Notes from the forgotten South
Zwolle, Louisiana, pronounced ZWAH-LEE, owes its existence to Arthur Edward Stilwell, a New Yorker who, like many late-nineteenth-century businessmen, dreamt of building a railroad. In the 1880s Stilwell moved to Missouri and launched his great project, a line of tracks to connect Kansas City with the Gulf Coast. The Panic of 1893 ruined him, and he sought advice from spiritual guides who suggested he look for money in Holland. He did, and while there a Dutch merchant whom he had vacationed with the summer before, Jan De Goeijen, bought $3 million worth of stock in his company, allowing Stilwell to build the first leg of what was to become the Kansas City Southern Railway, linking Kansas City to Shreveport.
From Shreveport, there was disagreement over where the railway would go next. Advisors suggested Stilwell lay tracks south to Galveston, Texas, already a busy port town, but Stilwell, guided by psychic hunches, declared that Galveston would be destroyed by a tidal wave. Instead he built his railroad through rural western Louisiana, and in 1897 it was completed. One of the towns that had sprung up along the track was Zwolle, named for the seaside town in the Netherlands where Jan De Goeijen grew up. A few years later the hurricane of 1900 obliterated Galveston.
During the early 1940s, the Nazis invaded the town of Zwolle, Holland. In 1948 the mayor of Zwolle, Louisiana, Joe B. Parrott, received a letter from De Goeijen’s son, who was hiding out in France:
“I want you to know that the well-being of the Kansas City Southern, which my father has been so proud to have helped create, will have forever a place in the hearts of my family . . . The Huns destroyed [my father’s hometown]. But your place is on the globe’s map and shall remain there forever. In these days it is consoling to know, more than ever, that whatever may happen to Zwolle, Holland, or in whoever’s hand it may someday be, Zwolle, Louisiana shall carry on the traditions of freedom. May thus it be!”
I am sitting in the Zwolle, Louisiana, courthouse, a low-ceilinged fluorescent-lit room with walls covered in posters from Zwolle’s two big festivals (the Loggers and Forestry Festival and the Tamale Fiesta). I’m reading about the town’s history in a big black book titled Zwolle, Louisiana: Our Story: Portrait of a Small Town, when in bursts a black woman in nursing scrubs patterned with butterflies.
Her name is Cheryl Calhoun, and with her is a husky friend dressed in purple. Cheryl runs the Foxy Lady Club, a juke joint up on Lilac Street, in the black part of town, where people come to drink beer and play pool. “It’s the only pool hall we have on this side of town,” she says. The club has been around for more than fifty years and never has had a liquor license. A church group recently bought the property next door, and plans to build a community center. Cheryl worries that there will be children milling about the center, close to the club, giving the town reason to shut down her establishment. She believes that if she gets the license now, the club will be harder to push out. But the only person who can help is the mayor, G. J. “Pie” Martinez, who is out to lunch.
“I understand the land was bought, and I can’t go at them—they’re Christian peoples,” Cheryl pleads to me, “but why do they have to build a community center in this place?”
Suddenly, reading about Zwolle’s history in a book doesn’t seem as important as what’s happening all around me. So I shut the book and head for Lilac Street.
The Kansas City Southern Railway runs through the middle of downtown Zwolle like a main street, and about once an hour a freight train barrels by, shaking the storefronts, which are drab and yellow-brown, the color of Indian corn. I cross the tracks as a train approaches and walk east out of town along North Main Street, avoiding anthills, birds hee-hawing in the thicket. At Horton Street I turn left and enter a little neighborhood. The homes are mostly tan, gray, and white trailers sitting on stilts or square concrete blocks. There’s a dirt yard piled with soiled mattresses, an overturned couch in a driveway. Beat-up cars with pimped rims creep by real slow, thumping syrupy rap. I walk along the shoulder on pine needles, waving at everyone.
A red sports car stops beside me. “Sir!” someone yells out the window. It’s Cheryl’s friend.
“Foxy Lady is that building up there on the corner,” she says.
The club has no sign or logo or address; it doesn’t even have windows. Foxy Lady is a gray shack made of wood scraps. Beside the club is a field of wildflowers, where the church wants to build the community center. A sign reads: sabine community connection – neighbors helping neighbors. I knock on the club’s door, then wait a few minutes. No one is around. In a vacant dirt lot across the street, under a thick-trunked oak tree with a tremendous knot at its base, are three black men sitting on stumps and stools, drinking Paul Masson brandy.
“Mise a well pop a squat and get drunk,” a man named Holzy tells me, after I introduce myself. He’s wearing a Kangol beret and fancy white moccasins made of alligator skin. I sit on a twisted root and Holzy passes me the brandy. A big man named Thomas Toombs surfaces from beneath a truck, where he was changing his oil. Thomas has on jeans and a dusty t-shirt and is chewing on a cigar. He asks me skeptically what I’m doing here. I tell him I’m writing a book about small towns in the South. When I show him my notepad and pens he loosens up and says, “He gonna make Zwolle a famous place on the map!”
