans and everybody had a good time. My how times change in a few years. And, at the same time, the more they stay the same in some ways.
Bobbi Jo and Berlin who work very hard to pull this thing off
Bobbie Jo and Berlin, who work very hard to put  all this together!

The rules are simple and have never changed.  Any type of bird and any type of sausage. No other meat of any kind. Make your own roux, no precooked ingredients.  No glass, no pets, and no pets in glass bottles, please. Turns out it took a couple of years for some people to figure out that shrimp, crabs, oysters, tasso and the like are not a bird. But now everybody pretty much gets it. People often ask me what time does it start and when is it over. My answer is always the same. Cooking starts at 9:00, judging is at 3:00 and it ends sometime early Sunday morning with the Sheriff’s Office shows up and tells everyone it is time to “get the hell out of here and go home”.

The teams cooked and there were 4 live bands through out the day, and even a dance floor that got a lot of use. Supporters came out, paid $10 for an arm band that entitled you to taste all the gumbo you wanted, plus everything else that was being cooked by the teams, like jambalaya, barbecue, boudin, grilled chicken and burgers.  There were games and a slide for the kids. You could even get a funnel cake or fried Oreos for $3, all proceeds going to Raven’s House.  From the size of the crowd, it is an event most folks around here don’t want to miss.

My day started early. I got to the venue about 7:30 a.m.  After the second year, it got to big to stay at Bobbi Jo and Berlin’s house, so it was moved to a bigger location.  Although my day started early, it started even earlier for the staff, including my wife Jo Ann.  They all got there about 6:00 a.m.

Some of the staff getting ready.

It still makes me proud that in a small community like Watson, so many people will give up their Saturday to make something like this happen and support a good cause.

I unloaded my stuff, set up my canopy and kitchen and got ready.  It was a cold crisp morning, but the weather was beautiful and the sky clear. My first task for the day was to cook breakfast for the staff.  I was ‘voluntold’ to do that by Jo Ann.  I got started.  Two dozen biscuits in the dutch ovens and a big Mountain Man meal in a cast iron pot.  Mountain Man is real comfort food. Ground sausage, hash browns, a dozen eggs and 2 lbs of shredded cheese.  Yes, it tastes as good as it sounds.

Got breakfast done and everybody full. Then it was time to start cooking gumbo!

I could smell the delicious aroma off cooks all around us getting the pot going.


My first step was to get my chickens ready for the pot. This year I decided to roast them in my infrared fryer and then de-bone them. Had them cooking and wasn’t long til they were ready.

We started cutting vegetables and slicing our good andouille sausage, so everything would be ready at the right time. About that time, the official photographer, The Picture Lady, came around taking team pictures.  We posed for ours.

In case you were wondering, that good looking guy in the middle is me. The other two are my friend Calvin Jones and my youngest son Joel. My middle son Matt was also on our team.  He helped us a lot later, but after a hard week, he slept in and missed the picture, so I took one of him myself.

 

With all the prep work done, it was time to get cooking. There are many great recipes in Louisiana. Funny thing is, at least half of the best ones all start with the same phrase “First you make a roux..” 3 cups of flour and 3 cups of oil, turn on the fire and we were ready to go.

Got the heat up and then, as Vernon Roger’s momma used to say, “Braise, braise, braise”, which in English means “Stir, stir, stir!” Before long we had a traditional Cajun brown roux.

Fried the onions and stuff, the it was time to put the ‘juice’ in.

Once we that simmering good, in went the bird and sausage.
Now all it needed was time to simmer and getting the seasonings right.

By this time, the party was really getting started. The first of the bands took the stage, people were lining in to get in and cooks were hard at it from one end of the place to the other.





And of course, as always, Bobbi Jo was keeping everything running smooth

“Move your car if you are parked on Arnold Road!”
Which brings us to what the Gumbo Cook Off is really all about. Yes, it is a fundraiser for a good cause. And, yes we serve up some good gumbo. But what it it really about is a good time with friends and family. Spending a nice day with friends you see all the time, reconnecting with old friends you haven’t seen in a long time, making new friends and spending some quality time with family. I would estimate that there were upwards of 2,000 people out there Saturday, and you could just look around and see they were all “passing a good time, Watson style”.

