The day started off simply. In one run together breath I clamored out loud. “I am here what do I do today?” I got up, made my bed, drank my coffee, ate my loving from the oven went for a walk around a very short block remarking that the trees were all tremendously tall on 3rd. Martha Pugh told me that these Oaks were planted for each one of the native sons of the civil war. The civil war! I was breathless. There is a history here that defies present day with lingering pockets of its past. At one time the town was built on Bayou Bartholomew. *1 “Down the bayou from Siemons was a small settlement referred to by steamboat captains and hands referred to as “the port”37 When a post office was established in 1857, the name became Portland. One had to reach it by ferry or ride the steamboat that navigated up and down it bringing supplies to the little towns that dotted its winding lifeline for 2oo miles.
*2 Pearl Etheridge Young wrote of crossing the bayou by ferry with her father in the early 1900’s.
“The road was now a dark tunnel, grass grown and arched by the over lapping boughs of the trees…It was early noon when we came to Bayou Bartholomew. A change in the quality of the landscape had become apparent some miles back. The feathery cypress trees sank their stark, flaring trunks into black, stagnant pools…one feature of the landscape set the tone of the whole-a profusion of Spanish moss hanging in cloudy filigree from the boughs above us. (The bayou) had no bridge at this point and it was a watercourse of parts, not to be trifled with. We could not ford it. We drew up looking for signs of life…At last, peering through the trees, we saw a rope stretched between the opposing banks of the bayou and there at our feet, moored against the slippery descent, lay a floating wooden platform…my father’s hello brought no answer. “Everybody down in the bottom field picking cotton,” he said and gave a mighty yodel. The response was long, musical and reverberating… stillness reigned again until the ferryman came, an old Negro with a grizzled head and wiry frame. The mare was coaxed onto the platform and the old man propelled us across by long rhythmic pulls on the rope. It seemed the right way to cross Bayou Bartholomew, the master bayou…in the swamp beyond the stillness deepened and the loneliness was unbroken.”
*3 “The site of the town may be found by turning north onto a farm road just east of the bayou bridge on Highway 278 east of Portland. The site is three fourths of the mile from the highway. A visit to the location may evoke a nostalgic illusion from the past. Sit on the bank of the quiet bayou on a moon lit night. Listen to the steamboat coming.
Experience what William Alexander-Percy wrote in Lanterns on the Levee.
“There still is no sound in the world so filled with mystery and longing at night of a river blowing for a landing one long, two shorts; one long, two shorts; the sound of a river boat changes inside your heart like a star.”
Leo and I trolled in a little fishing boat down that part of the bayou. He loves the bayou. He tells me that he use to ride his horse along in here as a kid with his lifelong friend since the age of five, Dave Hackett. They would set up a camp, run trot lines and live out their own Davey Crockett dreams. Once they forgot to bring food, and didn’t catch any fish, so they shot a black bird for supper. It was the “toughest meat they ever ate,” he said.
I am searching for this mystical portal into the past. It was all that people had written and said about it, haunting, ancient, and removed from contemporary times. The trees and the waters clung to its centuries as to not ever forget the people who once traveled and lived here. Native Americans still echoed down this murky avenue. It was their souls that I felt the most. It was then that I saw a panther, her ebony eyes, stopped and stared into my soul and then slipped invisibly through the Cypress shadows. She hauntingly impressed me with her captivating presence. To this day I never saw her again, but always sense her somewhere near in my spirit. I took her to be a sign from the Grandfathers. I respect the Native Americans that lived here so abundantly at one time. The age of the Indian, the story of the spirit that permeates in the trees and runs in the waters here like life’s blood is always nearby. This bountiful land is pregnant with possibility, but somewhere along the way the sadness of their departure lingers and longs to be remembered with honor. “I hear you Grandfathers,” I say to myself and burn some sage in your memory.
After a fire, which was suspected arson, the town of Portland was moved inland. It looks like a rundown movie set with a block of buildings facing the still running railroad tracks. The town use to have a lot more going on than it does now. Back in the 1990’s, everyone came downtown on a Saturday night. I can almost still see the old model T’s gathered in a stylish black line, the men all wearing top hats and women politely sipping tiny cokes in long dresses while children run behind in the alley. I am told there was an old hotel, a Chinese laundry, taxidermy, a Portland Drug Store, run by CC Stevens where one could get a soda and prescription. Miss Pearl had a dry goods and ice cream parlor where Gays Grab bag now stands.
I feel a kind of honor to be living here. It is not often one is lucky enough to reside in a town that was born out of the Louisiana Purchase. I wonder what the ancestors would say about a Yankee girl walking around in their footsteps.
*1, page 16, * 2 pg 17, *3 page 21-22, Excerpts from Beyond Bartholomew-ISBN 0-9444609-22-8 by Rebecca De Armond-Huskey and friends of Portland-