Lake Claiborne State Park officially opened its gates to the public in May 1974. But, the park did not happen overnight nor without dedicated, exhausting work, and reams of paper. The Emersons and other prominent members of the Claiborne communities spearheaded the effort and after many years of work on that day in 1974, their dream became a reality. The mission was to find a way to increase economic rebirth into the Claiborne Parish area and to provide some form of recreation for the parish residents.
Since its inception, Lake Claiborne State Park has continued to mature. Long range plans since the 1970’s have added many welcome features within the boundaries of the park. Those early goals and careful management over the years have made our state park one of the premier nature and recreation spots in the north central Louisiana area. Interest and popularity have increased by leaps and bounds with successful advertising and the addition of cabins. Tourists from across the United States and foreign countries have regularly visited the park and been delightfully appreciative of the many natural features and facilities.
Centuries ago, this land was wild and free. There were streams and wildlife of all kinds to be found in abundance. Native Americans who lived here or traveled through the area found a vast resource of flora and fauna to sustain their lives. As in many other parts of the country, nearly all of these tribes were nomadic or semi-nomadic.
By the time Europeans arrived, many ages of Indian culture had risen and fallen. Their artifacts can still be found in many fields and along the older streambeds. With the arrival of the early European much of the Indian culture became lost and a new way of life slowly emerged.
Spanish, English, French and the emerging United States vied for land, wealth, and power as those early frontiersmen pushed westward past the Mississippi River. Where once the forests and plains of North Louisiana range with the sounds of wildlife and native tribes, other harsher sounds began to take over. Trees were cleared to make way for pastures and cabins. Land was opened to thousands of people from many cultures and walks of life. These people were eager to claim a place of their own and slip the bonds of their past.
For the most part, these early settlers were tough, self-sufficient woodsmen who fought and often died to establish their homes. Many of the early pioneers traveled through or into North Louisiana in their quest for land. There are a few speculations about the very earliest travelers through the Claiborne area though not much has been found in the way of hard evidence to support the claims. Obviously, the early French fur trappers along with colonial backwoodsmen, and British or Spanish expeditionary forces did explore the area but it wasn’t until the first of the homesteading pioneers arrived that changes began to visibly noticed.
In the early to middle 1800’s, people back East in the colonial states began to read about and listen to tales of the land and animals to be found in the North Louisiana area. Some of the accounts were wildly exaggerated to help catch the eye and spark the interest of the people back East. The Spanish, French and English had already sent out expeditionary forces and in some cases established trading posts and roads throughout this area. Then came the Louisiana Purchase and with it a surge in settlers.
The first act of the Louisiana General Assembly that met in 1807 was the subdivision of land in the state of Louisiana into seventeen divisions known as parishes. The parish of Natchitoches actually encompassed all of Northwest Louisiana from Natchitoches northward. With the influx of colonists, this became an unwieldy way to govern. In 1828, Claiborne Parish was carved out of the Natchitoches Parish.
This newly formed division included most of north-central and northwest Louisiana. It was named for W.C Claiborne who was the first territorial governor of Louisiana. In 1856, Claiborne Parish was the largest upland parish in the state. By 1865, however, Claiborne Parish had also become large in population. It also was sub-divided into smaller parishes. From being the largest upland parish, the boundaries shrunk to become the smallest northern parish.
The same year Claiborne officially became a parish, John Murrell settled in the northern portion near Homer, Louisiana. He was an active businessman and interested in the political growth of his area. In fact, his home was the first place the newly formed parochial government and parish business was conducted. His house stood beside what is now called the Old Military Road. Years before the Legislature had authorized the military to build a north-south highway. This became the logical place for people such as the Murrell family to settle. From 1828 until 1849, the parish seat moved to four different locations that for one reason or another were abandoned as the parochial government. Then in 1849, the governing seat was finally moved to its permanent home in Homer, Louisiana. There was much speculation about the fortuitous move to Homer since the town of Homer did not incorporate until 1850. During the winter of 1849 and early months of 1850, the original courthouse was built and the judge, sheriff, and clerk opened the court. The oldest record of the Police Jury is dated November 6, 1849 because fire had destroyed the earliest records. By 1858 two more courthouse buildings had been erected and abandoned. Finally, in 1860 the last courthouse was built. The Ford Museum in Homer has quite a detailed history of the growth and changes to this part of Claiborne Parish.
