All I really knew about the Louisiana Treasures Museum in Tangipahoa Parish was that it was filled with old glass bottles and pictures of dead cops. I eyed a century-old giant wheeled cage, formerly used to transport prisoners, standing in the front yard of the museum. I figured at best the museum would be an uncomfortable experience: a “good vs. evil” exhibition about dead police and those they punished, possibly with a creepy host guiding the tour.
The tour got off to an uncomfortable start. The proprietor, an elderly man named Wayne Norwood, steered my partner and me into a hallway, both walls lined with photographs of police officers and short descriptions of how they died. It’s a work in progress, with many of the picture frames currently empty. He didn’t talk very much in this portion of the museum, other than showing us a newspaper clipping from his first big night on the job as a police officer, where he shot and killed six bank robbers. The image from the newspaper showed him squatting next to a shot-up car as if it were the carcass of a trophy animal. I was too stunned to ask many questions, making polite noises at the photographs as we walked down the hall.
But an odd thing happened as we moved past the police hallway. Wayne went from being closemouthed and a little stand-offish to being extremely cheerful and chatty. It was as if we collectively acknowledged that we would certainly not see eye-to-eye on politics, but we could all agree to spend time pouring over the rest of the contents of the museum, which is almost entirely composed of objects that he has pulled out of Lake Pontchartrain over the past 40 years. Wayne was one of the first certified investigative divers in Louisiana. Back in the ‘70s, he would dive in Lake Pontchartrain looking for bodies. He’d often come up with other things—bottles, anchors, farm tools. Eventually he amassed a dragon’s hoard of junk, and decided to open a museum to show off his goods.
Collectors are often charming folks, although sometimes their enthusiasm for their subjects can veer into an off-putting mania. I’ve been in many strange rooms filled with strange objects collected by strange people, folks whose manias fill the room to the point of claustrophobia. Wayne comes off as a person who has spent his life picking through the world around him, lifting up every object with great joy and asking, “What’s this?” His enthusiasm for seemingly ordinary objects transcends the gap between what is commonly thought of as trash and what is considered historically important. Looking at the sheer size of Wayne’s collection of mundane objects, it becomes easier to understand his interest in common, everyday things. One old beer can from the ‘70s might be garbage, but put it on a shelf with 40 other beer cans from the same era and it’s a collection.
Most of the treasures in Wayne’s collection are bottles. Bottles still full of whiskey, bottles of medicine brewed at apothecary shops in the French Quarter, and hundreds of Ball mason jars—each carefully grouped with bottles manufactured in the same year. Wayne will show you how to identify the differences between a Ball mason jar manufactured in 1910 versus one in 1930. He will tell you how bottle design communicated to illiterate folks: bottles of poison had raised ridges, bottles of snuff had different numbers of raised bumps based on the strength of the product and how one should ingest it.
Along with the bottles are cases and cases full of Native American artifacts—arrowheads, scrapers used to prepare animal hides, most of an ancient dugout canoe that he recently unearthed from the muck. He also has dozens of items from the lost towns of Frenier, Ruddock, and LaBranche—communities of primarily German immigrants that lived on the western shores of the Lake during the early 1900s. In 1915, the West Indian Hurricane came roaring out of the Gulf, slamming into the western shores as a category 4 storm. Nearly 325 people died in the storm, most of the bodies lost deep in the swamps. All three of the towns were subsequently abandoned, deemed too risky to resettle. Wayne regularly goes out to the last remnants of Frenier. For years, the last piece of Frenier that remained was the cemetery. Over time, he watched as the headstones disappeared—stolen, he thinks, by other trophy hunters.
The best thing to do as Wayne shows you around his museum is ask him questions. What are these little metal tokens labelled “public welfare tax?” That’s how people used to pay taxes on goods. You would buy your tax tokens in bulk from the state, and then carry the tokens with you to pay consumption taxes on-site. Why is there a large stuffed alligator on the ground? Well, Wayne used to raise them as part of a roadside attraction. One day an electric generator fell in a pond and killed his ten biggest gators. He casually mentioned that he used to wrestle the deadly reptiles for fun and was bitten twice. I assumed he was pulling my leg until we later came across a framed picture of him astraddle the back of a 9 foot alligator, chugging a Coca-Cola.
By the end of the tour, I admit that I was won over by Wayne. This caught me completely by surprise, considering my skepticism of the museum and my initial wave of discomfort in the hallway of police. Am I so easily manipulated by archetypal old Southern men that I can dismiss all sorts of political conflicts and instead focus on their more fun, wacky interests for my own benefit? My ability to do so is deeply related to who I am: a Southern white female. I have spent much of my life joking around with all sorts of Southern white men, studiously ignoring political issues for the sake of both of us. It is a conversational pattern that is so deep within me that I participate in it without a second thought.
I thought about the conflicting feelings the museum provoked in me as Wayne walked us outside. We stopped in front of the giant wheeled cage, something that most certainly enforced misery and horrors on the unlucky people, innocent or guilty, who were once trapped inside. Ultimately, the Treasures Museum is a reflection of Louisiana itself: charming, but with dark undertones that are not so easily talked about.
The Louisiana Treasures Museum is located at 10290 Highway 22. It’s open on Saturdays from 10:00 am until 4:00 pm and Sundays from 12:00 pm until 4:00 pm.
For more info, check out louisianatreasuresmuseum.com