The day time stood still in St. John Parish: Part I

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The story you are about to read is a true story. It was told to me by Mrs. Helen Schlosser Burg, who was there and lived to tell me about the storm that struck St. John Parish on Sept. 29, 1915. Mrs. Burg was born in the little town of Wagram in 1901; she had a vivid memory of that deadly storm that struck that day. She sat down with me one afternoon and allowed me to film her telling me the story.

On the shores of Lake Pontchartrain below Manchac were the towns of Ruddock, Wagram, later called Napton, and Frenier. Ruddock was a sawmill town that cut the large cypress trees from the Louisiana swamp. The Ruddock Cypress Company was founded Feb. 26, 1891. I have visited this site many times and see the remains of the old sawmill that now crumbles and slowly sinks into the deep murky swamp. The other towns were farming towns, and cabbage was the main crop. All of the farmland is now in the lake because of erosion.

Mrs. Burg told of a wonderful life, the kind most of us would like to live today. Everything was peaceful and quiet. There were no police. No one locked his or her doors. Everyone knew each other and helped each other as neighbors do. Every day at 1 p.m., people would go into their homes and rest until 3 p.m. She laughed and said that is how Wagram became known as “Napton.” They took a nap. She talked of how she would walk along the lakeshore for miles and how peaceful and beautiful it was.

The railroad came through the swamp in 1856 and made things better for the small towns. Before the railroad, any shipping of farm goods was done by ship across the lake. There were no stores, so the train would stop when flagged down by the people, and they would give the train engineer a grocery list. The engineer would drop off the list in New Orleans. Several days later, the train would stop and drop off the items that had been picked up. Mrs. Burg said that the all the groceries picked never came to more than $100 a year. We raised our vegetables and would kill deer, rabbit and other game found in the swamp for our meat.

Once a month, on a Saturday night, we would have a party. It would be held at a different person’s house each month. “We would play music, dance and sing songs from late afternoon till morning,” Mrs. Burg recalled with a little grin. “The Windecker boys were kind of bullies, and when they went to the dances, they would put alligator oil on their hair to hold it down. They smelled so bad that the girls didn’t want anything to do with them. Oh, we had a wonderful time.”

“We had no cars, no roads, and we knew about Laplace but a five or ten mile walk through the swamp to get there was too much. Hardly ever would anyone attempt to go there unless it was to vote. We had no doctors, and all the babies were delivered by a midwife; our mother treated us when we got sick. We had no electricity, and our drinking water came from a cistern.”

“We had a Catholic church and school, the Holy Cross Church and school. They were small cypress buildings that stood on the west side of the railroad track. A priest

would come from New Orleans once a month to hold mass. We had church every Sunday if we had a priest or not. School was held whenever we could get a sister from New Orleans. Whenever she came, she would catch the train that morning and return to New Orleans on the train that afternoon. We were very happy children and having the time of our lives. Land was selling for 25 cents per acre and we owned forty acre.”

“One day, Daddy got the newspaper from the train, and it told of a hurricane. Daddy said, ‘You know, one day we are going to get a bad storm here.’” We went to bed that night. We had no way of knowing that our lives were about to change forever, and for some this would be the end,” Mrs. Burg said.

Look for Part II on Wednesday, Sept. 15.

Wayne Norwood is a lieutenant with the St. John thhe Baptist Sheriff’s Department and owner and operator of the Louisiana Treasures Museum.