CARLISLE TO POINTE A LA HACHE (MADERE MANOR)
Later this will seem like a bad idea, but at this moment, it seemed more polite than to walk into James and Alora’s house holding Styrofoam cup containing a frozen beverage. We found the house as described, right along the highway, set back just a bit with a wrought iron fence. It’s long porch faces the side yard and stretches the length of the house, which is long, very long—turns out this house is something like five houses cut up and rebuilt together to look like one—the “Frankenhouse” as James and Alora call it.
We were warmly welcomed at the front door of the Frankenhouse by none other than James Madere, Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana Historian, or is it Special Projects Manager, or maybe GIS Specialist? He’s a man of many hats, and today he has many stories to share with us. Apparently we don’t have enough days either, as he’ll tell us—we should be spending all our days in Plaquemines right here on Hwy 23 with he and Alora. Without pause, he endears us further by showing Tom and I a spread of chardonnay wine and Modelo beer, selected with just us in mind.
Moments later he shows us to our room to set our things, where we discover the word “Welcome” spelled out with candies on the bed, along with a basket full of small gifts and a few large ones too.
The bottle of orange wine was the most memorable takeaway, apparently the “worst” wine we’ll ever taste, but we had to have it according to James. It comes from Plaquemines.
From this introduction, you might believe that James, like many other folks we’ve visited in these parts, is many generations back from Plaquemines, but in fact the Madere Plantation is somewhere around Lutcher or LaPlace he tells us. His family moved from Bordeaux, France to Reserve, Louisiana, he remembers as we look at a familiar map of land parcels along the Mississippi River stretching from Natchez to New Orleans in 1858, and then eventually to Plaquemines. They were “transplants,” James says, because his father worked for Freeport Sulphur—“he stuck us in here and we been here ever since, and everybody thinks I was born here,” James continues. “I don’t tell nobody.”
In our opinion, keeping up the front is not too difficult the way James and Alora champion this place…. How to explain? Where to begin. I’ll have to jump ahead, and perhaps around, in what stretched on to be nearly 8 hours of conversation into the night. Before we even made this visit to Plaquemines, James had directed me to he and Alora’s Facebook page: “Madere JamesandAlora” where they’ve created hundreds of albums of historic Plaquemines Parish photos—these photos would be otherwise lost or unknown if not scanned and posted here and archived in the five attics of the Frankenhouse.
This is not your usual history project, mind you. This is a race against water, against rising tides and sinking land. Every storm that comes, homes are lost, stories, histories, images swept away. People leave the parish, relocating to somewhere they feel safer, families are scattered, traditions left behind. James and Alora have scoured every nook and cranny for images from the past, whether the old Gazette Newspaper building that is no longer, or the Army Corps of Engineers high altitude TIFF files from decades ago that reveal plantation structures in full with outbuilding locations before they were torn down by Judge Perez.
Judge Perez is another story that requires its own post, or book really, and perhaps we’ll get to some of that….
Back to the photos and the maps. Back to why this history project is so important, so urgent. As James tells us, the parish is 100 miles long and the time frame in which things have changed there is drastic. In James’ lifetime alone—he was born in 1957—he can remember driving in a tunnel to get to Belle Chasse and there were only about seven things between what was “city” and where his house is now in Jesuit Bend, about 9 miles. Everything was agricultural then with rice and sugarcane, tomatoes and vegetables everywhere not to mention huge gardens, but now there’s houses and neighborhoods; everything’s changed demographically and there are no row crops to speak of.
Most of these people have moved up from lower Plaquemines out of communities like Pilottown, Venice, Buras, Empire, Port Sulphur. Even the community where James and Alora’s house is located, Jesuit Bend, is just south of the flood wall, so they are “relatively” unprotected when they close those gates in the instance of a big storm. After Katrina, Port Sulphur on south was devastated and hasn’t really come back the same. As we learned from Albertine the other day, Isaac set back the East Bank on the same day as Katrina hit just 7 years later, leaving the population down to maybe 1,000 people there verses the 22,000 on the West Bank.
While James is a transplant, Alora does have roots in Plaquemines, and not just in Plaquemines, but on the East Bank, in Pointe a la Hache. Her mother worked at the courthouse there and she grew up waiting out every storm on the second floor of that building, standing on a desk with the water lapping at her feet. Hurricane Betsy in 1965 was her first storm as a child, and while she and her parents were holed up in the courthouse, their car was parked on top of the levee. They had packed up all of their most valuable belongings into the car, parked it on top of the levee because that was the highest point, and hoped for the best. Everyone did that.
And yet, this storm was different. What they called a “tidal wave” at the time, and later learned was a storm surge, came up the river and toppled the levee, taking everything parked on it with crushing flow of water. They lost everything in the river. More recently, with Hurricane Barry 2019, the river rose to within one foot of the top of the levee and a mandatory evacuation was issued. No one was parking anything on top of the levee this time, but thankfully Barry ended up landing west of New Orleans and missing Plaquemines.
Alora and James have a deal, though. He will always pack her up and send her out of town for a storm. He has to stay behind because he works for the parish. After Katrina, they had water under their house for weeks and weeks and no one, not insurance, not anyone would help them with the damage. The house had sunk several inches. After speaking with a woman at FEMA, Alora found out they could apply for a grant to raise the house and stabilize the structure.
They got the grant, raised the house, but afterwards the elevation and twisting had the house all out of joint. It took years for the house to resettle back into place to where they could go back in and fix the cracks and the twists without more damage erupting. “It’s just, you know, living in South Louisiana, as you know,” Alora explains, “is just kinda like a crap shoot. You never know what you’re gonna get.” And she laughs, “but it’s the best place ever to live. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.”
You might think that’s a flippant thing to say, especially when living in a place as tragedy-stricken as Plaquemines. But Alora did try living somewhere else. After Katrina she became allergic to mold. So many structures and just stuff had been sitting and mildewing for so long, mold had accumulated and began to circulate in the air. Alora basically couldn’t walk, talk, or breathe and she had to get out of there. A lot of people had moved out for various and understandable reasons, and Alora and James reluctantly found a home in Canton, Mississippi—the closest place they could find. They still had the home in Jesuit Bend and needed to be back and forth.
Alora calls it her “lost years.” She wasn’t home, and she lost so much—all her family continuity because everyone became so scattered. A big part of her growing up in Pointe a la Hache was the fact that there was nothing to do. Sounds counter intuitive, right? But because there was nothing to do, they did everything together. The families and the community created their own fun. The adults created a club called the C’est La Vie Club. Alora says it was a bunch of her cousins and uncles and everybody living in Pointe a la Hache. Friends would come down from New Orleans and stay for the weekend, camping out at the marina or staying at someone’s house. They would have a crawfish boil one day, a barbecue another day, a fish fry the next. The men would go fishing and the women would do “whatever” according to Alora. They would watch football on Sunday and the kids would play. This was the difference between growing up in the country verses growing up in towns.
Times have changed, though, and most of Alora’s family have moved away—to Lafayette or Covington or elsewhere. James and Alora moved to Jesuit Bend so they could raise their two sons with more opportunities on the West Bank than the East Bank had to offer. Both of their sons are military men and married girls from Wisconsin, so it’s unlikely they’ll be coming home to Plaquemines as well. The population is shifting, the land is shifting, and yet James and Alora Madere are staying put and making every effort to gather the history, tell the stories, connect with those who do stay.
The evening went on and on but I won’t try to recount it all here. More to come in future writing and publication. It’s a story worth telling. We are so thankful to have been invited in.