You always make some new friends at the Gumbo Cook Off. Saturday I noticed a guy standing near my pot, with a big smile on his face, just taking it all in. I did not know who he was but he obviously having a good time. When I was seasoning my gumbo, getting opinions, I asked him if he wanted to taste. He did and we struck up a conversation. He admitted that he was just standing by my pot because it smelled so good. Turns out he was a charter bus driver from Marrero, Louisiana, who had driven a group of people to a wrestling match at Live Oak High School. He was looking for something to do and heard about the Gumbo Cook Off. Like everyone else, he was having a blast, passing a good time, Watson style. Another interesting thing about this is that at least 3 of the 5 years, I have had the opportunity to serve some foreigner from “up North” their first taste of real, sho’ nuff gumbo. Saturday was no different.

 


That young man in the Michigan State shirt was there with his wife and a friend. They all teach at Glen Oaks High in Baton Rouge. He is a transplant from Detroit, ergo the Lions ski hat. He loved my gumbo and admitted that they ain’t got nothing like this in Motor City.

Later in the day, it was time to announce the winners. Actually, at that point it really didn’t matter, because everyone who participated was a winner, especially the displaced veterans at the Raven’s House. Just to show you how this works, one of the ‘prizes’ was the 50/50 Raffle. The lady who won claimed $757, and immediately handed the money back to Bobbi Jo to go the charity. You gotta love people from Louisiana. In case you are wondering, no I didn’t win anything, but like always, I went home with the real First Prize.

I went back Sunday morning to get the rest of my stuff and help Bobbi Jo and Berlin clean up. Bobbi Jo asked me how I thought it went. I told her it thought it went great, especially when I evaluate it like I do some of my wife’s extended family get togethers. Not too many people got real drunk, there were no fights, the cops only got called out once, nobody went to jail or the emergency room and everybody had fun. I would call that a successful day!! If you understand that analysis, maybe you should check out the Gumbo Cook Off next year. If you don’t, maybe you should avoid the Gumbo Cook Off and any future Herrington family reunions.

Cest la vie!

Down the Mighty Amite…

Saturday, thanks to my friend Jeff Easley, I had the opportunity to kayak down the Amite River in Watson. It was a great day, but as we headed down the river I realized that, although it had been here the whole time, this was the first time I had actually been on the Amite in 25 or more years. That realization was a shock for a Watson boy, who grew up on and around the Amite. But, more on that later.

Jeff called me last week and said he and some folks were planning to “float the river” Saturday morning.  He was gracious enough to invite me to go with them.  After last Saturday’s adventure on the Mighty Mississippi, I was definitely ready for a more laid back, rural float trip.  We were concerned about the weather and the condition of the river, but when Saturday morning dawned, it was going to be a beautiful day. At least until around noon, when the rain was supposed to start. I called Jeff and found out that we were still on, so I packed my gear, loaded my kayak and headed out.

Jeff and his wife live up Hwy 16, almost to the parish line and have access to a beach on the river behind their house. Jeff’s family also owns a tract of land on the East Baton Rouge side of the river around Indian Mound, off Greenwell Springs Road.  The plan was to make a 3 hour or so float from Jeff’s house to the other property. So far so good.  There were six of us going today. Me, Jeff, my neighbor John Kennedy, Jeff’s friend Dean and Jeff’s brother and sister-in-law, Joey and Jan. We loaded the gear and the kayaks on a trailer behind an ATV and headed down to the beach.  Well, nothing ever goes quite as planned.  The first casualty of the day was when Jeff got the ATV and trailer stuck in the sand.

Not a big thing. We had enough man power to get it out and unload the kayaks. In just a few minutes, we were all geared up, in the water and ready to head out.

When we got on the water headed downstream, I was immediately impressed with the tranquil beauty of being out on the water on such a perfect day.  The water was muddy, but the current was just about right, not to swift but not too slow. We were going to be able to do a lot of floating and less paddling.  It was going to be a great day.  As we floated along, the thought hit me that this was the first time I had actually been on the Amite in almost 30 years.  That was quite a revelation for a kid from Watson, Louisiana. I spent a lot of time in and around that river, up until I was about 20 years old.  When I was growing up, “the river” played such a big part in life around here. It was one of those things that was just always there.
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The Amite River originates from two forks in Amite County Mississippi, which eventually join up and flows south through the Florida Parishes.  It separates St. Helena Parish from East Feliciana.  It separates Livingston Parish from East Baton Rouge Parish and further south from Ascension Parish, before it empties into Lake Marepaus.  The lower 28 miles or so of the Amite, from Port Vincent south, are navigable. Which means that for years it was populated with camps and small houses. Today, many of those have been replaced with million dollar homes.  But the portion of the Amite that winds past northern Livingston Parish, and therefore right through Watson, is a curvy, shallow, sandy, muddy bottomland stream.  But for many years, it has been the heart of the community and the people who live here.

