Piney Woods Journal Correspondent
Toma Lodge in Ruston is a quiet upscale neighborhood of fine homes, towering pine trees, and well manicured lawns. Right away, visitors note the subdivision is unlike most contemporary growth in which lots are razed to facilitate construction and then replanted with spindly trees and shabby shrubs, giving the landscape an artificial look. In Toma Lodge, it is clear the homes were planted carefully around century-old trees in a park-like setting. Toma Lodge looks like a park because it served as a semi-private natural sanctuary for decades.
Toma Lodge Estates and the adjacent Christ Community Church lay on land with a history that would surprise most of the neighborhood’s residents and the church’s members. Around the turn of the 20th Century, thousands gathered each summer on the grounds now occupied by expensive homes and a beautiful house of worship for sessions of the Louisiana Chautauqua. Among them were the most prominent politicians, religious leaders and public speakers in the nation.
The Chautauqua Society was founded in New York in 1874 with the goal of providing educational enrichment and inspiration in a picturesque natural setting. It was much like a summer camp offering a mixture of education, religion and recreation. The Chautauqua movement spread quickly across the United States as 45 states established Circuit Chautauquas that offered lectures, music, speeches and plays in rural and small-town America. In 1889, the Louisiana Educational Association voted to establish a Louisiana Chautauqua on a 15-acre tract just north of the outskirts of the fledgling railroad town of Ruston.
Ruston was selected for the state’s Chautauqua because of its gently rolling hills, forest scenery and peaceful setting as well as enthusiastic local support for the endeavor. In a report of its 1889 decision, the leaders of the Louisiana Educational Association noted the “refined culture of [Ruston’s] people, their public spirit, their hospitality, their intense interest in all forms of thought and learning showed that they would give generous, united and untiring support to such an institution.” When Ruston was founded in 1884 with the coming of the railroad, it had attracted some of the best educated community leaders from regional towns bypassed by the new line. By the time the Chautauqua was created, Ruston already boasted a small college—Ruston College—an opera house, and other cultural endeavors.
Thomas. D. Boyd, President of the Louisiana Educational Association, wrote in a circular letter in April 1891 that Northern Louisiana was renowned for its “healthfulness and pleasing rural scenery.” Since the Chautauqua programs were held during the summer, the region also offered an escape from the oppressive southern Louisiana heat. The Ruston site encompassed a number of “mineral springs,” offering visitors what were purported to be “healing waters.” A large two-story hotel, named the Chautauqua Springs, was erected along with cottages and an outdoor auditorium with a capacity of 2,000.
The popularity of the Louisiana Chautauqua as a place for retreat and renewal quickly spread and people from outside the state attended its annual programs. Those arriving from points east and west on the Vicksburg, Shreveport & Pacific Railroad were transferred the two miles from the Ruston depot by carriage. Many participants were said to have loved the “tonic effect of the pure pine air” while they gathered under the mature trees covering the Chautauqua property. For families who wished to remain all summer, cottages were available with discounted accommodations for servants and attending nurses. A single room for an adult in the hotel went for $25 a month. Teachers paid $15 a month.
Offerings at the Chautauqua ranged from sermons by nationally-known ministers to theatrical productions. Lecture subjects included poetry, art and languages. William Jennings Bryan, three-time Democratic Presidential candidate, was one of the most popular of all Louisiana Chautauqua speakers. As the program increased in variety and magnitude, a building was constructed for music classes and another for the science curriculum. When the Arkansas Southern Railway laid its line along the property in 1900, a small depot was built for travelers arriving from the north and south.
The project flourished for about fifteen years before it closed in 1905 in bankruptcy and the property of the Chautauqua was sold. The grounds and buildings fell into disrepair. In 1906 a similar project for African Americans started at Grambling with the creation of the Louisiana Colored Chautauqua but it lacked the financial backing and statewide support of the earlier effort.
In 1922, Thomas L. and Maggie Hodges James acquired the Chautauqua property as well as adjoining tracts for a total of about 90 acres. James was a prominent Ruston businessman responsible for constructing some of the major highways across America. His wife Maggie came from a prominent Louisiana family with a love for nature. Maggie’s brother, A.J. Hodges, a pioneering conservationist, established Hodges Gardens near Many, a 4,700-acre natural haven. Hodges Gardens was recently refurbished as a Louisiana state park.
Maggie inherited her family’s passion for the outdoors, conservation and gardening. Together with her husband, she created a family botanical garden and extensive arboretum, calling it Toma Lodge, an integration of the names Tom and Maggie. Maggie designed sweeping gardens and arbors and oversaw the construction of barns, greenhouses and a hen house. A staff of seven full-time gardeners maintained the family retreat, including a magnificent rose garden, fountains and a swimming pool.
Following the deaths of Maggie and Tom, T.L. James & Company assumed management and maintenance of the estate in 1964. James family members continued to spend summer afternoons enjoying the pool and the grounds were open to public viewing. The gardens maintained their popularity as a backdrop for photography sessions for school groups and brides-to-be. Motorists routinely cut through Toma Lodge to enjoy a short drive among blooming azaleas, day lilies and roses. Over the years, many Ruston teens were guilty of sneaking into Toma Lodge at night to enjoy the pool and a police officer was installed in a small cottage on the property to watch over the grounds. But the sanctuary slowly assumed an unkempt appearance without Maggie James to preside over its upkeep.
Trott Hunt, great grandson of James, bought Toma Lodge in 2000 and initiated a development plan for the property. Hunt’s plan for restricted development in conjunction with tree preservation struck a balance between perpetuation of an urban forest and new construction. Trees were selectively cut and dilapidated buildings removed. Large azaleas and other large planted by Maggie James was preserved or moved to new locations. The swimming pool was refurbished, tennis courts added and the original James Lodge retained as a community center.
Christ Community Church relocated to the property in 2004. Church members were drawn to the appealing natural sanctuary with its convenient and visible location just minutes from downtown Ruston. Construction priorities included saving as many trees as possible and giving the impression that the church had always existed in the forest. Curving driveways and strategically-designed parking lots circumvent mature trees. To further integrate the church into the setting, harvested oaks were transformed into exposed ceiling beams, a pulpit, and a 15-foot cross.
The influence of the Chautauqua persists in the form of Louisiana Tech University, an institution that continues to grow in stature and prestige. Hallie Townsend, a longtime principal at Ruston High School, noted in his 1929 college thesis that Ruston’s support for the Chautauqua was instrumental in Tech’s creation in 1894. The Chautauqua was then at the height of its popularity and, according to Townsend, the notoriety it brought to Ruston among the power brokers in Baton Rouge aided in bringing Tech into existence.
The neighborhood still displays the handiwork of Maggie James and her staff. Although all remnants of the Chautauqua are long gone, ancient azaleas and camellias from James’s gardens dot the landscape. Sequoias and an impenetrable tangle of bamboo grow incongruously among the southern pines and white oaks. Gnarled crepe myrtles and magnificent magnolias stand out from newly planted ones. A sense of solitude remains despite the stately homes that somehow refuse to intrude on the majesty of nature.
Wesley Harris is a native of Ruston who writes extensively on Reconstruction era crime. His books include Greetings From Ruston: A Post Card History of Ruston, Louisiana and Neither Fear nor Favor: Deputy United States Marshal John Tom Sisemore, available from amazon.com. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
Check out his Louisiana history blog at http://diggingthepast.blogspot.com