To date, 2,758 people have added their names to a petition created by All Things Sabine which aims to show support for Hodges Gardens State Park. Our goal is plain and simple: to convince the State of Louisiana that Hodges Gardens is worth keeping open and that the State should fund the park as is needed to keep it open.
The petition is still active and interested persons are encouraged to add their names. Remember, strength often comes from numbers, so the more signatures, the better. To sign the petition, follow this link:
A bit of abbreviated backstory on Hodges Gardens State Park: Hodges Gardens was created in the 1950s by area businessman A. J. Hodges (an oilman, if you will) and his wife, Nona Triggs Hodges (an all-around lover of nature and avid horticulturist), as a way of giving back to their community and of preserving almost 5,000 thousand acres of land, and to create a unique arboretum attraction.
Basically, and I think I am safe to say this, the Hodges’ were true conservationists before the dawning of the age of conservation. They wanted this land protected, beautiful and available for the enjoyment of the public, and they clearly wanted this for their time and for the future long after they were gone.
The Hodges’ set up a legal Foundation under which the land would be operated and protected, even after their deaths. I don’t really know much about the Foundation or how it works or any of the legalities of it, but as I understand, the Foundation members are descendants of the Hodges… children, grandchildren, etc.
Ten years ago, the Foundation entered into a cooperative agreement with the State of Louisiana whereby the State was granted use of the prime 770 acres of the 4,800-acre Hodges Gardens property. By prime acreage, I am referring to the gardens themselves, the 225-acre man-made lake which is in the center of the property, the hiking trails, some of the equestrian trails, and the land used for cabins, camping, and RV sites.
Through this agreement, the State would operate this acreage as Hodges Gardens State Park and would maintain the grounds.
By the time this agreement was inked between the Hodges Foundation and the State, Hodges Gardens itself had become a bit of a wreck, in part due to storm and wind damage from two huge hurricanes which ascended this way from the Gulf (Rita in ’05 and Ike in ’07) and in part because of neglect of maintenance of the grounds.
When the State took over the park, hundreds of thousands of dollars were initially invested to bring the grounds back up to par. Hodges Gardens did not reach the magnificence of its prime times, in the 1960s and 70s, but I think it’s fair to say that most people realized that it would be difficult to ever achieve what the Hodges’ had again without some miraculous and tremendous source of funding.
What Hodges Gardens did become under the State, however, was a very nice park different from other state parks in that it was an arboretum featuring flora of all kinds. It had unique beauty, features and a unique feel and appeal to the public… locals and visitors alike.
Eventually, the State repaired deteriorated roads inside the park, maintained the grounds nicely, fixed up the cabins, added some cabins, added railings for safety around the rock features, removed an old group cabin which had fallen into disrepair and added in its place a new $300,000 “state-of-the-art” (if you will) group cabin at which groups of individuals can stay for various purposes (youth organizations, church groups, wedding groups, private parties, etc). In all, the State invested millions into Hodges Gardens over the past 10 years.
Supplementing the State’s investment, a private non-profit group named “Friends of Hodges Gardens” has through the years collected donations to fund various projects at Hodges. These projects included but were hardly limited to funding needed for improvements themselves, such as repairs on water fountains and other water features thereby going a long way in making the park beautiful and unique… not to mention the single best place to take portrait photographs in Sabine Parish and beyond (I have on occasion met photographers from Lake Charles, Vernon Parish, DeSoto Parish, Sabine County, and Newton County, even as far as Orange, Texas to the south and Longview, Texas to the north who chose Hodges as a setting for their portrait photographs including dance groups, high school senior pictures, and bridal photographs). Furthermore, Friends of Hodges has secured much needed volunteer help, from volunteers offering a hodge podge of miscellaneous services such as planting and weeding and general beautification to volunteers who are professionals in various fields like irrigation, plumbing and construction.
The jeopardy of Hodges Gardens today is two-fold.
First, the State of Louisiana is suffering a budget deficit and for whatever reasons, several parks are being considered dispensable by the State in the midst of these financial strains. Hodges Gardens is one of these parks.
