Around Louisiana: Cajun Country

Citrus with a smile

Each October the sight of satsumas pleasantly reminds me of a Sunday morning the autumn that I was 7. It was the first cool day after the onslaught of summer. The house was wide open to the wonderful air as my mother slipped my arms into a warm white sweater and gave me a plump satsuma that I placed in the basket on my bike.

I pedaled to the end of our block in Uptown New Orleans to chat with Daniel and Verdie, an adult brother and sister who both had cerebral palsy and, like my mother, came from Avoyelles Parish. They always sat in their side yard and were always glad to see me. The roots of the giant sycamore on their corner had pushed the sidewalk up –– this served as my seat. I ate my satsuma as the three of us discussed upcoming Halloween and the nice lady down the block who opened her house to trick-or-treaters and served them bags of fresh buttered popcorn. Their redheaded sister, Nan, who took care of them and never stopped working or smiling, waved at me from the kitchen window. City dwellers were allowed to have leaf fires then, and the autumn air was spiced with their fragrance. Satsumas always bring that memory back to me.

Early settlers first began planting satsuma trees below New Orleans near the mighty Mississippi. The southernmost parishes of Louisiana, especially Vermilion, are ideal for growing satsumas. Satsuma-growing has been a Louisiana tradition since the 1880s and really took off after seedling planting was replaced by the sowing of budded trees. The budded trees produced the fruit quickly; by 1890, groves of satsuma trees were a ubiquitous sight in South Louisiana. Satsumas belong to the mandarin orange family, and though China gets credit for their origin, reports of satsumas first being grown in Japan more than 700 years ago exist. In 1876, satsumas were introduced for the first time to the United States in Florida by a gentleman named George R. Hall. But it is the wife of Gen. Van Valkenburg, U.S. minister to Japan, who introduced the fruit’s name to America in 1878 when she sent trees from Satsuma, a former province that was on the tip of Kyushu Island. During the first decade of the 20th century, a million satsuma trees were planted along the Gulf Coast from Texas to Florida.

The harvesting of satsumas usually begins mid-October and can last until Mardi Gras. Like any citrus fruit, they are rich in vitamin C and very beneficial health-wise. According to Asian tradition, satsumas symbolize the union of family and newlyweds who will never separate.

Whatever happened to Leonce?

Twenty-something years ago, when author Christine Word set out on her mission to collect true ghost stories for her book, Ghosts Along the Bayou, she had a firsthand encounter with Leonce in Grand Prairie. (The very name Leonce strikes fear in my heart –– I had a relative named Leonce, long-dead before I was born, who was reputed to be as mean as Hitler. The night after he died, someone unseen kept dragging a stool through my great-grandmother’s pantry in Bordelonville, and everyone just knew it was Leonce.)

An elderly lady in Grand Prairie lived in a 200-year-old Acadian house that was built of cypress, possessing a deep shady porch and a tin roof that was lovely to sleep under during a rainfall. She decided to put vinyl siding on the outside of the cypress house and replace the back porch steps. By doing so, she seemingly opened the portals to hell.

According to Christy Viviano in Haunted Louisiana, the workmen tried to drive pilings into the site of the back porch steps but found a hard, unyielding surface beneath the ground. After this, the house came alive. Water would periodically gush from out of nowhere, drenching whomever it targeted. Mattresses and bedding were mysteriously soaked, and puddles materialized on the floor. Plumbers could find no damage to pipes, and water still appeared even when the house supply was purposefully cut off. Then, furniture began overturning. Rice began falling from out of nowhere, and pecans were zinged at guests. It was poltergeist activity at full throttle. The lady’s teenage grandson began to get phone calls in the middle of the night –– supposedly from his grandmother, who did not call him, and as witnessed by Word and told in her book, the grandmother’s phone rang repeatedly with calls supposedly from her grandson, who, at the time, was in no position to call. A psychic told the elderly lady their ghost was named Leonce and that the reasons for his anger were twofold: Not only had she ruined his beautiful cypress house by covering it with siding, but the workmen also disturbed his grave beneath the back porch steps.

The elderly lady has since gone to her reward, and new owners occupy the house. They were very tight-lipped about any activity that may have gone on there, perhaps hoping to drive away the long line of curiosity-seekers who always hung around the house. Still, I can’t help but wonder: Has Leonce calmed down, or is he still there?