A good segment of the people of what was the northwestern part of St. Landry Parish started pushing for a parish of their own in the late 1800s. They said it was too hard to get to Opelousas, where they had to go to pay taxes, sit on juries, or go to court.
Seventy miles of bad roads separated a big part of the population from the parish seat, and that meant a two-day trip by horse and buggy, if there was no mud or not too much dust. When the trains came through St. Landry in the 1880s, they passed through Opelousas, but didn’t get to the northwest corner. When the northwest corner finally got trains, they didn’t go to Opelousas.
Besides, the people thought, they were just plain ignored half of the time because of the old adage “out of sight, out of mind.”
The first organized push to create the new parish was in 1890, but there was not enough support in the legislature and nothing came of it. There was another attempt in 1895, when a group of citizens from Bayou Chicot, Pine Prairie and Ville Platte tried to get an organized campaign going. That created enough momentum that Patrick Donahey, a candidate for the legislature in 1900, campaigned on the pledge to create a separate parish. He won the election but still didn’t have the votes in the legislature.
When the bill was reintroduced in 1904, opponents, mostly from the Opelousas area, sent lobbyists to Baton Rouge, who claimed the leaders from Pine Prairie, Eunice, Ville Platte and Mamou wanted to create a new parish simply because they couldn’t get elected to anything in the old one.
Sheriff Marion Swords and Judge E.T. Lewis were among the most vocal of the opponents, but District Attorney R. Lee Garland said he would go along with the will of the people—if they could ever get the issue to a vote.
When elections were held for the legislature in 1908, separation was the biggest issue in the parish. Candidates P.L. Fontenot and H.E. Curry of Ville Platte, William Clark of Pine Prairie, and Y.L. Fontenot of Beaver Creek pushed for the separation and Fontenot was elected over a slate of candidates from Opelousas who opposed it. Just as important, J.Y. Sanders was elected governor and said he would support separation.
In May 1908 a bill introduced by Fontenot passed both houses of the legislature and was signed into law by the governor, but the opponents challenged it in court. They claimed that the creation of the new parish also created a new legislative seat. The state constitution set the number of legislators at 116. To add another one, the opponents argued, would be unconstitutional.
The case went to the Louisiana Supreme Court, where Judge Olivier Provosty wrote the decision that ruled there were sufficient constitutional issues to kill the law. But the court also ruled that it would be legal to hold a referendum on the issue and to decide where the parish seat would be—if a constitutional law was enacted.
Eunice, Mamou, Ville Platte, and Pine Prairie each wanted to be the courthouse town. When the vote was taken, it was overwhelmingly in favor of separation and Ville Platte was selected as the parish seat.
Opponents and proponents gathered their forces in a series of mass meetings, some of them pretty ugly, before the 1910 session of the legislature, when Fontenot offered another bill, this time making sure that all of the legalities were taken care of. It once again passed handily, with one amendment, changing the border so that Eunice remained in St. Landry Parish. The people there decided that, if they couldn’t be the parish seat they didn’t want to be in the new parish. That’s why St. Landry has a big nose pointing west along U.S. Hwy. 190.
This time there was no challenge. Evangeline Parish, sans Eunice, became Louisiana’s 61st parish on June 15, 1910.
You can contact Jim Bradshaw at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.