Johnson's Bayou: A Six-Generation Memoir
In the afternoons, Momoo and I would sit side-by-side in the swing on her screened-in porch. The porch overlooked a darkly shaded side yard lined with live oaks trees, which likely were planted when the house was built in 1904. During my childhood, she also had a huge date palm growing off the corner of the porch. As we sat in the swing, sometimes she would attempt to keep me quiet by suggesting that I count cars going by. However, usually I could persuade her to talk by saying, "Tell me a story about when you were a little girl."
Momoo seemed to have endless stories of growing up on the beach. She told of beachcombing after storms and finding huge, perfect conch shells, some of which she still used as door stops in her sturdy two-story house. One of my favorite stories was of her spotting sailors signaling from a wrecked boat off the beach, only to be told later that it was just an old log with a strip of cloth caught in a snag and flapping in the wind--no sailors involved.
One of the often-repeated stories was about a hurricane in October of 1886, shortly after she turned twelve years old. That was before the naming of storms, but in her stories it was always The Storm. Things either happened before or after The Storm. It destroyed the family's hotel and most of their belongings, and drowned all of their cattle grazing between ridges.
The losses led her parents to decide to move back inland to Orange, where they had met and married. I never got tired of hearing that story, and I still have a heavy, four-drawer chest that Momoo's father made by hand of Red Gum lumber he had milled himself, before he met my great-great-grandmother. Their names were Anna McKenzie Smith and Joseph Belone Pevoto. Anna was born in Scotland in 1837 and was already a widow with two young daughters when she met the man who would become my great-great-grandfather. Joseph Belone was born in 1827 either in Orange or in Johnson's Bayou; the records aren't clear.
When they met, Joseph lived upriver near Zavala, Texas, where he was a lumberman. Already widowed twice when he met Anna, he would raft down to Orange for supplies and to deliver lumber, usually staying at the Smith boarding house on Division Street near the river. Anna owned and ran the boarding house. Joseph's family had come to America from France around 1763 and settled near New Orleans, where French-speaking people had already established themselves. His father, Michel Pevoto, fought in the Battle of New Orleans in 1815, and in 1824 moved to Texas, settling on the Sabine and building the first house in what became Orange.
During the Texas Revolution, which he referred to as "the trouble with the Mexicans," he and his family joined other settlers in what is now Jefferson County, which was a little better established. Joseph's brother, Michel Jr., was killed fighting with Sam Houston at the Battle of San Jacinto, in 1836, after which Michel Sr. received a Texas Land Grant in Zavala's Colony, upriver from Orange. However, shortly after that, the family moved back to Louisiana, to Johnson's Bayou, probably because it was slightly more civilized than Texas at the time. The first census figures known for Orange date to 1860, twenty-four years later, when 1,916 residents were reported. Zavala reported twenty-six in the same census.
During one of Joseph Belone's supply runs downriver to Orange, he brought along a large, handmade chest of drawers, which he traded for a cow belonging to Anna. Naturally, the family has always made much of the part of this story about Joseph getting his chest back later when he married Anna, and her being happily reunited with her cow.
Anna and Joseph lived the rest of their lives in Orange. They are buried side-by-side in Evergreen Cemetery near the river and very close to where her boarding house once stood. The graves of the three succeeding generations are in the same cemetery:
my great-grandparents, Momoo or Maggie B. Pevoto and her husband, George W. Bland, who died before I was born, but whose own great-grandmother had first come to that part of what became Texas in 1829; then my grandparents, Winnie Bland, whom we all called NaNa, beside her husband Tom Toal, an early oilman who drilled one of the first wells in Orangefield. He, too, was gone before I arrived. And now my mother, Margaret (Peggy) Toal Garrett, who was buried near her parents in 2002 one month after her 80th birthday. My father, Julian Garrett, reminds me that the spot beside my mother, the last one available in that section of the cemetery, is his.
In August of 2005, a couple of weeks before Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, and then Hurricane Rita struck southwest Louisiana and southeast Texas, my husband and I flew from our home in Dallas to New Orleans, where we picked up a car he had bought online. We drove it back to Dallas by way of the coast road in southwest Louisiana, through Cameron Parish, where Momoo was born. We left Interstate 10 to drive south to the Gulf, taking what my family called the Gum Cove route of country roads through the marshes east of the Sabine River.
On the way, we stopped by Hackberry, which is on a lake formed where the Calcasieu River widens into the wetlands south of Lake Charles on its way to the Gulf. My parents had a fishing cottage there, close to the boat ramp, and when I was young we spent many happy hours crabbing and fishing and cooking and eating.
The area between Orange and Johnson's Bayou is now a protected natural area called the Sabine National Wildlife Refuge. We crossed the winding Choupique Bayou twice on our way to the drawbridge over the Intracoastal Canal, which runs just inland from the ocean, along the entire length of the Gulf and Atlantic coasts. On our drive, we saw Roseate Spoonbills and Snowy Egrets and Black Neck Stilts, along with sea gulls and other shore birds. Near the Little Grass Marais we saw a large flock of White-faced Ibis.