Second, the property of Hodges Gardens remains under private ownership… as explained, the Hodges Foundation owns the land and the State operates it as a park. Complicating things for Hodges Gardens at this time is that the Hodges Foundation earlier this year initiated a process of apparently attempting to reclaim the property, or rather kicking the State out (that is the best way I can describe it) and attempting to take back full rights to the property. The Foundation’s legal argument behind their quest to take the property back is that it is their contention that the State is in breach of its contract with the Foundation in that Hodges Gardens is not sufficently funded by the State, meaning it is their belief that the State does not intend to fully fund the needed maintenance to keep the park in the condition in which the State received the Gardens’ property.
That contention by the Foundation, however, is disputed not so much by the State, which has remained a bit mum on the legalities surrounding the Gardens, but by members of Friends of Hodges Gardens as well as at least one legal expert, Sabine District Attorney Don Burkett. In a recent public forum regarding Hodges Gardens, Burkett expressed his conviction that the State was in fact not out of compliance with the contract between it and the Hodges Foundation. Burkett explained that he was not speaking in any official capacity, but rather as a supporter of Hodges Gardens offering his legal opinion.
“I read the contract and it is my considered opinion that we are not in default,” Burkett said. “I don’t care what they say, we are not in default. Now if they appropriate no money and things start going south real fast after July 1, yes, maybe we’ll be in default at some point. But as we sit here today, we are not in default.”
Also, Friends of Hodges’ President Chris Nolen asserted that the Gardens’ property has been and continues to be in better condition now than it was when the agreement between the State and the Foundation was reached. That particular condition, under which the State accepted the Gardens 10 years ago, seems to be a critical point of the agreement between the Foundation and the State.
So let’s say that the property is in equal or better condition now than it was in 2007 when the State took over the Gardens… (and I very much believe it is in at the very minimum slightly better condition now than it was 10 years ago), then the State is in fact holding up to its end of the agreement.
However, and this is paramount to Hodges’ future, the State must allocate funding needed to maintain the Hodges Gardens for the 2017-18 fiscal year, which begins July 1. State legislators are currently in Legislative Session and this is where our petition comes in.
The petition, for us, was just another means to show State officials that there is public support for Hodges Gardens. There have been letter-writing campaigns, a well-attended public meeting, and other efforts to convince the State to allocate funding for Hodges and ultimately save the Gardens. Our petition is just another means of trying to show support for Hodges Gardens.
The way I see it, if the State doesn’t fund Hodges, then the property does go back to the Hodges Foundation. Unless the Hodges Foundation intends on operating the property as a park, and there is absolutely no indication that they do or do not plan on this, this could spell the end for Hodges Gardens forever.
A couple of weeks ago, I sent the results of our petition to area State Legislators as well as to the Office of Governor John Bel Edwards and the Lt. Governor Billy Nungesser (bearing in mind that all State Parks are operated under the Office of the Lieutenant Governor). At that time, the petition had a few more than 2,500 electronic signatures.
My letter to legislators and the Governor and Lt. Governor stated, in part, “This petition is but just one single effort… grass roots through and through… and by no means is a complete or exhaustive show of support for Hodges Gardens. I believe this petition shows a wide variety of support for Hodges, but doesn’t even scratch the surface of all the support that exists for this gem of a park in West Central Louisiana.
“The petition remains posted, and as I write this new signatures are still being added each day.”
Gov. Edwards responded to this in a very brief statement, stating that correspondence related to State Parks should be directed to the Office of the Lt. Governor.
Lt. Governor Nungesser responded with the following letter, explaining where his office currently stands on Hodges Gardens:
“The Office of State Parks is looking at a potential $6 Million cut, which would be devastating to not only Hodges Gardens but to other state parks across our state. It’s an additional cut that we cannot sustain. The Lieutenant Governor’s budget has been cut 50% over the last 10 years and we continue to struggle with deferred maintenance in many locations.
“I realize the beauty and importance of this facility and the hard work that the volunteer organization has put into this facility over the last 10 years. Rest assure, I will make every effort that I can and look at all options before I turn this facility back over to the foundation as they have requested.”
