BY PAMELA SLEEZER
Traveling through Southwest Louisiana, it’s almost impossible to escape a visit to the city of DeRidder. As a gateway hub conveniently located at the intersection of three major Louisiana highways, the city has the unique ability to host visitors not just from throughout the state, but from surrounding states as well.
Those who visit it are often intrigued enough to linger and tour its historical district, which is located just along the railroad tracks that have been credited for starting it all.
Incorporated in 1903, the city was named after Ella de Ridder, the sister-in-law to a Dutch railroad financier, Jan de Goeijen, who bought the first railroad to travel through the area. The first train line to serve DeRidder came in 1902. At one time, there were five different railroad lines that traveled through the area.
Now, only one remains in operation, and it’s used by the Kansas City Southern railroad company: the very same company that first used that original line in 1902, under the name Pittsburgh & Gulf Railroad.
To truly understand the town’s beginning, however, you must go back before the railroads were built to the late 1890s. Mayor Ron Roberts says there’s one very simple thing that DeRidder can attribute its existence to: the longleaf pine tree.
“There is actually a reference in some history books that says we had the largest pine tree in the world,” Roberts says, as he casually gestures to framed photographs that adorn the walls of his mayoral office in the downtown city hall that sits just beside the railroad tracks.
Stories abound through the area of just how magnificent those first pine trees of Beauregard Parish were. Some trees were said to have been eight feet in diameter, and locals love to talk of how the roads were once canopied by the branches of the ancient trees.
“One crew of four men would cut a tree and then spend an entire day taking that tree apart — they were that enormous,” Roberts says.
In about 1890, collecting turpentine became a major industry, and the trees of Beauregard Parish proved to be an incredible source of the product. Several turpentine camps began to sprout up between what is now Longville and further north to Vernon Parish, where the historical Heritage Families created their homes and lives around the tree industry.
Eventually, the turpentine industry began to fall to the wayside. To the turpentine harvesters’ dismay, they learned that the large bank of turpentine could only be found in trees that were older — hundreds of years old, as a matter of fact — thus making the younger trees planted in their shadows practically useless.
It all might have been over before it began for DeRidder, but that’s when the railroads came into the story. With the ability to transport the logs by rail, a new industrial opportunity came to fruition, and the trees’ worth grew exponentially. Sawmills began to take the place of turpentine camps. It’s estimated that at one time there were 30 different sawmills operating in what is now Beauregard Parish.
They weren’t just sawmills either; not by any standard. Each sawmill was surrounded by communities that included housing for the workers, schools for their children and even hospitals. The largest sawmill had 3,000 workers.
The very last sawmill house now stands in front of the DeRidder City Hall building. According to Roberts, the city had actually condemned the building before receiving documentation that it was the last standing home belonging to the Hudson sawmill community. The house was spared, and a local contractor renovated the tiny home before it was moved to its current location, where it will soon serve as a small museum dedicated to that last generation of sawmill communities.
Now the timber is primarily used by the Packaging Corp. of America (PCA), formerly Boise Cascade. But the story of the pine tree’s service to DeRidder doesn’t end there.
As the timber industry began to dwindle and only the strongest remained in operation, a family by the name of Crosby moved into town from their original home in Picayune, Miss. They built the area’s first chemical plant, which, in 1967, became known as MeadWestVaco. It was recently renamed Ingevity, and it remains in operation to this day.
One of the primary chemicals used in its production comes from the “soup,” as some call it, left over from the remains of trees used by PCA just on the other side of town.
“The trees continue to sustain us in all forms through this community,” Roberts said. “We have been told that we are growing the trees faster than we can use them, and so it would seem that we have a lengthy future with these magnificent trees.”
In fact, the city recently placed new welcome signs along each road leading in that display the image of a pine cone beneath its name. It would seem a fitting homage. But there’s far more to the city’s claim to fame than just the trees it was built from.
Jones And Doyle
Louisiana governor “High Hat” Sam H. Jones grew up in a home on North Pine Street, which is affectionately considered the main street of DeRidder. Born in Merryville, Jones graduated from DeRidder High School in 1915 and went on to serve as governor from 1940 to 1944.
Roberts said that commemorating Jones’ DeRidder history is a goal he hopes to see accomplished one day soon.
Pictures found throughout the area depict Jones on the football field with another local hometown hero and football legend, the late and great Cecil Doyle.
Doyle was heralded for his skills on the football field as a punter and running back for the DeRidder High School Dragons during the early 1940s. After graduating, he continued his football career, first at McNeese in nearby Lake Charles and later at Tulane University.
While he took a small break from the game to serve in the United States Army during WWII, he couldn’t escape the pigskin for long; nor could he escape the city he called home.
