New book celebrates Plaquemine history

Staff Report

The task of sorting through a late historian’s vast photo collection at first seemed cumbersome for Burke and Janet Devillier, but it led to a far more rewarding project.

The photos from the archives of Tony Fama, whose daughter, Janet, married Burke Devillier, play a large part of the new book “Images of America: Plaquemine,” by Burke Devillier and Iberville Museum Curator/Director  Meghan Sylvester. Many pictures came from Fama’s photo collection, as well as the Mary Neubig collection

Iberville Museum Curator/Director Meghan Sylvester and Burke Devillier sign copies of “Images of America: Plaquemine” at Iberville Museum.

The 126-page book, published by Arcadia Publishing Co. of Charleston, S.C., uses nearly 200 photos to document Plaquemine’s history, ranging from the bayous and its growth into a prominent river town.  

The book delves into the prosperity of the timber history and local businesses, and into the school system, churches and the civil rights movement that began in 1958 and continued into the 1970s.

The latest publication follows two books Fama completed in December 2004 – “Plaquemine: A Long, Long Time Ago” and “Plaquemine: A Glimpse of the Early Years.”

“They wanted to preserve the history and move forward from where my dad left off,” Janet Devillier said. “It’s fun to see his work continue.”

Iberville Museum Curator/Director Meghan Sylvester, Plaquemine genealogist Stella Tanoos and Burke Devillier collaborated on the newly released book “Images of America: Plaquemine,” a pictorial history of the city.

Fama died in 2009, one month shy of his 92nd birthday.

For Burke Devillier, who retired after 37 years in the postal service in Plaquemine and Zachary, it was a matter of expanding on the seemingly endless flow of information on Plaquemine that his father-in-law collected over the years.

Fama compiled thousands of photos over the years, along with memorabilia including a roll of tickets from the Wilbert Theater, which opened in 1917 during the peak of the vaudeville era and shuttered in 1957, after which it was demolished.

He also knew an array of trivial tidbits, including the name of the company that provided the porcelain white bricks – and how many were used, and what happened to those left over – for what is now known as the Gary J. Hebert Memorial Lockhouse at the Plaquemine Lock State Historic Site, which was an active locks site from 1909 until it closed in 1961.

Fama even used reel-to-reel tapes to document everything from the spacecraft Sputnik flying over Plaquemine in October 1957, to the television coverage of the Kennedy assassination on Nov. 22, 1963.

“He documented everything -- our voices, the pictures, everything,” Janet said.

“Images of America: Plaquemine” is now on sale in bookstores and online.

“We had so much information – so much that we already knew,” Burke said. “Some of the things that were not in Mr. Tony’s books are in there now, and there’s still a lot more stuff.”

Some of the pictures were particularly sentimental, particularly the shot of the old Plaquemine Youth Center, which hosted teen dances for many years.

"When Janet and I were little … around 12 years old … we danced together at the youth center,” Burke recalled. “That was before we knew each other.

“This is all Americana, everything a small town is supposed to be like,” he said. “The older crowd likes to reminisce, and this is what it’s all about.”

“They’d recall things that happened during the years,” Janet said. “It’s all part of an era gone by.”

“We take no credit for this,” Janet said. “We just like making people happy, and my dad liked to do that, too.”

Stella Tanoos, a local genealogist who created the “Plaquemine: My Hometown” page on Facebook, noticed much of the information he had and made Burke Devillier the administrator.

Eventually, it led to a new book.

“The new book covers a different history, and a little bit of it overlaps … some are further detailed, other parts are new,” Tanoos said. “I was there to help with clarification.

“There was more we could put in … so much history,” she said. “But we could only fit so much in one book.”

The wheels got rolling on the project in summer 2020 when Sylvester was working from home during the pandemic.

She became part of an e-mail chain for the Plaquemine Main Street Program when a representative of Arcadia Publishing approached then-Main Street Program Director Heather Guidry about a possible book on Plaquemine.

“My name got thrown into that email, and I told them I would be interested, being we had such a big collection of images,” Sylvester said. “Also, not being from Plaquemine, I wanted to include someone who was from here, grew up here and was invested in the history of the town to work on the project.

“The main focus was the history of the bayou, and that the bayou is the main reason Plaquemine exists, and how it played such a critical role in the development of its town and throughout history it connected the eastern and western half of the city,” she said. “I think that a lot of the focus was giving an ode to old Bayou Plaquemine.

“Stella Tanoos helped connect the dots,” Sylvester said.

The civil rights section opens the door to an issue that has not been widely documented in Iberville Parish history.

That issue was brought to Sylvester’s attention her first week on the job in June 2017.

“We had a tour group from one of the old plantation homes and someone asked why we didn’t’ focus on the civil rights disturbances of the 1960s that made history made national news,” the Ville Platte native said. “We felt that as a part of history, it should be included in this book.”

Sylvester likened the project to putting a puzzle together.

“There were so many pictures, and we narrowed them down to chapters, and found that it helped to write stories and add photos to what we were talking about,” she said. “It took about a year to the projects between the time we were contacted by the publishers and my completion of the final draft in June

“I felt like I was running a marathon,” Sylvester said. “It involved some long days and very late nights working on the book.”

For Sylvester, the fascination of history both helped and challenged her along the way.

“I’m a historian by trade, so gathering the research came through old newspapers, you look up one thing and something in the corner catches your eyes, and it catches your train of thought,” she said. “You have to be very focused on what you’re researching even as you’re finding other items pertinent to the book.”

The book is geared more toward a regional audience and will be sold regionally, but it’s also available through Amazon.

“I had someone from India wanting to buy the book,” Sylvester said.

While Sylvester, the Devilliers and Tanoos are still unwinding after completion of the book, Sylvester said they have not ruled out a second book.

“Nothing’s set in stone,” she said. “Right now, we’re excited about this book.”