Just the other day, at the Bear Festival, a visitor from out of town was raving about our community and asked for suggestions on what to see while they were here.
It was Saturday, of course, and I opened my mouth, then snapped it shut quickly. I thought on it for a bit, strongly urged a tour of Grevemberg House if interested in old homes, a lunch downtown at one of the cafés or uptown at one of the other unique cuisine establishments.
I also suggested a boat tour of the National Wildlife Refuge, but he and his lady said they were more interested in Franklin, it’s culture and people. I was mired.
I started wracking my brain for ideas that someone like that nice couple might find interesting once they’ve already developed a crush on our little town.
Here’s a disclaimer, a caveat, a footnote, whatever you want to call it: It’s not exclusively government’s job or civic organizations’ job or private citizens’ job to "get things done" in this community, but it’s dang sure all our jobs, together, as a community, as a culture with a shared goal and purpose. The ideas I’m throwing out here are just that, ideas. Nobody’s off the hook, not government (city, parish or state), not business, not organizations, nobody. More, or perhaps most, importantly is that we have to quit playing ping-pong with our potential and the efforts it’ll take to capitalize on it, laying the responsibility always on "somebody else." It lies with all of us. We’re all in this together, we may all have to bleed a little to get there, but that’s what community is all about.
That having been said…
I think the kiosks that the Cajun Coast tourism group erected at the boat landings showing various canoe routes in our waterways were a spectacular idea. And that got me to thinking about kiosks and markers, in general.
You know, way over in Breaux Bridge they erected a huge monument along the side of Bayou Teche relating the Chitimacha story of how the waterway was created by a huge snake:
"In celebration of the above legend, the City of Breaux Bridge commissioned a 20 foot snake sculpture, which depicts all of the towns along Bayou Teche, and a commemorative marker to remind visitors of the legend.
"The sculpture, which is located in Parc des Ponts de Pont Breaux, highlights the significance of the Bayou to Acadiana, as the bayou once served as the primary highway for the Acadiana region.
"The snake is constructed from a solid piece of ‘violetta’ granite from Saudi Arabia, which was cut into five pieces and re-jointed. The snake is mounted onto a 25-foot piece of ‘absolute black’ granite from Zimbabwe. Carved into a kiosk shaped piece of granite located near the sculpture is the legend of Bayou Teche."
Now, you may say I’m just touting my heritage here, but what I’m trying to show you is the vision other communities conjure to capitalize on their cultures and their strengths. Do you realize what a marvelously unique array of cultures we have here in western St. Mary? Indian, Cajun, Creole, African-American and European. People are fascinated with all of the above, especially how they have interacted and balanced over the decades, centuries.
Breaux Bridge recognized the significance – and the marketability – of what they have. Amazingly, the same bayou runs through our own back yard and we usually don’t give it a second thought.
What else? St. Martinville touts being the third oldest city in Louisiana, and of course, home of the legendary Evangeline Oak; St. Francisville created the coolest slogan "Simple pleasures, simple treasures"; Natchitoches as "the oldest permanent settlement in the Louisiana Territory" and Houma proclaims "there's always something cookin' in the Heart of America's Wetland! Whatever you are in the mood for, whether it is live music, festivals or theatre performances, you'll find it here in Houma, Louisiana."
Which brings me back to kiosks. Let’s think big, but start small, shall we?
What if, either at the corners of Commercial and Teche Drive and Jackson and Teche Drive, or directly across from both those corners in the park itself, were kiosks describing some of the roots and origins of various local cuisine? Cajun food sure pops to mind, Creole, and that massive European influence which has manifested itself in so many fine dishes. Said kiosks then direct visitors back to Main Street and to every single locally-owned and operated eatery in the city, especially downtown.
Let’s move to downtown proper, now.
Kiosks, say four or five of them, spread out from the Teche Theater to say Jackson or Adams Street. At various corners somewhere along that way, nice, historic district-approved kiosks give visitors a run-down on a specific topic. Here’s a few ideas just off the top of my head:
– Sugar cane history and production
– Fishing, trapping and hunting in the old South
– Franklin’s prominent citizens
– Cypress lumber industry
– Old photos and descriptions of Main Street
– Story of the lampposts
– Story of the Teche Theater
– Life in the 1800s in Franklin
– Story of Ada and the Doc and the hanging on the old courthouse square.
– Story of the civil rights movement in Franklin and spotlighting some of the movement’s greatest local contributors and trail blazers.
– The gunboat Diana
– Battle of Irish Bend
– Etc., etc., etc. ad infinitum.
One thing we have around here, friends and neighbors, is stories. Lots of stuff to put out there to be read, heard and explored. What we sometimes – or often – do not have around here, friends and neighbors, is the recognition that visitors really dig that kinda stuff big-time.
These kiosks can also point to local events and their approximate dates, so if visitors want to come back for Harvest Moon, or Bear Fest, or a Teche Theatre production, you name it, they’ll know when and how to find out more information, websites, mailing lists, etc.
It could also be that the kiosks would be opened for sponsorships on a rotating basis, either fairly and equitably changed between local merchants on a scheduled basis, or sponsorships sold to help defray the costs. They cost the Cajun Coast in the neighborhood of $2,000 each. Not bad at all.
Moreover, what if one kiosk contained a map of the historic district, with the location, name and age of each property in the district? Furthermore, if someone went through the trouble of setting up a template and design, each property owner could elect to have a small placard or some such placed in front of their property with perhaps a more detailed history of it and any interesting or unusual facts.
Heck, maybe parish government could build us something like a putt-putt golf course. You figure, after bazillions of dollars spent on Idlewild, the least they could do for us would be putt-putt. Kinda in keeping with their KISS philosophy here in western St. Mary: Keep It Small, Stupid.
In the end the couple that day wandered down Teche Drive and I saw them enjoying the festival a couple more times that Saturday. I hope they enjoyed it enough to come back.
Over and over and over again, we hear these people tell us how wonderful it all is, all this right under our own noses.
But the concentration of government continues to be tunnel-visioned to business and industry, and that’s all well and fine, but let me tell you, brothers and sisters, many a business over the last 20 years has turned away from this part of the parish because there wasn’t decent housing, nothing to do, lack of arts and cultural and recreational opportunities (unless you play golf, of course), etc. Conversely, retirees and investors become enamored with our area, a few settle in to it, and relish the little treasure they’ve found here.
It’s going to take all of us to make it work to our benefit, and it’s going to take a lot of money and effort. But this is a community that restored the Teche Theatre not once, but twice. This is a community that restored the historic lamps. In short, we’re generous people, if we believe in what we’re contributing to. It can’t, and won’t, happen over night. But a little at a time, a bit each year, and it’ll surpass even our wildest dreams.
If we all get behind the dreams and work for them.