This is all of the information I have at this time. Based on what the Lt. Governor said, the situation certainly looks worrisome for Hodges Gardens, but not yet of a entirely dooming nature in that he offered possible solutions to the problem involving corporate investment into Hodges Gardens. I certainly believe there are corporations, groups, even individuals who would be interested in contributing to saving Hodges Gardens and interested in the personal satisfaction and/or positive exposure they would receive from such noble investments (not to mention tax incentives, I suppose). Maybe this can happen.
Of course, the State and the Foundation would have to be committed to keeping Hodges Gardens open. Otherwise, there would be understandable hesitation from anyone to financially invest in Hodges Gardens if there is any real fear that the park could still close even after an influx of outside investment.
In June 1965, The Shreveport Times featured an articled titled, “Where the gold is… maybe.”
Among the geographic regions mentioned in the article was Western Louisiana, where it has been long believed that nineteenth century bandit John Murrell and his gang of thieves buried their loot… possibly in today Sabine and/ or Vernon parishes. Also mentioned was the “lost mine of Wyndham Creek” in Beauregard Parish, which also hugs the Louisiana/Texas border along the Sabine River.
The article, written by Times reporter Norman Richardson (a superb journalist and feature writer of his day), follows.
If Jean Lafitte had dug as many holes and buried as much gold as legend says he did, the soil of the Bayou State would contain little else.
Pirates like Lafitte and Pierre Rameau and land bandit John Murrell once called Louisiana home and, carrying on an age-old tradition, no doubt hid much loot that lies undiscovered to this day.
All through the state’s history fabulous fortunes vanished almost overnight, never to be heard from again. Even the wealthy Spanish who ruled the state for almost a century were well known for their habit of concealing silver and jewelry and gold and almost everything else of value.
When the Civil War came, the planters latched on to the idea and began burying their valuables so the Yankees wouldn’t get anything. A lot of these people apparently died in the war and others left their homes and simply never returned, so who can say what lies under the spots where these homes once stood and how much it is worth.
Even the ordinary people were forced into the act of burying things since banks catered only to the wealthy as little as 150 years ago. Take all this, plus the occasional finding of an old map allegedly pointing out treasure spots or parts of trinkets and treasures, and you have proof enough—at least for the treasure hunters—that Louisiana is a paradise for fortune seekers.
Take the men, for example, who excavated a dry bed of the Calcasieu River back in 1929 and came up with the richest strike in Louisiana history… 175,000 in gold coins buried just a few yards from the shoreline possibly by some of Lafitte’s cronies or maybe the man himself.
Then, there is the Baton Rouge find many years back. 21 Spanish gold doubloons that workers found in a load of gravel that came from Grand Isle. Or the more recent discovery, $1,000 in gold coins found when a Ruston man, John Skinner, shattered the blade of his plow on on old iron chest.
And if that’s not enough to keep treasure hunters awake all night, try this: Where did Col. Norman Frisby, the famed baron of Tensas Parish, bury his wagonload of gold that everyone knew he had. The violent-tempered Frisby had his dreams of an empire along a 52-mile front of the Tensas River interrupted by the Civil War and when he heard the roar of approaching Yankee cannons he one day loaded his valuables onto a wagon. Accompanied by two husky slaves, so the tale goes, he drove into the forest near his home. He returned to the home later without the valuables and legend says he shot the two slaves so they couldn’t tell. He later died is a knife fight with nephews and carried his secret to the grave.
None of his gold has ever been found, but the violent colonel’s relatives and descendants haven’t given up hope nor have the treasure hunters. For years. the Texas branch of the family has been trying to locate Norman Frisby’s Bible, which is said to contain many records and may hold the key to Frisby’s buried treasure.
The pirate Jean Lafitte, last of the great buccaneers, is suspected of having buried far greater treasures than Frisby’s. Lafitte’s corsairs patroled the waters of the Gulf of Mexico looting mer-chant ships and smuggling their loot into New Orleans.
