“The White House” from Hearts across the Water
Friday, September 23, 2005
It is just before bedtime on the night before Hurricane Rita slams into Southwest Louisiana. A crowd of fifty anxious faces stares into mine as they await words of wisdom from the camp director. The faces are each so different and individual. Some faces are black; others are brown, while others are white. Their ages, language, and dress vary greatly. But there is a commonality they all share as they sit gathered at Dry Creek Camp’s adult facility, “The White House”—a fear of the unknown of what the next thirty-six hours hold.
Several ladies are crying softly. Many are Katrina evacuees who have been with us for nearly a month. How ironic it is that these folks who left New Orleans to miss a hurricane are now in the very teeth of another. For them, there is nowhere to go. They cannot return to their homes that many have lost. There is no refuge open to the north. It will be better to be here than stranded along some road north of here when the storm hits.
Other evacuees have newly arrived from the coast of Southwest Louisiana and Southeast Texas. They have watched as the track of Rita turned ever so slowly toward their homes. They know that Cameron, Johnson Bayou, and Port Arthur will never be quite the same.
Todd Burnaman has just done a masterful job of welcoming these new evacuees and going over the fine points of living together in a twenty-six-room building with inside hallways. A few weeks ago he and I were here and had to referee a spat between two ladies over kids talking too loud near the telephone. There has never been a dull moment at “The City of Hope” shelter!
Now it is my turn to talk with them about our plans for the coming storm. Our Office of Emergency Preparedness has recommended we remain here with our evacuees. The roads are jammed and shelter space is nonexistent to the north, especially for a group of over 300 folks.
So we’ve made the decision to “hunker down” and ride out the storm in Dry Creek, Louisiana. It’s my job to assure them that this is the correct decision. I’d be lying if I said I was 100 percent sure this was the best decision. The horrible weight of leading a vast group of people falls heavily on my shoulders. The rightness or wrongness of this decision will be played out over the next two days.
As I steady myself to speak, a vision goes through my mind. It is the faded sepia-colored black-and-white picture of a group of carpenters standing with saw and hammers in their hands. They are posing in front of The White House. This crew of Dry Creek men built this building over a six-year period from 1912–1918. The thought of building a schoolhouse this large with hand tools is something. The fact that it took the men of the community that long to finish the school has nothing to do with their lack of labor or ineptitude. It just took time. These men had other jobs in addition to building the community’s big school.
As I thought about the picture, I remembered who Bill Lindsey was. He was the head carpenter on this project for the entire building period. In the picture, he stands on the far right with his tools at his side. There is a serious but proud look on his face that seems to say, “It took us a while but we built it right.”
As I stand before the evacuees who will ride out the hurricane in the building Bill Lindsey built, I think about the construction of this schoolhouse. It was built from longleaf pine cut at the Long Bel sawmill in nearby Longville. The huge hollow columns are cypress and were brought in by oxen-pulled wagon.
I share with the evacuees about the huge attic that sits above the second floor. The attic is laced and supported with huge beams that give it a solid framework. They are in a safe place for the storm. Maybe the safest place around.
The year this school was finished, 1918, was when a great hurricane struck SW Louisiana. This unnamed storm came ashore on August 6, 1918. Because of the lack of weather forecasting in the early 20th century, Cameron, Calcasieu, and the other area parishes were surprised. Over 30 people died and much of Lake Charles was destroyed.
Long-time Dry Creek resident Frank Miller told me about the 1918 hurricane. He said thousands of large pines were broken off or uprooted. Just as we experienced in Rita, Mr. Frank said the fallen trees all laid facing the northwest.
I’m sure the residents of Dry Creek in 1918 wondered how their new school would hold up to the hurricane. It did just fine as it has throughout ninety more years of storms and severe weather.
Bill Lindsey and his crew built it right and they built it to last. I’m not a carpenter but I’ve heard enough craftsmen marvel at the design, quality of work, and solidness of this old building to know that Bill Lindsey and his men did not cut any corners. They were building a school for their children and that type of building deserved only one’s best.
How strange that there are only a few people left in Dry Creek that ever knew Bill Lindsey. Mr. Leonard Spears, who is over 90, knew him and said he was a hard worker. His wife, the legendary Mary Jane Lindsey, called him “Bill M” Lindsey. She pronounced it sharply, especially when she was upset with him, as “Billum.”
As Todd and I prepare to leave the White House, I tell our evacuees about Billum Lindsey and his crew of workers. I describe the workmanship and the extra care they put into this building. I tell them about the huge beams and how this schoolhouse has survived numerous hurricanes and storms in 1918, Audrey in 1957, and Carla in 1961. April 1993’s straight-line storm tore the roof off the camp office and felled dozens of trees, but did no damage to the White House. Tomorrow will be simply one more test of its solid construction.
How strange would it be for Billum Lindsey who lived most of his life in the nineteenth century to see a group of over fifty folks from all over our region riding out a storm together in 2005.
P.S. The Dry Creek White House came through the storm with flying colors. There was some minor shingle damage, but its exterior and interior once again proved to be solid and up to the challenge. All present agreed that if they had to ride out another hurricane in Dry Creek, that is where they’d want to be.
2021 postscript: As many of you are aware, the Dry Creek White House burned to the ground during the deep freeze of February 2021. It has been a great loss for our community, the Camp, and SW Louisiana.
I’m currently working on a short story entitled, “Saying Goodbye to a Grand Old Lady.” It is my homage to a special building that served as the heart and soul of our community.
Visit www.creekbank.net for this upcoming story.