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The Pentagon Barracks, the site where the citizens of the Florida Parishes declared their independence from Spain in 1810
Courtesy of the Louisiana Division of Historic Preservation

Because they do not fit the state's well known French Creole and River Road plantation stereotypes, Louisiana's Florida Parishes are little known outside the state. However, citizens of South Louisiana (and especially of New Orleans) have enjoyed the region's natural beauty and healthy climate for well over a century. The Florida Parishes lie east of the Mississippi River and north of lakes Maurepas and Pontchartrain in the southeastern portion of the state. The region contains eight parishes: East Baton Rouge, East Feliciana, West Feliciana, Livingston, St. Helena, St. Tammany, Tangipahoa, and Washington. Although the area's name implies cohesiveness and a shared developmental pattern, this is not completely true. Certain parishes share a common heritage, while others followed divergent patterns of growth. Plantation and small farm agriculture, railroads, the lumber and vacation industries, and multiple ethnic groups--all have contributed to the growth and heritage of the region known as the Florida Parishes.

The district takes its name from its early political history. At the end of Louisiana's colonial era, the region was part of Spanish West Florida. When Napoleon Bonaparte sold Louisiana to the United States in 1803, the Americans claimed the area as part of that purchase but made no move to occupy it. In 1810 the district's largely English population revolted against Spain and the U.S. annexed the territory. Spain protested the annexation, but was too weak to fight it. Louisianians have called the region the Florida Parishes ever since.

Cottage Plantation, an early plantation house in West Feliciana Parish which reflects English and Spanish influences
Courtesy of Lagniappe Tours, Foundation for Historical Louisiana
Although Lake Pontchartrain's north shore underwent limited French Creole settlement before and after the colonial period, persons of English descent dominated in most other portions. For example, in East and West Feliciana parishes, planters from the southeastern states established a plantation economy whose landscape was characterized by houses in the Federal and Greek Revival styles. Farther east, in what would become Washington Parish, the Upland South Culture prevailed.

Remembered for their Protestant fundamentalism and their strong-minded toughness, the Uplanders were descended from Scots-Irish farmers who emigrated to the Pennsylvania colony beginning in the 1720s. It was during this period that they encountered the Pennsylvania Germans, known to us today by the misnomer Pennsylvania Dutch. The two groups cohabited for about a generation. The Scots-Irish absorbed from the Germans a building technique that would become their principal architectural legacy--log construction. Armed with this tool and a fiercely independent streak, the Scots-Irish pushed south and westward through the Appalachians, first reaching Louisiana about 1790. There they established widely dispersed hamlets and farmsteads featuring an informal arrangement of log barns, sheds, animal pens and houses placed seemingly at random.

Knight Cabin, an example of a single room log cabin in Washington Parish, built in the late 1800s
Courtesy of the Capital Resource Conservation and Development Council
In keeping with the basic simplicity and adaptability of the Upland South Culture, its building forms were based on easy to duplicate folk models. Houses emulated the so-called British pen tradition i.e., a single square, or nearly square room with a gable roof oriented from side to side and an outside chimney on one end. The pen was raised one to three feet off the ground on piers and had doors centered in its front and rear walls. In Louisiana a log single-pen house tended to be about 16 feet square. A two-room house was a double pen, generally with two front doors. Larger still was the dogtrot, which consisted of two pens with a central covered open passageway through which a dog could trot. These houses had full front galleries and often rear shed rooms as well.

Today few people wish to live in a historic log house, and log outbuildings are of no use in modern agriculture. For these reasons, most of Louisiana's log buildings generally were long ago abandoned or altered beyond recognition. Although a few survive in north and west Louisiana, the state's most impressive collection is the Mile Branch Settlement located on the Washington Parish Fairgrounds in Franklinton.

While Washington Parish developed at the hands of the Uplanders (and a thriving lumber industry which arrived around the turn of the 20th century), the area of the Florida Parishes bordering Lake Pontchartrain owes its fame to its role as a health and vacation resort. Long before the arrival of the railroad in 1887 made the trip from the Crescent City an easy weekend commute, New Orleanians viewed the North Shore as a haven from the annual yellow fever epidemics that threatened their city. While the wealthy took refuge in faraway fashionable spas, middle-class people went to the nearby Gulf Coast or to lower St. Tammany and Tangipahoa parishes.