Here Jean and his brother, Pierre, sold it freely to store owners, many of whom were their friends. He made his headquarters at Grand Isle off the Gulf Coast and maintained dozens of other hiding places on other islands and along the Mississippi bluffs as far north as Baton Rouge. The buccaneer lived a life apart from his men.
On Grand Isle Lafitte constructed a large house of brick coated on the outside with a mixture of pulverized oyster shells and plaster.
In keeping with his noble attitude, Caine dressed in rich costumes and enjoyed the finest of wines and liquors in his expensive surroundings. Although Lafitte always maintained that he never ceased to be a good citizen, the threat of federal raids was always near during Lafitte’s latter years at Barataria and so the pirates hid much of their loot.
That’s why Lafitte’s islands and hiding spots and former headquarters are believed to be the best localities for treasure hunters. In addition to Grand Isle, Lafitte sometimes landed at Coca Island and is said to have hidden $1 million in gold on Kelso’s Island and on the Mississippi bluff.
No one knows for sure how much of Lafitte’s loot is left for treasure hunters but there are cases on record to prove that the story of Jean Lafitte’s fabulous gold is a little bit more than legend.
For instance there is the story of John Patorno. Disregarding the methods of most treasure hunters, Patorno in 1935 invented a radio device which responded to nonmagnetic metals. Then he hired out for his services and the makeshift semblance of a Geiger counter for $25 a day.
A few days later accompanied by a Mississippi ferry boat captain Patorno was on his way to Coca Island to look for Lafitte’s loot. He carried with him a map that supposedly pinpointed the pirate hoard.
For three days the men searched the island and just when they were giving up hope his radio device suddenly began to buzz. The men got out their shovels and began to dig but had to stop their search because of seeping water and sandy soil.
His treasure hunt, however, paid off later in an unexpected locale. He found $1,300 in two caskets just across the river from New Orleans.
Other men even today are searching North Louisiana for the treasure of John Murrell, the famed bandit of the Natchez Trace who made his debut in the wide open country of the Free State of Sabine, the strip of land separating the Spanish and United States territories along the Sabine River.
It was a buffer zone with no law and no government and no punishment and drew some of the worst outlaws in American history.
Murrell ranged far and wide, brazenly robbing travelers while at the same time urging people to repent their sins and “return to God.”
He left behind him hidden wealth that still excites the imaginations of treasure hunters.
In 1930, for example, Forest Normand. an Avoyelles Parish farmer, plowed up a pot of coins containing 3,000 pieces of Spanish silver with dates ranging from 1763 to 1805.
In 1939, perhaps the largest all-out method was to get Murrell’s loot by a farmer named Reber Dove who had discovered what he believed to be the treasure chest with steel probes, only to feel it sink deeper and deeper into the treacherous quicksand.
Special equipment was purchased but whether the treasure was found only Dove and a few other men know, for after that reports of further progress mysteriously stopped. Treasure hunters do not like to publicize their findings, and are a close-mouthed lot.
But there are exceptions to this rule, like George C. Maher Jr. of South Louisiana. who freely admits to having found $200,000 worth of gold, silver and jewelry over a period of 30 years. Maher and his father accomplished this with aid of an invention they called a ground radio, a device which operates via the variable induction of a magnetic field.
Near Abbeville in 1925, a Negro boy who was said to have been hypnotized by a man, pointed out a cache of silver. Two years earlier another $800 in silver was found on Jefferson Island.
The second largest cache in Louisiana history, if the claims are true, included $65,000 on the outskirts of the little promising town of Gretna.
There are many other promising treasure sites in Louisiana. Even metropolitan New Orleans boasts its strikes. A charcoal peddler who lived there 50 years ago found a box of 1,500 doubloons dating back to Lafitte’s time.
And then there’s the fabulous “lost mine of Wyndham Creek” lying in Beauregard Parish which has not yet been found.
At Linceum lies gold, allegedly buried by a group of men who were surprised by the Indians and to hasten their flight they hid the gold. Before the end of their journey they fought among them-selves and killed each other, leaving no survivors to return for their riches.
