Archive for the ‘Area History and Culture’ Category

Hester House

One of the goals at Bryan Park is to be able to move an historic dogtrot-style home (the “Hester House”) onto the grounds and use it as a welcome center and local quazi-museum. The building requires some level of restoration and adjustments to make it “up to code” with modern federal and state laws.

It’s a delicate balance, because ideally the building should stay as true to it’s era (mid 1800s) as possible, but on the other hand, modern comforts such as air conditioning would be missed.

Back in November of 2008, Bill Bryan and Shelby McDuff, two of the main supervisors on the Bryan Park site, went with Walter and Anne Ballard (both descendents of the Hesters who once lived in the dogtrot) and Dr. Susan Roach, a folklore professor at Louisiana Tech University.

Walter Ballard, Dr. Susan Roach, Bill Bryan & Anne Ballard

Walter Ballard, Dr. Susan Roach, Bill Bryan & Anne Ballard

The group explored the old home inside and out, evaluating the viability of the building for a potential move to the Bryan Park site. Reports of some termites, minor weather damage here and there, but overall many believe that the building is not only capable of being moved, but also of being rennovated and put to good use at the park.

The house aside, the Hester family is prolific in Downsville history. According to The Gazette, Centennial Edition (October 9, 1939, Section 5) in their article entitled “Downsville named for General Downs,” J.T. Hester was actually one of the first to settle in the Lower Pine Hills region in 1843, when he came with his family from Alabama. While the Hester house is actually a bit younger than this 1843 date, the fact remains that the Hesters were still one of the oldest families to settle in the region.

More coming soon . . .


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Cotton Gins

Downsville (or “Lower Pine Hills,” as it was formerly called) used to bustle with several cotton mills, like the one pictured above. For anyone not familiar with the Eli Whitney’s turn-of-the-19th-century invention, the Cotton Gin, here’s a blurb from the The Eli Whitney Museum’s website –

Long-staple cotton, which was easy to separate from its seeds, could be grown only along the coast. The one variety that grew inland had sticky green seeds that were time-consuming to pick out of the fluffy white cotton bolls. ( . . . ) At stake was the success of cotton planting throughout the South, especially important at a time when tobacco was declining in profit due to over-supply and soil exhaustion.

Source: The Eli Whitney Museum

So the invention enabled farmers, starting in the early 1800s, to quickly process cotton. In rural areas like Downsville, this contraption was invaluable.

A local named John Edwards owned a cotton gin by the Downsville cemetery and built another by his home, according to Mrs. Louise Averitte’s compiled history of the area (1993). Averitte goes on to point out how historically, the cotton gin in Downsville had some pitfalls. In 1914, bizarre weather conditions called “September Gales” moistened the cotton with so much rainwater and for so long that much of the cotton rotted in the fields!

Another cotton gin in town was owned by Wilbur Hamilton, located behind his home. Unfortunately, this gin and the two belonging to Edwards were ultimately torn down, as the production in cotton steadily decreased as years past. Nowadays, farmers in the area are in the poultry industry.

Jennifer Reed, AmeriCorps*VISTA Volunteer

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We are making an effort to preserve some local history as we develop Bryan Park in Downsville, and one of the projects underway by the local nonprofit, in collaboration with park development, is to move some older buildings onto the park property to restore and use in some form. The McFarland Corn Crib is destined to be moved onto the property eventually. You can see an old photograph of the McFarland Corn Crib, and below that image, I have included a brief explanation of corn cribs and their purpose.


A corn crib or corncrib is a type of granary used to dry and store corn.
After the harvest, corn, still on the cob, is placed in the crib either with or without the husk. The typical corn crib had slats in its walls. These slatted sides of the corn crib allow air to circulate through the corn, both allowing it to dry initially and helping it to stay dry. The slats expose the corn to pests, so corn cribs are elevated above the ground beyond the reach of rodents.

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corn_crib

I will also be including another post about the Hester House, which we hope to use as a Welcome Center and quazi-museum for Bryan Park. 

Jennifer Reed, AmeriCorps*VISTA Volunteer

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Very little is actually known about Senator Solomon Weathersbee Downs, the namesake of the village of Downsville. He rose to brief political stardom with Jacksonian Democrats in the US Senate in the mid 1800s. As a result of that status, his landmark achievements and some key turning-points in his life were recorded in passing, though not written about extensively.


Senator Downs

Senator Downs

During his tenure in Congress (1847-1853), tensions between North and South were heating up, setting the stage for the civil war in 1861. It is unknown to me, after extensive research, where on the political spectrum Senator Downs fell – whether he was a firm secessionist or looking for more compromises between the hard-liners on both sides. Regardless, the Senator ended up displaying generosity and humanity uncharacteristic of a Southern politician when he stipulated the release of his slave upon his death in 1854. The respect that he apparently held for his servant, in spite of the social and racial tensions of that era, is nearly unbelievable (and yet, very widely confirmed).


To complicate matters further, he was arguably never given a proper burial, and to this day, he rests in an almost unmarked plot of land in Monroe, Louisiana.


Allow me to highlight some key facts about this enigmatic senator (or “General,” as he was often called out of respect).

