Every time you visit Louisiana, you will encounter something strange and hard to believe. Many experience the decadence of New Orleans and think that is Louisiana. Others visit Cajun country and think that is the essence of Louisiana. Fewer visit the Northern parishes (the Louisiana name for counties). Northeast Louisiana does get some visitors to the village of Transylvania or the stately old homes of Mer Rouge or other relics of the plantation days.
But we are visiting one of the least visited parishes of one of the least known parts of Louisiana. We’re here because we’re exploring why some counties in the South are so resilient and others so vulnerable to climate and other disturbances. On our Sustainability/Resilience Index, Winn Parish stands head and shoulders above all the parishes surrounding it. Why?
We picked a perfect week to visit. Last week was 15 degrees below freezing. Now its in upper seventies. We even turned on the A/C in the truck yesterday as we reconnoitered the parish. Driving in Winn Parish the first thing you notice are all the log trucks. Often at intersections we had to wait for a phalanx of log trucks to pass by. Timber runs the economy here.
One of our first stops was the Huey Long statue on the Courthouse lawn. Huey Long (known as Kingfish and one of the most colorful, powerful and controversial figures in Louisiana history) was born a few steps from the Courthouse in a large log cabin. Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, All the King’s Men, chronicled Huey’s life through the fictional Willie Stark. It was made into a 1949 movie which garnered a Best Actor Oscar for the actor playing Huey. The film which best captures Huey is Ken Burn’s documentary, first aired on PBS in 1986.
Huey’s people are the ones we are visiting here. They don’t hold much truck with politically correct thought. Long known as the “Free State of Winn” the parish voted against secession in the Civil War. Up to half of Winn’s able-bodied young men are reported to have “taken refuge in the arms of General Green” by hiding in the forests rather than fighting for “rich men’s slaves.”
Winn Parish is said to have “produced only one crop in abundance: dissent.” The dissent was full-throated in support of the Populist party and William Jennings Bryan in the 1890s and early 1900s. The Winn dissent reached a apogee by breaking from Southern thought to support the Socialist William V. Debs for President in 1908. Debs even paid a visit to the parish in 1909, perhaps wondering as we do why Winn Parish is so unique.
Among Debs’ most ardent supporters was Huey P. Long, Sr, who was also a devout Baptist. This populist and Bible-loving environment created Huey Long and lingers in a parish which looks much different today.
The Baptist churches have become staid and estabishment and are now joined by fast growing Pentacostal churches. The Confederate flag, once derided as the emblem of rich slave-owners, is now embraced and flown widely as a symbol of rebellion of the little guy.
We’re just beginning to learn what make Winn Parish tick. It’s going to be a fun ride.