Several years ago a man cutting down trees near Opelousas turned up 1,485 Spanish gold pieces.
A planter living near Breaux Bridge was murdered by his slaves who escaped with his gold just before the Civil War. After they were captured and shot, it was discovered that one sack of gold was missing. It has never been recovered.
What may yet turn out to be the most valuable find, however, is the treasure hastily buried by plantation owners during the Civil War. There is the fabulous Charles Duralde and his undiscov-ered wealth. And the plantation of the Marquis Vincent de Ternant with all of its secrets and the wealthy Hubbardvilie planter who hid his money in silver plates outside of town.
Duralde’s fortune was as fantastic as his showmanship. Shortly before the Civil War, two of his daughters became brides in a double ceremony. Adding a fairy tale touch to the festivities Duralde startled the society of his day. From China he imported a cargo of spiders and freed them in his plantation near St. Martinsville in order that they might spin webs among the branches. Then the weird patterns were sprayed with silver and gold dust by slaves to serve as the wedding aisle.
Later as he lay dying during the war, he hinted that his fortune was buried nearby, but death cut short his revelations and the treasure to this day lies undiscovered.
I like to think of myself as a treasure hunter. In my dreams.
In reality… unfortunately for me… I am about as far from a treasure hunter as one could be.
Back in the 1990s, I had heard people were finding opal in Vernon Parish, south of Toro and a bit northwest of Anacoco. Intrigued and tempted, I searched a bit in the area… a bit being about an hour or less. And with only limited knowledge of exactly where to search, I covered, say, 200 yards in my very cursory search. I thought it would be easy. Not hot, boring, tedious and extremely vague. Well, actually, it was not tedious, for I looked about the way I look for a lost this or that at my house… just glancing around.
And so, like my earlier quests for arrowheads and later for prehistoric shark teeth along the southeastern banks of Toledo Bend, I came up empty handed in my search for precious opal. Also, by the way, I never was able to find any gold bars believed to have been buried or hidden in our area by bandits in the 1800s. In all, I figure I’ve spent a good five hours of my life (seven or so if you add the drive time) searching for treasures of any sort whatsoever in our treasure-rich geographic area.
I concluded I probably would not know an opal if I found one. Nor would I know an arrowhead (I must have retrieved 30 or more things that looked like they could be arrowheads, but I was told by people supposedly more knowledgeable than me… who shall remain nameless due to their cruel buzz-kill thrills’ nature… that I was pretty far off from having actually found an arrowhead and had only collected a few “basic, pointy rocks”).
Furthermore, I’m pretty sure now that I would not have found a shark’s tooth if it was staring me straight in the eye (those things blend in perfectly with the sand, or so I thought).
I would, however, recognize gold bars if I saw them. I’m pretty sure. I think.
Basically, I am impatient and I become bored way too easily… and because of that, I have no opals, no sharks’ teeth, no arrow heads, and no gold bars to call my own. Nothing. Na da.
I’ve digressed a bit before getting to the juicy stuff… The following article was published in The Alexandria Town Talk newspaper in November 1990, written by Town Talk staff reporter Richard Ryman.
Oh, and by the way, just as a buzz kill in case any one wants to set out to go hunt for opal, I have heard that that would be a losing quest… that the land where the opal was discovered is private land (that cool theme park they speak of in this article never materialized, I guess) and is well guarded. I’m just clarifying this so that hopes don’t get unnecessarily elevated only to be cruelly dashed. As mine did once before… and twice and more.
Vernon opal mine could be tourism bonanza
ANACOCO — Deep in the hills of northwest Vernon Parish, at a place called Monks Hammock, four men and a puppy are mining what they say is this country’s best opal supply.
They are digging in a hillside along a creek bottom about a quarter of a mile from the end of a sandy road. Except for the barking of the puppy, the place is peaceful and pleasant, but it is also an economic and tourism bonanza in the making, says Keith Griffin.
Griffin, who leases about 50 acres from Boise Cascade Corp., named it the Hidden Fire Opal Mine. He plans on surrounding it with campgrounds and gem washes, turning it into a mecca for lapidary hobbyists, known to one another as rockhounds.
