Wednesday, January 28, 2015

LAKE ARTHUR REMINISCENCES


Yesterday, we lunched outdoors at The Regatta Restaurant (a reformed version of the old Wave Restaurant) on the edge of the lake in Lake Arthur, Louisiana. The welcome winter sun glinted through a glass I lifted in salute to my grandfather Emerson Lavergne Marquart who once lived near, and fished, the lake waters. Although the restaurant was filled with the aroma of Cajun seafood, I remembered the acrid scent of rainwater that filled the wooden cistern beside the back porch of my grandfather's house located half a block away from the restaurant. The old house, no longer family property, has been remodeled and painted white with blue trim; however, fish nets and trot lines no longer dangle from the ceiling of the back porch, the cistern has been removed, and a carport has been added to the house's backside. But I can still envision "Pops" Marquart on the porch, gathering up his tackle box and nets, getting ready for a day out on the water.

During my childhood when I visited Lake Arthur, my grandfather often got up when the sun rose, put on an un-ironed khaki shirt and matching pants, and climbed into a wooden boat he had made for fishing in the lake and hunting near Goose Island. I know he sometimes worked as a carpenter, plumber, and electrician and could repair most things that had stopped operating, but the jobs he took were infrequent. Even as a child, I felt he lived in a house that held no dreams or much ambition. The steam pump that had irrigated the rice fields he'd inherited from his father had become silent too soon during the Great Depression, and good fortune, which he thought might only have been delayed, had sunk into the murky lake—forever. That fortune his father had prepared him to expand had shriveled like the carcass of a rice hull.

The larger house built by Pops' father Samuel has been restored and painted a lemon yellow hue and sits at lakeside, enclosed behind a long, high fence where "Private" signs have been posted. The handsome house with gingerbread trim is a testament to my great-grandfather's business acumen and is among many late 19th and early 20th century homes built at lake's edge with long docks, or wharves as we called them, leading out to the water.

My great-grandfather Marquart was a man of German stock from Alsace-Lorraine who sold all of his extensive land holdings, livestock, and a general store in Fontanelle, Iowa, migrated to south Louisiana, and formed a land company around Lake Arthur, Louisiana. There, he sold off lots and made money much faster than he could have made digging for gold in the Klondike. Prior to his arrival in Lake Arthur, he had set out across the plains in ox wagons, bound for the Klondike, and when he encountered heavy snow at White Horse Pass, he turned back without any regrets about the failure of his search for gold. My father, most of my four siblings, and I inherited his wanderlust.

The flatlands surrounding Lake Arthur must have reminded Samuel of the Iowa prairie, and when he arrived there, he immediately bought a tract of rice land, irrigated it with large steam pumps, bought more land, sold all of it, and, with a business partner named Lee, created the plan for the town of Lake Arthur. At one time, he owned the majority of the property in Lake Arthur. During the drive back to New Iberia, I noticed a sign designating an area called "Klondike" and wondered if the land the sign stood on had been one of Samuel Marquart's holdings, which he had named after the site of his failed search for gold.

Well, fortunes are made and lost, and my grandfather, who inherited the rice farm and other properties, became one of the casualties of the Great Depression. He and my grandmother survived by transforming their white residence -- less imposing than the yellow house -- into a boarding house, but I don't think he ever got over the trauma of losing his father's legacy. However, his descendants can still sit in the pavilion of a large restaurant in the town his father laid out and enjoy the view of the lemon-colored house across the road and the white house behind it. And I appreciate the tenacity of ancestors who planned and settled a charming lakeside town that has become one of south Louisiana's many tourist attractions.

Photographs by Victoria Sullivan   


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