ADDIS — A century ago, the railroad industry gave birth to a new West Baton Rouge Parish community. It was so small the mayor held traffic court on his front porch as he sipped his evening cup of coffee.
Today, Addis is a bedroom community for Louisiana’s capital city that boasts a population of 4,000, many of whom work at the industrial plants that line the Mississippi River.
But Addis hasn’t lost its small-town feel, and its leaders say they’d like to keep it that way as the town prepares to celebrate the 100 years since its incorporation in 1915.
“As new people come into the community, we want to share that with them,” said Mayor David Toups. “That’s who we truly are. We’re family, very friendly and religious-community minded.”
“Everyone helping one another, that’s what we’re about,” he added.
The town unofficially got its start in 1882 when Texas and Pacific Railroad constructed a rail line from Texas to New Orleans through an area known then as Baton Rouge Junction.
That rail line served as a freight service to local farmers, as well as a passenger transport for travelers.
Sometime between 1908 and 1910, town records show, Baton Rouge Junction was renamed Addis in honor of John Wesley Addis, a top official with Texas and Pacific Railroad.
Before it was incorporated as a village on Sept. 1, 1915, Texas and Pacific Railroad in 1904 also built a train depot and hotel that essentially would become the downtown area for the town of some 250 people, many of whom were railroad employees.
Texas and Pacific Railroad was absorbed into Missouri Pacific Railroad before eventually becoming the company it’s known as today, Union Pacific.
The town’s population gradually grew as the railroad industry boomed, attracting more young men who often courted and married the women who worked at the various hotels and local shops near the train depot.
“It was a peacefully little country town,” said Frank Foret Jr., an 84-year-old resident who moved to Addis in 1980. “The railroad really caused the town to come together.”
Foret was a frequent visitor of Addis in its early days. His grandfather, George Booksh, was appointed Addis’ first mayor by Gov. L.E. Hall.
Booksh earned a living as a telegrapher for the railroad system — a job he had since he was 17 and maintained throughout his various tenures as Addis’ mayor for 42 years.
“Back in those days, the mayor wasn’t a full-time job; it actually didn’t pay anything,” Foret said. “I can remember my grandfather holding traffic court on the front porch of his house.”
Foret said the town’s marshal would bring offenders by the mayor’s house while Booksh was drinking his evening cup of coffee, which he did most days after work.
“He would charge them $5 for speeding and then send them on their way — true story,” Foret said.
In 1916, Harris Street became the burgeoning community’s first subdivision, encompassing People’s Hotel on the east side of the railroad and a two-story store and house.
Although the railroad system was the genesis of the town’s formation, in 1950, it also was the source of one of Addis’ greatest tragedies when 19 train cars derailed, causing a fire that destroyed the train depot and killed a 4-year-old boy.
“That fire burnt for days,” said Jocelyn Gauthreaux, a lifelong resident who works at the Addis museum. “That little black boy died while he was trying to hide from the fire under one of the baggage cars.”
The boy was with his older brother, trying to fill a bucket with water from the water spout used to recharge the train engines at the depot.
“It was such a horrendous fire,” said Beth Bergeron-Toups, another longtime resident and mother to the current mayor. “Everyone that lives here still remembers it.”
The town wouldn’t establish its volunteer fire department until 43 years later, when it lease-purchased a fire truck from Plaquemine for $1.
The purchase of that fire truck led to the town hosting its first Mardi Gras parade in 1962, one of the most popular annual attractions for the parish.
“It started with wagons, mothers pulling children,” Gauthreaux said. But it grew with the town.
By 1977, the population swelled to some 1,245 residents.
Gauthreaux says Addis’ nexus always has been determined by the most popular mode of transportation of the day.
“Wherever transportation was, that’s where the artery of the town was,” she said. “It used to be along the Mississippi levee before the railroad tracks came in. Now it’s along La. 1.”
Dow Chemical broke ground on a new facility in nearby Iberville Parish in 1956.
Over the next few decades, the chemical industry’s footprint in West Baton Rouge and Iberville parishes grew, overshadowing the railroad system as the area’s top employer.
Since 2004, the town has seen 10 new subdivisions crop up as the chemical industry expanded.
And this year, Addis welcomed two more subdivisions: Sugar Hollow and Sunset Lakes.
“Many of the residents there now, and that have been there for the past 50 years, came as result of industry,” said Carroll Bourgeois, who served as mayor from 1980 to 2012. “I moved there in 1966 because of industry.”
According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2013 American Community Survey, the town’s population is estimated at 3,812 people — a majority between the ages of 25 and 34.
The 2013 census report also says 22 percent of the homes in Addis are valued between $200,000 and $300,000. Another 21 percent are valued between $50,000 and $100,000.
Over the course of its 100 years, the town has had 10 mayors, seven marshals/police chiefs and 49 council members.
“People are drawn to and embrace the small-town feel,” Bourgeois said. “You come across that Mississippi bridge from Baton Rouge and get a big sigh of relief.”
Town leaders are now prepping to mark the town’s 100th birthday with a two-day celebration Sept. 11 and 12.
The centennial will feature live music, fireworks and a parade.
“We’re trying to incorporate everyone and let them know they are welcomed here,” Toups said. “Come one, come all is our mentality.”
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