The Biggest Pine — Ever! (Maybe)
When timber men first came to the DeRidder area in large numbers in the 1890s, they claimed that a pine tree they’d located in the DeRidder area was the world’s largest — or at least the largest they’d ever seen. More than a century on, the documentation for this popular folktale has become pretty sparse.
Train’s A Comin’!
The original town of DeRidder was built extremely quickly. The Kansas City Railroad line to Port Arthur, Texas, was completed in 1896, and there was no settlement in the crucial parcel of Southwest Louisiana land next to the new line. In order to form a settlement that could meet the demands of the new train, a number of make-do shacks were assembled rapidly with rough lumber. A total of 300 settlers populated this original primitive settlement that would eventually evolve into modern DeRidder. A sawmill was part of the hasty initial encampment. As the small settlement gradually grew, five stores were added, and area entrepreneurs C. Landry and George Heard built a hotel — perhaps to accommodate those who would board or get off the new train.
From Gothic Jail To Hangin’ Jail
Because of its eerie design, the old DeRidder jail was nicknamed The Gothic Jail. As if its appearance weren’t unsettling enough, the jail — opened in 1914 — went on to gain further notoriety for its “double hanging” of 1928. In August, 1926, two men, Joe Genna and Milton Brasseaux, robbed DeRidder cab driver J.J. Breville of $14, then beat the cab driver severely with a spring from the cab’s suspension. When he told them he was dying, they stabbed him in the heart and cut his throat. The burned-out cab was found in Calcasieu Parish. The two were tried and sentenced to death within four months after the murder. But The Gothic Jail had no structure for hanging prisoners. Some industrious soul engineered a mechanism on the grate over the jail’s winding staircase. It wound up serving the purpose. Genna tried to poison himself the night before the hanging. But for some reason, he waited until after he ate his last meal to take the poison. As a result, he became nauseated, and the physician on the site pumped his stomach, with the result that he recovered in time to be hanged. He was buried in Lake Charles. For whatever reason, both prisoners were hanged on the same day — March, 9, 1928. The hangings started at 12:30 pm and were over by 1:10. Some citizens started calling the structure “The Hanging Jail.” The last prisoner was moved out of The Gothic Jail in 1984.
Keep It Clean!
During the massive Louisiana Maneuvers, which were organized to train U.S. troops for World War II, Gen. George Patton was heard loudly
cursing at an M.P. at an intersection north of DeRidder. A priest who was conducting mass at a nearby church put the mass on hold; walked out to the intersection; and told the general to stop his cursing. Patton apologized to the priest and the mass continued. During the course of the maneuvers, some DeRidder residents put tents in their yards for the training troops. They sold the recruits bread and tea cakes and provided them with (free) water.
The WPA Lives On
The old DeRidder post office is one of 17 buildings in Louisiana that still has art that was painted as part of the WPA (Works Progress Administration) in the 1930s. The project was a major part of the U.S. government’s effort to fight the Great Depression. The fresco in the building’s lobby was painted by Louisiana artist Conrad Albrizio in 1936. Albrizio painted people and customs that he felt had shaped the South. He was commissioned by Gov. Huey P. Long to paint a mural in Long’s new, massive state Capitol.
Hey, Those Tractors Really Work
DeRidder became one of two Mennonite settlements in Louisiana in the 1930s. The Mennonites were fleeing the Dust Bowl in Kansas. They were
led by one Albert Smith, who informed his fellow Kansas Mennonites that in DeRidder, La., they could buy land for $3 an acre and pay no property tax.
Eventually 22 Mennonite families moved to a site south of DeRidder. They were known for promoting dairy farming in the area. It is thought that Smith was the first person to use a tractor for farming near DeRidder. Smith died at age 86 in DeRidder. Mennonites continue to thrive in the area, where they are known for their carpentry, upholstery, furniture-making, baking and quilts.
The Beauregard Parish Museum has a collection of more than 3,000 dolls.
A Tragic Outcome
Child actor Rusty Hamer (above), who was known for his role in the Danny Thomas Show, committed suicide in DeRidder in 1990. As a result of the suicide, former child actor Paul Peterson established the organization A Minor Consideration, which works to improve conditions for child actors.
Hamer, who was 42 at the time of his death, has a star in the Hollywood Walk of Fame on Hollywood Boulevard.
THE GHOST IN THE WHITE-BIB SHIRT
As the ghost hunting phenomenon grew by leaps and bounds in the 21st century, attention returned to DeRidder’s old Gothic Jail. Much of the interest was spurred by a photo taken by DeRidder photographer Christine Smith, who died in 2007. Many claim a white ghostly image can be seen in the photo in a window on the first floor. Smith said she had no doubt the ghost was that of an early jailer, who would have worked in the 1910s and worn a distinctive white-bib shirt. The photo now hangs in the Beauregard Parish Museum. Several years ago, DeRidder made the decision to renovate the first
floor of the jail so that ghost-hunting groups could examine it. The group Louisiana Spirits visited twice. Although the evidence was inconclusive, the group did make three tape recordings of what could have been spirits talking. Although the voices were hard to make out, investigators thought they might have been saying “no” and “warden.”
‘Chicks Dig It’
DeRidder is the birthplace of country singer Chris Cagle (above), who performed such hits as “I Breathe In, I Breathe Out” and “Chicks Dig
LSU basketball coach Johnny Jones was born in DeRidder.
Don’t Tell Her It’s ‘Chick Lit’
Popular writer Jennifer Weiner was born in DeRidder, where her father was a doctor. Although she is famous as a writer of “chick lit,” she has expressed ambivalence about the term. She entered Princeton University at age 17 and graduated summa cum laude. Among the writers she studied under were Toni Morrison and Joyce Carol Oates.