Jul 17, 2010

Crazy Acres...

In early 1969, my brother Bill and his wife Joni decided to look for a larger home. They, along with twin sons Mark and David, were living in Slidell, Louisiana. They had decided to look at property further east, especially along the Mississippi gulf coast around Bay St. Louis, Waveland, and Pass Christian. Ultimately they decided to build a new home in a tiny private development community on Menge Avenue, north of Pass Christian. Menge Avenue was a sometimes gravel, sometimes mud road that had it's own exit (Exit 24) on Interstate 10. And within a half mile of that exit was the gate announcing Lazy Acres. Bill and Joni bought the lot at the entrance, and though their house faced Lazy Acres Road, their driveway exited onto Menge Avenue.

Richeliu Apartments after Hurricane Camille. T...Image via Wikipedia
Richeleiu Apartments after Camille

Not long after they started construction, in August of 1969, Hurricane Camille came ashore into Bay St. Louis, killing 143 people in and near Pass Christian. Eight of those killed were at the Richeleiu Apartments in Pass Christian. Twenty-three people are known to have stayed in the Richelieu Apartments during the hurricane, of whom eight died. The three story apartment building was completely destroyed, but the contractor who was building my brother's house bought tons of bricks from the demolished structure. Bill and Joni's house was built using those bricks. The storm destroyed the framing that had been completed on their house, wiping the slab clean, but that was soon rebuilt.

A recent image of Bill and Joan's home (courtesy of Google Maps)
In mid-1970, the Meads -- Bill, Joan, Mark, David, and Dino (a part poodle) moved into the new house. What set the Meads apart was that they were young and had two young children. Mark and David were 9 years old. It didn't take long to become acquainted with all the neighbors, most of whom were grandparents many times over. Lazy Acres was made up of 6 homes, all of which were very nice. There was also a pond and a three-hole golf course. To describe the neighbors as interesting would be a gross understatement.
Next door to the Meads lived Claude and Peggy Duke.  Claude was an attorney who for many years had been the Attorney of Record for the Orleans Levee Board. Founded in 1890, the Orleans Levee Board was the body in charge of supervising the levee and floodwall system in Orleans Parish, Louisiana, which is intended to protect the city of New Orleans from flooding. The Orleans Levee Board was a major governmental entity that functioned independently of municipal government in and around Orleans Parish, Louisiana. Claude Duke had enormous political clout and knew every influential politician in the very political state of Louisiana.  His obituary in the New Orleans Times-Picayune in January 1996 provides some insight:
"As a member of the Old Regulars political organization, Mr. Duke was elected
to the state House representing the 14th Ward in 1932. After serving one term,
he won a Senate seat from the Uptown area in 1936.

In the Senate, Mr. Duke was a floor leader for the city's legislative delegation and forged a close relationship with Mayor Robert Maestri. In 1940, he joined the Maestri administration, serving as an assistant city attorney and one of the mayor's closest advisers.

During his term in the Senate, Mr. Duke also began a lasting friendship with then-Lt. Gov. Earl Long.

When Maestri was voted out of office in 1946, Mr. Duke dropped out of public life until 1957, when Gov. Long named him president of the Orleans Levee Board.

Shortly after assuming that post, Mr. Duke entered the New Orleans mayor's race, challenging longtime incumbent deLesseps "Chep" Morrison, who was seeking his fourth term. The year before, Long had defeated Morrison in a bitterly contested governor's race.

Mr. Duke ran with the backing of the Regular Democratic Organization, which had struggled for years to regain the political clout it lost when Morrison took office in 1946.

Although Morrison easily won re-election, Mr. Duke remained as Levee Board president through 1960, when Gov. Jimmie Davis replaced him with Gerald Gallinghouse. But Mr. Duke remained a member of the board for another eight years, reappointed by Davis in 1960 and by Gov. John McKeithen in 1964.

During Mr. Duke's tenure, the Levee Board donated the land that became the campus of Louisiana State University in New Orleans, now the University of New Orleans.

After leaving public life a second time, Mr. Duke was chief counsel to the Mississippi River Bridge Authority for several years."

Peggy Duke had been married and divorced prior to marrying Claude. Her first husband had been Louisiana Governor Huey Long's Lieutenant Governor. The story I heard more than once was that Peggy's divorce settlement in 1935 was $1 million cash.  Both Peggy and Claude loved the Meads from the very start.  They were very outspoken, extremely colorful individuals.  Peggy had the vocabulary of a sailor.  I recall pulling into the Mead's driveway one Friday afternoon.  One of the neighbors had passed away that day after an extended illness.  Peggy was working in her garden when she heard me pull in.  She stood up and peeked out from under her poke bonnet.  At the top of her lungs, she announced, "Uncle Bob, the old bastard finally croaked!"  There was never any doubt where she stood.

