About three and a half years ago, Ricky Dowden was driving down Methodist Camp Road in LeBlanc, Louisiana. Little did he know he was embarking upon a new chapter in his life.
It was on that drive that he spotted an old, abandoned home place. It was weather-beaten, and barely standing. It was nestled across the street from the LeBlanc Cemetery, at the end of a long driveway beautifully lined by magnificently aged Louisiana oaks.
Something drew him to this spot, and to this house. Although the home was just a shell, Ricky envisioned it as it once was--the heartbeat of a family homestead vibrant with life and its ebbs and flows.
Dowden, who had kinfolk in the area, thought the location was an ideal place to retire.
Although the property didn’t have a for sale sign on it, Dowden called the owners, made them an offer, and they accepted it. Dowden now owned the property, and the deserted house that went with it.
He then set about on a soul-driven mission to restore it.
The old, abandoned home place. View from Methodist Camp Road. (photo by Wanda Carole Wrinkle)
THE ALLEN GENEALOGICAL AND HISTORICAL SOCIETY
Two months ago, Dowden made a phone call to the Kinder Courier newspaper. He wanted to know who to contact in regard to the home he was restoring in LeBlanc.
The editor gave Ricky contact information for the Allen Genealogical and Historical Society, and the rest is history.
“Ricky called us and told us of a project he was working on with an old home,” said Wanda Carole Wrinkle Ford, an officer in the Society. “He wanted to know if the home had any historical value.”
Society members discovered that the home did indeed have a historical value, surviving over 120 years of Louisiana hurricanes and floods.
The story that follows is about that home, and the people who built it, the people who lived in it, and the people who are now restoring it.
THE JOHN L. “LONI” LEBLANC HOME
“This home was built by my grandfather Loni LeBlanc,” said Mary Morrow, when describing the home’s origin. “He built the home following the death of his daughter Anna.”
The old, abandoned home place before restoration work. (photo by Laura Hanchey Hall)
Mary went on to describe how Anna, the family’s six-year-old daughter, died tragically of rheumatic fever in 1900. She was buried in LeBlanc Cemetery, and a heartbroken Loni built a small shelter above her grave, “…because Anna was afraid of lightning.” Mary choked on her words, and tears welled up in her eyes as she told the story. “My grandfather built the little house so that she would feel protected from lightning.”
Prior to Anna’s death, the Loni LeBlanc family lived on property adjacent to the cemetery. Following her death, the grieving father couldn’t continue living there anymore, and began construction on a new home across the street.
In that new home, Loni raised a family of eight boys and one girl.
The shelter over the grave of Anna LeBlanc, who died in 1900. (photo by Ricky Dowden)
LIFE AT THE HOME
Loni LeBlanc died at the home in 1937 at the age of 72.
“At that time there was a back porch on the home,” said Mary. “The day he died he had visited Matt Johnson and returned home on his horse. He sat on the back porch, and asked Uncle Mid to unsaddle his horse because he didn’t feel good.” He died shortly afterwards.
Although Mary does not remember her grandfather Loni, she warmly remembers his widowed wife Catherine Turner LeBlanc. Her Grandmother Catherine continued living in the house until her death in 1960; she was 85 years old.
“I can say with all my heart that my Grandmother Catherine was the sweetest lady that ever walked this earth,” said Mary.
(Loni and Catherine LeBlanc Family Picture) (Top Row, L to R) Loni, Catherine, Archie, Mae, Mid, LeRoy, Atley. (Bottom Row, L to R) George, Floyd, Wesley. (Not pictured) Gene LeBlanc--Catherine was pregnant with Gene.
The Loni and Catherine LeBlanc Family
(photo colorized by Wanda Carole Wrinkle Ford)
Mary was born and raised in a house just a field over from the Loni LeBlanc home. Her father, George Washington LeBlanc, drove a school bus.
“After I got home from school, I would run across the field to my Grandmother Catherine’s house,” said Mary. “I love those memories of her.”
Mary remembers that her grandmother, “…cooked so good--like a pioneer woman would do.” To this day she uses many of the recipes that her grandmother passed down to her.
Mary added that Catherine would get meat from the smokehouse, and she remembers her making blackberry and mayhaw jelly. “She also had the most beautiful aprons. She made her own aprons, and they were so fine.”