“There is no opal mine in the United States that can claim they dig up 100 percent cutable material. We can claim that,” he said, showing the site to state Rep. John Smith, D-Leesville, and a delegation from the Vernon Parish Tourism and Recreation Commission.
Griffin held up a penny-sized polished black opal which he said was appraised at $1,000 a carat. He said it weighed about three carats.
Australia is the only other known source of such quality material, he said. In addition to the black opal, Griffin has uncovered myriad other combinations, which he has been naming at his discre-tion.
“No one else has ever found anything like this,” he said, holding up a “Christmas” opal, “so we can call it what we want,”
Tales of mining in the area go back to early French explorations, said Martha Palmer, chairman of the Vernon Parish Tourism and Recreation Commission. She said French Catholic explorers reportedly found silver and lead in the area, and in the early part of the 20th century one man was sending “rainbow rock,” possibly opals, to New York jewelers, receiving $5 gold pieces in return.
Gary Moore mined some opal in the area in the late 1970s and 1980s before his source played out.
Griffin, who has operated emerald and other mines in North Carolina, said he was vacationing in the area, hunting fossils, when an acquaintance showed him the site. Griffin said he immediately knew he was on to something.
“The biggest question about this formation was how was it formed?” Griffin said. “If I don’t know how it was formed, I don’t know where to dig.”
He said some speculated the area was a prehistoric lake bed, but evidence indicates it is instead laced with prehistoric creek beds. It is in those former creek bottoms that he is finding his opal.
Much of his find is quartzite sandstone laced with flecks of blue, green, yellow and red fire opal. The most common is brown opal with green fire.
He said quartzite and opal is the hardest mixture of quality opal in the world. That is good, but he expects better.
“As we follow this back, we will get to the area where the water came out of the ground to form the creek. Then we will get into clay soil and should find the real precious opal,” he said.
Griffin said black rock laced with red fire is called black opal, and is the most valuable. He said rock laced with blue or green fire is called blue opal.
Four pockets have been found so far, each yielding “about a double-handful,” Griffin said.
He said he plans to open a full-service campsite with gem-wash in the spring.
“Arizona is known for its petrified wood, Arkansas for its diamonds and North Carolina for its emeralds. This will put Vernon Parish on the map,” he said.
Lapidary, the cutting, polishing and engraving of precious stones, is one of the largest hobbies in the world. Griffin said lapidary magazines are among the few that have more wanted-to-buy than for sale ads.
He said that by having control over most of the opal supply in the area, he will be able to make the project financially feasible.
“People have tried to market this material for years, but the problem was they had no control over supply,” he said.
Griffin, who lives in Lafayette, said he has been “into rocks and tourism my whole life.”
“The old adage of ‘Son, walk with your head up,’ is not for rockhounds,” he said.
In May 1963, land acquisition for Toledo Bend Reservoir got underway. Construction of the Toledo Bend Dam, which would halt the flow of the mighty Sabine River to ultimately create the lake, began almost one year later, in April 1963. The dam and the spillway construction were initiated, along with the building of a power plant from which hydroelectricity would be generated.
The closure of the earthen embankment and the filling of the lake began in October 1966.
Here are a few photos of the construction of the Spillway and Dam. The spillway was designed to provide the controlled release of flows from the dam downstream to the Sabine River, and to release flood water so the level does not get too high and overtop or damage the dam.
Here are some photos of construction of the dam and spillway. I added some close ups of a couple of the photos… honing in on different parts of the original photo.
We received a request regarding photos and information on ferries which operated on the Sabine River before the bridges were built (most of the bridges that were added on the Sabine River were built in the 1930s). So I rounded up all the photos I had and grabbed up a few old newspaper articles and here they are. If anyone has additional photos, I would love love love to share them! They are really invaluable and I get so excited any time I come across one.
Every single time I see Toro Bayou (aka Toro Creek), I feel like I am either watching some cinematic production or looking through the pages of a story book. It is dreamy, it is surreal. It is a playground for a photographer!