Next to the Dukes lived Harvey and Viginia Blankenship.  They were a quiet couple who tended to their own business.  They wintered at Lazy Acres and spent their summers at a home in Minnesota near the Canadian border.  I don't know how they had made their fortune, but there was little doubt that they were financially secure.

Beyond the Blankenships was the home of Bill and "Jack" (I believe her correct name was Jacqueline) Harrison.  Bill was the individual who had bought the land and developed Lazy Acres.  The prevailing story that was was that he had been bird hunting in the area a few years before and had seen some surveyors.  Inquiring what they were surveying, he was told that they were involved in determining the right-of-way for the new interstate highway that was to be built.  Bill immediately purchased as much land as he could in the immediate area and made a handsome profit selling some of it to the government when the final interstate right-of-way was determined.  He developed Lazy Acres on some of the land adjacent to the interstate.

Bill Harrison's grandfather had been a furrier in New Orleans.  In the nineteenth century, Louisiana furriers did their own trapping and tanning of hides.  The elder Mr. Harrison had obtained long-term leases on thousands of acres of swampland in which he could trap beaver, otter, nutria, and other fur-bearing creatures.  This was in an era before anyone considered surface and subsurface leases, never dreaming of the enormous wealth that lay below the swampland.  When gas and oil were discovered under some of the leased property, the Harrisons became very well heeled indeed.

Bill and Jack were devout Catholics and had several children.  On most weekends their sizeable home was a hive of activity with plenty of family members of three generations involved.  They also had a lovely swimming pool that other Lazy Acres residents could "join" and use.  For a while, I dated their daughter Susan, who lived in New Orleans and spent weekends with her parents, so I got to see the Harrisons fairly often.

Next to the Harrisons lived Mal and Marie McIlwain.  Mal was the owner and CEO of McIlwain Cadillac of Metarie, Louisiana. In the 1970's, his was the largest Cadillac dealership in the state.  Marie had been Mal's secretary.  After his first wife passed away, he and Marie had dated and eventually were married.  Mal was an active amateur radio operator and could afford the very latest state-of-the-art radio equipment.  He collected so-called "QSL cards" from hundreds of radio amateurs every year from all over the globe as evidence of his devotion and skill.

The last house on Lazy Acres Drive was seldom occupied.  It belonged to a congressman, whom I believe was from Connecticut.  I don't recall his name, as he and his wife were only there infrequently.

The Great Wall of McIlwain
Lazy Acres supported an active social calendar. All the residents, with the exception of my brother's family, could afford to entertain in any style they wished. Cocktail and dinner parties were frequent and sometimes lavish.  And the liquor flowed freely for those wishing to imbibe.  On one occasion, the McIlwains and the Harrisons were dining together.  Bill Harrison, having had a few drinks, informed Mal McIlwain that Marie wasn't exactly the brightest lady who had ever showed up at Lazy Acres.  Mal was outraged and let Bill know it.  Thus began the great wall war.

Mal and Bill shared a circular driveway that went around the swimming pool and pool house. Not long after the comment about Marie, Mal hired surveyors to determine the exact location of the property line separating his and Harrison's property.  Mal informed Bill Harrison that he could no longer drive on Mal's portion of the circular drive.  Mal also had determined that about four feet of one corner of the pool house was on McIlwain property. He demanded that Bill either move the pool house or cut the corner off and remove it from Mal's land!

Bill offered to deed part of the pool house to Mal or to buy the tiny acreage under the corner of the pool house. Mal would have no part of it. Part of the pool house would have to go. Then the best part of the drama played out.

One day some workmen showed up and began digging a trench about four feet from the property line on Mal's and Marie's property. They soon poured a concrete footing for a wall about forty feet long that would establish once and for all that the Harrisons and the McIlwains had gone their separate ways.  The side of the wall facing the McIlwain's house was beautifully finished with stone veneer and shelves for plantings.  In fact, it was a work of art.  The side facing the Harrisons was an example of masons gone crazy.  Mortar oozed out of joints and drooled down the concrete blocks with ugly irregularity.  No one attempted to make it pretty, and it was far enough into Mal McIlwain's property that no one could refinish or paint it without trespassing.  And as long as I lived on the gulf coast and visited my brother's family, the wall remained as a testimony to two rich men's bickering.

Is it any wonder that my late sister-in-law Joni always referred to their neighborhood as "Crazy Acres?"
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