A Louisiana folktale may be coming to a roadside near you.
The Center for Louisiana Studies at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and the William G. Pomeroy Foundation have partnered to install markers across the state that memorialize regional legends and other pieces of folklore.
The foundation sponsors the Legends & Lore Marker Grant Program. Its collaboration with the Center for Louisiana Studies is bringing the project to the state for the first time.
Folklore plays a significant role in Louisiana’s culture, said Dr. Joshua Caffery, the center’s director. In addition to educating residents, the plaques encourage cultural tourism, a global industry that’s been shown to take visitors to lesser-known, off-the-beaten path destinations.
“Louisiana’s folklore, folk culture, and folklife are among its greatest natural resources. Our rich local and regional traditions bind us together as Louisianans and provide the foundations of our cultural future, while bringing the world to our doorstep,” Caffery said.
“Many roadside markers in Louisiana document historical events and people. Legends by definition are semi-historical stories that are so good that audiences don’t care whether they’re true or not. Legends are an enduring part of our culture – and of every culture in the world – because they reflect a deeper truth of who we are, what we value, and what we want to believe.”
The center will review Legends & Lore grant requests and confirm the legitimacy and accuracy of the stories and personalities applicants want to commemorate. Nonprofit groups, academic institutions and municipalities qualify for grants.
The private William C. Pomeroy Foundation is based in Syracuse, New York. Its grants pay for a marker, pole and shipping.
Bill Pomeroy is a foundation trustee. He said the partnership with the Center for Louisiana Studies “is a wonderful opportunity to showcase the folklore near and dear to Louisiana. We’re proud to work with the state’s communities in celebrating and preserving their folklore and legends.”
The foundation has partnered with humanities councils and folklore societies in seven states since the marker program began in 2015. It since has funded 52 Legends & Lore signs.
An example is a plaque in Kinderhook, New York, commemorating the fictional Ichabod Crane, the hapless teacher whose confrontation with the Headless Horseman is the subject of Washington Irving’s 1820 story, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Crane is believed to have been based on Jesse Merwin, a real schoolmaster in Kinderhook.
Louisiana has no shortage of similar tales in which history and myth have merged, noted John Sharp, the Center for Louisiana Studies’ assistant director for research.
He cited lore about pirate Jean Lafitte’s treasure and sacred explanatory stories shared by generations of Native Americans.
Other potential subjects and sites for commemoration include the birthplaces or burial spots of cultural icons such as Cajun music fiddler Dennis McGee or Clifton Chenier, the king of zydeco; place names such as “Carencro” that have unknown origins; and places or people mentioned in traditional songs such as “Opelousas Sosthène.”
“The retelling of legends enhances our culture by allowing stories to be transmitted over time, allowing for both faithful retelling to ensure a foothold in the past and evolving versions to try to make sense of an uncertain world,” Sharp said.
“Through these stories, often realistic in nature but rarely provable by hard data, we can better understand ourselves. That’s why the center is excited to play a part in establishing markers to honor and celebrate Louisiana’s legends. We hope that they enliven and spark discussion, as well as inspire multigenerational storytelling.”
The Center for Louisiana Studies was established in 1973. It promotes scholarly investigation of Louisiana’s cultures and heritage. The center’s research division houses the Archive of Cajun and Creole Folklore, the largest collection of audiovisual materials related to the traditional cultures of southwestern Louisiana.
Find more about the center and its holdings at https://cls.louisiana.edu.