Duty Ferry gateway to Jim Bowie Relay Station

By Mary K. Hamner
Journal Correspondent

Louisiana Hill Country offers much to those who like to travel the highways and by-ways in search of a day's entertainment. A late summer adventure found my weekend guests and me searching for a free ferry across the Ouachita River at Duty, (a former small community with a post office).

Ted Woods wrote in Caldwell Parish in Slices, "Just before the Civil War, the inhabitants of the upper western part of Catahoula Parish including all the area north of the Ouachita River and west of Beouf River, began talking of "secession" and started movement to petition the State Legislature for annexation of that section of the "mother parish" to neighboring Caldwell Parish, thus giving them closer access to the courthouse in Columbia. They claimed that they were too remote from their Catahoula Parish seat at Harrisonburg, forty miles away.

"The complaint was not quieted down nor eliminated altogether until approximately 100 years later, in the 1960's when the Louisiana Department of Highways inaugurated a free ferry across the Ouachita River at Duty, thus giving the inhabitants of that section of Catahoula Parish lying between the Ouachita and Boeuf Rivers a more convenient and much shorter route to Harrisonburg, Jonesville and other points in the same parish."

The route along Louisiana Highway 126 through Dodson is always scenic with the two lane road tunneling through an assortment of hardwoods and pine trees. Summer drought conditions had caused Sumac bushes to color up and add variety to the colors along the road. As we went over Cloud Crossing, I wondered why it was called that, and was glad that someone else was driving so I could see things normally missed. Six turkeys jumping out ahead gave us added appreciation for the wonder of it all as we rambled through on our day trip.

Later, as we became immersed in the up and down rhythm of the hills and valleys, we were startled to attention by a wild hog foraging for roots in a mud hole by the road. When we backed up for a closer look, the hog didn't seem to mind, and continued his muddy quest for food.

The miles extended longer than anticipated and when we began researching the map we found that we should have turned left instead of going straight on down LA 126. The map was a little vague at this point but we headed in the direction of Enterprise and the Ouachita and found ourselves at the Jim Bowie Relay Station.

The Jim Bowie Relay Station had unexpected surprises for us in that it was a theme park centered by a large restaurant that wasn't open. Our interest was immediately captured by the water wheel on the side of a gristmill. As we pulled into the parking lot, looking for an attendant, some place to pay entry fees, we got out and began walking through the park.

As interest drew us along a trail, we began to feel more at ease as we crossed a covered bridge over a small stream. Two llamas and a donkey gave us friendly greetings and acted as if they expected handouts even though they appeared to be well fed. The park was clean and neat and, as we progressed through, signs indicated that the restaurant was only open on Friday and Saturday nights.

One trail led off into the woods nearby. Signs indicated that it is a 4-H Nature Trail maintained by the Catahoula 4-H Club. We learned a lot by reading signs as we walked by the Hog Pen, the Esso Station with Big John Wilson's 1942 Dodge 1 1/2 Ton Truck, over the Swinging Bridge, and by the Hall of Heroes. Although the Hall of Heroes was not open, the Enterprise schoolhouse was. "The schoolhouse was built as a tribute to educators who served in many similar buildings throughout our country and to their students." said the sign. The Cedar Cross Chapel is the most beautiful of all the reconstructed buildings in the park. Cedar Cross Chapel has 33 crosses, one for each year Jesus lived on earth.

The boathouse housed a large boat that had been carved from a cypress log, a boat with a history of its own. (See www.jimbowierelaystation.com ). Between 1908 and 1911, Jarrod Finley cut one cypress log and floated it to the Black River sawmill to get lumber for this boat. Finley ordered a new "T" Model motor to run the boat, still there today.

As the day wore on, we returned to the car to pursue our original goal of crossing the Ouachita River on a ferry. The sound of a horn drew us toward the river where we watched as several cars were ferried over from the other side. Shortly it was our turn to drive onto the ramp and then on to the barge. The captain and his attendant seemed nonchalant as they turned their craft around and picked up the next passengers. The trip across the river and then the drive up the east side to Columbia filled all our expectations and then some.

Note: The story of the Jim Bowie Relay Station is interesting and well worth the time and effort to research. John Ed Bartmess was the principal of Enterprise School, which closed in (1992/93). His idea of the reconstructed village was conceived and then developed over a long period of time as a tribute to the former school and community. Bartmess knew that Jim Bowie had lived in the area as a child and backed it up with extensive research. John Ed and his wife Shirley opened the family operated restaurant and park in the year 2000 and catered to record crowds. They sold the restaurant in 2009 to Raymond Nugent. The theme park is open and free to the public.