DENHAM SPRINGS — For the next few weeks, visitors to the Old City Hall can step back in time, as they view hundreds of photos and mementos from some of the earliest settlers in the area.
“Journey Stories: Destination Denham Springs,” an exhibit that details the lives of the area’s first settlers to Denham Springs, is on display until the end of August.
The local exhibit grew from the Smithsonian’s Journey Stories, which came to Denham Springs two years ago, said Patti Smith Peairs, director of Old City Hall. The exhibit features tales of how people and their ancestors came to America, a central element of their personal heritage.
“Our history is filled with stories of people leaving behind everything — families and possessions — to reach a new life in another state, across the continent or even across an ocean,” the Smithsonian website states. “The reasons behind those decisions are myriad.”
For Pat Genre, the daughter of William Powell Jr. and Martha Anne “Chee” Powell, the local Journey Stories exhibit was a chance for Denham Springs residents to tell how they arrived in Denham Springs, their families’ history and what their family members did to make the city what it has become today, she said.
The writings, photographs and mementos housed at Old City Hall also clearly tell how many of the area’s most well-known families — Wax, Walker, Allen and more — came to Denham Springs.
Included in the exhibit are mementos and pictures of her ancestors, Genre said. As she pointed to one of several glass cases, she talked about her grandmother, Marie Egnew Carey, and how she owned Woodland Flower Shop, the first flower shop in Denham Springs, which was on Benton Street and not far from the Old City Hall.
When it opened in 1944, the flower shop was a hub of news, she said.
Genre said her grandmother “knew anniversaries, apologetic husbands wanting to make amends, births of babies and weddings.”
Pictures of Genre’s parents, who owned a television sales and service shop, also are included in the exhibit.
Sharlet Wax, who spent hours putting the display of her family together, said she believes the information, pictures and mementos will enlighten future generations about what their ancestors did to keep the family together.
“They were very loyal to the city,” Wax, who married into the family said. “Our grandchildren had no idea what their ancestors went through.”
The Wax family — John Washington Wax and Lula Commella Stafford — settled in Denham Springs in 1915, after moving from the Satsuma and Walker areas so that their children could attend school in what was then the village of Denham Springs.
The family purchased 10 acres of land on what is now Centerville Street, which 14 of the descendents still occupy today.
“It has always been about family,” Wax said, adding that in participating in the exhibit, her family wanted to honor those who worked so hard to make the city and their family what it is today. Many of the decedents were lifelong educators and business owners, she said.
For Jackie Hunstock Bentley, Journey Stories was a venue to tell her family’s story. While she concentrated on her father's side of the family, Hunstock, her mother’s side of the family, the Chambers, “founded Denham Springs,” she said.
Bentley said her grandfather's brother, William Hizam Chambers, was one of the first mayors in Denham Springs.
Bentley, who began researching her families’ history at age 15 following the death of her aunt, Sue Chambers, a former teacher at Hammond High School, said it’s important for young people to know who they are and where they come from.
“A lot of young people don't know where they come from,” Bentley said. “A lot of kids have cousins they go to school with and don’t even know it’s their cousin. People are so scattered now.”
Bentley said she spent her childhood “in and about Denham Springs all of our lives,” as her grandmother, Oma Allen Chambers lived in downtown Denham Springs.
She encourages others to learn their family history. She said it's fun “and when you get started, it hooks you.”
Genre said all Denham Springs residents were asked to participate in the project. Many provided oral histories of their families, which can be found at the Livingston Parish Library.
Denham Springs Main Street volunteers are still collecting written and oral histories of local families for the exhibit. The items will remain after the exhibit closes as part of the city’s permanent history. Old City Hall is asking current and former residents of the Denham Springs area to submit their written and/or oral family histories.
“Journey Stories: Destination Denham Springs” is simply the story of how families came to Denham Springs, regardless of whether their immediate family is the first generation to live here or if their great-great-grandparents came here 100 years ago.
While the exhibit ends Aug. 25, Peairs said a new Journey Stories exhibit will open again in about two years.