Grosse Tete storyteller to represent Iberville Parish at EPCOT

Tryve Brackin
The storytelling talents of Grosse Tete resident Gene Seneca will take spotlight at the EPCOT Center at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla.

Grosse Tete resident Gene Seneca is a true ambassador of the Atchafalaya Basin and its heritage, so much so he has been chosen to represent the National Heritage Area and Iberville Parish next month at Walt Disney World’s 13th Annual EPCOT International Food & Wine Festival of Louisiana.

Nov. 6-9 Seneca will be a special Storyteller at the EPCOT festival, where he will tell tales, tall and short, about life in the nearby basin and its wonderful swamps. “Disney is building a special Cajun cabin for Gene, where he will sit and tell stories about experiences in the basin both as a boy and an adult,” explained Sissy Irwin of the Iberville Parish Council Tourism Office.

Irwin also is going to Disney World to work as a cultural ambassador at the food and wine festival. She will stay and work the entire exhibit time of Nov. 2-9.

“Gene was picked from a number of people, which is a great honor, but he deserves it because he spends a lot of time in the swamp and he escorts a lot of people through there, including journalists and filmmakers,” noted Irwin.

Seneca and Irwin will take part in the festival’s Louisiana Exhibit. Seneca will perform his storytelling in a Cajun Creole inspired house, while, nearby, musicians and entertainers will showcase the joy of Louisiana along the Riverboat dock area. A French Market area also will be included as well as culinary delights we all know and love about our state.

This reporter met Gene Seneca thirty years ago when he was a tall and rangy second baseman for a couple of outstanding Plaquemine High baseball teams, coached by Billy Bujol. He was easygoing, yet competitive, starter as a junior and senior and was one heck of a slugger despite his thin frame. Gene followed older brother, Ruel Seneca, Jr., into prep baseball. Ruel graduated from St. John High in Gene’s junior year at PHS. A handful of seasons later, younger brother, Mark, played for Plaquemine High as another tall and hard-hitting Green Devil infielder.

“All three of us played baseball and were active in school back then, but as younger kids, our dad (Ruel Seneca, Sr.) took us out into the basin as much as possible because he wanted us to learn about it beauty,” explained Gene.

The Seneca brothers’ father (Ruel, Sr.) was born and raised in Bayou Chene, a small community deep in the midst of the Atchafalaya Basin. The area of higher land became the home to a number of people as far back as the 1700s. It thrived throughout the 19th century as residents grew sugarcane and other crops as well as lived off the plentiful wildlife of the area.

Steamboats traveled the winding waters of the basin area, going from narrow passageways to large lakes and then back to shadowed lanes. That all began to change somewhat when the legendary great flood of 1927 hit the area. Most of the Bayou Chene higher ground was under water, including all of the homes, churches, and other buildings. From that great flood up to the 1950s repeated flooding of the low land areas continued until the small community was eventually abandoned.

“My father was born and raised on a houseboat. By then much of the land was gone. By the time we were born the family was out of the basin. But my father loved to bring us back to the area and tell us stories. I will base my storytelling on some of those experiences as well as some of my own,” noted Seneca.

Gene has plenty of his own stories about the basin, now a National Heritage Area via the 2006 Congressional Session. He is currently being seen throughout Europe in a documentary done by a foreign film company on the Atchafalaya swamps as a main character and escort. He also has worked closely with television producer Bill Rodman and well-known nature photographer C.C. Lockwood in producing documentaries on the area, his latest project being “Atchafalaya Swamp Revisited”.

Seneca spends most of his retirement time volunteering his services to entertain and educate with boat tours. He also does old cypress wood working as well as takes photographs of the basin waterways and wildfire, which he gives away to anyone who asks. He also serves on two state committees: The Atchafalaya Trace Commission and the Atchafalaya Basin Levee District.

“My dad and his family were displaced from their home in the basin, but they never separated from it. Dad had some great stories and fond memories. Everyone who came from that time period at Bayou Chene had great pride in their home along the waterways and in the swamps. Being able to spread the heritage of the basin to one and all is what I enjoy tremendously these days. I am very excited to go to Orlando and represent the parish at the EPCOT exhibit, said the Grosse Tete resident.