Acadian Museum preserving treasured Erath photographs

ERATH — Collections of old and new photographs that document the history and people of Erath are being scanned to create a digital database to preserve the images of the small South Louisiana town.

Warren Perrin, founder of the Acadian Museum in Erath, said the database has been a goal of the museum since its inception in 1990. More than 5,000 photographs and artifacts are on permanent display with many others in storage at the museum, he said.

Some of the photographs are considered priceless, such as the first image of Evangeline — the subject of Henry Wadsworh Longfellow’s poem that brought the Acadian story to the world in 1848, he said.

The museum exhibit of photographs started with Erath native Clement Bourgeois Jr.’s collection of historical photographs, said Robert Vincent, who serves on the museum’s board of directors. From there, the collection began to grow with images other residents collected, he said.

“His collection was the seed that started it, but it’s grown,” he said.

In 2005, Hurricane Rita struck the town and the museum had about 32 inches of water inside building, Perrin said. Many objects and photographs suffered water damage and began to mold and decay, he said.

Erath native and retired teacher Stacy Bodin had been collecting and digitally filing pictures on her own for years, and several other residents began asking if she could replace some of their damaged pictures after the storm, she said.

“I have been an amateur photo bug here in Erath almost my whole life. Basically, my love of photos here in Erath is no secret,” she said.

Bodin eventually proposed the idea of merging her collection with Vincent’s and the museums, she said, and Perrin agreed. Earlier this year, she and Vincent acquired the Bourgeois collection and began digitally filing them, she said.

“When we put our hands on his collection, we felt we hit the jackpot in terms of original photos, artifacts and information. Those are all saved digitally now,” she said.

Bodin said Bourgeois has been called “Erath’s true historian” because he collected photographs and stories from around the town throughout his lifetime. She said it was impressive because he did it without the help of the Internet and computers.

“As the saying goes, he truly worked ‘old school’ by hitting the pavement, using paper, pencil and libraries. He eventually moved to the use of cameras, typewriters and other resources,” she said. “Many of his albums have handwritten notes under the photos.”

The oldest picture in the digital database, which originated in Bourgeois’ collection, features the first one-room school in the town, Vincent said. It showcases the town’s dirt roads and wooden structures around 1899 and Dr. Joseph Kibbe, who is known as the “father of Erath,” he said.

“To me, that is priceless,” he said.

Vincent said one of the most significant pictures in the collection is an Associated Press photo he acquired last month that shows damage to the Erath City Hall after Hurricane Hilda in 1964. The town hall was used as the station for town workers and the water tower, located above it, twisted and fell on the building, killing eight men.

“It’s definitely the most tragic event in Erath’s history and it’s what people remember most about the hurricane and the water tower,” he said. “To find the actual photo was awesome.”

The database is beneficial to the town because it will maintain the stories and the history of the town and its people will be preserved, Vincent said.

Stories can be passed down orally, but seeing the pictures is different, he said.

“When you can actually see the pictures of what we’re talking about, you can understand what actually happened,” he said. “I can tell people history, but it’s like the old saying ‘a picture is worth a thousand words.’ ”

Bodin said she and Vincent worked on the photos for several months and recently launched a Facebook page titled Erath Echoes to showcase some of the historical photos.

The pictures are divided into albums on the website, Vincent said, with some of the general Erath photos appearing in the four Erath Echoes albums. Some of albums include area soldiers and their war cards; doctors, hospitals and drugstores; 1940 flooding in Erath; and the town’s founders.

“The people have responded in such a positive manner,” she said. “The beauty is that it has reached many Erath natives who have been gone from here for 20, 30, 40, 50 years now. I have been told so often, ‘This site makes me feel like I am home.’ ”

Vincent said they often find photographs the other person has not seen, which has been one of the highlights of the process.

If a photograph cannot be identified, once it has been uploaded to the social media site, someone typically identifies those in the photo within the day, he said.

“The museum is fabulous, and the history and the stories are there, but not everybody takes the time to go to the museum,” he said. “We’re putting the stories on Facebook where it’s available to everybody, and they’re seeing these pictures they’ve never seen before. We’re able to reach out.”

Vincent said he also plans to tackle a larger project that will include scanning pictures and combining them with video and film reels to tell the story of the people who lived through Hurricane Hilda.

“Hurricane Hilda and the devastation that happened afterward is so important. These eight men made the ultimate sacrifice for their town,” he said. “I can work all day long, but these guys gave their lives in service of their town and I don’t want people to ever forget that.”

Erath resident Marshall Broussard is a survivor of the hurricane, Vincent said, who was in the Erath City Hall building when the water tower fell. Vincent said he had his legs pinned under the fallen tower, and now wants to tell his story.

He said he also wants to include two other stories from people who lived through the hurricane and actual footage from the aftermath to create a 15-minute video documenting the 1964 torrent.