Cover Story

On the Waterfront

by Dege Legg

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The new owners of Lake View Park make a noble effort at keeping a cultural landmark alive and thriving. By Dege Legg

The slow chord of morning twangs off the dirt like a muddy note loosed upon the shellac of a new day. Birds yap in the trees. Pine wafts on the breeze. A couple dogs bark in the distance. The day has begun.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The new owners of Lake View Park make a noble effort at keeping a cultural landmark alive and thriving. By Dege Legg

The slow chord of morning twangs off the dirt like a muddy note loosed upon the shellac of a new day. Birds yap in the trees. Pine wafts on the breeze. A couple dogs bark in the distance. The day has begun.

No one knows when it started or exactly who first opened the place, but as far as anyone can remember, Lake View Park has been around forever, in some form or another - whether stately and operational or decrepit and waning. Located on La. 13 three miles north of Eunice, for the past 50 or so years the Lake View RV Park has been an integral part of recreational activities in the area encompassing Evangeline, Acadia and St. Landry parishes. From the mid-1960s through the 1980s, Lake View enjoyed its position as the premier campground in the tri-parish region, functioning at various times as a campsite, a dance hall, a weekend party spot, swimming hole, fishing hole and after-hours gathering place for wayfaring stoners.

Almost every individual from the area has a story about Lake View Park. As a kid, they frolicked in the swimming hole. As a 20-something, they remember the time they got drunk and passed out in the woods. As an adult, they remember the time they saw well-known Cajun musicians like Dennis McGee play in the dance hall. Like many places that contain an unquantifiable magic, Lake View holds many a memory for those who have visited.

Before it was called Lake View, it was known as Persian Park and functioned as a loose plot of land where people occasionally camped out, killed time, loitered and drank. But Lake View Park didn't get its official start until the early '60s when Eunice resident Fred Bellow purchased the property and gave it the proper overhaul it needed to become the affordable weekend resort it eventually transformed into over the coming decade. A considerable amount of construction went into the initial design and layout of the property, much of which still stands today. A designated camping area was constructed. A 6,000-square-foot dance hall was built as well as a chapel and man-made beach surrounded by imported palm trees. Under Bellow's direction, Lake View Park became the premier campground in the area.

From left: Bonnie Pitre, Josephine Rodriguez, Lance Pitre,
Laura Pitre Rodriguez and Toby Rodriguez

This was the heyday of Lake View, when campers, tourists and music lovers from all over the U.S. made the trek to the park - many of them to see, hear and dance to Cajun music. During the '60s and '70s, many legendary Cajun musicians played the Lake View dance hall - from Nathan Abshire, Dewey Balfa and Dennis McGee to Marc Savoy. Legend has it that accordion maker and musician Marc Savoy was too tall to stand on the stage and play without hitting his head on the ceiling. The proprietors cut a hole in the ceiling for him to fit. The hole is still there today.

"The dance hall brought in people from all over the states and Canada," says Fred Bellow's sister, Rena Dupre, still living in Eunice. "The grounds were full of campers. And the younger people, they loved that swimming hole. It looked just like Florida, because he planted all those palm trees around it. The whole park was always packed to the teeth. People did good and had extra money to spend back in those days."

In 1990, Fred Bellow sold the park to Allen Fontenot, who successfully operated Lake View Park until his health began to fail in the early to mid 1990s and, much like old amusement parks that have outlived their usefulness, the park was closed and left to descend into a long period of neglect and decrepitude. No longer frequented by happy campers and Winnebago warriors, the park became an overgrown, ghostly stomping ground occasionally visited by late night loners, weed heads and juvenile delinquents.

After Hurricane Lili hit the area in 2002, the property was officially condemned.

In 2003, the Rodriguez family of Eunice became interested in renovating the property and reopening the park. After a bank loan was approved, Lance Pitre, sisters Bonnie Pitre and Laura Pitre Rodriguez, and Laura's husband, Toby Rodriquez, became the official owners of Lake View Park. They began renovating the area in 2007, investing $1.5 million in construction projects and renovations.

With the advance of retiring baby boomers taking to the roads in RVs - as well as the regional campers, families and retired couples - the owners sought to target the market of "heritage travelers" and cultural tourists looking for an authentic Cajun experience in southern Louisiana.

A lush green space fills the interior of the park, populated by a mature canopy of trees. Among the many construction projects at the park, the new owners built 95 full hook-up, big rig-friendly RV sites. The sites are predominately pull-throughs, which allow campers to pull straight in and out of the campsite, eliminating the need for sketchy reverse maneuvers where patrons run the risk of backing over fellow campers, bikes and pets, as well as schizo squirrels.

In the wake of the damage caused by Hurricane Lili, the owners made a cosmetic and functional decision to run all electrical utilities underground, mitigating the risk of future line repair and outages. Other additions included cable and Wi-Fi along with the construction

The owners are in the process of restoring Lake View Park to its original glory.

of four cottages, a utility barn and a small movie theater.