According to historians, Indians lived along the Amite, drawn here for its easily accessible sand and gravel deposits, as far back 4,000 B.C.   How they know this is a mystery to me, because I am pretty sure the Indians did not write anything down and white people were still about 3,500 years from finding the New World.  But, I am willing to take them at their word. which means that 1,000 years before the Egyptians built the first pyramids, there were people in Watson living along the Amite River.   Pretty cool, huh?

Back in the day, even when I was growing up, the river was a source of recreation, food, income and pride.  Many of us learned to swim in that river.  Back then, no one in Watson had a swimming pool so the best way to cool off on a hot summer day was a family trip to river for a swim. It was a great place to fish, before folks were willing to drive several hours to Fourchon or Toledo Bend. Catfish, bass and sacalait were plentiful.   The swamps and bottomland forest produced  bountiful amounts of  whitetail deer, rabbits, squirrels and ducks.  Gravel operations were common as far back as the 1920’s and a lot of people made their living in the sand and gravel business.  That muddy little river meant a lot to people around here.

For some of us, maybe it meant even a little more.  If you read my previous “Being Underwood” blog, you know that I am an Underwood, like many of us natives of Watson.  It is more than just happenstance of birth.  It is a state of mind.  Well one thing is for certain. The Amite River is as sacred to an Underwood as the Jordan River was to the Israelites.   It is much more than  just a geographic feature, it represents The Promised Land.   Sometime after the War For Southern Independence, our family patriarch, John Zachary Underwood migrated from Pine Grove in St. Helena Parish to the Watson area and settled near the Amite River.  He was a few thousand years after the Indians, but it must have looked pretty good to him too; it looked like home.   John and his wife raised 12 children, most of whom stayed close to the river themselves.  Their oldest son and my great-grandfather, Walter, wound up with a couple of hundred acres near the end of the Bend Road, which fronted the river.  Some of his children set up homesteads on part of his land.  The river always held a special place for all of them.  Family picnics. baptisms, fishing trips, camp meetings  and the like were, more often that not, held on the river.  Many an Underwood child learned to swim in the Amite.


This is a picture of Grandpa Walter and some of his grandchildren at the river in the 1920’s.  My Daddy is the one on the left with his head turned.   By the time I was child, Walter’s daughter and son in law, Margie and Ken Goodman, had purchased the land at the dead end of the Bend Road.  From where their house was at the end of the blacktop, there was a gravel road that lead down the hill to the sandbar on the river.  They had fixed up a beach and picnic area for the extended family and whoever else wanted to use it.  Each Spring, they would go down to the river and wade in, checking for logs, snags or drop offs.  After this reconnoiter, they would rope off a safe swimming area.  They painted old Clorox bottles and use them as the boundaries.  One set was painted blue and was were the water was only a couple of feet deep.  This was the younger kids area.  The other set was painted yellow and marked the general swimming area.   I remember spending many a hot summer day, and every 4th of July, on that little beach, swimming, playing and eating watermelon cooled in the river.  Those were some good times.

Later when I was a teenager, the river played another large part in my life.  Sometimes my friends and I would put a boat in up around Cloverleaf Farms and float down the river to the Bend Road area. Sometimes we would fish and sometimes we would just float and partake of cold malt beverages we were too young to buy but acquired anyway.  A buzz bait with a white skirt thrown up against a log was the undoing of many a bass and sacalait.  Other times we would run lines or put slat traps in the river to catch catfish.  When we weren’t fishing or floating, Keith Jones and I spent many  hours in the swamps along the river, coon hunting and trapping.  We had visions of getting rich on selling those hides, but somehow we never really did. Those were the days.

One of my best memories of the river were when I was in my high school and early college years.  My Daddy and I had cows for many years.  Uncle Howard Underwood, Walter’s only son, wound up with the bulk of the family home place.  When I was 15 or so, my Daddy leased it from Uncle Howard to run cows on.  So, for the next 6 years or so, I spent a good deal of time on the “old family place”.   It had open pasture, plenty of woods and some swamp.  Two of the most noticeable features were a long sand beach about 50 yards wide and, just upriver, a cleared pasture which abruptly ended at a 30 foot bluff that dropped straight down to the river.  My Dad and I spent many long days there working cows, building fences, cutting and bailing hay, planting rye grass, birthing calves, spraying and worming cattle and many other things.  We even set some lines and traps in the river and did a little hunting. I thought it was pretty cool to be able to work with my Dad on the same land he told me he used to help his grandfather, Walter, work when he was a young boy.   At the time I didn’t really appreciate it like I should have.  But it was quality time.  Some of the best times I spent with my Daddy during my youth happened right there.  After I graduated from high school, we sold the cows and gave up the lease.  I went on to LSU, got married, started a family and found other things to do for fun that did not involve the river.