On the grounds of the State Park once stood homes of some of the people who moved to settle in the area. Many their names can still be found in today’s local population. Like early settlers everywhere these families came to lay down roots, to carve homes out of the forest, and to begin dynasties. Those who stayed here were survivors. They were tough, independent individualists who ran self-sufficient and self-sustaining farms. They farmed large acres of land, some of the products eventually found their way to market after all that was needed for the farm had been put up for use. Crops like cotton, sugar cane, sweet potatoes, peanuts and a variety of vegetables made up their saleable crops. There were orchards with various fruit including apples, peaches, figs, plums, and pomegranate. From the forests came a variety of furs, fish, meat, nuts and berries for their larder. Many of the women knowledgeable in healing could be found gathering leaves, roots, berries, and flowers for their many medicinal needs.
Few of the early settlers had money to spend. What little they could acquire was spent only on necessities. Farm utensils and equipment, seeds, basic food ingredients such as flour and sugar as well as cloth goods for clothes were about the most that these people had to acquire. If the money was not available, then the farmers made do with what they could make or grow.
While the men planted, harvested, and hunted, the women were also busy. It fell to them to clean, cook, preserve, garden, doctor, and sew everything that the family used. Needless to say, no one living on a farm was ever idle. Eventually, conditions did improve to the point that the people had more time to concentrate on other matters. The men built the mills, prepared syrup, ran the stores, and became involved in politics. Occasionally, some of them made whiskey to sell though women rarely acknowledged that their menfolk would take part in such a sinful enterprise. The women were also able to take part behind the scenes to bring a more civilized society to the area. They as much as the men were responsible for seeing that higher education, arts and music, and law and order prevailed. By the time the Civil War came, there were many landowners that had begun to prosper. As a result stores and other forms of industry moved into the area. Commerce was brisk, education and the arts were prominent features in the area. The economy was booming. With the advent of the Civil War, things changed drastically. Fewer of the early settlers were able to hold on their huge family holdings. Sharecropping and smaller farms became a necessity. The land and people of the park area survived over the years but at great cost.
In the early 1900’s, Homer and Claiborne Parish experienced a resurgence in economy with the discovery of vast fields of oil. The lumber industry also became an important money source. As a result many of the younger people began to emerge into an industrial era where farming was less likely to produce monetary gain over industry.
Several families including the Butlers, Carters, and Simons purchased land in the park between 1885 and 1900. These families worked hard to live in an area where the wealthy were very wealthy and the poor were very poor. The area had just begun after the horrors of the last century to recover from corruption and mismanagement. They like those before them farmed and were self-sufficient. And, like the earlier settlers, produced many of the same crops and relied upon their own farms to provide for their needs.
If you enter the park and drive to the flagpole, you are looking at what once was the home of Mr. and Mrs. Jethro Butler. Mrs. Butler was the daughter of the Carter family. A short distance into
the woods is the old water well for their house (Hole 13 Dogwood). It was about 100-foot deep. The local folk believed the water had natural gas in it. The descendents of this couple remember having fish-fry dinners and parties nearly every weekend. It seems the menfolk would wander down to D’Arbonne Creek a ways from the Butler home. They would either lime the water or use an old Indian trick of crushed black walnut husks to catch fish for dinner. This may not have been the only reason that the menfolk ambled down that way each week. One lady recalled how upset they got when she went down to the place where the wood ash was kept. Wonder what was in that area?
One family member stated that they did not know what money was back then but they sure ate better than most people did in the country. From the forest came deer, squirrel, waterfowl, turkey, fish and other kinds of meat to set on the dinner table. At home, the tables and storage sheds groaned with the weight of the many kinds of canned goods and smoked meats that had come from their gardens and their livestock. To the east side of the well can still be seen evidence of terracing where orchards and gardens flourished. The Butler descendants of today can still recall visiting their Gran’s house.
Further down the road to day use where the day use exit meets the main road is a small clearing. Hidden inside the clearing is little that remains of the J.W.E. Carter home. The bushes you see include crepe myrtle and chinaberry trees. These stood in front of the old house. Further back now is a small cleared area, which was the Carter home site. An old fence marked the location of the house until recently. The Carters settled on the land in between 1880 and 1901. They built what is usually known as a “dog trot” house. They personally called it an open-hall style. Dog trot houses got their name from the open “hallway” between the living areas on each side. This is where literally the dogs could trot through to the other side.
The kitchen of the Carter home stood alone behind the main house structure. This was a common practice back then to keep any kitchen fires (which occurred quite frequently) from spreading to the living quarters. It also helped to keep the heat of the kitchen area from the main part of the house. The old home had a fireplace on each end made from iron ore, mud, and straw. They actually farmed down the hill from their home in the bottoms of what is now the lakebed. The ridges were actually too rocky and full of iron ore for them to use.
