Heart of Louisiana: Merryville

A small western Louisiana town was once part of a no man’s land, an area with no government rule that attracted outlaws.
Published: Dec. 4, 2022 at 5:30 PM CST|Updated: Dec. 4, 2022 at 11:11 PM CST

BATON ROUGE, La. (WAFB) - A small western Louisiana town was once part of a no man’s land, an area with no government rule that attracted outlaws. One of those gunslingers was a man known as Leather Britches.

Merryville looks like a quiet little town. its population is just under a thousand. it’s a place that was booming a century ago from timber, and it was booming in a different way from the occasional shootout in an area called no man’s land. It was a disputed territory between the Spanish, Texas, and the U.S.

“My family came here in 1836 when they got to the sabine river, that was the year Santa Ana had decimated the alamo, so they stopped on this side of the Louisiana border,” Joe Williamson said.

Joe Williamson is a local history buff, one of his ancestors tried to keep the peace.

“If someone got outta line, he would put ‘em, you know, in a little makeshift country court, and he had a giant live oak tree in his front yard, it’s called the hanging tree,” Joe Williamson said.

In the early 19 hundreds, labor disputes between the sawmills and workers led to violence at a nearby Milltown.

The shootout was actually on the scale of a local war.

“There was lawmen who worked for the sawmills, and then there was the union who had their own hired, you know, protection as well,” said Joe Williamson.

The unions hired a gunslinger known as Charles Leather Britches Smith.

“There were quite a few people that were shot, and I think over 50 people were injured, and 58 people I think, were arrested,” said Joe Williamson.

Leather Britches was ambushed here, a short time later.

“They shot him dead. They brought him back to the Merryville Jail, which it’s a little two-room jail cell, and that’s where they displayed his body,” said Joe Williamson.

The outlaw was buried at the edge of the local cemetery.

“As a kid, I always heard that they had, you know, buried him upside down so that if he was still alive in the grave, that he would try to dig himself out, but he would dig himself to hell,” said JoeWilliamson.

“I don’t know if you saw the wagon,” said Robbie Cole

The Merryville Museum lets you step back in time.

“I can remember my mother, she would talk about going to church and they would get on the wagon and go to church,” said Robbie Cole.

Robbie Cole gives me a tour.

When I see something like the old radio I wonder what news people might have heard on that radio.

“What is the history of the news on it? I know it’s fascinating,” said Robbie Cole.

You can see relics from the old movie theater, an old classroom, and a couple of famous sons, former Louisiana Governor Sam Jones, and Red Cagle an All-American athlete who played for the NFL’s New York Giants in the 1930s. Outside Kathy Cornwell shows me an 1883 log cabin built by one of her great ancestors, Andrew Jackson Burks.

“We just had good times up here and it had swings on the front porch and the back porch, and we got in trouble for swinging too high, I remember that,” said Kathy Cornwell.

This old cabin and the museum’s collection are all part of Merryville’s history. It’s personal stories that folks here decided were too valuable to let fade away.

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