New pocket park highlights beauty of area, efforts between partners

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Jefferson Street Pocket Park

Additional information and photos by Hannah Richardson, lifestyleeditor@natchitochestimes.com

A dedication service for the new pocket park located on Jefferson Street was Friday, Oct. 2 at its location next to Fort St. Jean Baptiste. The new Jefferson Street Pocket Park was funded in part by the Natchitoches Historic District Development Commission, the City of Natchitoches and the Cane River National Heritage Area.

“This is really, truly a collaboration effort between a lot of partners,” said Van Erikson, NHDDC Chairman. “From the HDDC standpoint, we’ve been doing pocket parks for the last 7 to 8 years. This is the fifth pocket park in Natchitoches. We really wanted to develop the green spaces downtown to give residents and tourists a place to take in the scenery. This is the perfect opportunity to do that.”

The Jefferson Street Park honors the Jefferson Highway, America’s first intercontinental roadway, stretching through the Louisiana Purchase Territory from Winnipeg, Canada, to New Orleans. The interpretive signage, created by Cane River National Heritage Area, was unveiled at the park as part of the dedication ceremony. “I know many of our residents will enjoy this park for years to come,” said Mayor Ronnie Williams.

The site of the new park was once occupied by a dry-cleaners and two other buildings. The city acquired the land and buildings and demolished the buildings and the park was created to not only honor the highway, but to also help protect the natural wet lands located between the Park and Ft. St. Jean Baptiste. It was a project started by Cynthia Sutton, the Cane River National Heritage Area’s former director. Sutton passed away in July 2019. “[Sutton] meant a lot to all of us,” said Erikson. “This is one of the last projects she took the lead on and really wanted to make happen. For us, this is truly a dedication to her and what she wanted. She was a big driving force and we can’t thank her enough and thank our partnership.”

Rebecca Blankenbaker, the CRNHA’s current Executive Director spoke to the gathered crowd about the history of the Jefferson Highway in Natchitoches. “Every place has a story to tell,” said Blankenbaker. “If you just dig a little deeper, you can learn a lot about an area.”

Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser was also in attendance at the dedication ceremony and said a few words. “This community has always led that charge in this love and passion for Louisiana. Great job; you guys (the partners) knocked it out of the park!”

The Jefferson Highway was built as a guided road for automobile travelers from 1915-25. The highway is named after the third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, for his role in the 1803 Louisiana Purchase. The original conception was formed in Iowa by E.T. Meredith, a publisher of popular publications such as “Successful Farming,” “Better Homes and Gardens, Ladies Home Journal,” “Country Life” and “Family Circle” magazines. “The highway was advertised as ‘From Pine to Palm Highway,’ a hard surfaced roadway that can be used in all weather conditions,” said Loring Miller, a member of the Jefferson Highway Association board of directors. “Hard surfaced in those days meant rock, brick, gravel, concrete, etc. Hard surfaced meant that it wasn’t mud. It was graded and surfaced in such a way so that wagons and cars wouldn’t bog down in the mud.”

The Good Roads Movement was put together to accommodate bicycle traffic, but it advanced, of course, into the automobile traffic. By early 1926, over 235,000 vehicles were registered in Louisiana. A large number of automobiles were being manufactured and rolling out, yet, there were few roads for these cars to travel. This offered an opportunity to promote tourism along the Jefferson Highway route and encourage travelers to venture further from home without having to take a train.

From left are Natchitoches Mayor Ronnie Williams, Rebecca Blankenbaker (CRNHA), Vanner Erikson (NHDDC) and Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser as they unveiled the new signage at the Jefferson Street Park. Photo by Hannah Richardson

Jefferson Highway was organized and constructed through one Canadian Province and seven states including Minnesota, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas and Louisiana. Several years later a scenic route through Arkansas added the eighth state. This was before State and Federal highway departments were formed in 1926. Most named highways all over the United States were lost due to the implementation of the interstate roadway numbering system and the Jefferson Highway was divided into several roadway numbers. Those numbers in Louisiana include but are not limited to: US Hwy 171, LA 120, La 6, US 71, LA 8, US 165, LA 10, LA 986,LA 73, LA 44, LA 48, LA942, LA 75, US 61 and US 90. Today, the original Jefferson Highway does not exist in many areas, having been replaced or bypassed by interstate highways. The original Jefferson Highway became the basis for parts of the U.S. Highway System established in 1926. The current Jefferson Highway Association was re-organized in 2011 and the Natchitoches Convention & Visitors Bureau was a founding member of the renewed organization.

In 2016, Natchitoches was featured in a documentary produced by Josiah Laubenstein and Darrell Johnson as they traced the original route of the highway, driving from Winnipeg, Canada, in the a 1954 Dodge Royale to celebrate the highway’s 100 year anniversary. The documentary was shown at the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame and Northwest Louisiana Museum in October 2016. Natchitoches welcomed the Jefferson Highway Association and many of its members in April 2019 as the Natchitoches CVB hosted the annual Jefferson Highway International Conference with more than 60 delegates from 12 states and three countries attending.