A library in Calcasieu Parish highlighted the history of Moss Bluff at a program Tuesday morning.
The event was held at the Southwest Louisiana Genealogical and Historical Library, located at 411 Pujo St. in Lake Charles, as part of its monthly Tidbits of History series.
Staff member Harvey Downs served as the speaker for the event. Downs described the history of Moss Bluff as one peppered with both controversy and resiliency.
Downs said that contrary to popular belief, Moss Bluff is not named after the Spanish moss that grew in the area. Instead, it gets its name from Johnson Moss, the first Sheriff of Calcasieu Parish and the man who bought the roughly 2,000 acres that comprise modern Moss Bluff.
Many of the early settlers of Moss Bluff were large farming families with as many as 14 children. Other settlers included lumber workers who provided wood to the sawmills in the region and ferrymen who operated the ferries on the Calcasieu River and the English Bayou before modern bridges were built.
Downs said that it was not uncommon for many settlers to hold two or more jobs and raise livestock and tend home gardens to make ends meet.
Albert Sydney Armistead, a steamboat engineer and an early settler of Moss Bluff, is credited with building many of the wooden ferries that ran between Lake Charles and Moss Bluff in its early days.
"Some of the early settlers (of Moss Bluff) were isolated from surrounding villages and towns. That's one of the biggest things that you see in the early days of Moss Bluff: it is an area that is rural," said Downs.
Downs also highlighted several historical figures, such as Della White, the first female Justice of the Peace in Moss Bluff. She began serving in 1934 when she took over the role from her husband. She served for 12 years.
One of the biggest infrastructure improvements in Moss Bluff was the construction of bridges spanning the English Bayou and Calcasieu River areas. It was not until the 1970s that concrete bridges replaced motorized and hand-operated ferries and narrow, wooden bridges.
Up until 1963, fire prevention efforts in the Moss Bluff area were split between Companies 3 and 4 with the Lake Charles Fire Department and the Chennault Fire Brigade. In 1963, the Mayor of Lake Charles declared that the LCFD was no longer responsible for responding to areas outside of the city limits, because it was not cost-effective.
In 1964, Moss Bluff began its own volunteer fire department with donated and army surplus equipment. Paul Empastato served as the first fire chief. The current Moss Bluff fire station, which houses the Ward 1 Fire Department, was built in the 1960s.
"It shows the residents of Moss Bluff were a really resilient group of people who see a problem, and they're going to do whatever they can, despite not being incorporated, to fix that problem," said Downs of the fire station.
Early settlers of Moss Bluff did not have the luxury of a school and had to send their children to schools in Lake Charles and Gillis. The commute often consisted of about two hours on horse-drawn buggies and ferries.
Moss Bluff now has a number of schools, including Moss Bluff Elementary School, Moss Bluff Middle School and Sam Houston High School.
An issue that has been brought up several times during the history of Moss Bluff is the idea of incorporation. After expanding to include the communities of Ararat, Belfield and Newton, many residents have expressed concern over the years that Moss Bluff will be annexed by Lake Charles or Westlake.
Several petitions to have the area incorporated have been started over the years, but no campaigns have been successful thus far.
Although Moss Bluff has its own fire station, because it is not an incorporated area, road and sewer issues are still handled by the Calcasieu Parish Police Jury. Downs said that at times parish taxes have struggled to keep up with the demands of the Moss Bluff area.
"There (was) lawlessness in Moss Bluff in the 1960s. There (was) no police department. It's not incorporated, so you can't have a police department. The Calcasieu Parish Sheriff's Department (was) the only law enforcement in Moss Bluff," said Downs.
"With more people moving into Moss Bluff in the 1970s and even into the 80s, you're going to see sewage issues," said Downs.
Despite not bring incorporated, Moss Bluff provides many services for its residents, including the Moss Bluff Fire Station and Sam Houston Jones State Park.
"If you look at the earlier newspapers, you're going to see... a lot of times, people from Lake Charles would travel to Moss Bluff to get away from the city or the area or the everyday... (They held) picnics, barbecues and company gatherings," said Downs.
Although many settlers of Moss Bluff moved for employment or for leisure, Downs also attributes some of the settlement of Moss Bluff to a phenomenon known as "white flight" or the migration of white populations from racially mixed urban areas to racially homogeneous suburban areas.
In 1970, Newton Elementary School was burned down along with two homes of African Americans on the same night. Thomas Mayo, a local ringleader with the Klu Klux Klan, was later convicted and charged with setting the fire along with seven other suspects. The school had been closed for two years when it was burned.
The KKK is also credited with attempting to burn down a religious community in 1971.
Downs expressed interest in holding future presentations that further examine the history of Moss Bluff.
For more information on the program, contact the library at 337-721-7110 or visit the Calcasieu Parish Public Library's calendar of events, available HERE.