The Pavilion at Abita Springs, a popular resort spot for New Orleans residents from the late 19th century until the 1960s
Courtesy of the Capital Resource Conservation and Development Council
Known as the North Shore, the latter had much to recommend it as a retreat from the languid New Orleans climate. First there was the air, which was sharp, fresh and pure. Popularly known as ozone, it was thought to have great curative powers for pulmonary respiratory ailments. This medicinal property was attributed to the area's vast stands of long and short leaf pine which exuded a rich oxygenated mix. Equally important was the water. The terra firma of lower St. Tammany and Tangipahoa constituted one of the world's great natural water purification systems with huge underground lakes supplying dozens of mineral springs. The word hydropathy has passed from common use, but in Victorian times, the water cure was a respected alternative to the harsh medical practices of the day.

Hotels and spas sprang up as far above the lake as Covington and Hammond to serve the health conscious and infirmed. However, Abita Springs was the most significant; it was founded and developed as a health resort and had no other purpose. In addition to providing accommodations on the North Shore, city fathers and spa owners also took steps to enhance the health-giving springs and natural areas with improvements, notably bandstands, pavilions, and specially developed winding trails through the piney woods. Attracted by the area's natural and man-made features, people came for social as well as medical reasons and often stayed for weeks or months at a time. Pleasure grounds surrounding hotels often contained groups of rental cottages that could be taken by an entire family. These long-term guests were important members of the social scene and received invitations to special events along with local residents.

Many New Orleans families built vacation and weekend cottages on the North Shore. Partially as a result of their presence, the region developed its own architectural stamp, the so-called North Shore house. This unique regional house type is a variation of the New Orleans shotgun. Characterized by a T-shaped floorplan, it is one room wide and three or more rooms deep. Instead of the standard narrow front porch, North Shore houses have a long and generous side gallery to allow occupants to take the air. Some North Shore houses have galleries on both sides. With their extravagant Eastlake turned columns, spindles and brackets, and copious Queen Anne shingles in their gables, these homes are the glory of the North Shore. Today, concentrations of these houses can be found in Covington and around Abita Springs.

Zemurray Gardens, an example of the Florida Parishes natural beauty
Courtesy of Lagniappe Tours, Foundation for Historical Louisiana
The advance of medical theory after the Spanish American and First World wars eliminated diseases such as yellow fever and undermined the medical necessity for the North Shore refuge. Another factor in its decline was that hydropathy itself was going out of favor as conventional medicine improved. Today the area still has great rural charm, with its towering pine trees, and is also quite cosmopolitan due to its proximity to New Orleans. Great restaurants and shops combine with natural beauty and a distinctive history to make the North Shore an obvious choice for a day trip or weekend getaway.

The casual lifestyle of the health resorts was in sharp contrast to that of Tangipahoa's hardworking strawberry farmers. The phenomenal rise of this industry in the first few decades of the 20th century is a classic Louisiana success story. One of the driving forces behind this success was the influx of Italian immigrants into the parish.

The Italians were originally recruited from their homeland to work in the cane fields of South Louisiana. They first appeared in Tangipahoa in 1890, when an American strawberry farmer brought an Italian family from New Orleans to pick his berries. This experience gave the Italians a first-hand knowledge of strawberry farming. A second family arrived in the fall. From their humble beginnings as pickers in the late 19th century, the Italians rapidly moved into a position of dominance in the strawberry industry.

The Italians saw in Tangipahoa Parish an opportunity to acquire land and escape the life of an urban worker or plantation laborer. The Italians were extremely efficient and successful strawberry farmers. A study conducted by an agricultural commission during this period noted that the techniques employed by the Italians stand out in contrast to the more or less shiftless and thriftless southern methods employed by native farmers. The entire family, even the children, would work in the berry fields and live as cheaply as possible, saving everything they could. After a few years, they would make a down payment on whatever land they could obtain. Often this land was near the railroads, which provided the means of getting their crop to market. In this way, a number of ethnic agricultural colonies arose throughout the parish. Amite, Tickfaw, and Natalbany all had small compact Italian farming settlements. There was also a large Italian settlement in Hammond. However, the biggest concentration of Italians was in Independence where the colony stretched for five miles up and down the Illinois Central Railroad by 1910. By this time, Italians had virtually taken over the town. Business signs in the Independence commercial district were in Italian rather than English!

By the early 1920s Tangipahoa strawberries supplied the entire Midwestern market; soon Louisiana was the country's leading producer. However, the resulting prosperity was not to last. Drought and frost in the 1927 and 1928 seasons reduced profits sharply and put many farmers heavily in debt. By the 1929-1930 season, a number of farmers were in serious financial trouble. In 1932 the industry suffered the greatest crop failure it had ever experienced. Twelve and one half inches of rain in one day in April, followed by a hailstorm later in the month virtually destroyed the crop. This season was the death knell of the strawberry boom, for the industry never recovered its former prosperity. However, strawberries continue to be an important crop, as Ponchatoula's annual strawberry festival, held every April, attests.

Essay written by the Louisiana Division of Historic Preservation

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