Thursday, September 3, 2009

THE DARBY HOUSE STORY


Yesterday afternoon, one of my closest friends in New Iberia called me, and when I answered, she almost shouted, “Just don’t even come home; just don’t even bother to come back here to New Iberia (my winter home).” I couldn’t imagine how I had offended her since I’m here on The Mountain, and she’s there in Teche country. She went on to tell me about a sight that incensed her and that I wouldn’t want to see, describing the slaughter of old live oak trees on Darby Lane, a lane I travel to reach my home in New Iberia. In fact, my home is less than a mile from the sight of tree destruction. My friend was referring to the old oaks that have lined Darby Lane for several centuries and which are often destroyed by hurricanes. During the course of the conversation she quieted down, and I didn’t dare tell her that the entire lane had once been bordered by beautiful woodlands and an entire forest of trees had been cut to make the subdivision where our homes are located. Actually, in the early history of the Attakapas District, which included Iberia Parish, there were once little forests called Salvador Islands or New Iberia islands, or by the Acadians, “Trois Isles.” Here, Spanish authorities gave some Spaniards permission to cut timber, and when these lands were sold after the Louisiana Purchase, the Spaniards continued to cut trees. Because titles to this land had never been issued, the Spaniards were sued and had to pay damages. So tree-cutting in the region has been going on for several centuries!

Darby Lane is near the area where Malaguenos first settled in New Iberia and is also the site of a latter-day version of the old Darby House. The old Darby House was built on land granted by the Spanish government to Jean Baptiste St. Marc D’Arby during the early part of the 19th century. The D’Arby family lands were southeast of Spanish Lake, site of my YA novel, FLOOD ON THE RIO TECHE, and the story about the house titillated me when I was considering writing about the Spanish settlement of New Iberia. The home was built for Francois St. Marc Darby and is always referred to in New Iberia as the old Darby House. A Colonial style cottage, it was a two-story structure with a ground floor made of handmade brick and a second floor constructed of cypress boards. The lower floor was level with the ground, and steps led up to the upper gallery at the front of the home. Imposing stuccoed brick columns enhanced the handsome appearance of the front of the Darby House.

The Darby family possessed great wealth and had a home in New Orleans, as well as Paris, and the children were sent to France to finishing school. According to Harnett Kane, the Darbys had an opera box in the Louisiana capitol and enjoyed dancing in St. Martinville, then known as “Le Petit Paris” of Louisiana. After the Civil War, the Darby family plantation failed, and the fortunes of the Darbys diminished. By 1897, Francois and Octave Darby owned the home, along with a sister, who isn’t named in historical records. Francois and Octave Darby quarreled and lived in the house together without speaking. It is said that when a cow that one brother owned broke into the green patches of the other’s designated yard space, the Darby who suffered the trespass of the cow sang a song about the incident to inform his brother, without engaging in conversation about the cow’s invasion. Then the sister quarreled with one brother and vowed to leave her possessions to the other brother. When she died, the brother to whom she had vowed to leave her possessions rushed to his attorney with a sealed envelope, and in it was a sheet of paper with nothing written on it! Octave died, and Francois lived on by himself. Those who ventured too near the property were threatened by the bearded old man running out of the house, bearing a hatchet. Beautiful furniture, covered with newspaper, molded, and holes appeared in the roof. The hermit Darby Home heir cooked his meals in fireplaces and ate them off cracked marble mantels. He lay down to sleep on straw in a corner of his bedroom.

In the early 60’s when I first saw the ruins of the old house, the roof had been replaced with a rusting tin one, the gallery had been destroyed by a hurricane, and one part of it jutted into the air. A huge, drooping oak stood in an overgrown yard where pigs, chickens, even a pony wandered. One afternoon, I went with an artist friend and my daughter Stephanie to watch the friend paint a watercolor of the old house. Stephanie, then four years old, became restless, and my friend told her that if she’d be still awhile, she’d let her ride the pony grazing in the yard after she finished the painting. She finished the watercolor, a beautiful rendering of the ruined home, and took Stephanie by the hand to give her a ride. As my friend was an expert horsewoman, I trusted her to know what to do. However, when she put Stephanie on the pony’s back, it reared and Stephanie was thrown clear, but my friend received a swift kick in the lower abdomen. I drove her to the hospital where the doctor found no broken bones, but she was severely bruised. Perhaps Francois’s ghost was still hovering around the property, protecting it from invasion by strangers!

In the 70’s, Al Landry, a New Iberia architect, applied for a grant to restore the old home as a historic property, and the week he received approval to renovate the Darby House, it mysteriously burned to the ground during a hard rain. Again, was Francois’s ghost hovering around the property?!

I was tempted to drop the project of FLOOD ON THE RIO TECHE last year and to tell, instead, the story of the old Darby House. However I opted for the story about the Spanish settlement of New Iberia and decided against further disturbing the irascible Francois Darby. Today, a replica of the home stands on the original Darby Home site, ancient oaks keeping watch over the property, and, as I told my friend, at least those trees on the old Darby property won’t be cut down. Some remnant of history remains, and if the lordly trees could talk, we'd hear some interesting stories – perhaps about the good times in the old Darby House, pre-Civil War, rather than those tragic tales historians have recorded.
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