Heart of Louisiana: Mayor of Keachi
KEACHI, La. - It's a small Louisiana town that most of us have never heard of, tucked away in the woods of Desoto Parish. But a chance roadside stop by a Houston artist more than 40 years ago is giving the town and some of its elder citizens a place in history. FOX 8's Dave McNamara takes us to the town of Keachi in tonight's Heart of Louisiana.
The town of Keachi was just a tiny spot on the map for Travis Whitfield, as he drove from Houston to visit his sister in Shreveport.
"I'm telling you it was a life-changing experience when I rounded that curve and saw that old store and those guys sitting out there," Whitfield said.
The year was 1971. The old A.W. Wyatt grocery had closed nine years earlier.
"The building, that Greek revival, that huge temple style," he recalled. "I had never seen anything quite like that."
Whitfield was a young artist who wanted to paint landscapes. But there was something about this scene - a store built in 1848 and the old men with their weathered faces and the lively conversation - That Whitfield couldn't get out of his mind. He was hooked.
"It was like you just stepped back to that period, you know, of the 30s," he said. "They were still holding that."
The town of Keachi, population 300, was full of old, weathered buildings. Whitfield grabbed his camera and snapped hundreds of pictures. And he waited patiently for his "porch crew" to finally agree to pose for portraits.
"It took me two years," he said, "but I did paintings around their houses, you know, inside-out. Photographs - I photographed everything."
He also got a cassette recorder and began taping their porch conversations, like the one about Huey P. Long.
The recordings, photographs and paintings are part of an art show that Whitfield calls "Further on Down the Road."
"All I can say is that God sent me here," Whitfield said. "There was something that brought me here, and when I saw it - you know you've had that, kind of feel like the hair stand on the back of your neck or something like that, and chills."
The artist also became politician. Sort of. He was urged to qualify for mayor when nobody else wanted the job.
"Basically I don't work that hard at it," he said. "I really enjoy it, but it's kind of a headache."
There was something more than the old men that made Keachi interesting. It was also the old buildings. A rare collection that has gained national recognition.
Whitfield has been part of effort to place 10 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. There's the Liberty Lodge, several houses, the Baptist church, the Methodist church and the Presbyterian church. All built in the mid-1800s; all still in use today.
"I believe this in my heart, that if there had been any money in Keachi after the Depression during that period, these buildings would've probably been torn down and little brick buildings would've been built," Whitfield said.
Sometimes you look at an old building and try to imagine the stories it could tell. Thanks to Travis Whitfield, we can hear some of those stories.
Mayor Whitfield says he has plans to add even more buildings in his tiny town to the National Register.