Washington, La., celebrates 300 years; hopes to boost economy

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WASHINGTON, La. (AP) — The third oldest settlement in the Louisiana Purchase marks a milestone this year.

The bayou trading post that would ultimately become the town of Washington dates back to 1720 and local leaders are hoping to use that fact to their advantage as they prepare to celebrate its tricentennial, The Advocate reported.

“Washington, like every small community, has been losing its tax base,” said Jim Bradshaw, an historian who lives in the town. “It’s got some real financial struggles, but we have a rich cultural economy. And we’re perfectly poised to take advantage of that with the tricentennial.”

This strategy has worked well for other small, historic places in the state. It’s certainly boosted tourism in the city of Natchitoches, which has long branded itself as the oldest permanent settlement in the Louisiana Purchase. New Orleans is the second oldest.

“We have more authentic old homes than Williamsburg, Virginia, because most of those are re-creations. Ours are originals,” said Bradshaw, who is also chairman of the Washington Tricentennial Committee. “If we can show how all these things came together and successfully promote that culture and bring people to see what we have here, it can be the basis of a cultural economy.”

The 300-year-old settlement along Bayou Cortableau was once vital for trade and transportation in the region. It was the largest steamboat port between New Orleans and St. Louis, Missouri, in the 19th century because of its bustling cotton, cattle and sugar export trade.

Washington’s population exceeded 1,500 people after the Civil War, but that number has dwindled over the years as railroads and interstates replaced waterway transportation. Today, about 1,000 people live in the St. Landry Parish town.

“It’s still maintained its character,” Bradshaw said. “But it’s lived and died by transportation.”

About 80% of Washington’s buildings are of historical or architectural significance, local leaders told The Advocate. The Antebellum plantation homes and Victorian architecture serve as a reminder of the town’s historic wealth.

Many of Washington’s homes, live oaks and cemeteries are also listed on historic registers. In addition, the town is a certified bird preserve.

The first event scheduled as part of the tricentennial celebration will pay homage to the town’s feathery friends. Bayou Bird Fest will offer sightseeing opportunities and rare bird heritage March 28 on the banks of Bayou Courtableau.

The Washington Tricentennial Committee is still finalizing details for other events. Plans include re-creating the Main Street Festival that was once held each fall and hosting an antique car show and a gospel music concert.

The committee is working with schools, churches and organizations to obtain grants and promote private events, such as reunions, in the town. It’s also partnering with the University of Louisiana at Lafayette to collect oral histories, photos and other memorabilia from Washington residents.

“Our idea is to promote and help and get grants and things like that,” Bradshaw said. “We’re encouraging people to come home to Washington, to bring people back to remember. And we’re trying to find a way to preserve the town’s history and figure out how to display it once we figure out what we’ve got.”

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