by Ann Gilbert
Wisps of smoke curl from the chimneys of log cabins that are shaded by trees whose leaves shine gold and orange in the sun. Ladies in long dresses pull their wool capes tight across their chests against the chilly wind as they scurry between the houses.
One steps back in time with a visit to Mile Branch Settlement, which hugs a bluff along Mile Branch in the middle of the Washington Parish Fair Grounds in Franklinton. Pioneer life of 150 years ago lives on in this village. Volunteers garbed in historic dress simmer lye soap, spin thread, weave wool, forge iron, grind sugar cane and serve hot tea made from sassafras roots boiling on a wood-burning stove.
Established in 1976, Mile Branch is both an educational exhibit and a tribute to a long-vanished way of living. Life was rugged in 19th century rural Washington Parish, and that life is recalled here with admiration, appreciation and respect.
Mile Branch has some 25 log structures that have been moved from their original locations, including six family cabins, a smoke house, gristmill, general store, two barns, a school, church, outhouse and corn crib. The settlement owes its existence to a persistent woman, Roberta “Bobby” Johnson, who worked in the early 1970s to convince fair officials that the old log cabins needed to be preserved.
“Meeting after meeting, she raised the issue, until finally someone made a motion,” says Betty Rose Hunt, former chairman of the MBS committee. “Bobby had seen similar villages in Tennessee. It took a while for her to convince the fair committee, but she was a determined woman, and that’s how Mile Branch was born.”
The first cabin relocated to the site was the home of George and Martha Knight, built in 1857. Martha was so enamored of her honeymoon cottage that, when they needed more room, she persuaded her husband to add on around it, rather than build a new structure. When the place was in the process of being razed to build a road, the original log cabin was discovered. It is one of two Mile Branch structures on the National Historic Register. The Sylvest cabin, circa 1880, is the other.
Quite a village has now grown up around the Knight cabin. One by one, log buildings were donated and hauled to the site from around the parish, some barely squeezing through old one-lane bridges. Some cabins were dismantled and rebuilt on the site. Each has distinctive architecture. The Pigott cabin has unusual pegs holding the logs in place. The King cabin is rather upscale, with beaded board walls in the interior covering the logs. In the original cabins, the chimneys were often bousillage, a combination of mud and moss. During restoration, they were replaced with brick. Fires keep the volunteers warm, and the workers are served soups and stews from wood stoves during those wintry days the settlement is open to the public.
Many of the volunteers are busy at work in the actual cabins of their ancestors. Ellis Bateman, who serves as a host in the cabin of his great-great-uncle, is quick to point out to visitors that although Mile Branch might have the look of a village, originally these homes were tucked away in the piney woods, where roads were few and travel to neighboring farms was difficult because of the numerous creeks.
Volunteering as a hostess in the cabin of her grandfather, Beryl Sharp shares a personal story. “My mother says I took my first step in this cabin. I was so glad she told me that. It was being used to store hay when I was growing up.” Hunt works in the Pigott cabin built by her great-grandparents. She points out a trunk that her grandfather took to college.
The cabins are furnished and decorated with granite pots, straw mattresses, century-old handmade quilts and cornhusk brooms. Jars of preserved fruits and vegetables line the kitchens’ shelves. The schoolhouse has a photograph of the agriculture class of 1910, dressed in their Sunday best and standing in the middle of a cotton field. Guests in the dirt-floored church sit on pews fashioned of split logs while they sing hymns as a volunteer plays the organ.
In the Magee cabin, 77-year-old Helen Buck works the pedal for the punka, or shoe-fly, beneath the portrait of her ancestors. She recalls their routine: “When it was time to butcher a hog, the neighbors all pitched in. When it was time to make syrup, everybody had their day to bring their cane to the mill.”
She adds, “Wash day was long. After boiling the clothes, you used the water to scrub the floor, because it had lye in it. You sprinkled sand on the floor and scoured it. When it dried, you swept the sand off.” She explains that the cabins were built of green lumber, which shrunk as it dried, leaving cracks in the floor between the boards.
Two sisters serve as hostesses in the Sylvest cabin, in which their father and grandfather were born. “We used to have family reunions here,” say Janice Sylvest Krema and Bobbie Sylvest Wesby, as they pose for a photographer near their grandmother’s wedding dress.
Mile Branch Settlement is open to the public each year during the Washington Parish Fair in the third week of October and for the Thanksgiving weekend “Pioneer Christmas in the Country” event.
Guests can purchase the corn they watch being ground, chew on chitlins fried in giant black iron kettles, or nibble on hoop cheese from the general store. Proceeds from the sale of sundry items help to underwrite the maintenance of the village, which is primarily funded by the fair committee.
Roy King donated the King cabin and King barn to the settlement, and now regales visitors with stories about the log buildings. “Because the cabin had been vacant so long, the children in the area called it haunted. It was a popular place around Halloween,” he says, with a chuckle. “My Dad always urged me to take care of the old house and barn.”
Roy King certainly did abide by his father’s wishes. As part of Mile Branch, the King structures hold a prominent place in this living museum dedicated to the pioneers of Washington Parish.