So, as I headed downriver Saturday, a lot of these thoughts were running through my head.  Had it really been that long since I had been on the Amite?  And if so, why not. I needn’t have worried though.  Like an old friend  you haven’t talked to in a long time, but discover they have not changed much, the river was still the same.  The simple beauty and rustic charm were the same as they had always been.  The day was bright and clear and the water was cold and muddy. The scenery was spectacular.

Just like it had for years, the river had drawn a group of friends to it to rest and recharge.  We had a great time, just floating and visiting, chasing the shade as we went.


As we made our way down the river, I kept looking for things that were familiar, but most of it, while beautiful, looked the same.  Brown water, woods and sandbars.  Jeff told me about the route and where we would take out.  His property on the East Baton Rouge side had two sandbars.  The farthest one was across from the end of the Bend Road, where the tubers put in.  By my calculation that was or next to Aunt Margie and Uncle Ken’s old place.   The first sandbar, where we would take out, was just past a bend in the river and was right across from a steep bluff with a large clearing at the top.  My mind started racing.  Was it? Could it be? Probably not, but then you never know.

As we neared the end of our trip, I saw Jeff and John round a bend and then head for the bank on a wide sandbar.  We had reached the take out point.  I was excited, but didn’t want to get my hopes up too much. But then I made the turn, and there it was.

Yes. that was “our” bluff; mine and my Daddy’s bluff.  The clear area at the top used to be our rye grass field. I have plowed and seeded that thing many times.   I beached my kayak and stood and just took it all in.  I walked down the beach for a better look.  I could see the north end of the sandbar downriver on the opposite bank.

Yes, this was Underwood land for sure. I stood there and all the memories and stories came flooding back.  I felt like I should do like Moses and take my shoes off.  I was almost on holy ground!   I was home.

So, thanks to Jeff for inviting me.  He thought he was just taking for a float down the river. But it turned into much more than that.  I look forward to the next time so I can do it again.

Being Underwood

Earlier this week I attended a funeral at Live Oak Church for Mrs. Iris Harris. “Aunt Iris”,as we knew her when we are growing up, was a beautiful lady, inside and out. She was always neatly dressed, wearing a smile and had that naturally sweet personality that always made you feel blessed to be around her. Her children, Craig, Wiley and Ginger, were roughly the same age as my sisters and me. She was a friend of my mother, so we saw a lot of her when we were growing up. But the most important relationship seemed to be that she was one of our Underwood cousins. Actually she was my Daddy’s first cousin, but how and what degree we were related didn’t really matter. She was an Underwood and if you grew up in Watson in the old days, that was all that really mattered.

Being an Underwood is more than just a happenstance of genealogy. It’s really a state of mind; something that defines who you are. Way back when Watson was a little community up the road from Denham Springs, everything revolved around family. There were several ‘old’ families in the Watson area. Even when I was growing up, a common first question that was typically posed to someone you weren’t sure of was “Who’s your Momma and Daddy”. The answer to that question told everyone more than just who your parents were. It generally told them everything about you, because they were really asking “who are your people”. And the answer usually revealed what clan you belonged to; Ott, Jones, Allen, Thames, Easterly, Garrison, Chandler, Graves or some other family. But by far the biggest bunch were the Underwoods.

The Underwood clan in Watson traces its roots back to my great-great grandfather, John Zachary Underwood, who we all know as “Grandpa John”. His father, William Underwood, emigrated from England and eventually settled in St. Helena Parish, by way of Georgia and St. Tammany Parish. Grandpa John was born in 1835. He eventually became a school teacher, served in the Confederate Army and after the war, married one of his former pupils, Rebecca Hill. Eventually, around 1892, John and Rebecca settled on Chandler’s Bluff near Watson and John founded the first Live Oak School. John and Rebecca were well thought of in the community. Not only was John the local school teacher, they were devout Methodists and were faithful members of Live Oak Church.

