Ft. DeRussy to celebrate ‘Park Day’ April 1

Volunteers sought for work day at historic site

Fort DeRussy needs volunteers for a major campaign on April 1 -- and that’s no April Fool’s joke.

History buffs, community leaders and preservationists are expected to muster at the former Civil War fort on the Red River near Marksville from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on April 1 as this area’s contribution to the national Civil War Trust’s Park Day, local historian Steve Mayeux said.

Mayeux is president of the Friends of Fort DeRussy (FFD) non-profit organization that now has primary responsibility for the site’s upkeep.

More than 130 sites in 30 states have answered the call to pitch in to clean up and preserve historically significant sites -- some developed into active tourist attractions and others, like Fort DeRussy, that are currently “diamonds in the rough,” with hope of someday being developed.

“This is important to me because we are trying to get the Friends of Fort DeRussy reinvigorated,” Mayeux said. “Since the state has basically put us back in charge of the site, the simple truth of the matter is that if we don’t do it, it won’t get done.”

Mayeux said the Civil War Trust has been sponsoring Park Day for over 20 years. It has been almost 20 years since there was a Park Day event at Fort DeRussy.

Fort DeRussy participated in Park Day in 1998 and 1999, when it was under the administration of the Friends of Fort DeRussy. The state took over the 70-acre site in 1999 with plans to develop it. However, there never seemed to be enough interest or money to construct a museum or interpretive center at the Fort DeRussy State Historic Site.

The Office of State Parks had authorized plans for a Fort DeRussy Visitor Center. In the summer of 2005, the Legislature authorized $800,000 for construction at DeRussy. When Hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck the state in September, that funding was also swept away -- and it has never returned.

Mayeux said the prospects are slim for any significant state funding to develop the site for tourism or to conduct programs for visitors.

“That is the reason we need to ‘Support the Fort,’” Mayeux said.

"GIVEN THE FORT"

“Friends of Fort DeRussy has been given the fort,” Mayeux said. “We have been told that we can do whatever we want there. That includes responsibility for maintaining the grounds.”

Mayeux said the State Office of Parks said it would cut the grass once a year if FFD or some other organization did not assume responsibility for maintenance.

“The whole site is 70 acres, but about 55 of that is under hay,” Mayeux said. “There is really only about one or two acres that need to be maintained for visitors.”

One important project Mayeux hopes to tackle April 1 is to plant ground cover on the earthen walls of the fort once called the “Gibraltar of the South.”

The walls were practically impenetrable. The fort fell from a ground assault by Union troops, and not from a Naval assault. Efforts to blow up the walls after it fell were unsuccessful.

Mayeux concedes it is hard to tell the site was once a fort, but it is still an important historical site -- not only to Avoyelles and Louisiana, but to the nation. “This was a major Civil War battlefield, and it should be preserved and commemorated,” he said.

“One thing that has to be done is to take down the trees that have grown into the walls,” he continued. “However, if we do that then there will be nothing to hold the dirt and it will erode away. That’s why we need to plant ground cover on the walls, to hold it in place.”

Right now, FFD supporters hold their breath whenever a windstorm tears through the parish, hoping against hope that it steers clear of Fort DeRussy. “If one of these trees is toppled it will take a big root ball with it,” he continued, “and what the Yankees couldn’t do with their cannons, Mother Nature will do on her own.”

VISITORS DROP BY

Mayeux said he goes out to the site often, and there is seldom a day he is there that visitors do not drop by to view the old fort.

Volunteers on Park Day will pick up branches, clear brush and plant ground cover, Mayeux said. Refreshments will be provided, but volunteers are asked to bring their own picnic lunch. Volunteers are also urged to bring their own hand tools, such as swing blades, loppers, trimmers, ditch bank blades, garden carts and even mowers.

“Donations of time, effort or money will be greatly appreciated,” Mayeux said.

There will be a presentation on the fort’s historical significance.
For information or to volunteer, call Mayeux at 253-1873 or contact by email at smayeux@fortderussy.org.

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