Blogging Along the Brandywine

I just flew back from Louisiana from a visit with very dear friends in the small-town of New Iberia. Just find Lafayette on a map of southern Louisiana, go slightly to the southeast and there it is. From my first visit years ago, I have always felt welcomed and very much at home in their tradition of southern hospitality.

New Iberia is situated on a noted waterway, the Bayou Teche site of an 1863 Civil War battle. Its population centers around a Main Street that’s right out of a 1940’s movie. In the morning the powers that be, as well as ordinary folk, gather for breakfast at Victors, the neighborhood café where great coffee and freshly made southern biscuits go hand in hand with gossip and political discussions. In addition, the town holds a major three-day festival in September to celebrate their sugar cane harvest.

As the “Queen City of the Teche”, New Iberia is also a cultural center. It’s the hometown of noted author James Lee Burke as well as artists like Paul Shexnayder and George Rodrigue of “Blue Dog” fame. It boasts the Essanee Theater, home of the Iberia Performing Arts League as well as the stately National Trust property, the antebellum plantation "Shadows on the Teche."

So why do I feel so much at home in New Iberia? Let’s see, it’s a small town on the Bayou, the site of an historic battle, it’s a cultural center with historic homes, a great breakfast café, resident artists, a major September festival and good friends. Dare I say it? Could it be the Chadds Ford of the deep south?

On Monday morning I went over to the "power table" at Victors Café.

I asked them about their local political problems. One answer…Sewers!  Sound familiar?

The original system, laid out in 1907, had recently begun to spring leaks. When the town balked at putting in a new system, the federal government moved in and threatened to jail the mayor and city council. At that point a brand new system was hastily installed and was immediately found to be woefully inadequate.

Almost as an afterthought, one of the men at the power table lamented New Iberia had not grown in 40 years, while the population of neighboring Lafayette had tripled.

To an outsider, particularly this unabashed northerner, New Iberia’s small town naivety and seeming lack of global thinking can at times be alarming. Anti Semitic and anti feminist comments come so casually and easily to people’s conversation as to be shocking. (Particularly noteworthy since several of their mayors have been women.)

And racism? The very first time I visited I was quickly educated about Mulattos, Quadroons and Octoroons. What can I say–it’s a Louisiana thing.

I treasure my friendships in New Iberia. Indeed during the fall of 2005, New Iberian’s opened their private homes, town resources and schools to those fleeing the ravages of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Generosity is a New Iberian trademark.

On the surface, it’s the picture perfect town, and a visit is like stepping back to the gentility and lifestyle of a time long gone. But perhaps it’s time to realize the 21st century is here.

Cultural and historic preservation alone cannot keep a town alive. The mindset of the people as well as those who lead must grow in order for a town to thrive.

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About Sally Denk Hoey

Sally Denk Hoey, is a Gemini - one part music and one part history. She holds a masters degree cum laude from the School of Music at West Chester University. She taught 14 years in both public and private school. Her CD "Bard of the Brandywine" was critically received during her almost 30 years as a folk singer. She currently cantors masses at St Agnes Church in West Chester where she also performs with the select Motet Choir. A recognized historian, Sally serves as a judge-captain for the south-east Pennsylvania regionals of the National History Day Competition. She has served as president of the Brandywine Battlefield Park Associates as well as the Sanderson Museum in Chadds Ford where she now curates the violin collection. Sally re-enacted with the 43rd Regiment of Foot and the 2nd Pennsylvania Regiment for 19 years where she interpreted the role of a campfollower at encampments in Valley Forge, Williamsburg, Va., Monmouth, N.J. and Lexington and Concord, Mass. Sally is married to her college classmate, Thomas Hoey, otherwise known as "Mr. Sousa.”

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