Reaching Holly Beach on the Gulf, we first turned east on beach Highway 82, also known as the Creole Nature Trail, crossing the Calcasieu River where it flows into the Gulf of Mexico south of Lake Charles. There is no bridge because ships must pass into the Port of Lake Charles, so crossing is by means of a ferry. Cameron, which was destroyed by a tidal surge in Hurricane Audrey when I was in the seventh grade, is on the eastern bank of the Calcasieu. After driving around Cameron a bit, we turned around and headed back to the west, re-crossing on the ferry and continuing along Highway 82.
We enjoyed looking at the rustic, even ramshackle, fishing villages and the countless shrimp boats docked in inlets along the way. We went through Holly Beach and on to Johnson's Bayou, before re-entering Texas by way of a drawbridge over the Sabine River, where it spreads into the Gulf through a large brackish bay called Sabine Lake. That bridge eventually comes into Texas on Pleasure Island, which despite its grand name is a windswept waterfront municipal park across the Intracoastal from downtown Port Arthur.
As we drove along the Louisiana coast, we noticed some new beach houses near Johnson's Bayou, where my cousins and I still share ownership of an inherited forty acres of land, now mostly wetlands--with ridges--and good only for duck hunting. As we continued driving west toward Texas, we saw a series of long stone jetties perpendicular to the beach extending 100 yards or so into the water. They had been created by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to protect the beaches from tidal erosion. Between the road and the water, we noticed lovely white sand dunes building up along picket fence rows, which had been put in place just for that purpose. Wild sea oats had been planted so that their root systems would keep the dunes more stable in the winds.
The houses going up along one stretch were especially appealing to us, as we are always looking for a beachfront vacation spot. We daydream of someday having a beach house, and that day it seemed a good idea to consider a return to Johnson's Bayou. But then, only a few weeks after our dreamy drive along the beach, Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast; and it was followed a few weeks later by Hurricane Rita, which hit directly in the Louisiana/Texas overlap.
At the time, news outlets didn't say much about Johnson's Bayou or Holly Beach, where the worst of Rita went ashore. For one thing, all communication was cut off for a long time, but beyond that, even in the best of times, those two communities are remote, very lightly populated, and out of touch with the rest of the world.
When Hurricane Rita swept through Johnson's Bayou, it cleared the marshy land of most of the man-made things all over again. The piers, the boat docks, the sand dunes, most of the beach houses, even the road we traveled--all destroyed in a tidal surge much like the one in 1886 and then again in 1957.
The winds in Orange were at Category 3 stage, and my cousins who still live there tell me that Orange seems "brighter" now, but they don't mean that it's better. They mean that the trees that once formed shady tunnels over the streets are gone--downed by Hurricane Rita. The storm left wide open skies where there had been live oak trees, 100-foot pines, massive pecan trees, camphor and hackberry, sycamores, cypresses, and palm trees. Momoo's old house, by then restored by subsequent owners, survived Rita, as did the 100-year-old live oaks, as they have all storms since they were planted. But, huge trees toppled onto the roofs of six of the seven homes belonging to my various cousins.
By now the whole country knows what a storm surge is and how every storm eats up a little more of the land mass. And since then, storms have continued to hit the Louisiana and Texas Gulf coast with varying degrees of destructive power. Indeed, in that chest constructed by Joseph Belone Pevoto around 1870, I found a folder in which my grandmother had saved some of my mother's school work from childhood.
Among those precious artifacts I found a letter written by my mother to her parents when she was sixteen years old. She used the blue stationary of the Illinois Central Railroad System, on which she was a passenger as it made it's way across southern Louisiana in August of 1940. She wrote in pencil, "We didn't get any sleep last nite. Everyone stayed up to watch the flood. It was terrible. Old dead animals floating around and water up to the windows in the houses. It was awful."
However, in spite of the great vulnerability to disaster, there is no question that New Orleans will be rebuilt, in some form; and Johnson's Bayou, and Orange, Texas--in some cases, better than before, and for the same reasons as always. There are those who are only at home in mountains, others who need the wide open spaces of flatlands, and there are those who must be close to salt water--inland lakes are not enough.
Measuring the day by the ocean's high and low tides and following nature's daily rhythms with the solunar tables seem to be part of genetic makeup for those along the coasts. And now it's a new generation's turn to rebuild and renew towns, fishing villages, and beach-front houses and hotels. Trees will grow, and boats will be repaired and launched, and thousands and thousands of people will go beachcombing and fishing and lead normal daily lives of work and play in rebuilt coastal communities, always alert for the storm warnings, ready to pull out their hurricane tracking maps and check the barometers.
As for us, my husband and I will continue our regular pilgrimages to the wetlands and to the beaches, and we will continue our daydreaming about life near the beach. He grew up in Havana, Cuba--I think of it as directly across the Gulf of Mexico from Johnson's Bayou--but that's another story.
Our passion for the seaside, along with my multi-generational connection to life on the Louisiana/Texas coast keeps us going back. Both of us seem to have an innate need to recalibrate the rhythms of our own daily lives in accordance with the tides. And, continuing a family tradition, I like to check in on the family in Evergreen Cemetery.
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