New book explores deep historical roots of Capitol Park, Spanish
Town in Baton Rouge

Jul 24, 2017 - 8:00 pm

Pam Bordelon
Matt Isch is quite the puzzle master, but don't look for his work on the crosswords page.

Isch has put together a key part of Baton Rouge in a new book, "Images of America: Capitol Park and Spanish

Isch, who grew up in Mississippi but spent summers in Baton Rouge with relatives and once worked for former
Gov. Dave Treen, knew the area but not its stories.

"I'd talk to my friend, Darryl Gissel, who lives in Spanish Town, and he would tell me things about the area. Every
week, hundreds of tourists turn up in downtown Baton Rouge and get on a bus to go look at plantation homes and
swamps," Isch says. "He told me that if they knew the history of downtown, too, they would want to tour this area
as well."

That prodded Isch to explore the area's deep roots.

"I wanted to figure out a way to tie Capitol Park and Spanish Town together because they really are the same
neighborhood," says Isch of the area north of downtown Baton Rouge between the Mississippi River and Interstate

The book begins with the area's earliest inhabitants, the Bayougoula and Houma tribes — who go back some 10,000
years — and ends with the infamous Spanish Town Mardi Gras Parade.

The Native Americans constructed a ceremonial mound, which is thought to be the oldest man-made object in
Capitol Park, near the Arsenal Museum. In 1699, the French arrived and gave Baton Rouge its name. They were
followed by the English, who improved upon the old French fort, which fell to the Spanish in 1779.

By the time of the Civil War, Spanish Town was a bustling neighborhood. That changed when the Union army came
through and burned down all of its houses, except those along North Street, Isch says. It was primarily rebuilt by
local slaves.

"Most slaves were freed by the Emancipation Proclamation with two exceptions — south Louisiana and a portion of
western Virginia that is now the state of West Virginia," says Isch. "Baton Rouge slaves were among those freed by
the 13th Amendment, and it was them, along with runaway slaves, that started the rebuilding of Spanish Town."
That's just one of the many historical discoveries Isch made while researching the book, which includes hundreds of
historical photos.

"You don't really write this kind of book," he says. "It's more like putting together a puzzle."

Such as the piece that's former President Zachary Taylor's horse, "Whitey," who could be spotted from Taylor's
home on the Mississippi River.

He also discovered that in the 1930s, the State Capitol had an official hostess.

"Her name was Helen Wurzlow, and she served as a tour guide for visitors. She also wrote a visitor's handbook,
'Louisiana Its Capitol,'” says Isch. "She was a native of Houma and lived in a boarding house in Spanish Town for a
while. She later went on to write for newspapers in New Orleans and Houma."

And then there's the story of Spanish Town resident Collett E. Woolman, who worked in the early 1920s as an agent
at the nearby LSU Agricultural Experiment Station, where he nurtured an interest in agricultural aviation. Woolman
eventually became one of the founders and first CEO of Delta Airlines. His Spanish Town home, which is still
standing, is an "airplane bungalow," characterized by a “pop-up” second floor, usually of one or two rooms,
resembling the cockpit of an airplane.

Here's some other pieces to the puzzle:

•        The first church in Spanish Town was established by the Rev. George Boyd, of Virginia, in 1872. His
congregation laid the cornerstone for the first Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church.

•        Kappa Alpha Order was the first social fraternity at LSU, which at the time was still downtown. Its seven
members lived in a house on Spanish Town Road.

•        Louisiana's first female statewide elected official, Lucille May Grace, grew up in Spanish Town. She followed
in the footsteps of her father, Fred Grace, as state land registrar.

•        In 1970, a dynamite bomb exploded in the Senate Chamber. A pencil thrown into the ceiling by the blast has
remained there for more than 45 years.

•        The gravesite statue of Huey P. Long on the State Capitol grounds was one of the last commissions of famed
New York sculptor Charles E. Keck.

Follow Pam Bordelon on Twitter, @pamspartyline.