The Main Attraction : Remarkable discoveries—the hospitable townsfolk chief among them—in two Main Street communities .
Cathead biscuit bread pudding with coffee sauce. Okay so not everyone would drive 286 miles motivated by a dessert, but I was sure glad that I did. Because what I was about to discover on this journey, was something even sweeter and more delightful than the bread pudding. The townsfolk of Springhill and Minden, Louisiana.
Truth be told, there was another reason for my visit. November is the month in which small towns across Louisiana celebrate Main to Main, a series of events designed to showcase the Louisiana Main Street program. And the two communities that inspired this annual series of events were Springhill and neighboring Minden just down the road. More about all that in a minute. But first let’s get back to the bread pudding.
“I am a bread pudding connoisseur,” says Christine McCutcheon, standing before me with a wide stance in yellow-topped cowboy boots that assure me she’s confident in that claim. She’s sampled the locally iconic dish in restaurants far and wide across the state and now has entered the fray with her own highly competitive version at her Am-Jenn restaurant on Springhill’s main street. The restaurant name is a mash up of her daughter’s first names.
“I started doing breakfast, and I had so many biscuits left over, I thought, ‘These would make some good bread pudding.’”
I’m pleased to confirm that she was right, after diving into a huge square of it swimming in a pool of sauce made from coffee, heavy cream, eggs, and sugar. Coffee fan that I am, I think this beats rum sauce hands-down.
The walls of this popular local spot are covered with hundreds of snapshots of the folks who gather here, along with the offerings they bring with them.
“Everything in here was given to me by the people in our town,” says McCutcheon with a sweep of her arm. And by that she means everything from a big framed picture of Marilyn Monroe, to a set of Elvis plates.
McCutcheon explains that the plates came from one of her young customers, who spent a lot of his formative years in the café. When his grandmother passed away in Las Vegas he was asked to go there and help pack up her house. When he spotted the plates he knew just where they belonged. He carefully wrapped each one and drove them all the way back to Springhill.
And right there, the stories began of the folks that would make this little corner of Louisiana just south of the Arkansas border special for me.
Walk out Am-Jenn’s door, turn right and you pass Springhill’s local radio station. It has windows overlooking Main Street, and during the morning show the local DJs call out to people passing by urging them to stick their heads in and say hello.
A few doors down Springhill boasts the largest single screen movie theatre still remaining in the state outside New Orleans, and still as popular as it was when it was first built sixty years ago. It was brought back to life most recently by 35-year old entrepreneur Adam Harris.
“It was a pond down there,” he recalls of the standing water he found at the foot of the screen when he took over the badly dilapidated theatre in a few years ago.
“Now it looks exactly the same as when I went there as a girl!” adds Main Street Manager Kim Gillespie, my guide on this tour through Springhill’s main street district.
This main street is still a work in progress and there are still many empty storefronts. But Gillespie has a vision for each one. One will some become a larger space for the popular local dog groomer, which will give her the space to begin boarding dogs. She hopes another will soon house the furniture store that a young entrepreneur would like to start.
Bringing a small town main street back to life is a Herculean task. Fortunately, Gillespie has Herculean enthusiasm and a bit of help from a state program.
“It started in Louisiana in 1984,” explains Ray Scriber, director of the Louisiana Main Street Program, which is modeled after the nationwide program started by the National Trust. “Louisiana was one of the earlier states to participate.”
“A lot of the success depends on a community buy-in,” he continues explaining that the biggest challenge in revitalizing a historic downtown in a small town is that there are limited financial and volunteer resources. “Main Street is very much a volunteer driven program.”
“One of the best resources that we provide is design assistance to help building owners,” notes Scriber of something the state brings to the table to help nudge property owners into fixing up their main street buildings. “We have a staff person who provides free design to show building owners what the building can look like.”
And there is also a façade grant program that offers grants up to $10,000.
I spent the night in Springhill at a family run bed and breakfast that provided yet another example of the kind of warmth and strong “sense of place” I was to find in people everywhere on my trip.
“It was built in 1918 for the first lumber company here in Springhill,” explains Melinda Mosely of a place with direct ties to the community’s history as a lumber town. “It was the clubhouse for Piney Woods Lumber Mill. When they had people come in this is where they would stay.”
It was that same company that brought Melinda’s grandfather to Springhill.
“He was one of the contractors that helped build the mill,” she continues adding that after the mill was finished her grandfather stayed on and became one of the first pulp wood haulers for the company. And eventually bought the former clubhouse and made it the family home.
After the grandparents passed on, the family decided to renovate the house as a bed and breakfast.
“We wanted it to be a nice place for people to stay. A place that somebody could stay and feel at home.”
The Columns, as they’ve called their bed and breakfast, has five rooms each furnished with antiques and decorated with family photos and heirlooms, welcoming each guest as a part of the family.
The next morning I was up early to trek the thirty or so miles down the Highway 371 to Minden’s main street.
Flash back to that earlier point about the origins of the annual series of Main to Main events. This November 2 and 3, that particular stretch of Highway 371 becomes a linear shopping extravaganza for Trade Days, during which the entire route is lined with flea markets, garage sales bake sales, and church bazaars.
“They wanted to do something to link the two communities. And it became wildly popular,” explains Scriber of this event that would go on to inspire dozens of similar ones across Louisiana each November.
I’ve arrived in Minden to discover that this visit, too, would include a culinary adventure.
“Do you want pan cornbread or hot water cornbread?”
I was having lunch at Moody’s Café, a classic Louisiana soul food spot, with speckled beans, turnip greens and fried chicken on the plate before me—favorite familiar foods I’m accustomed to finding in such places all across south Louisiana. But never before have I been given a choice of cornbreads. Nor did I know anything about hot water cornbread.