And, being good Methodists, they apparently took literally the Biblical admonition to “be fruitful and multiply.” John and Rebecca had 11 children, six boys and five girls, which eventually provided them with 72 grandchildren. My paternal grandmother, Mildred Underwood Harrison, was one of those grandchildren. Her father, Walter Underwood, was John and Rebecca’s oldest child. He and his wife had 9 children, 2 sons and 7 daughters and had 29 grandchildren. Which was about average for an Underwood in those days. So, as you can see, in just a couple of generations, the woods around Watson were plumb full of Underwoods. And the family tree continued to branch out.

And, since there were a lot of girls in that Underwood family, they did not all carry the Underwood name. A quick run down on the old Watson families will tell you what I mean. Back in the day a partial roll call of Watson families looked something like this: Mixon, Story, Hancock, Nesom, Rose, Erwin, Kinchen, Webb, Philpot, Everett, Harris, Harrison, Truax, Rasberry, Justice, Meinke, Curry. Yep, you guessed it, they were all Underwoods. Oh, and I forgot to mention that two sets of Joneses and some of the Easterlys  and some of the Fuglers were Underwoods too.

Live Oak School students and faculty, 1910. I bet most of them are Underwoods!
And, believe it or not, all those Underwoods were a close bunch. When I was growing up, I always thought it was neat that I had all these people that I was related to, although I wasn’t always sure exactly how. But that is one of the things about being Underwood. The legal degree of relationship is immaterial. It doesn’t matter whether you were my first cousin, or if our parents were fist cousins, or if our grandparents were first cousins. We are all still Underwoods and that means we are cousins and that’s all that really matters!

I remember as a child sitting in services at Live Oak Church. Even at that age, I realized that I could look around the building and count on both hands the people that were not my “cousins”. I sometimes joke that when I was in high school, you still couldn’t throw a rock in Live Oak Church without hitting an Underwood. I realize now that is not true. You would hit at least two.

The old Underwoods were quite a bunch. Most of them were blessed with good health and longevity. Living into their nineties was quite common. I hope I inherited that gene. They were people of faith, who loved family and loved the outdoors. Even when I was young, those two things centered around two venues; Live Oak Church and the Amite River. Both of those places are special if you are Underwood. We spent many a 4th of July down at the end of the Bend Road at Aunt Margie Goodman’s place, swimming in the river, eating watermelon and just visiting.

Grandpa Walter, Uncle Willie and grandchildren in the Amite River, around 1930. One of those boys is my Daddy

The Underwoods were and always have been a close knit bunch. The height of the social season in Watson used to be the annual Underwood Family Reunion. All of the descendants of Grandpa John would descend on Live Oak Church on a Saturday in the fall for a day long family get together. Everybody was there and you would consider missing ‘the reunion’ about like you would consider skipping your Momma’s funeral. It just wasn’t done. The day usually started out with a couple of hours of just visiting and catching up. In those days, Aunt Ethel Hancock, John and Rebecca’s youngest daughter was the family matriarch. She seemed to have been 100 yrs old when I was five. Then around noon there was dinner on the grounds. And believe me it was good. Sweet tea and all the food you could imagine.  After lunch everyone would gather inside the church for some old time gospel singing and reminiscing. Then it was back outside for dessert and coffee. Think about it a minute. If John and Rebecca had 72 grandchildren and those kids all married and had 3 or 4 children a piece, and that generation had some of there own, by the time I was born there were easily 300-400 people at those reunions. Those were some good times. Here is a video captured from an old 8mm home movie:

 

They also loved to travel. I can remember my Grandma and her sisters and brother-in-laws taking long driving vacations together. Grandma Harrison used to keep two suitcases packed and ready in her bedroom closet. One had an extra nightgown, a change of underwear, a toothbrush and a few dollars. That was her hospital bag. The other one had a week’s worth of clothes, a week’s worth of medicine, extra shoes and around $100 in cash. That one was in case somebody came along and said “We’re going to …… You wanna go?” That way all she had to do was change her clothes, grab that bag and call somebody and let them know how long she would be gone.  Not strange at all if you are an Underwood.

The Underwoods also have quite a connection to public education around Watson. Grandpa John started the first school in Watson. His children, Walter and Posey, became school teachers. Walter eventually was superintendent for Livingston Parish. Their brother Willie was the school board member for the Watson area for many years. When he died, Walter was appointed to his seat, which he held until his death in 1944. My Daddy was later elected to that school board seat in 1960 and held it until 1976. I can remember my Grandma telling about her Daddy teaching her to read as a child, using the King James Bible as a primer.

Walter Underwood and family, 1937. Pretty gal on the far left is my Aunt Mary.

