Travel through Louisiana’s pine forests and blackberry farms on the Myths and Legends Byway, a 181-mile drive lined with tall tales based on true stories.
Beginning in Southwest Louisiana at the Texas state line, the Myths and Legends Byway winds through Vernon, Beauregard and Allen parishes, traveling mostly through flat land originally settled by Atakapa and Coushatta Indians. “The Myths and Legends Byway was built on using the stories, pictures and culture of a time when land pirates and outlaws ran the area known as No Man’s Land,” says Adagria Haddock, Allen Parish Tourist Commission executive director. Travelers along this stretch of road can expect to find ties to Aaron Burr, a pioneer cemetery featuring grave houses and a mysterious Gothic jail.
Vernon Parish is a stop full of history and a great place to enter the byway. With its parish seat of Leesville, named for Robert E. Lee, Vernon is proud of its history as “No Man’s Land.” What was the disputed border of Mexico and the city of Burr Ferry were one of the earliest settlements in this area. Burr Ferry was named after Vice President Aaron Burr’s brother, Dr. Timothy Burr. He first visited in 1809, and by the 1820s moved to the area to practice medicine from his home plantation.
Burr lived on Pearl Creek, which empties into the Sabine River. Although his home was on the Louisiana side of the river, his land and slaves were across the river in Texas. He used a ferry to get back and forth—and by 1847 it became his namesake. Burr Ferry Confederate Breastworks (listed on the National Register of Historic Places) is a must-see for history buffs, built during the Civil War to protect Texas from invasion. Talbert-Pierson Cemetery in Cravens is another unique stop in Vernon Parish. This spooky graveyard shelters the Talbert and Pierson families, high class pioneers who settled here in the 1860s. Thirteen graves are covered with grave houses and covered with shells, a special Upland South tradition.
There are even more stories to be found in Allen Parish. Elizabeth City Hall, originally built in 1924 as a hospital, is said to be haunted by former patients, then there’s the Leatherwood House Museum that dates back to 1888. Signaling the end of the byway in Oakdale, the recently opened museum tells the story of the region’s timber industry. Stop at Fausto’s restaurant in Kinder for fried oysters, catfish, gumbo and burgers, served up alongside a taxidermy showroom.
In Beauregard Parish, don’t miss the museum (pictured) housed in a former railroad depot. It’s local artifacts are especially notable for containing more than 3,000 dolls. Legend has it that a little girl named Lois Loftin had no dolls growing up, so she began accumulating them as an adult and left her collection to the museum.
Louisiana’s Myths and Legends Byway might end in Allen Parish, but the most intriguing stop is the Gothic Jail of Beauregard Parish. The jail itself was the first in the United States to have a window, toilets and showers in every cell. It is the only known penal institution in the country to be constructed in the “Collegiate Gothic” design of the 20th century, having shallow arches, dormer windows and a single tower serving as an exclamation. The opulent building features a spiral staircase leading to all three floors and was built next to the courthouse so that a tunnel could run underneath to transport prisoners back and forth without being seen.
The building got its nickname “The Hanging Jail” when two prisoners, Joe Genna and Molton Brasseaux, were hung for murdering a taxi driver in 1926. After trying to steal money from the driver, Genna and Brasseaux hit the driver 15 times, stabbed him and threw his body off of a bridge. They hijacked the car and took the money, but were caught two days later and hung in August of 1928. Their hangings took place on the third floor of the jail above the spiral staircase in view of the other prisoners’ jail cells. This was the first execution DeRidder had seen and some say their spirits still linger around, flickering lights and slamming doors.
The Hanging Jail was closed to inmates in 1984. Ghost hunters around the country have investigated the building, and almost all of them have claimed to experience some sort of paranormal activity that can be proven with sound or images. An eerie photo of the exterior with a ghostly figure on the front porch has led some to believe an old jailer still hangs around.
Renovations to the Gothic Jail now allow visitors a glimpse into the day-to-day running of the jail, as well as a vision of what living in the jail was like for the jailer and his family. The first floor, or the jailers’ quarters, and the second floor jail cells are available for tours, with the third floor closed off for now. Tours are open to the public Monday through Friday at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. for $5.
“Our ultimate goal is to have the jail serve as an interpretive center for the Myths and Legends Byway,” says Lori Darbonne, Beauregard Parish Tourist Commission executive director. “The Gothic Jail serves as a cultural artifact for Louisiana and our area.”
Through its rich history, experiences, tales and ghost stories, the Myths and Legends Byway offers an intriguing trip for summer travelers. The stops themselves are great, but the stories that go along with each of them help make the experience even richer.
Photo credits, from top: Burrs Ferry Bridge by Patrick Feller and Vernon Parish Courthouse and Beauregard Museum by J. Stephen Conn, from Flickr Creative Commons; and Gothic Jail courtesy of Louisiana Tourism.