By Vicki Parrish, APHN
Perhaps the greatest and best assets of any society are the countless volunteer contributions of its citizens. Self-less volunteers who generously dedicate their time and labor are indispensable. They run various charity programs, sporting events, church services and activities, various arts and social events, and they enhance the spirit of worth, which people contribute to a community. Their worth should be weighed in gold, but that would be very costly!
One of the areas in which volunteerism has made its mark in Natchitoches Parish is through the role of historic structure preservation and story telling. Since its beginning in 1714 as the first permanent settlement in the Louisiana Purchase, Natchitoches embodied stories of the fascinating people who lived and settled here and the lives they lived. Stories of Natchitoches forefathers, such as Claude Thomas Pierre Metoyer and Marie Therese Coin Coin, and their many descendants who raised their families and set up homesteads, live on.
Through their hard work and determination, Isle Breville was established, the Melrose historic site was built and cultural legacy spread throughout the whole state of Louisiana and beyond. Being the oldest settlement in the Louisiana Purchase means that the culture of the entire state has foundational relations with our community.
Likewise, in 1941, when architects from the East coast visited Natchitoches and expressed great interest in the uniqueness of our cultural architecture, they were especially interested in the Alexis Lemee House, which had not been occupied for several years. They submitted a bid to purchase it. When a group of volunteer women from Northwestern State College heard of their pending offer, the women approached the Natchitoches City fathers and persuaded them that the historical value of the Lemee home was significantly more important to the heritage and culture of Cane River than to the museum curators on the East coast. Because of their fervent efforts and determination, the City purchased the house and land in order to save it.
Energized by the situation, these volunteer women formed the “Old House Association” and arranged an agreement with the city that they would raise the funds to restore the home to its original beauty. The city voted to give the association and its volunteers a 99-year lease of the property.
In 1943 the nonprofit Association for the Preservation of Historic Natchitoches (APHN) received its official charter. Their purpose expanded to save and restore important artifacts of the Cane River culture. Their contributions continued through the years to include restoration of Historic Melrose, as well as the Kate Chopin Home in Cloutierville. Eventually, community awareness of the massive scope of preservation needs within the city limits of Natchitoches drew concern. From this desire to preserve the town’s heritage, the Natchitoches Historic Foundation (NHF) was founded. From their volunteer leadership and efforts, important historic homes throughout the city were restored, beginning with the Cunningham Law Office.
All of these accomplishments were conceived and directed by volunteers. Willing to donate their time and talents, they raised the funding. They introduced the first community cookbook to the Cane River area, the “Lemee House Cookbook,” and in the 1950s raised $2,000 for restoration needs. Through the years, they continued to fundraise until their many projects encompassed all of Natchitoches, such as preserving the brick streets and spearheading the funding for the iron railings which enhance the Church Street bridge, as well as NHF’s current efforts to restore the Roque House on the riverbank.
We have the opportunity to honor two volunteers- Gay and L.J. Melder. For some people, volunteering is simply about giving, but for people like Gay and L.J., it is a way of living. Since setting up residency in Natchitoches in 1948, where they established a home, built businesses and raised a family, they have consistently found time to give back to the community the fruits of their talents. Their dedication to APHN covers more than 65 years. Throughout their shared history, they have remained faithful to their volunteer pledge of service throughout Natchitoches and the Cane River community.
To all who know Gay, her artistic talents are immense. As the owner and operator of Broadmoor Gifts, she donated to APHN her free time and interior design skills to help direct selecting the drapes and rugs for the Lemee restoration projects. Her credentials as a National Flower Federation Show Judge enabled her in the 1990s to direct the design and reconfiguration of the Lemee House Gardens, adding more boxwoods, trees and the two-tiered water fountain, which had originally sat at the end of Front Street. Needless to say, all the flower arrangements which donned the tables at Lemee had her special touch.
Right alongside Gay was her partner and husband L.J. Employed as the manager of the Southern Cotton Oil Company, his years of volunteering included directing the care and cleaning of the exterior of the Lemee house, the lawn care of cutting and seeding the grass and trimming the historic boxwood walkways. All these efforts making the gardens a historic treasure of natural beauty.
The Melders’ generous contribution of time and energy to this volunteer work was incredible. Their loving spirit and personal examples are so inspiring that their influence and enthusiasm is contagious and seen throughout the community. Their children are avid community volunteers and have continued their parents’ focus on the importance of preservation and historic restoration.
Nonprofit organizations provide a way for people to work together, selflessly for the common good. They transform shared beliefs and hopes into action. Truthfully, there is power in volunteers. As Margaret Mead stated, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
In honor of the Melders’ 65 years of service, APHN placed an iron bench in front of Lemee with their name engraved upon it, as a small tribute for their gift of love and dedication.
To the Melders, their acts of service may seem small, but the true impact they have made has and will continue to inspire this community to become a much better place. Their volunteerism has improved the lives of others and as the world becomes a better place tomorrow, it will happen because of volunteers like Gay and L.J. Melder.