by Ann Gilbert
The Choctaw Indians, who preferred to camp on high ground near clear creeks, found a perfect site at a place they named “Ibetab,” or fountain source. Here, four distinct springs came to the surface within a seven-foot span. Early French settlers dropped the last consonant, and the place became Abita.
“The name of our town – Abita Springs – is redundant,” says Mayor Bryan Gowland with a chuckle. “When the explorers would ask the Indians the name of a place, they would give a description.”
The Choctaws were the last tribe to call this area home. Their main villages were in the Lacombe vicinity and Abita Springs. They drifted down from Mississippi, probably in the 17th century, but evidence of Native American presence in the area goes back some 8,000 years.
Local amateur archeologist Francis Broussard says Abita Springs was ideal for a campsite. “They occupied the site again and again. Stuff accumulated.” In the ’70s, the Southeastern Louisiana University English professor rented a house on property crossed by two streams on their way to merge with the Abita River. In the top 12 inches of dirt, he found hundreds of artifacts, from projectile points to knives, scrapers and drills.
“They had all the tools we use to work wood and leather, but they were made of stone or bone. Only the stone tools are preserved. The bone deteriorated in the acidic soils,” Broussard says. However, in shell middens, which were Choctaw garbage dumps, the lime in the shell preserved the organic material. A subdivision off Brookhaven Road is on a Choctaw burial ground, according to Broussard, who has artifacts from the site.
In the 1830s, white men began to settle in the Abita Springs area. David Davis and his wife, Eunice, got a land grant in 1836. Etienne Le Fleur built a cabin “across the river from a village with 25 Indian families,” he reported.
In oral history interviews conducted by members of the St. Tammany Historical Society in 1980, Lawrence Flot (Le Fleur had been Americanized) recalled stories handed down by his grandparents. Flot was born in 1892, and remembered an Indian trail to Pearl River. The Choctaws from that area – there were no longer any in Abita – camped out at his aunt’s home before heading to Mandeville, where they caught a boat to markets in New Orleans.
Flot said, “The women had baskets, sassafras roots and gumbo file ... They came about three or four times a year ... Pearl River is about 12 miles from the house ... They walked barefoot ... The last time I saw the old women was about 1906.” That made sense, because, in 1905, there was another expulsion of the Indians to Oklahoma. (The first, the Trail of Tears, had been under an 1830 executive order of President Andrew Jackson.)
In 1910, David Bushnell of the Smithsonian interviewed some remaining Choctaws in Lacombe – the government had a difficult time getting them out of St. Tammany. He recorded a legend about the spirit called Okwa Naholo that lives in deep pools like the Abita springs. When Choctaws swim in the river, the spirit attempts to seize them and draw them down into the pool. Bushnell also recorded the story of the execution of an Indian in 1880 by his fellow Lacombe villagers, who came to the banks of the Abita River to carry out the punishment.
Yet another legend lives on in a poem written in 1881 about an Indian princess named Abita, who was married to a Spaniard named Henriquez. She was ill, but after spending one month drinking the spring waters, was cured.
A significant event occurred in 1853, when Joseph Bossier purchased the Abita springs from the U.S. government for $30,000, together with 160 acres of land surrounding the springs, and buildings and improvements. He interested Colonel William Christy in the area.
Christy was a fascinating character, having been the paymaster for General Jackson in the Battle of New Orleans. A lawyer and merchant from Kentucky, he ran for mayor of New Orleans on a reform platform. A 1855 article in the New Orleans Times Picayune said, “he was largely responsible for making the springs famous.”
In a strange transaction, Christy lent Bossier’s wife, Francis, money to built a hotel, but the Civil War and reconstruction intervened. It would be almost 30 years, until May of 1880, before she would open the Bossier House.
In 1854, W. P. Ridell, of the chemistry department at the University of Louisiana, said the spring water “leaves nothing to desire” and he had “seen none similar.” The 1855 New Orleans newspaper story went on to say that almost any disease could be cured “with a few droughts of the sparkling liquid and by the odor of the wild pine forest.”
The springs were reached by “lake and river steamboat, and by rough country six-person omnibus over the 2+ miles from Covington. Bossier erected some comfortable summer cottages and plans to improve the grounds with walks and gardens. The waters, carefully analyzed, were medicinal to a high degree.” Bossier sold half-acre lots, with 13 acres reserved around and adjacent to the springs. In 1866, he leased the springs to a group which included a gentleman named Labat, who would later build one of the resort hotels.
With the Civil War on the horizon, Frank Lenel built a home on 27 acres east of where the Abita Lumber Co. is today. It would later become the Long Branch Guest House. He built the 16-room Long Branch Hotel in 1880 on property bought from the Eunice Davis estate. In the late 1890s, the Long Branch Annex was built, an exact duplicate of Lenelís old home. This building today houses the Artesia Manor restaurant. Lenel’s original home is privately owned.
