Jim Bradshaw: Remember a centennial bash
This year marks the 160th anniversary of the incorporation of Ville Platte, and its citizens picked this month in 1958 for a grand centennial celebration, largely so that it would coincide with the annual Cotton Festival.
The area was long settled before the formal incorporation in 1858, of course. According to popular legend, Marcellin Garand was the first to settle in what became the town. He was an officer in Napoleon’s army, and left France after Bonaparte’s exile. He bought one of the first two lots in what is now Ville Platte in 1824. Dr. Robert Windex bought the second one.
It’s not clear who gave the town its name or why. Most histories speculate that it came about because Ville Platte is on one of the first prairies, or “flat lands,” south of the Louisiana hill country. “Ville” is the French word for “town” and” platte” means “flat.”
However it happened, the name was well established by the time Ville Platte was incorporated and was well known 100 years later, when “Flat Town” threw its birthday bash.
Dr. J. H. Wiggins, chairman of the centennial celebration, officially opened a week of events on Saturday, Sept. 13, by ringing the bell that once called students to the first Ville Platte High School.
Events during the week included an “old-fashioned cooking bee” in which 30 Ville Platte cooks in period costumes prepared 82 dishes “popular 100 years ago, using the same recipes and under similar conditions” as their forebears. District court judges Lessley Gardiner of Opelousas, Bernard Coche of New Orleans, and Cleveland Fruge of Ville Platte sampled the dishes and awarded blue ribbons for the best dressing, cooked meat, cured meat, casserole, dessert and bread.
Joseph LaFleur, who was principal of Ville Platte High for more than 30 years, and Mrs. Irene Derouen Tate were named First Gentleman and First Lady of the centennial. Mrs. Tate’s “paternal great, great grandparents settled in the Ville Platte area around 1785,” according to a news account.
Three parades were planned. The Centennial Parade on Thursday featured “gaily decorated” horse-drawn buggies. The Youth Parade on Friday ended with the cutting of a 500-pound cake. Then a mile-long Cotton Festival parade on Sunday was supposed to lead to the Ville Plate High stadium for the annual running of the Tournoi, which traditionally ends the Cotton Festival and was also to be the final event of the centennial celebration.
“A weekend deluge” drowned out the Sunday parade and Tournoi, but still, the Alexandria Town Talk reported, “throngs of people crowded into Ville Platte” for Saturday’s events, “highlighted …. by the crowning of Queen Cotton V.”
Sandralynn Lemoine, “a hazel-eyed blond from Cottonport,” was picked from 40 contestants to reign with New Orleans Mayor deLesseps Morrison, King Cotton in 1958. (The mayor didn’t plant any cotton but apparently was a bigwig on the New Orleans Cotton Exchange.)
A time capsule buried at City Park contained “all pertinent bits of information concerning the festival, celebration, pictures, and the guesses of the population of Ville Platte when the capsule is opened in the year 2058.
The population guesses were made at “an election at the Theophile Fontenot coffee house, recreated on the spot where Ville Platte’s first election was held,” All of the ballots, “signed and with the personal observations” of the voters went into the capsule, according to the Town Talk report. It was buried in City Park beneath a granite monument inscribed “2058: unearth me when these sands are run that generations yet unborn may know the Ville Platte of this 1958 centennial year.”
Keep reading. I’ll let you know who guessed best after they dig it up 40 years from now.
A collection of Jim Bradshaw’s columns, "Cajuns and Other Characters," is now available from Pelican Publishing. You can contact him at email@example.com or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.