Town of Amite City — Not quite a tow-headed boy carrying a pole to the fishing hole with his father the sheriff, but Gov.-elect John Bel Edwards grew up the son of the most important man in Tangipahoa Parish, running around a small rural town where everyone knew everyone else.
“I grew up in a family that was involved in politics. My dad was a sheriff when I was a kid,” Edwards said. “I saw him performing his duty as an elected public official. He told us numerous times that it was a very noble calling and he didn’t mind using the word politician.”
The town of Amite City, which was incorporated in 1861, has about 4,500 residents. Officially, it’s the 124th largest community in Louisiana — slightly smaller than New Roads, slightly larger than Bunkie.
It’s about halfway between New Orleans and Jackson, Mississippi, at the crossroads of La. 16 and U.S. 51, a few miles east of Interstate 55 in the rural Florida Parishes. The Canadian National Railroad runs north and south through the community.
It’s a town where Edwards, as a kid, could run errands by himself downtown, a few blocks from his house, pick up something from the grocery store, buy candy and mail letters.
It was a town full of children and Edwards recalls endless ballgames — baseball, football, basketball — depending on the time of the year.
“It was a nice place to grow up. I love my hometown of Amite,” Edwards said. “First of all, it is the only experience that I know. But I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
Kids had the run of the town, but they knew to be polite to older residents, recalls lifelong resident Mary Lou Lee. “We had to smile. We had to be respectful.”
Since all the adults knew all the children, misbehavior was rarely anonymous.
Friday night is still football night at Amite High School. Edwards played on the Warriors’ team in his day. Most everyone in town shows up for the games. On Saturdays, the teenagers drive around but don’t get into much mischief.
At one time, there was a movie theater, next to the Hotel Ponder, but that was years ago. The hotel still stands a block or two from the train station, which has been converted to the town’s police headquarters. The hotel closed off its roof deck and no longer holds dances up there.
About half the town is white and the other half is black. The median household income is a little less than $35,000 per year, which is about $9,000 less than the state’s.
Smitty’s Supply, which manufactures lubricants and related products, is the town’s largest employer. But most of the townsfolk run small businesses, sell insurance, practice law or work for the public school system. Though there was an influx of new residents after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the majority of the townsfolk grew up together.
About half of Louisiana’s population lives south of the Interstate 10-12 corridor, which bisects the state horizontally from Texas to Mississippi.
But the rest of the state, for the most part, lives in rural towns, which like Amite are north of the corridor. Louisiana has 127 villages, 112 towns and 64 cities, as defined in law. Only five of the cities have more than 100,000 residents and only one of those, Shreveport, is north of the I-10/I-12 corridor.
Outgoing Gov. Bobby Jindal, like Gov. Dave Treen, was a Baton Rouge native elected out of suburban New Orleans. Gov. Kathleen Blanco, a native of New Iberia, was elected out of Lafayette. Gov. Jimmy Davis, was raised in Quitman, but was elected out of Shreveport.
That’s it for big Louisiana cities electing homeboys to the state’s chief executive office going back to the late 1930s when Richard Leche, a New Orleans native was elected. His governorship ended up in a prison term.
Because Amite City — pronounced “A-Meet” — is the seat of Tangipahoa Parish, it’s home to the Oyster Festival and the parish fair, which draw tourists twice a year.
But Tuesday’s nighttime Christmas parade is purely a town event. Amite City leaders are hoping their new most-famous son will be able to ride in the annual event. (Edwards transition team is hopeful, trying to work it into his suddenly busy schedule, but can’t commit yet.)
The Town of Amite City has other famous sons: the late Cajun comedian Justin Wilson grew up near Amite, but he lived most of his life in the Baton Rouge area and Pike County, Mississippi. Fashion designer Billy Reid grew up in Amite but left for Texas after college and never returned.
Edwards came back after a stint in the military and has a country law practice — writing wills and contracts, helping small businesses and handling successions from an office next door to the parish courthouse.
Like in most small towns, men meet on many mornings to drink coffee, talk hunting, sports and occasionally politics. Since most of these groups have a name, Amite’s is informally called Cabby’s Coffee Club, named after the original venue, though the gatherings now take place at the Master Chef restaurant.
Edwards attends many of the coffee klatches when he is around. “He has that kind of ease with the folks here,” Amite City Mayor Buddy Bel said. The mayor is Edwards’ third cousin.
Town fathers hope to erect a sign commemorating their favorite son and hope that his ascendancy to the state’s highest office will draw travelers past the RaceTrac gas station and Popeye’s Famous Fried Chicken Kitchen by the Interstate 55 exit and into the town.
Like most Southern towns, Amite City’s downtown of one and two-story storefronts built around the turn of the 20th Century, went through a period of boarded up windows as the butchers, jewelers and pharmacists lost business to the Wal-Mart Super Center at the edge of town. The house Edwards grew up in, near the corner of North Duncan and East Mulberry streets, is now the Hitching Post Restaurant, serving steaks and seafood.
Recently a bakery, a couple restaurants and other businesses have been moved back into the old buildings downtown.
“It’s a wonderful, pedestrian friendly downtown that is getting better every day,” Bel said. “It has personality.”
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