Monday, July 26, 2021

Blooming Irises, The Last Reminder of a Village That Was

By Gary Salathe

A project of the Louisiana Iris Conservation Initiative (LICI) now has an important historical aspect to it. 

Here's the backstory:

The Battle of New Orleans took place on January 8, 1815 and was the last event in the War of 1812 between the British and the new American nation. The battle between the professional British army and the rag-tag, thrown together, US military force resulted in a victory for the young United States over what was then a world power.

The Battle of New Orleans took place on January 8, 1815. Unbeknownst to the participants of the battle, a treaty had been signed 18 days before by the United States and Britain, ending the war of 1812.  

In 1855 plans were made to build a monument near the location of the earthworks that the Americans, led by Andrew Jackson, stood behind to successfully repulse the British. It was not completed until the land was transferred to the federal government in 1907 because funding was in short supply.

In 1864 the Union Army established a cemetery to bury Civil War casualties near the site of the famous battleground. Over the years, soldiers from nearly all of America’s wars have been buried in this hallowed ground; now called the Chalmette National Cemetery.

On August 10, 1939, Congress established Chalmette Battlefield as a National Historical Park. The two historic parcels of property have been separated from one another since the early 1800’s by a tract of land that was purchased by Pierre Fazende, a “free man of color.” In 1856 Pierre turned the land over to his son who divided the property into 33 lots and sold them to other free people of color. After the Civil War, some lots were sold to freed slaves, which would have given them ownership of property for the first time.  

A recent painting of what the village of Fazendeville would have 
looked like in its prime.  

As time passed, a one-room school house, Baptist church, dance hall, grocery store and two barrooms appeared along the single street and it slowly developed into a village. The village became known as Fazendeville, and was home to thirty families living in thirty homes.  Life in Fazendeville remained tranquil and undisturbed for more than 100 years.  However, a chain of events began, beyond the control of the families, that would forever change their lives.

In 1962, civic boosters in the area began efforts to unite the Chalmette Battlefield with the Chalmette National Cemetery. This involved taking possession of the field that laid between the two, which was the land that British soldiers marched across in their attack on the American lines.  They wanted to create one large tract of land for the Chalmette National Historic Park. The timing was to coincide with the sesquicentennial of the Battle of New Orleans on its 150th anniversary in 1965. There was only one problem: homes and buildings of Fazendeville sat on land separating the battlefield from the cemetery.

The village of Fazendeville was located right in the middle of the 
historic Chalmette Battlefield.

The residents of Fazendeville were soon overwhelmed by the drive to combine these federal properties. In the “Can Do” age of the 1950’s and 1960’s huge public works projects across the country moved forward using the accepted wisdom that whole communities being displaced isn't enough of a reason to stop progress. A legal process to expropriate property from Fazendeville residents began.


At the time, a typical new home in the area appraised for $16,500. Residents of Fazendeville were paid $6,000 for their older homes, making it financially impossible for many to find a home to replace the one they lost. 


Some of the buildings in Fazendeville are shown in this photo. It was taken as planning was underway to expropriate the properties.

In early 1965, the last building in Fazendeville was bulldozed and debris hauled off. Within a year the ground was scraped clear so that only a slight indention of the old roadbed could be seen... if you looked very carefully.


The photo shows the 1965 sesquicentennial event for the battlefield as it was underway. 

Fast-forward to 2020: 


Until the 1930’s, Chalmette Battlefield was bordered by a cypress swamp on the North with the river batture (wetland) along the Mississippi River on the South. The site is in St. Bernard Parish where Louisiana irises grew in vast numbers within its swamps and marshes throughout history. Because of this, the US Park Service approved a Louisiana Iris Conservation Initiative (LICI) proposed planting of native Louisiana irises in a bog located along the south side of the battlefield. Due to rigorous criteria used to approve proposed projects on US National Park Service property, this was only the second permit issued at the battlefield in the last ten years. It was approved in part because staff at the park thought there were no irises growing on the property.


