Cajuns turn oil bust into tourism boom

Wildlife Gardens AlligatorHouma, Louisiana: April 17, 1986: Jimmy and Betty Provost, who live in the Gibson community about 20 miles northwest of here—just like their ancestors more than 200 years ago–have chosen to stand their ground and fight for their livelihood, as our current depressing and devastating economic downturn, known as the “oil bust,” threatens to crush so many of our futures here in the bayous of south Louisiana. We have largely depended on oil for jobs for the last three generations.  Now, those “good times” seem to be over.

Jimmy and Betty Provost

The Provosts have decided to make a living the old fashioned, ancestral way. They didn’t run for a job in another oil patch somewhere. They didn’t run to the government for handouts.  Instead, they rolled up their sleeves, reached deep in their souls for strength, and risked their entire family’s future on saving the past and living off the land, but not exactly in the same way as their ancestors.

The couple officially opened Wildlife Gardens, a nature preserve, bayou farm, and bed & breakfast, right in the middle of Bayou Black Swamp, at 5306 North Bayou Black Drive in the Gibson area, yesterday at noon, surrounded by all sizes of alligators, giant 150 pound alligator snapping turtles, deer, raccoons, muskrats and comfortable room accommodations on stilts out over the murky waters of the cypress swamp itself.

Jimmy, 44, who was a contractor dependant on the oil business, and Betty, 43, a housewife, had worked the swamp and the land around it as a hobby for themselves and their two children for 20 years but, now, they have turned it all into a unique family business.

Jimmy says, “We wanted to preserve this natural habitat, so our kids will never forget it and that people from the outside will never forget, either. We don’t want the bayou way of life to die.”

Betty believes strongly that “People come to south Louisiana—some people call it Arcadia or Cajun Country—but they come to see the swamps and bayous and see how we live.  It makes my heart swell with pride that I live like I do and that people are interested in seeing it.”

“No question,” Jimmy added, “The folk around here are real. We are all what we seem to be.  Nothing more. Nothing less. We’re real like the land.”

Betty shares a heartfelt relationship to the land and the swamp around it. “When people lose a connection to the earth—whether it is on a farm, or a ranch, or even a swamp—they lose a connection to life. People can’t lose contact with what grows without paying a dreadful price.”

“City folk are connected to machines and buildings, not the land and things that grow.  I’m so sorry for that,” Betty said wistfully.

The French Arcadians, who were the first Europeans to settle this once remote area of North America some 240 years ago, alongside the native Houma Indians, were industrious, benevolent and thrifty people.  Jimmy, Betty and the kids now continue in those same traditions and with the same resolve as their ancestors in the exact place but in a much different time and a much different situation.

Update

During the “oil bust” in the 1980’s, 25 to 30 percent of the jobs in the bayou country of south Louisiana simply evaporated. The Provosts and all around them went through the equivalency of the Great Depression on a micro level. But, today, thanks to the resiliency of the Arcadians or the Cajuns or simply the people in this area—whatever one chooses to call them, unemployment is close to the lowest in the nation at about 7%.

Throughout the downturn and the relative upturn, the rustic Wildlife Gardens has operated continuously for nearly 25 years.  People have come from France, Germany, England, Canada, Mexico, and all over this country, to experience and enjoy what nature and the Provosts created.

Jimmy died in 1997 at age, 55, leaving Betty to operate Wildlife Gardens alone. She did. The couple had been married since they were teenagers. The loss.  The grief.  The time was difficult for Betty.  Reflecting on that period of her life and with a sad smile she told me:  “A woman is like a tea bag.  You never know how strong you are until you get into hot water.”

In 2003, Betty married Vernon Eschete, a remarkably knowledgeable man who gives the tours on the nature trail in his Arcadian dialect and is encyclopedic about the varied wildlife in the bayous, as well as south Louisiana’s rich history. 

Vernon says he “never met Jimmy, but if I had, I would have liked him. We believe in the same things.” So, now, Betty and Vernon continue the tradition begun by necessity more than a generation ago to ensure that the lifestyle of the people and the natural beauty of the swamps and bayous of south Louisiana remain an active part of Southern Memories for future generations to enjoy.

Wildlife Gardens website

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