The Underwoods were always active in church and community affairs. Walter attended his first Methodist Church Annual Conference in 1894. He went on to attend 50 consecutive conferences, a record that likely still stands. Willie was the point man for getting folks to sign up with the REA during The Depression and was largely responsible for bringing electricity to Watson. Every Sunday at Live Oak Church looked like an Underwood family meeting.

Underwoods are also easy going and friendly, but on the other hand they tend to be hard headed and stubborn once they make up their mind. In 1976, the Bicentennial celebration was in full swing. One of the events was a trail ride along Hwy 190 through Livingston Parish. Folks from each community were supposed to ride from their place to 190 and join up with the main group. Aunt Ethel, who was in her 90’s at the time, caused something of a stir in the family when she announced she was going to ride a horse, sidesaddle, from Watson to Denham Springs. The excitement went on for a week or so, because she wouldn’t budge, To everyone’s relief, , a compromise was eventually reached; she was still going, but agreed to drive a buggy instead. Being an Underwood was never dull!

So, when I went to Live Oak Church Monday for the wake, I pretty much knew what to expect. I was going to know just about everybody there and more than half the crowd would be my Underwood kinfolk. I was right. Not only the Harris kids, but my sister Cindy, the Curry girls, Jackie and Claudia, Hal Rasberry, Tim Truax, Johnny and Robbie Hancock, Laurie Taylor and Dawn Rush, just to name some around my age. Of course, the current generation of “old” Underwoods were there too. Mr. Dan Truax, Mr. Leon Kinchen, Mr. Hewitt Underwood, Carol Justice, my Aunt Lela and my Aunt Mary, to name just a few. Leon, Dan and Carol are my Daddy’s first cousins. Hewitt, who was the same age as my Dad, is one of those generic “cousins” I was talking about. But if I have the story straight, he is actually my Grandma Harrison’s first cousin, but as usual I might be  little fuzzy on this. A little discussion quickly revealed that Aunt Mary, who is 90, is now the oldest Underwood in captivity.  Mr.Hewitt and Mr. Leon, both 88, are running a close second. Aunt Lela and Carol are not far behind.

On the young side, I ran into Ethan and his younger brother Evan. Ethan is 11 and Evan is 7. Ethan is one of the boys in my Scout Troop. Ethan is a great kid, but to be honest, I don’t remember every laying eyes on him until him and 9 of his friends visited and subsequently decided to join our Troop last year. But, true to form, when I found out who his people were, I knew what I needed to know. Yep, you guessed it; he is an Underwood too, by way of the Webb branch. We have sort of a tradition in our Troop. I am not real good at remembering names. I think it is just rude to keep referring to someone’s child as “Hey you.” or “Hey boy, whatever your name is”.   So, when we get new blood, I usually give each of them a nickname I can remember until I get their real names fixed in my head. Usually the nickname I pick is something that will hopefully help me to eventually remember who they are. The kids think it is funny, and sometimes the nickname sticks. Picking a nickname for Ethan was easy. When I found out who he really was, there was really only one choice. So, forevermore, he will always be known to me as “Cuz”.   After all, he is an Underwood!


My cousin, Ethan!

Biloxi, Then and Now

This past weekend, my wife Jo Ann, our friend Sharon and I spent a nice weekend in Biloxi.  We took the RV and stayed in a park right across from the beach.  Like any trip to Biloxi, it involved good food, good times, a little gaming and a couple of trips to the beach.  Biloxi is one of those places that we all seem to have good memories of.  People have been streaming into Biloxi for fun and relaxation on the beach since before the War For Southern Independence.  It is a familiar place. If you were from South Louisiana, particularly New Orleans, Biloxi was the closest “beach town”.  I can remember my parents taking me to Biloxi when I was a kid. Later Jo Ann and I would take our own kids a few times.  It was close and it was affordable.   It was close enough and cheap enough that you could get off work on a Friday afternoon, start talking about ‘what are we doing this weekend’ and when someone said “Let’s go to Biloxi!” your answer usually was “Let’s go!”

Jo Ann and I did that several times in the days before we had children.  We could just pick up and go. You could be there in a couple of hours.  You didn’t need a reservation because there were enough Mom and Pop motels, hotels and beach cottages that you could always find someplace to stay.  U.S. Highway 90 (Beach Boulevard) runs right along the beach from Gulfport, through Biloxi, to the Ocean Springs bridge.  All along the beach it was jam packed with motels, restaurants, bars, souvenir places and t-shirt shops. Places with names like Sharkheads, Gulf Breeze Cottages, Lighthouse Inn, Sea Oats Motel and Broadwater Beach Resort.   Everybody had a favorite place in Biloxi. A favorite place to stay, a favorite place to eat or a favorite place to party.