This is what I found when I walked out into the field for the first time in February, 2021.


On February 10, 2021, almost a year after the iris planting project was proposed, I was one of four volunteers that planted the first batch of test irises.  When we were finished, I noticed a clump of what looked like Louisiana irises growing out in the field across the road from where we were working. A few days later I received permission to walk the field and discovered multiple patches of Louisiana irises that included anywhere from one hundred to multiple hundreds of irises in each. I assumed these were wild, light blue I. giganticaerulea. This species of Louisiana iris is native to the area, and I thought they may have been overlooked by the park staff because the largest patches were a long way from the road. This field is never cut in March or April, so there would be no reason for any of the park staff to be out in the field at the time these irises would be in bloom.

We made plans to walk the field during bloom season and gathered up a group of LICI’s supporters and some of the park staff. They had become very interested in the mysteriousness of Louisiana irises growing in the middle of the battlefield. Interest peaked further because the irises appeared to have been growing there for many years, if not decades.


Friends of LICI and staff of the US Park Service find the first patch of blooming Louisiana irises on the trip out into the field on March 29th.  We estimated that there were a total of a few thousand Louisiana irises if all of the patches of irises were combined.

On March 29th the group assembled in a small parking area on the paved road and started walking into the field. We quickly discovered that the irises were not light blue I. giganticaerulea, but were lavender-purple. These irises were most likely I. vinicolor which results from the first cross of two types of Louisiana irises: I. giganticaerulea and I. fulva.  Every iris spread out over a long and narrow section of the field was the same-colored iris, with some slight variations in color found in just a few clumps.


I. vinicolor are shown in one of the iris patches on the Chalmette Battlefield.  
(Photo by Paul Christiansen)

Then the group ran across a few clumps of plants in bloom that made us all stop in our tracks. It was a non-native plant, originally from Africa, called the crinum lily. Seeds of the crinum lily are known to have been brought to the Americas by slaves. It’s been grown in gardens of some African Americans since then, passed down from one generation to another, as a reminder of their heritage.


Some of the crinum lilies are seen blooming on the edge of one of  the patches of irises. 

(Photo by Paul Christiansen)

We then located the faint outline of the old  Fazendeville roadbed. By following the roadbed through the field, we figured out that all of the irises and crinum lilies were growing on only one side of the road, the side where the houses of Fazendeville residents once stood. The clumps of irises also ended about where their rear lot line would have been. 

We all stood there thinking the same thought; we had likely found the remnants and offspring of two species of plants that once grew in the gardens surrounding the homes in Fazendeville. Somehow, the plants survived when the homes were moved or torn down in the 1960’s and are now spreading out in the field right in the middle of the Chalmette Battlefield. It was an emotional moment for many of us. We found a silent reminder of the town and people that once lived in this place. For an iris person, these are emotions you never thought that you'd have as part of your hobby.

One of only three small clumps of irises that were a little off  colored from the others.  They appeared to have more of the red I. fulva color.

It makes sense that I. vinicolor would have been irises of choice for people in Fazendeville to grow. During the first half of the 20th century, there may have been tens of thousands light blue colored I. giganticaerulea irises blooming along the roads in Chalmette and the red I. fulva along the Mississippi River batture nearby. People would have collected the harder-to-find wine colored I. vinicolor iris to plant in their gardens. Fazendeville was located in a section of Chalmette where the distance separating the cypress swamps to the north holding the I. giganticaerulea iris and the Mississippi River batture holding I. fulva is the narrowest. There were likely I. vinicolor irises growing in the area as a result of natural cross-pollination between the two species.

We are excited that what started off as a simple iris restoration project now has important historical significance. Plans are underway for LICI volunteers and the staff of the park to move some of the irises and crinum lilies to a location near the parking area with a written display installed to create a living memorial to the residents of Fazendeville.

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