Burl: Industry expansion threatens towns’ place in St. John

Published 12:02 am Saturday, September 24, 2016

The towns of Lions, Mt. Airy and Garyville were once staples of this community that helped make St. John the Baptist Parish what it is today; however, these historic communities have slowly been swallowed up by the expansion of oil companies and other conglomerates.

Marathon acquired property in 1975 in the town of Lions and thus began the process of companies over-powering these areas. Now, Pin Oak Terminals and Nalco have consumed areas on the Mt. Airy side of town.

These companies have systematically decreased the property value of the homeowners in these small knit communities while offering little or no jobs to their residents.

Lions, Louisiana housed one of the earliest businesses that used to ship sugar in wooden barrels, averaging 12,000 barrels and $36,000 annually between the 1860s and the early part of the 20th century.

Now the town has been turned into green space and family cemeteries.

Ironically, the descendants of Lions were once promised free burial, but that promise has been compromised with the expansion of Marathon Oil.

Mt. Airy, a town with historic roots dating back to Native-American occupation, received much of its fortunes tied to the economic health of the adjacent town of Garyville and St. James Parish, with their residents working for Lyons Lumber Company, Colonial Sugar Refinery or Godchaux Sugar Refinery.

Currently, Nalco owns most of the property on one side and, now, Pin Oak Terminals is building tank farms on the other side. This will ultimately devalue the property and create a ghost town of Mt. Airy. Sadly, Mt. Airy soon will be auctioned off and become similar to Lions, a distant memory.

Though agriculture was the dominant revenue source in St. John, lumber became an attractive alternative particularly in the Garyville area. Founded in 1903 by the Lyons Lumber Company, Garyville became the second largest Pine Mill world-wide; peaking at about 1,200 employees. A true company town, Garyville had everything, a school, stores, community clubs and a hotel.

In 1910, Gary State Bank was established and one year later the Garyville Movie Theater opened. Additionally, numerous churches were established with some still standing today.

Garyville was such an important link that it had three railroad stations, several boarding houses, an automobile dealership and ice cream parlors. It was a thriving community.

From the beginning, these three towns have been instrumental in the growth of St. John the Baptist Parish. However, with the steady expansion of Marathon by first buying out Lions and expanding to the last street in Garyville, and now Pin Oak Terminals building tank farms in Mt. Airy, these two historic towns will soon be forgotten landmarks of St. John the Baptist Parish.

As an elected official on the St. John Parish School Board, my oath of office is to my constituents, my friends and my family of the areas that I represent. A couple of years ago, some concerned citizens tried to incorporate the towns of Garyville, Mt. Airy and Lions (Reserve,) and I wasn’t in favor of it initially because I thought that it would make residents responsible for taxes and cause the loss of vital services from which the parish now offers.

However, lately I revisited the idea because it has been this same Parish that has forgotten about this rich history and have deserted those of us still residing in these towns. If this continues, I think that we will have to again try to incorporate just for SURVIVAL!

Thanks to the book, “Precious Gems from Faded Memories,” for keeping our history alive. Because with the infiltration of these newly acquired industrial establishments, memories will be all that’s left and these towns will be nothing but History.

Albert “Ali” Burl III is a Garyville resident and member of the St. John the Baptist Parish School Board. He can be reached at alburl@stjohn.k12.la.us or 504-628-0010.