By Kimberly Wallis

If all you’re looking for here is the short answer, a parish is the equivalent of a county, or a borough if you happen to be from Alaska. If you’d like to know more about the fascinating history behind parishes, especially Vernon Parish – the home of Fort Polk – read on!

Louisiana was officially Roman Catholic under both French and Spanish rule before the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Distinctive to Louisiana, the ecclesiastical term “parish” was officially adopted in 1807 as territorial boundaries generally coincided with the boundaries of church parishes.

When Louisiana was transferred to the United States of America, it consisted of a mere 25 parishes. We lost a couple of them when both Biloxi Parish and Pascagoula Parish were transferred to the Mississippi Territory in 1812, the year Louisiana became a state. However, there are now 64 parishes in total; you can find a list of them here.

Vernon Parish has six incorporated communities: City of Leesville, Town of Hornbeck, Town of New Llano, Town of Rosepine, Village of Anacoco, and Village of Simpson . There are also several unincorporated communities: Burr Ferry, Evans, Hicks, Kurthwood, LaCamp, Leander, Pickering, Pitkin, and Slagle.

Vernon Parish, once indigenous to the Coushatta and Atakapa tribes, was created in 1871 from portions of Sabine, Rapides, and Natchitoches parishes. Officially, it was named after Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington. 

Its creation coincided with the booming lumber industry because of the virgin pine forests and easily accessible waterways that could be used for transportation. Around 1890, sawmills began replacing this slow method of operation. When the Kansas City Southern railroad came through here in 1897, lumbering really took off and by the 1920’s was Vernon Parish’s main industry until Camp Polk overtook it.

Vernon Parish is home to Fort Polk, the 5th largest military installation in the nation (approximately 200,000 acres). While most of the land was acquired around WWII (for the 1941 Louisiana Maneuvers), the US Army Corps of Engineers expanded it by approximately 42,000 acres with the 2008  “Fort Polk Land Acquisition.”

Fort Polk was originally opened as Camp Polk by the United States Army, shortly after the three Great Maneuvers. It was named in honor of the Reverend Leonidas Polk, the first Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of Louisiana. Camp Polk continued to be used for training throughout WWII. The camp closed, but re-opened from time to time, whenever the military wanted it for training. In 1962, Fort Polk was re-opened and has remained in continuous operation ever since. Today it is home to the Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC) , which was moved here from Fort Chaffee, Arkansas in 1993.

If you made it this far, I hope you found this as interesting as I do, and I’ll just assume you’re a bit of a history buff. If that’s the case, you might also want to check out the history behind Vernon Parish’s socialist co-op colony at the Museum of the New Llano Colony or take in the railroad, military, or cultural and history exhibits at the Museum of West Louisiana.