DENHAM SPRINGS -- Even when Henry Exner moved from Prague to Denham Springs in 1895, Livingston Parish was known as the “Freestate,” but the way Exner described it was “a big mudhole in the backwoods.”
A letter with that and other choice descriptions of the area written to his daughter will be one of the local treasures that mesh with a touring national exhibit at Saturday’s opening of a Smithsonian Institution showing in Old City Hall.
Exner’s views of 1895 Denham Springs, which he also characterized as “a pine thicket with two houses and the post office” contrast with his 1925 view of the town when he wrote another letter:
“My what a change! Today gravel roads, autos, and trucks. Girls and women dressed like city folks (only more so) brick buildings where a few years ago frogs sang their evening songs.
“Nor do we stand still,” the letter continues. “Progress is visible every where, and life is a round of struggle, haste and hurry.”
For more than five years, Florence Crowder, Carol Lamm and others have gathered such historical nuggets that present a picture of the look and feel of Livingston Parish in earlier times.
Now those letters, family stories, memorabilia and photographs become part of the Journey Stories exhibit.
The exhibition will be open from 9:30 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. seven days a week through Oct. 15, said Patti Smith Pearis, director of Old City Hall.
After the years of gathering, Lamm and Crowder have spent days hanging and arranging their finds in Old City Hall in preparation for Saturday’s unveiling to the public.
Maps will show the nations and states from which many Livingston Parish residents came, Crowder said.
“People have been so incredibly good about sharing their old photos,” said Lamm, who adds that scanning them into computer memory has made that more feasible.
Talking to older residents of the parish to gather information also has been an enjoyable part of the process, she said.
“Some can go right down the street and tell you where everything was,” Lamm said. That will aid in the walking tours of the city that will be part of the program.
Organizers also plan a tour of the city cemetery, complete with ghost stories.
Other parts of the project will focus on working with students in local schools to put together historical information and presenting story times for children, Crowder said.
To help defray the costs, local project organizers received grants through the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, Crowder said.
Because the focus of the exhibit is journeys, the organizers spent much of their efforts putting together information on how and why people came to live in Livingston Parish.
The how includes boats, buggies, trains, horses, wagons and eventually, cars. It also includes the paths, roads and bridges that linked Livingston Parish to the rest of the world.
The why often involved jobs, so the exhibits look at sawmills, farms, shops and the old oar factory in Denham Springs.
The why also included families and churches, which make up a large part of the photo collection.
Among the prize pieces are a pair of paintings by the late Lionel Kabel, a Denham Springs artist and historian.
The Kabel paintings depict a pair of steamboats that ran from New Orleans through lakes Pontchartrain and Manchac and up the Amite River to Port Vincent.
Those steamboats — the Alice and Jesse — operated in the late 1800s and early 1900s, carrying cotton, fur, lumber, produce and people, Crowder said.
The Smithsonian’s part of the exhibit will offer viewers national stories of how and why people settled across the United States.
The touring exhibit’s itinerary called for stops in five other Louisiana municipalities — Leesville, Lake Providence, Long Leaf, St. Martinville and St. Francisville, Crowder said.
In order to become one of the six Louisiana cities to host the Smithsonian exhibit, Denham Springs organizers had to agree to obtain memorabilia and stories from people of the city and parish.
Old City Hall, the site of the exhibit, reopened in 2009 after a renovation paid for with both public and private funds.
The building, which is in the National Registry of Historic Places, was built by the Works Projects Administration during the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and opened in 1940.