Friday, January 30, 2009

THE PETITE ANSE AMATEUR


Last Sunday after Morning Eucharist at the Church of Epiphany, a friend and I began talking about Avery Island, one of the “islands” six miles south of New Iberia and four miles north of Vermilion Bay. The Island, of course, is not really an island but a huge mound that sits on top of a large salt dome, or monolith. It’s one of five famous salt domes of coastal Louisiana deposited by the sea some 200 million years ago. The Avery Island monolith juts upward 152 ft. above sea level, is eight miles deep, and one mile wide. Most people know the semi-tropical island for its red treasure, the world famous Tabasco sauce first made by Edmund McIlhenny.

The entire island is fascinating enough, but few people know about a small book given to me by Bobby and Margie Duncan, years ago, entitled the “Petite Anse Amateur.” The brown-paper covered volume was created from two bound collections of a little newspaper, three inches by four inches in format, published by children of the Avery-McIlhenny family. The children, aged 5 to 14, wrote this newspaper between the years 1879 and 1881 while living at Avery Island when the Island then bore the name Petite Anse Island…thus, the name of their newspaper bore a name with which many of us who live here in New Iberia today aren’t familiar.

The story of the “Petite Anse Amateur” centers around a tutor named James Mesner of Massachusetts, a Harvard graduate who was engaged to teach the Avery-McIlhenny children after Mrs. French, a friend of the family, died. One Christmas, Mr. Mesner presented the Avery-McIlhenny offspring with a small printing press he had received as a boy. He proposed that the Island clan print a newspaper as part of their education in English composition. At that time, the children lived in a sparse community that offered few intellectual pursuits, so they became excited about producing a newspaper of their own, quickly ordered printing paper, and began obtaining subscriptions and advertisements.

The opening article in the “Petite Anse Amateur,” contains a charming description of the Island written by Daniel Dudley Avery, Jr., complete with a notation about the famous salt mine that had first brought prosperity to the occupants of the Island and brief mention of how it fared during the War Between the States when a Union attack on the salt works sent the family fleeing to Texas. After a hiatus, family members returned and, ten years later, they revived the salt mining industry, which is still in operation today.

In the introduction to the “Petite Anse Amateur,” editor and publisher of the small facsimile of the newspaper and a descendant of an Island family, Kenneth Avery Ringle, describes the Island of the late 19th century as a place of abundant game and bayous filled with fish, crabs, and shrimp. He also mentioned the Avery-McIlhenny families’ nightly readings of the novels of Sir Water Scott and James Fenimore Cooper. Of particular interest to readers is the brief biographical sketch of E.A. “Ned” McIlhenny who became an Arctic explorer, founder of one of the nation’s first bird sanctuaries, which helped save the snowy egret from extinction, and promoter of the Tabasco sauce industry. E.A. McIlhenny also became nationally recognized as a big-game hunter and horticulturist.

Only 500 copies of the “Petite Anse Amateur” were printed at Allethaire Press and a limited number of them were bound in leather by Claudia Cohen, and I feel fortunate that Bobby and Margie Duncan presented me with this copy of a volume we’d probably call an “alternative newspaper.” Since I now live part of the year on The Mountain at Sewanee, TN., I was excited to see that one of the ads the children solicited for the “Petite Anse Amateur” was a small notice about the University of the South at Sewanee, which touted a grammar school, academic and theological departments in full operation, perfect climate, and moderate terms for schooling.

‘Sounds ideal, but judging from reports of sub-freezing temperatures on The Mountain right now, claims of a perfect climate at Sewanee might be somewhat exaggerated! And parents of offspring who attend the University of the South today would hardly call the tuition moderate!
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