Nature’s Own Pharmacy
In the summer of 1880, an ad for the Bossier House in Covington’s The Farmer newspaper stated, “Stages will convey guests from the boat at Old Landing ... Board is $1.50 per day or $30 per month.” It was the beginning of the resort era for the little town.
For 30 years, the medicinal properties of the spring water and the ozone air of the piney woods were extolled in the media. “The highly salubrious climate is especially beneficial to those suffering from asthmatic and pulmonary complaints,” read one promotional piece. “Ozone air is a misnomer,” says Gowland. “It is a poisonous gas. But we did have a high degree of oxygen before we leveled the pine forests.”
An 1899 brochure published testimonials from physicians about cures of patients with diabetes, stomach trouble, bronchitis and bladder inflammation. In addition to drinking the spring water, guests enjoyed hot and cold sulphur baths.
In the early 1900s, the springs were owned by the Abita Springs Water Company, which bottled the water at the site and even offered a carbonated form. The water won several silver medals in competition with entries from all over the world at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair.
Soon the town was tagged with the label “Nature’s Own Pharmacy,” and even the federal government said it was one of the healthiest regions in the United States.
New Orleanians poured into the area, trying to escape the yellow fever epidemics that ravaged the city. Abita Springs accepted them, even though it was not known at the time how the disease spread. The little village never instituted a quarantine or closed its doors to those fleeing “Bronze John.” (It was not until the early 1900s that Walter Reed discovered that a mosquito was the carrier.)
By the early 1900s, there were five hotels, numerous boarding houses, markets, stores, and livery stables. The bottled water was being shipped all over the country. Growth was spurred by the railroad that was built in 188, which ran between Abita and Pearl River, and on to Slidell and New Orleans.
An alternative route was to take a steamer across the lake, and then board an electric motor car, which followed the route Highway 59 now traverses. The old East Louisiana Railroad bed is now the Tammany Trace between Covington and Slidell.
Two trains daily pulled into Abita, each capable of carrying 450 passengers. Additional trains ran on Wednesday and Sunday at the height of the resort era. Looking at a photo of passengers disembarking from the nine-car train and boarding buggies to take them to the hotels, Mayor Gowland says, “Look at the energy in this picture. This was not a bucolic community. This tells me Abita was a thriving resort.”
Guests partook of the plentiful fresh fruits, vegetables and wild game; enjoyed dancing, billiards, croquet, music, and games; or just strolled through the gardens and woods. In 1888, The Farmer said the town could accommodate 500. Later the number would rise to 2,000.
At the end of the 1884 Cotton Centennial Exposition at what is now Audubon Park, Captain John Poitevent bought the White Kiosk designed by famous New Orleans architect Thomas Sully. He installed it over the springs in Abita in 1888.
J. Jonathan Blitch writes that boardwalks and flowering trails linked the hotels to each other and to the springs.
“We came that close to tearing the pavilion down,” says Jack Lemons, snapping his fingers. The Abita postmaster for 33 years, and former town councilman, Lemons adds, “The roof fell in several times. Little of that structure is original, but the design is the same.” Lemons is working to establish an Abita Springs museum in an old train caboose in the town.
The Abita Style
The springs originally bubbled forth on an island in the middle of the river. In the 1950s, the U.S. Corps of Engineers filled one channel of the river. The springs were capped for health reasons in 1938, and the area became a state park in 1948, later transferring to the city. The pavilion was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.
Blitch writes that, by the end of World War I, Abita Springs was “a shadow of its former self.” However, Morganís Court, with a huge artesian swimming pool with a clay bottom, would attract family outings and office picnics in the ’20s and ’30s. From 1922 until 1944, even the old Long Branch was revived – through the efforts of the Loustalots, two brothers from the Basque region of France.
“The History of the Long Branch” was written by Blitch in 1981 in preparation for having the hotel placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982. About the same time, Blitch was part of a group which bought the complex, the last of the old hotels, in an attempt to save it. Sold again in 1990, the Long Branch burned before restoration began. Most of the rambling frame hostelries suffered the same fate.
It was Blitch who was instrumental in raising awareness of the architectural heritage in the town. Century-old cottages with three porches designed to catch those healthy breezes are deemed the “Abita Style.”
“We owe a lot to Blitch,” says the mayor. “There was some flack at first about building restrictions, but now the Abita style is being replicated in areas outside of the historic district.” The distinctive towers of the old Abita Springs Hotel have been duplicated by a lumber company and a bank, which has a second tower resembling the pavilion. “We are preserving our trees, too,” says Gowland. “We appreciate greenery. We have laws to protect trees.”
The Choctaws are probably rejoicing.
Copyright 2003, M&L Publishing, all rights reserved.