Sweet, clear water came from the Butler well. However, their well met with an accident of nature. Lightening struck a huge old tree near the well. Somehow this event introduced alum into their well water. Alum made the water bitter. Like eating a green persimmon or sucking on a lemon, alum “puckers” the mouth. Back in those days, alum was used as a home remedy for reducing wrinkles, keeping strong teeth, and bringing out impurities. It can still be found on some store shelves for its medicinal value. Somehow, one wonders just how much of that alum well water was drunk by the owners or if some of it was set aside as medicine.
At the time the Carters lived on the homestead, the land around the house was very steep. Every time their wagon descended the hill to the fields or the river, the wagon wheels had to be chained in place to keep the wagon from rolling over the mule. When the park road was built, some of the steepest part of the hill was leveled to reduce the grade.
Near the boat ramp is a small foot-bridge that connects the oldest camping area to the day use area. The bridge crosses over what appears to be a tiny stream that tumbles into the cove. Before the lake was formed, this small area was quite different. With a little imagination and the quiet sighs of the wind, one can almost hear the laughter and splashes of the children. This was their favorite water hole to swim in each day. The creek was larger and tumbled into a “wallered” out hole where cows had come for many years to drink their water. The hole was deep and all around it was pretty white sand.
The last homesite to be discussed can be found beside the park road between Area 1 and the cabin road. Going toward Area 2 just before the cabin road, if you look to the left there are huge old white oak trees. These trees stood in front of the Simon’s house. The Simon family who was related to the Carters and Butlers originally owned the house. Scattered around the area are old home site plants long since grown wild. Like the Carters and Butlers, there was much that this family did as they lived in the area. At one time a small tin shed was all that remained to mark the place where they lived. It was used over the years to store potatoes. Most recently , it became home to a family of buzzards who raised their brood within its sheltering walls.
Interesting stories always get passed down through generations of folks. One story passed down concerned the Butler house. Parents and grandparents told the children that an Indian was buried in a small mound close to the house. The children’s’ imaginations kept them well away from the “burial site.” As one of the sisters said, “especially at night.” Easter egg hunts were held each year but even those were kept away from the small mound. While much is still not known about the local native Americans, arrowheads and a few other artifacts have turned up over the years in the plowed fields. Also, according to one person, when the lake water is very low, a few supposed artifacts can be found in one area. So perhaps the story of the Indian holds more than a grain of truth.
There are two very entertaining stories, which traveled down. The first is about the Simon house. It seems that the Simons’ woke one morning to discover a pig was missing. Since it had finally reached eating size, the Simons were understandably worried. They believed the pig had been stolen. Several days later and after much ado, the pig was found. It had accidentally fallen into the well but was still alive and healthy. It survived by living on a narrow ledge near the waterline in the well. Overhead, oak trees were dropping their acorns and some found their way into the well. The pig had plenty to eat and water to drink. Most agreed the pig seemed content in its surroundings but the menfolk were not about to let it stay in its new home. They climbed down and after much effort rousted the pig from the well. The children reckoned that the pig had actually grown some while it was living close to the earth so to speak. It wasn’t long after that the well-dwelling pig became food for the larder. At the same time, the Simon family had another unusual barnyard animal. It seems that they owned several goats. One goat is of particular note because he had learned to herd cattle. Apparently, every morning after the cows were milked, the goat would herd them down into the pasture for the day. Each evening the goat would then go down to the group and herd them back to the barn!
One interesting piece of information that came to light about the park area is that over the years, the army did annual maneuvers and training on the land that is part of the lake and the park. While on one of their training missions, they discovered a cave. For many years army personnel kept supplies hidden in between maneuvers. One man who lived on park property was told of the cave’s location and asked occasionally to retrieve the stockpiled supplies.
In the mid-1960’s, some of the families sold their land willingly to the state government but the Butlers and Carters were forced to sell as part of the state purchase. It had to have been a painful loss to leave behind the land they had worked and the graves of their family members. The land then became the new lake and eventually the homesites became an important part of the State Park.
The majorities of the descendants of those families still live and work around the northern Claiborne area. Most of those descendants approved of the land use.
Lake Claiborne State Park is not just a recreational area but it also holds the history for many of the areas earlier generations. People from all walks of life, different homes with different stories, come through the gates of the park each year. The beauty, peace, and contentment they found within its borders affect them. Perhaps in some small way, they carry them in their hearts and memories—a piece of the history of the families who came before there was a lake or a park.