As I mentioned, Senator Downs served in the US Congress between 1847 and 1853 as a Jacksonian Democrat (though former President Jackson had passed in 1845, his general philosophy and political ideology was still widely respected). Apparently, Downs’ admiration for Andrew Jackson extended beyond political theory. Downs actually credited Jackson with saving his life!

The Duel

The story, as mentioned in his New York Times obituary, has the feel of a local legend. You can read it here, as archived by the ‘Times (just scroll down and find “Death of Gen. Downs Into Collector at New-Orleans.” for a copy of the original obituary).

As the obituary states, Downs’ was in a duel with General Morgan, and he was shot through the lung. The wound was thought to be mortal at the time, and doctors had little hope for him. However, he was able to recover and the wad of the gun remained lodged inside, until:

. . . it was forcibly ejected in the fit of coughing, and the wound healed immediately. Gen. Downs used to say that Gen. Jackson saved his life; for the exertion he made to get to a window to see the General pass, brought he paroxysm which resulted so well.

Source: “Death of Gen. Downs Into Collector at New-Orleans.”
The New York Times; August 31, 1854

In other words, the exertion of getting up to see Andrew Jackson pass sent him into a coughing-fit that ultimately removed the wad that had been lodged in his lungs. It is unclear to me whether Jackson was marching by for whatever reason or whether this was Jackson’s funeral procession. Regardless, the tale is dramatic – starting with a duel shrouded in mystery, and ending in an unexpected recovery.

Richard Barrington
Richard Barrington was Senator Downs’ slave, and apparently he was taught to read and write while the senator was still alive, according to Lora Peppers of the Ouachita Parish Library’s Genealogy Department. As you might imagine, this was very rare. Many places even had rules against teaching African Americans to read and write. It was an effort to repress the slave population even more, because knowledge is power.

Peppers writes further how, when the Senator died, he stipulated the release of Mr. Barrington and procured some of his estate to the newly freed man.

Barrington never forgot his former master’s kindness, however. Peppers points out that after Barrington made a substantial sum in New Orleans as a barber, he returned to the burial site of Senator Downs. He was horrified to find that Downs did not have a headstone, in spite of his lifetime accomplishments and status.

Committed to honoring the Senator’s memory, Barrington purchased an Italian marble headstone (4 ft high, 16 in wide and 2 in thick) with the following epitaph, below an image of hands clasped in friendship,

S.W. Downs, Died August 13, 1854; aged 53 years, 11 months, and 18 days. Peace to his ashes! Erected by his old servant, Richard, as a small token of his gratitude.

Source for this inscription: Lora Peppers, Genealogy Librarian
Ouachita Parish Public Library in Monroe, Louisiana

Richard Barrington, a former servant, showed more respect for Senator Downs than even the Southern gentleman’s friends in life had. It’s a truly remarkable story, but the acquisition of the headstone was not the end of the story of Downs’ remains.


With the acquisition of a respectable tombstone by Richard Barrington, a former slave, Senator Downs’ memory was preserved. However, decades passed, and with no one to care for Downs’ grave site, his tombstone crumbled.  The plot in Monroe, LA was overgrown.

In 1937, a city worker named C. A. Mikesell was plowing a vacant lot on Richmond street in Monroe, and he came upon the forgotten grave site.  The headstone, procured by Richard Barrington, along with the original iron casket that Downs’ was buried in was discovered, though both were significantly eroded.

Mayor Berstein provided a new burial plot at the entrance of Riverview Cemetery in Monroe.  However, Downs’ wasn’t given a new marker; instead, the city simply moved the old pieces of his crumbled tombstone to the new location.  The pieces didn’t serve as a proper identification, however, and again in 2000 – nearly 70 years after being moved to Riverview – Downs’ remains were discovered again, having been long since forgotten like before.

Source for the two paragraphs above: Lora Peppers, Genealogy Librarian
Ouachita Parish Public Library in Monroe, Louisiana

To this day, there isn’t a marker on his grave site – only the remains of the tombstone procured long ago by Mr. Richard Barrington.

Too many times after his death, Senator Downs was forgotten.  The details of his life, from his involvement in the US Senate preceding the Civil War, to the odd and noteworthy moments throughout his history, certainly warrant a more complete study of him. At the very least, his grave site ought to be properly preserved for posterity.

Jennifer Reed, AmeriCorps*VISTA Volunteer

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600 years old!

That’s how old experts in the area estimate these cypress logs are. Below is a close-up of one of the logs.

Recently, the logs floated to the top of Horseshoe Lake at Newton Gray’s sawmill. Estimates are that the logs were cut after World War II from aged cypress dated some 600 years ago. Amazing!

So the question is – how to display such timeless treasures? One suggestion is to display the logs artfully in the future welcome center of Bryan Park, where they will safe from outside conditions and also readily visible to the public. Everyone agrees that this aged cypress is a Downsville-area treasure that ought to be preserved for posterity.

At the moment, we are very open to suggestions on this topic, so please post a comment if you have any ideas or input. The discovery has, to put it bluntly, sent the hearts of many naturalists and historians in the area all aflutter!

Many thanks,

Jennifer Reed, AmeriCorps*VISTA Volunteer

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