One thing that made Biloxi special was the fact that it was the original “Sin City”.  Its heyday was from the early 1940’s through the mid 70’s.  Casino gambling was illegal and the entire state of Mississippi was “dry”.  You couldn’t even buy a beer. But that didn’t stop Biloxi from having open, albeit technically unlawful, gambling halls, bars and strip clubs. That is why it was known for years as the “poor man’s Riveria”.  That is also why being the Sheriff of Harrison County used to be the most lucrative elected offie in the State of Mississippi.  But even after that era ended, Biloxi was still a big party town.

Another thing that you always noticed about Biloxi was the fact that the ‘tourist’ places were commingled with large stretches of residential neighborhoods right along the beach. There were so many beautiful antebellum and Victorian houses, shaded with live oaks and magnolias,lining beach boulevard, facing the beach and the Gulf just beyond. You could ride along Highway 90 and admire the beauty, wondering about the history they represented and daydreaming about how nice it must be to live right on the beach, with the awesome view and the Gulf breeze gently blowing  day and night.

There have been a lot of changes in Biloxi over the years, some planned, some not. In the early 1990’s, big time casino gambling came to town, giving Biloxi another tourist niche as the largest gaming venue in the country outside of Las Vegas.  New hotels and big casinos began to dot the waterfront. Hurricanes have always been a danger in along the Mississippi Gulf Coast.  Biloxi suffered at least 4 major hurricanes between 1855 and 1947, back in the days before storms even had names.  In 1969, Hurricane Camille hit Biloxi head on with 175 mph winds and a large storm surge. She was the first Category 5 storm to ever make landfall in North America.   Camille devastated the Biloxi/Gulfport area, killing 27 people in the process. Reports were that there was not a single structure on the beach between Pass Christian and Ocean Springs that was not destroyed or damaged.

It was a hard blow, but people on the Coast are a tough, resilient bunch.  The clean up and rebuilding started almost immediately.  Homes and businesses damaged by the storm were repaired.  What was gone or too damaged to repair was rebuilt.  Sometimes even the hurricane damage was incorporated into new ventures.  In Gulfport, an 80 foot tug boat named Ease Point  washed ashore, coming to rest 200 feet inland along Highway 90.  The family that owned the property where she came to rest saw an opportunity.  Rather than remove the boat, they renamed it S.S. Hurricane Camille and built a gift shop next to it and were open for business less than a year after the storm. If you went to Gulfport over the next 35 years, you definitely remember it:

.S.S. Hurricane Camille

One of my most vivid childhood experiences happened about that time. Around 1971 or 1972, when I was about 9 years old, my family passed through the Gulfport/Biloxi area on the way to a vacation in Pensacola.  Those were the end of the pre-interstate days and we had to drive right down Hwy 90. While the debris was gone and much had been rebuilt and repaired, the thing that struck me most, even at that young age, was the trees.  All up and down the highway, the live oak trees along the road were literally full of clothes, towels, bed sheets and linens which had become entangled there when places they came from had been blown away two years earlier by Camille.  It definitely made and impression on me.

Biloxi had weathered the strongest storm in American history and survived. While there was still work to be done, within a couple of years, Biloxi was back and open for business. And for the next three decades, Biloxi was that eclectic, groovy little redneck beach town where motels and souvenir shops shared the beach with stately old homes, churches and some huge floating casinos.

Then, on August 28, 2005,  Katrina hit.  After striking a glancing blow to New Orleans, which destroyed the levees and caused massive flooding and the resultant  great loss of life, she barreled head-on into the Mississippi Gulf Coast.  Katrina hit Biloxi right in the gut, with Category 3 winds that lasted for 18 hours, a 28 foot storm surge and 55 foot ocean waves. Biloxi, protected from Katrina’s wrath by only a sand beach and a four lane highway, was absolutely defenseless. Homes and businesses which had survived Camille, which had become a benchmark for most locals, weren’t just damaged by Katrina. They were just.. well, gone.  235 people lost their lives.  It is estimated that nearly 100% of the structures along the coast, within 3 blocks of the beach, from Pass Christian to Ocean Springs  were destroyed or sustained catastrophic damage.  The damage was so widespread and so total that then Gov. Haley Barbour said the Mississippi Gulf coast looked like “an American Hiroshima.” Many businesses and homes that had not been completely blown away were crushed under huge casino barges which were torn from their moorings and washed inland. Many people thought Katrina meant the end for Biloxi and with good reason.  The before and after pictures show the extent of the devastation.