On Labor Day weekend 2009, Lake View officially reopened for business under the new ownership.

Fishing is available to all guests at the 13-acre fishing lake, which is surrounded by natural wetlands that flow into a nearby bayou. On a walk around the area, one can see a panoramic view of the park, including native birds, deer and the occasional alligator.

By far one of the most popular attractions at the park is the swimming hole. For nearly five decades, generations of kids have played, dived, splashed and had a memorable blast at the tree-lined beach. For many children who have never been to the beach or had access to a real swimming pool, the Lake View swimming hole is like a watery paradise.

"Bringing the swimming hole back was a turning point for us. It was real questionable at that time as to how we were going to make it," says Laura Pitre Rodriguez. "But then, all of a sudden, introducing the beach back into the park, there was a huge turnaround." Campsite bookings during the summer of 2010 went from 30 percent capacity to 100 percent during the weekends.

In addition to the normal run of activities at the park, the owners host numerous traditional workshops to keep the Cajun culture flourishing. "We do demonstrations on how to make butter, quilting, spinning, Cajun dancing lessons and cooking," says Laura. "These are events that we have quite often, and it's a way of educating people about our past," she continues.

"We're all very passionate about doing our part to help preserve part of the culture," says Toby. "If I had a nickel every time someone told me a story about a good time that had a Lake View, I'd be rich. It's tough sometimes, keeping the place going and making the bills. Once we took on the ownership of the park, it was a huge responsibility because we didn't want to let anybody down. We want to be traditional, but not get boxed in - to be open minded, respectful and progress with the times."

"We want it to be a place where everyone is welcome, where not only my parents and grandparents want to come, but also a place where the young people come, because that's the future of our culture," adds Laura. "We want to take people back to a simpler time and place."

One of the centerpieces of Lake View Park is the newly constructed barn, which now hosts all the live music shows. While renovating the park, the owners realized the need for a barn to store equipment, do carpentry work, and repair things that broke down. After the majority of renovations were completed, with the old dance hall still in need of further repairs, the utility barn - constructed from recycled materials - became the go-to option for hosting live music at the park. The initial idea was hatched during a conversation between Laura and musician Steve Riley. "We were on the phone and he said we need some music in the park," says Laura. "We sat around talking and decided to do the show in the barn."

"We didn't have the funds to finish the huge facility of the dance hall, so we just decided to go with the barn,"

Toby Rodriguez inspects the historic dance hall

adds Toby. Much like the Cajun dances of the early 20th century, the barn setting had an unintended magical        quality reminiscent of a more innocent time. Despite the heat, people flocked to the rustic environment of the barn, which became an extension of the charm of the park. More than 100 people were in attendance for that first show with Steve Riley & the Mamou Playboys in November 2009. Since then, many more have come to witness live Cajun music in this setting.

"Most people who come to the dances at the barn can attest to the fact that you are seeing Cajun music in its truest form, harking back to the old days. You're experiencing what people experienced 50 years ago," says Toby. "This is what it was like to go see old Cajun music or traditional zydeco. We're trying to keep that essence, which I don't think any other place around really has. We're going to try to stay true to that."

Josephine, Laura and Toby Rodriguez

(Below) Cleco employees cook for the Christmas party
that will be held in the barn Saturday night.

Much in the same way Blue Moon Saloon owner Mark Falgout has nursed his venue into a boutique location to see Louisiana music, the owners of Lake View Park wish to do the same.

"If you want to move people, doing it through the arts and music is one of the best ways to get people together. We're very particular about the bands we book at the park. Good quality music," says Toby. "We want it to be consistent enough to where regardless of who's playing, people know that it's going to be good music." Since the park began hosting live music once again, Geno Delafose, Ryan Brunet & The Malfecteurs, Horace Trahan & The Ossun Express, Steve Riley & the Mamou Playboys, The Racines and a host of other top notch Cajun and zydeco acts have played the barn. The Geno Delafose fan appreciation party drew a crowd of more than 1,000 people.

In addition, the park has hosted events such as The Lake View Royal Rumble, where a vaudevillian mix of live music, Absurdist Theater and professional wrestling made its debut. "I got my hands on an old Mid-South Wrestling ring and set it up in the barn. Herman Fuselier was the announcer," says Toby. "It was one of the funnest Cajun shows I've ever attended. It was The Pine Leaf Boys versus Ryan Brunet & the Malfecteurs. Each band played in the ring and had wrestling names and outfits. Band members were jumping off the top rope with baby powder flying everywhere." Scenes such as this personify one element of the park's charm, honoring the past while, in the truest Cajun spirit, having some crazy fun with it.

Bonsoir, Catin performs in the Lake View
barn Saturday night, December 11.