So Ernestine steps out from her busy kitchen to enlighten me. This version of cornbread is made by pouring hot water into the meal and then frying it, a bit like making a hush puppy. Those of you with roots in certain parts of the South already know this, but it was a fun new revelation for me.
As was this:
“The first time Elvis ever saw his name in lights was in Minden,” Larry Milford tells me. “At the Joy Drive-In. He played on the back of a flat bed truck.”
Milford is the display designer for the Dorcheat Historical Association museum, the most beautifully curated small town museum I’ve so far had the pleasure of touring. The museum is named for the area’s historically significant Dorcheat Bayou, and is a tribute to just how many fascinating stories even a small town has to tell. And beyond excellent curation, many of the exhibits come to life because they have such a personal connection to the curators.
“My first grade teacher was born in this cabin.”
Now Schelley Brown Francis, the museum’s director, had my full attention. I’m not really a huge history buff, but what really fascinates me are human interest stories. Especially the stories that turn strangers into fascinating friends. And that’s what this adventure to two small towns in North Louisiana had become. The O' Bier House we were standing in, and in which the museum director’s teacher was born, was a log dog trot circa 1850. It was moved from its original location where it faced demolition and is now reconstructed inside the museum.
Pointing to a mannequin inside the cabin, Milford highlights another whimsical example of the lengths local folks will go to in support of this beloved museum.
“See the hair on that mannequin? A lady wanted to donate it, so I got out my hot glue gun.”
And now the mannequin sports a beautiful head of donated hair.
Heading round the corner next and onto Main Street I would meet Bill Cook—who’d tell me the tale of how he danced his way out of Minden, on to Broadway, and then around the world. He returned home to retire, but instead now finds himself serving as the director of City Art Works. The city-run facility has a gallery in the front filled with the work of local artists, currently the striking artwork of Jeanne Mason and her nephew Ray Holt. In the back of the repurposed historic department store are art studios, offered free to local artists. There’s also a practice space for the local chorus, and storage for the communities’ theatre group. The artists in residence offer classes throughout the year in everything from painting to guitar.
Down the street a bit more I wander in for coffee at MoJeaux A-Gogh-Gogh, a popup up store run by a former writer for the local newspaper, Angel Haney.
Pop up stores, my guide—Main Street manager Pattie Odom—tells me, are “trial run” stores where landlords agree to special terms for a new tenant to try out an idea and give them some space, literally and figuratively, to let it grow.
A few doors down is one of the antiques stores that also populate Minden’s Main Street.
“I’ve lived in twenty-five places and I’ve been welcomed here like a long lost cousin,” proprietess Johanna Collins tells me.
The delightfully named Timeless Café and Tea Salon is our next stop, which I discover is run by Evergreen Presbyterian Ministries, an organization that supports and provides employment for the developmental disabilities.
There’s also a bridal store, a jewelry store, and an appliance store—this is a real main street, not a theme park version of one—but it’s also a place where new ideas are being tried and succeeding. Exactly what the Main Street Program hopes will happen in small communities across Louisiana.
And if that fascinating small town charm and innovation, not to mention Trade Days, doesn’t already have you packing the car for a road trip —there’s Minden’s Fasching Celebration.
“Fasching” or the “Fifth Season” is the German equivalent of Mardi Gras. Only the party begins MUCH sooner. The Fifth Season officially begins each year in the 11th month, on the 11th day, at 11:11 am, at a ceremony where Minden’s mayor hands over the keys to the city to the King and Queen of Karneval—who will then preside over fifth season festivities until Ash Wednesday at the beginning of Lent.
The origins of this celebration is another of the intriguing stories Minden has to tell.
“They stayed here and thrived for thirty-seven years,” explains Amanda Steiner of a colony founded by former members of a utopian movement called the Harmony Society in the early nineteenth century. “I’m one of the descendants.”
About 250 members of the society split off from the original American settlement in Harmony, Pennsylvania and followed a man named Bernhard Müller, who called himself "Count de Leon," to Louisiana, initially settling near Natchitoches. After the count’s death in 1835, the group, then led by Müller's widow, the Countess, settled seven miles northeast of what is now Minden. And there for nearly four decades, the colony operated as a communal society dispersing in 1871.
In 1835 Minden itself was founded by a German-American Charles Hans Veeder, and named for the home of his ancestors in Germany.
Steiner will be conducting tours of the remaining buildings in Germantown Colony, founded by her ancestors and now on the list of National Historic Places, as part of the festivities.
The two-day kick off to the season will be held along the original brick paved streets of historic downtown Minden, and will not surprisingly feature German food, beer, music, customs and costumes.
Holiday decorations will also be up by then and include more than a hundred German nutcrackers in every shape and size, painted by local artists. Minden is also part of the Holiday Tour of Lights all across North Louisiana. Weihnachtsmann, whom many of us know as Santa Claus, will be on hand of course as well.
I’ve made some spectacular road trips in my time—California’s breathtaking Pacific Coast highway, along the beautiful Skyline drive atop the Blue Ridge Mountains—but on this one, the spectacular discovery wasn’t the scenery. It was the people. If you make this road trip, you won’t leave a stranger.
Details. Details. Details.
Learn more about Springhill and its Main Street program at springhilllouisiana.net. You’ll find more on Minden’s Main Street program at mindenusa.com.
And for more on Trade Days and all the other Main to Main activities in November that they inspired, go to crt.state.la.us/maintomain.
The Columns Guesthouse
2010 S Arkansas Street