Camille Memorial and Church of the Redeemer, Biloxi
The Camille Memorial and Church of the Redeemer


Santini House

The Father Ryan house

Tullis House, crushed under the Grand Casino

The Sharkhead store

Grass Lawn historic home


St. Claire Catholic Church

Seaton House

Gulfside Assembly Church


The President Casino sitting on top of what used to be the Holiday Inn

With the exceptions of Edgewater Malll and the Gulf Coast Coliseum, almost everything within 2 to 3 blocks of the beach was destroyed. Not damaged, destroyed. And many times, there wasn’t even much left to clean up. What the wind and storm surge knocked down, the flooding and ocean waves washed away. This often resulted in one of the iconic scenes of Katrina in Biloxi. All along the beach, you could find a set of steps leading up to a house that was no longer there.

Nine years later, Biloxi has rebuilt, but not as fast and and as extensively as it did after Camille. There are motels, restaurants, amusements, convenience stores and souvenir shops. The casinos are open, as are the hotels. Some of the pre-Katrina casinos are back in business and others have been replaced by new operators in the same spot. All of them are land based now. Jet Ski rentals and miniature golf are up and running. There are places to stay and things to do all up and down Beach Boulevard, but the “old Biloxi Beach” is gone, probably never to return like we remember it.

The striking thing is that if you drive from Gulfport to the Ocean Springs bridge, everything you remember about “old” Biloxi is not there anymore. The local motels and cottages have all been replaced by national chains or high rise condos.

Many of the restaurants have been replaced by Waffle House, which seem to be on every other block.

Even the S.S. Hurricane Camille is gone, bulldozed by its new owners when the property was sold. The Broadwater Beach Resort, The Oceanarium, Fort Maurepas,Fun Time USA, Grand Casino Gulfport, and all but one of the Sharkshead souvenir shops are gone. You pass many empty parking lots and clean slabs, which cause you to play the “I wonder what used to be there” game. Like this abandoned lot across from the RV park:

Or this one down the road. The parking lot is big and I think there used to be a grocery store or a large pharmacy located here, but its hard to remember now:

Even somethings that are new remind you that something is missing. This is a little snowball stand on Beach Boulevard at Veterans. Nice little set up, but the Airstream is sitting on a 50×50 slab in the middle of a large concrete parking lot. So you know that whoever owned whatever was here before decided not to rebuild.

One of the Sharkhead stores is back in business.

The beaches are open and one of the cool things about the recovery is the artwork on display. Many of the trees along Hwy 90 were broken off or damaged by the storm. Someone with a lot more creative talent than me has turned them into some beautiful ocean themed sculptures.


But for me, the most striking and the saddest thing about post-Katrina Biloxi is the loss of all those beautiful old homes. Blocks and blocks of beachfront neighborhoods are just gone, never to be replaced. And many of these were homes which survived not only Camille, but many other storms without names. In their place are empty lots and FOR SALE signs that have sprouted up like weeds along the side of the highway.

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These pictures are from a two block stretch on Beach Boulevard. There are only two houses left, one on each block, surrounded by empty lots with old driveways and slabs.

These are the places next door to each, where someone’s homes once stood.

 

Some things catch your attention when you least expect it. For me it was these two stone lions, silently guarding a house that is no more.

I don’t know how old the house that stood here was, but judging from the neighborhood, it could have easily been built in the late 1800’s. And it makes me wonder how long those lions stood as silent sentinels guarding the front door. They saw storms come and go, probably even Camille. They probably watched as generations of kids grew up, played in that yard, got married and moved away. They may have waited, perhaps in vain, for some young man to come home from San Juan Hill, France, Iwo Jima, Normandy, Korea or Vietnam. They no doubt protected their owners for many, many years. But, in August, 2005 the were powerless against a natural disaster named Katrina. Now they seem to wait silently, wondering when, or if, their owners are coming back. Maybe they never will.

I’m not sure what separates the recovery after Camille from the one after Katrina. Maybe many of the owners didn’t have the money to rebuild. Maybe they didn’t have the stomach for it this time. Maybe they saw a demolished structure and a clean lot as a sign it was time to move on or move inland. Maybe the economy after Katrina wasn’t as vibrant as it was 35 years ago. We may never know.

The only thing for sure is, that for many years to come, some of us will drive down Beach Boulevard and think, “I wonder what used to be there?”

The Biloxi Lighthouse, still standing in the same place since 1847.