Plantation stories

Campti: then and now

During the summers of the 1940's I would spend several weeks in Campti, Louisiana, about 10 miles north of Natchitoches, staying with various uncle, aunts and cousins on my mother's side of the family. The main street of the town was Edenborne St; very short street, with only a dozen shops and houses. It ran from the railroad tracks on the north east to the Red River on the south west. It seems like I was related to everyone in the town and could walk from house to house to find something to eat or drink. In those days a child could walk alone on a street and not have anything to fear; crime was non-existent and people left their homes unlocked.
Campti Main Street
At that time it was a quiet but busy little town of 1,000 residents, with beautiful two-story French Creole style houses and pretty yards and gardens. It was a town ahead of many of the towns in Louisiana. There was a saw-mill just a mile north of the town, a finish lumber mill, cotton gins, an ice house, slaughter house, several grocery stores, a bank, a pharmacy, hotel, restaurant, school and even a movie theater that was segregated. An isle down the middle separated the whites and blacks. Everyone seemed prosperous and I didn't know of anyone who was unemployed or homeless. Electricity was provided by a large one cylinder natural gas engine and generator. As it would run it would sound a large pop, pop, pop sound that could be heard for miles; when the pop, pop, stopped the lights would go out and the generator unit would have to be worked on, an almost daily occurrence.
On the south end of Edenborne Street was Front Street, that ran along the old bank of the Red River marked by a bluff that dropped off about 20 feet into a flat river bottom that was used as a cow pasture and about 1/4 mile away was the Red River. At one time the Red River was all the way to the bluff but it changed course about 1850. There was a black boy about 15 years old named Leon that would be in charge of taking a group of about 20 children both black and white swimming in a pond along the Red River each morning. The people of the town would give Leon something for supervising the children. I remember Uncle Rene would give him a soft drink or candy and Aunt Julie would give him some of her homemade pie. Going swimming on the hot summer days was the high point of the days.
Map of Campti, LA

Main store in Campti
Aunt Azalie McKnight Cloutier and Uncle Rene Cloutier had a general store at the north east end of Mill Street by the Railroad Tracks and Railroad Depot. The summers were hot; no one had air conditioning and only a few had fans. Uncle Rene had cold sodas (they were called Pops) in all colors: red, orange, grape, lemon, pineapple, and they were in great demand. A soda cost 5 cents in returnable bottles, and so many were sold that his entire parking lot was covered in soda bottle caps. Across the street from the store was an ice plant whose services were in much demand. I can't remember any refrigerators, and ice bought from the ice plant was the only way to cool anything.
Aunt Rena McKnight Kaetor and Uncle Charlie Kaetor had a house about mid way the street. Aunt Rena had a very nice two story French Creole house with beautiful furnishings and besides being a good housekeeper, she was a great cook.
Aunt Julie Rena McKnight

Toy cannon
Uncle Charlie was retired and had a woodworking shop back of the house where he would make wooden toys for the children in the town for free. One trip he made me a little toy cannon that I still have today.
His son Randal Kaetor was a fighter pilot in the Pacific and Uncle Charlie was committed to the war effort. People were encouraged to collect scrap iron and donate it so that it could be made into armaments for the war. He went around collecting scrap iron in a little cart and giving it to the war effort. Aunt Julie McKnight Gregg and Uncle James Gregg lived at the end of the street on a little side street called Post Office Street or on Wood Street. She made apple, peach, pecan, pear and sweet potatoes pies and sold them to people in the town. Those were the best pies I have ever eaten and every morning I would go to her house and she would give me a glass of milk and a piece of pie.
Uncle Charlie's
scrap iron cart

Campti High School
Aunt Jessie McKnight Prud'homme and Uncle Adolphe Prud'homme lived in a very nice house on the corner of Adkins Street and Front Street. She was a very small delicate woman, a school teacher and all the children loved her. Her house is the only one that is still standing and well kept.

On the north side of the town on a peaceful hill is a little white church built in 1831. During the Civil War the Yankees burned the whole town but left the church intact. The road leading to the church is lined with crape myrtle trees and the shiny white church seems to stand out as a symbol that goodness and virtue is still present.
Campti Church on a hill

Interior of Campti Church
Behind the church is a cemetery with ancient gravestones of the founders of the town and graves of most of my mother's family lie in testimony of the history of the place and the land.

In 2008 I bought the Twin Creek plantation out of Montgomery that is just a few miles from Campti and I decided to visit the graves of my ancestors buried in the little Catholic Cemetery there. I could not believe how the town changed. Campti was a town struggling for its life. There were rundown mobile homes with yards full of junk, the once beautiful two story French Creole homes covered with vines and falling down, abandoned stores and shops with windows boarded up. There are a few nice neat houses and some people that seem to be doing well but they are a small minority.
I began checking into the statistics of the town and talking to the residents: they were alarming. Campti population is about 1050 people, the same as when I was there in the late 1940's with 2/3 of the households run by a single mother. Drugs and crime are running rabid, the per-capita income for the town was $7,219. Campti had the eighth-lowest median household income of all places in the United States with a population over 1,000. It seems like welfare checks and drugs are driving the economy. In the 1800's the numerous cotton plantations brought many black slaves to the area and Campti has a large, about 75% black population. After integration the white population moved out and took their money with them. The people I talked to seemed to be very despondent, resigned to a life of dependence on the government and drugs.
There is a huge papermill two miles north of the town that employs 450 people with good paying jobs yet few of the town's people seem to take advantage of this opportunity. There are also many unskilled labor jobs available on local farms and in the forestry industry but these are primary taken by Mexicans. The dilemma is that most of the town's people lack the knowledge and experience to work at skilled jobs and lack motivation and work ethic to work at unskilled jobs. Drugs too play an important role, a person will not be hired or able to hold a job if he or she is addicted to drugs.
Campti paper mill

Old bank building
Fighting against the odds a few townpeople are trying to make a difference, finding programs to help teach young people how to improve their lives. One group is struggling to preserve the church on the hill and have made the old bank building a museum with memoirs of the town how it once was. Another group called "Field of Dreams" is operating a small farm and trying to teach children how to work, raise crops and be self-sufficient. But the town is so poor that every month it's a struggle just to keep the lights on in the museum and maintain the church which now has only 30 parishioners.

As with all things nothing last forever. Campti had its day in the sun and for a while gave its people happy and fulfilling lives. Anything is possible and maybe one day a miracle will happen to save the town, let us all hope.
Jim Jack the cot driver Previous story