Doyle returned to DeRidder and to his old stomping grounds when he took on the role of football coach to the Dragons for 17 years. In 1969, he ventured into the restaurant business when he opened a local Master Chef. In 1980, he opened a Bonanza Steakhouse on North Pine Street. This laid the groundwork for what is now Double D’s Steakhouse.
Doyle’s legacy lives on throughout DeRidder in both aspects of his career. His name was emblazoned alongside those Friday night lights he lived by during his youth when the football stadium was renamed in his honor. And his sons have carried on the restaurant business with the Double D’s Steakhouse and, most popularly, Cecil’s Cajun Kitchen, located inside the historical district just adjacent from the Beauregard Parish courthouse.
Visitors and locals alike can’t resist the sports bar-themed atmosphere that surrounds one with memorabilia — not just from Doyle’s time on the field, but from the careers of other local players as well. Autographed merchandise is on display at every turn, encased in glass cases that can be viewed at every angle: even from the outdoor courtyard that offers a warm view of the downtown district and the renovation work taking place at the courthouse.
Next to that, of course, is the infamous Gothic hanging jail. One interesting stop that continues to entertain even the locals is the Beauregard Museum, which can be found just around the corner.
At first glance, the museum catches the traveler’s eye with the interesting Kansas City Southern railroad car parked outside its entrance and the enormous piece of petrified pine tree mounted on display along its walkway.
The Doll Collection
But inside is where locals feel its real worth can be found. The museum is home to the Lois Loftin Doll Collection.
Lois and Albert “Dutch” Loftin spent 48 years building their enormous collection of rare and beautiful dolls from across the world, and they’ve each been maintained in a timeless form along with their historical information.
Visitors are encouraged to allow plenty of time to peruse the collection of more than 3,000 items. Each doll is accompanied with other rare antiques the couple acquired throughout their travels. The collection is so large, in fact, that it was even afforded its own festival for a short time.
On a grander scale, the city of DeRidder left its mark on the nation by having the honor of possessing the very first USO not located on a military installation. Though it hasn’t been a registered USO as of late, the War Memorial Civic Center on South Pine Street has a history any veteran could be proud of.
In 1941, the facility was built for and donated to the United Services Organization. Off-duty soldiers from what was then Camp Polk and the DeRidder Army Air Base made the structure their home away from home.
The quality of the building’s original interior and exterior has been maintained throughout the years, with original WWII posters still adorning the walls of its main drawing room, and an original exterior shower house preserved in its original quality on the south side of the building. Dances are still held on the original wooden floors.
The building was bestowed to the parish police jury in 1946 by the American Legion with the stipulation that it be maintained as a war memorial civic center, and it has remained in use in that form ever since.
Resilient Small Town
The history of the city of DeRidder depicts a small town with incredible resiliency. It has made its way through the difficult early years of the lumber and sawmill industries only to grow stronger by reinventing itself with industrial plants that outlasted all those surrounding them. It’s left its mark on a nation through wars. And perhaps most surprising of all, it can trace some of its history to a tragedy that occurred nearly half a world away.
One of the last historical buildings that remains in the district is that of the Wooten Theatre. It houses the local amateur theater group. Big band names perform on invitation.
It can trace its history all the way back to one of the few survivors of the Titanic.
Sultana Hage Boulas first boarded the RMS Titanic in Cherbourg, France, on April 10, 1912. At the young age of 12, she was already a month into her journey from her home country of Lebanon on her way to the great America when the infamous tragedy struck and the ship sank to the bottom of the Atlantic.
During the chaos, Boulas was separated from her extended family as she was rushed into one of the few lifeboats that made it off of the ship and was later rescued by the RMS Carpathia.
Little is known of exactly how Boulas made her way to DeRidder. But what is documented is her marriage to a local man by the name of Newman Herreck. The couple owned a fruit stand next to the Bessie Lee Hotel, which was named after Mayor Roberts’ aunt. They lived in a home nearby that still stands just behind the Diamond Electric building in DeRidder.
The couple had a son named Gene who owned the building where the Wooten Theatre now stands. Over the years, Gene decided to donate the land to the local little theater organization, the Impromptu Players Theatre, which allowed the group to have an official location that could suit their needs. Since that time, the theater group has grown to the point that it offers several dinner theater productions throughout the year.
In the off-season, the building is used to showcase various musical guests each summer. It’s part of one last goal of Roberts to unite the generations of DeRidder and carry on its legacy.
“It’s something that I have worked very hard on and I continue to work on. It’s proving to be a little bit of a challenge, though, of how to engage one generation and on to the next. But it’s something I feel very strongly about.
“This city and this community has outlasted so much, and I believe we have set ourselves on a path that we will continue leaving our place in its history. And it’s important that the next generation knows where their history comes from.”