A Jeep Grand Cherokee drives by slowly as we talk. Holzy gives the driver a nod. The man opens the door and bows, then produces a small bottle of gin from under his seat and flashes it at us, smiling. “He’s my cousin,” says Holzy.
A school bus stops. The driver honks and Holzy waves. His granddaughter gets off the bus and comes over to ask Holzy for a dollar. She must be twelve or thirteen, in a pink sweatshirt and ponytail. Holzy tells her he doesn’t have a dollar and sends her down the road.
“Hey, you see that fence?” says Thomas, pointing across the street to the field of wildflowers with the Sabine Community Connection sign. The field serves as Foxy Lady’s parking lot but is now owned by the church. I hadn’t noticed, but there’s a wood and wire fence blocking off the field from the road. Apparently, town workers came very early this morning and put the fence up, leaving the club without a parking lot. “That cold-blooded church!” says Thomas.
An older, bedraggled man pulls up on a bicycle.
“Pap they call me,” he says, breathing real hard. “My opinion is this: Why they have to block this motherfucker up? Why can’t they put a motherfucking community center in town?”
“This is kind of fucked up,” agrees Holzy, and lights a clove cigarette.
“They ain’t learning a damn thing in school,” Pap adds. “They ain’t teaching them anything, too. Now why they blocked up a black neighborhood? It’s still ass-backwards.”
“This is a country town,” says Holzy.
“Fuck that,” says Pap. “We don’t care what kind of town. You get all the educated motherfuckers and now every damn thing and they the dumbest damn motherfuckers there is.” Pap rides off on his bicycle.
A breeze rustles the oak leaves. Time is marching along and I tell the men I must be going. Thomas shakes my hand.
“You stop in Tallulah,” he says. “Right across from Vicksburg. And you tell ’em Thomas Toombs sent you.”
Holzy insists on taking me back downtown. He drives an old maroon Buick with a hula girl hanging from the rearview mirror. The car reeks of cigarette smoke. A man in a Sean John cap, who sat with us under the tree but said nothing, rides shotgun with a Budweiser. We blast rap and creep back to town, past everything I had walked by before—the mattresses, the trailer homes—then down Horton Street and back to North Main and the white part of town. Sean John makes a call on his cell phone as Holzy drops me off by the train tracks.
“If you ever come back,” says Holzy, “I’ll be here till I die.”
Mayor G. J. “Pie” Martinez is back from lunch and in his office, picking his teeth with a toothpick. The mayor is a brawny, leather-skinned, seventy-two-year-old man wearing a collared shirt tucked into blue jeans, tan workman’s boots, and a silver wristwatch. His ancestors are Spanish and he comes from a long line of lumbermen. “That’s the only life my people knew,” he says. “Now people are more educated. Back then they weren’t so educated. I think until the 1950s we only had eleven grades.” His cellphone rings, but he doesn’t answer.
“Mayor must be a tough job?” I ask.
“It drives me slap crazy,” he says. “We just wanna keep moving on. Everyone wants prosperity.”
I follow Pie through the courtroom and into a dark gray hallway with four empty jail cells, each holding a toilet and a cot. Against the concrete wall in back is a showerhead and on the floor is a drain. “Showered ’em right here,” says Pie. Offenders are now kept in a big new county facility. Pie leads me outside and around back to an even older jail, a caved-in brick building filled with rotting leaves. Inside the crumbled structure is a white man in a V-neck shirt and Diesel shoes, snapping photos with an iPhone. He’s a Texas A&M nursing professor and hobby genealogist named Cody Bruce. The mayor gives him a hearty handshake. Turns out they’re cousins.
Cody is here with his aunt, Betty Rivers, who is sitting in a black BMW, panting in the heat. “This is the perfect woman for you to talk to!” says the mayor. I introduce myself. She has gray hair and dark shades. Betty tells me she knows all the old stories. One involves a man who dug his way out of jail. I gaze beyond the caved-in brick building to the Dollar General and beyond that to the lumber mill, billowing smoke and dust, massive machines twirling about, stacks of logs reaching for the sun. “I can give you oodles and oodles,” says Betty. “I’ve got a whole book.”
A horn shrieks, signaling the approach of another Kansas City Southern train. It passes and Zwolle shudders. I think of De Goeijen and his hometown of Zwolle obliterated by the Huns.
Back in the mayor’s office, I finally get the question out. “What did you tell the two black women who were in here before, the ones looking to get the liquor license?”
Pie laughs. “I told ’em to get a lawyer.”