After Catherine’s death, and over time, the home that once was the heartbeat of the family fell into disrepair. Mary estimates no one had lived in the home since the 1980s.
The Loni and Catherine LeBlanc Home (photo by Wanda Carole Wrinkle Ford)
A true aficionado of architecture and carpentry, Dowden immediately was impressed with many of the home’s features.
The home itself displays some features of classic Creole architecture. One of these features, thought to be of French-Canadian origin, is the high gabled roof, the ridge of which is parallel to the street, which accommodates the porch as well as the mass of the house.
Another feature is the interior chimney. Located in the center of the house, it pierces the ridgeline of the roof, and has back-to-back fireplaces that services two rooms. Its bricks are all original.
The interior chimney. The fireplace faces two rooms. (photo by Wanda Carole Wrinkle Ford)
“These support piers are made of red cypress, and they are original to the house,” said Dowden, pointing out the round logs of support piers that surround the house. "The cypress on these piers was over 200-years old when it was cut,” he said, while measuring the ring marks of one of the support piers. “That makes the wood over 300-years old--and it’s still hard and has no deterioration!”
He then enthusiastically shows off the horizontal support beams, made of longleaf pine, that were hewn by axe. Each of these 120-year-old beams bears the individual axe marks of its hewer.
Longleaf pine trees, which take 100 - 150 years to reach full size, were valued for their hardwood qualities. Once found abundantly in the South, they were blindly ravaged by untethered lumber demands in the 1800s, and nearly went extinct. Only 3% of original longleaf pine forest remains.
Dowden has an appreciation for preserving the home’s historic character and understands the special quality of longleaf pine. “This pine is hard wood,” said Dowden. “You can’t even drive a nail into it--it’s so hard.
Ricky Dowden shows off pier and support beam. (photo by Wanda Carole Wrinkle Ford)
Longleaf pine boards line the interior walls of the house, and these walls were insulated by cardboard. Says Dowden, “When we began removing the interior walls, we discovered that they were added to the house at a later date. And between these interior walls and the original wall were sheets of cardboard!”
The cardboard, used as insulation, originally served as wallpaper. “They painted the cardboard as interior color,” said Dowden, displaying cardboard sheets painted in both blue and pink.
“I’ve built stuff my whole life,” he said. “This is a challenge. It’s something I haven’t done.”
Cardboard was used for both insulation and wallpaper. (photo by Wanda Carole Wrinkle Ford)
Dowden’s project led to a small reunion of descendants from the Loni LeBlanc family. On a cool breezy May afternoon, these family members were treated to a shin dig at Dowden’s pavilion where they were served jambalaya and entertained with live music. Huey Buxton entertained the folks with his violin and others sang along with him.
“It was a wonderful reunion,” said Georgia Mae Fontenot, Mary Morrow’s sister. A trip to the
LeBlanc Cemetery capped off the festivities, as descendants visited the graves of their ancestors, including Loni’s parents Jacque Loni “B B” LeBlanc and Mary Bureaux LeBlanc, and the patriarch and matriarch of the family, Loni’s grandfather Jean C. “John” LeBlanc, and his wife Dinize Fruge LeBlanc.
(Descendants of Loni and Catherine LeBlanc Picture) (Top Row, L to R) Kaylynn Marcantel, Cathy Marcantel, Georgia Fontenot, Diana LeBlanc, Christina LeBlanc Dubois, Paige Richard, Lanie Richard, Clancy Richard. (Middle Row, L to R) Sethie Rose LeBlanc Trosclair, Mary Morrow, Judy LeBlanc. (Bottom Row) Madisyn Dubois.
Descendants of Loni and Catherine LeBlanc (photo by Wanda Carole Wrinkle Ford)
A LABOR OF LOVE
Work on the home is a daily project for Dowden. On the day we talked with him, his son Justin was helping. His vision is to have it once again in habitable condition, a place for his daughter to move into sometime this summer.
“I’m having fun,” said Dowden. “It’s a sense of accomplishment. It makes me feel good inside. I’m taking my time, having fun. It’s something to leave my kids.”
It is truly a labor of love.
Ricky and Justin Dowden feel good about their restoration work. (photo by Wanda Carole Wrinkle Ford)