Signing brought peace, sort of
Gov. Jared Sanders used a gold pen presented to him by Dr. Jules Vidrine of Mamou to sign the act carving Evangeline Parish from St. Landry in June 1910. It was a momentous event in southwest Louisiana, but getting the legislation to the governor’s desk hadn’t been easy. In fact it took more than 20 years to get from an idea to reality, and even then not everybody liked the idea.
The gold pen was symbolic because Dr. Vidrine was one of the most prominent citizens of Mamou and most of the people of Mamou had been against a compromise that finally brought about the creation of the parish.
The first push to create the new parish began in 1890, but there wasn’t enough support in the legislature and nothing came of it. There was another attempt in 1895, when citizens from Bayou Chicot, Pine Prairie and Ville Platte tried to organize a campaign. That created enough interest that Patrick Donahey won election to the legislature in 1900 largely because he pledged to create a separate parish. He tried, but still couldn’t muster the votes in the legislature.
When the bill was reintroduced in 1904, opponents, mostly from the Opelousas area, claimed political leaders from Pine Prairie, Eunice, Ville Platte and Mamou wanted to create a new parish simply because they couldn’t get elected to anything in the old one.
Separation was again the biggest issue in St. Landry in the 1908 elections for the legislature. Paulin L. Fontenot and H.E. Curry of Ville Platte, William Clark of Pine Prairie, and Y.L. Fontenot of Beaver Creek supported separation and were elected over a slate of candidates from Opelousas who opposed it.
A bill introduced by Fontenot was signed into law by the governor in 1908, but opponents challenged it in court, claiming the creation of the new parish also created a new legislative seat. The state constitution set the number of legislators at 116. To add another one, the opponents argued, would be unconstitutional.
Louisiana Supreme Court judge Olivier Provosty agreed with the opponents, but also ruled that it would be legal to hold a popular vote on separation and to decide where the parish seat would be — if a constitutional law was enacted.
Eunice, Mamou, Ville Platte, and Pine Prairie each wanted to be the courthouse town. When the vote was taken, it was overwhelmingly in favor of separation. Ville Platte got 40 percent of the vote as parish seat, more than the other towns, but not a majority. That became one of the issues as the debate went on.
Opponents and proponents gathered their forces in a series of mass meetings, some of them pretty ugly, before the 1910 session of the legislature, when Fontenot offered another bill. This time he made sure that all of the legalities were taken care of, but there were still objections, particularly that the bill named Ville Platte as the parish seat. Opponents argued that 60 percent of the people voted for some other place in the referendum. They wanted to call another election solely to choose the parish seat.
Fontenot stood firm for his hometown, arguing that “Ville Platte won the parish seat honestly and fairly and ought to have it.”
He prevailed and the bill passed with only one amendment. It changed the boundary so that Eunice remained in St. Landry Parish. The people there decided that, if they couldn’t be the parish seat they didn’t want to be in the new parish. That’s why St. Landry has a big nose pointing west along U.S. Hwy. 190.
When the St. Landry Clarion printed the text of a telegram announcing the signing — and Vidrine’s gesture of presenting the gold pen — on the front page of its June 18 edition, it’s editors called the telegram a “message … of peace that should please every citizen of St. Landry and Evangeline.”
The signing, the editors said, meant “that every section of the territory constituting the present Empire Parish of St. Landry are reunited, are now the same as of yore, before this troubling question of parish division stirred up strife and made warring camps of us — of us who had lived as brothers for so very, very long.”
Once again, the editors said, “we are all to belong to the same family, although living in different households”
Not everyone was so rhapsodic. Just a few months later the Clarion reported that Oliphus Fusilier, “a prominent citizen and merchant of Mamou,” and some others still wanted to fight the separation “to the last ditch.”
You can contact Jim Bradshaw at email@example.com or P.O. Bo 1121, Washington LA 70589.