Scholars generally recognize three major cultures within the state of Louisiana – New Orleans has a Creole culture, a result of the blending of early French nobles and army officers with the later Spanish settlers and free-people-of-color; South Louisiana has a Cajun (the local version of “Acadian”) culture, resulting from the blending of Acadians from Nova Scotia, French nationalists and English-speaking blacks, many of whom descended from freed slaves; and North Louisiana, originally populated by English-speaking British Americans, which was the last section settled since it was almost entirely covered with large pine forests and considered to be unproductive land.
Both New Orleans and South Louisiana were dominated by French-speaking Catholics. The early settlers in North Louisiana, however, were small farmers with a strong Protestant work ethic. The section did include a few large plantations, established along the Mississippi, Red and Ouachita Rivers (Lowland South culture) which were dependent upon a large slave population to operate, but the area destined to become Vernon Parish was first settled by immigrants of the Upland South culture, who primarily lived on subsistence farms.
Vernon Parish enjoyed a brief financial boom beginning in 1897 when the Kansas City Southern Railroad arrived in Leesville. Lumber barons bought up the land for pennies on the dollar and hired the local farmers to cut the timber which could then be shipped “back east” for great profit. Many African-Americans came to the area at this time, following the jobs.
For a brief time, Vernon Parish was actually the richest parish in the state, but when their last stand of pine had been cut, those investors pulled up stakes and moved on, taking their profits with them. When they left, the virgin long-leaf pines had all been cut and nothing planted to replace them. Scrub brush grew over the land where none had been before.
During the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps planted more than 3,000,000 trees across the nation, including the denuded land in Vernon Parish. Today, responsible lumber companies control how many trees are cut and quickly re-plant in the cutover areas.
Great Louisiana Maneuvers
In 1940, the US Army secured the rights to conduct training maneuvers on more than 3,400 square miles of sparsely populated rural areas in Louisiana and Texas, including all of Vernon Parish. From 1940-1944 several exercises were held with more than 400,000 troops passing through the area at one time or another. The largest exercise, known locally as “The Big One,” consisted of a mock battle between red and blue troops over navigation rights to the Mississippi River. Military umpires ranked the combatants and decided on winners and losers in each scenario.
Today, the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk continues the training maneuvers tradition, hosting several rotations each year, with scenarios custom-designed to prepare each training unit for the difficulties they expect to face while completing their real-world missions.
Ever since those early maneuvers in the 40’s, Fort Polk has been a major source of revenue and jobs for the citizens of West Louisiana.