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It’s hard for people of this generation to believe the grip that he had on Louisiana. Nothing happened in the state unless he wanted it to happen.
I’ve heard stories that he built the bridge in Baton Rouge at a certain height to prevent ship traffic coming through the river. Oh, have you heard about that?
I have. So, the story I heard about Huey Long was—or about the bridge in Baton Rouge was—the old bridge, not the new bridge. He had them build the bridge at a height so low that ocean-going vessels couldn’t pass underneath it. So, and what that did for the people of Louisiana was it made all the ocean-going vessels stop in Baton Rouge, therefore creating the port of Baton Rouge. They had to unload in Baton Rouge and then reload on to Louisiana on—or Louisiana vessels going north.
And he couldn’t get funding for a new football stadium at LSU. And so, being the politician that he was, he built dorms on LSU’s campus shaped as a U, and they built a football field in the middle of the U. Is that right?
That’s right, that’s right. That’s—again, the legend of Huey Long continues. But he asked the federal government for funding to build a football stadium, and he was denied. So, he asked them for funding for dormitories, and that was granted. So, he built the dormitories in the shape of a U, and had a nice perfect spot for the football field in Tiger Stadium. So, if you go to Tiger Stadium today, you can see there’s still dorm rooms in there today.
Most people think that Kathleen Blanco was the first female governor of Louisiana, and that’s actually not true. Alice Lee Grosjean was Huey Long’s personal secretary, and Huey Long was out of the country, and the lieutenant governor was out of the country. So, Huey actually appointed miss Alice Grosjean as governor for two weeks, I think, while he was out of the country. So, she is the first female governor of Louisiana. She’s in the Louisiana Political Hall of Fame because of that.
He appealed to all sectors of society, whether—you know, people coming out of the Depression, he was promising them—you know, “Every man a king, and a chicken in every pot.” But at the same time, he could speak to the people in Washington D.C. and to the wealthiest Americans in the country. He just had broad, broad appeal, and that’s what made him so unique. And it’s rare that we’d run it across a politician with those talents, and he just had it.
When I worked around Louisiana politics, they had an old consultant tell me, “The first rule of Louisiana politics is to reward your friends and punish your enemies.” And there’s no better example of the implementation of this rule than what Huey Long did to the tiny town of Melville.
Now, Melville sits on the banks of the Atchafalaya River, and during the last century—the early part of the last century, it was a booming town. There were hotels, there were theaters. There’s a lot going on in Melville. And Huey Long came to campaign for the 1928 governor’s election there. And the folks there didn’t really like him. And so, they ridiculed him, they jeered him. And he made a promise to them, “I am never going to forget Melville, and you’ll pay for this.”
Well, they did, and in a big way. Well, Long won the 1928 election, and he did not forget his promise to Melville. He built a highway, Highway 71. It’s still there today. Now, the main corridor between Shreveport and Baton Rouge was a highway that passed right through Melville. And so, if he wanted to improve the route, it would have made sense to take the existing road and improve it. Huey Long decided to build a brand new highway right through a swamp. It took more time, it increased the miles from Baton Rouge to Shreveport by about 10 or 12 miles. But what it did is completely bypass Melville. There was no reason to go through Melville anymore.
Eight decades later, the town does not thrive. There are no theaters there, there are no hotels there. Huey Long’s promise to never forget Melville and to destroy it economically did work. And certainly, Huey did not care about his image. He cared about power, and attaining it and keeping it. And he was the master of it.
The truth is, he delivered on a lot of the promises. So, he did make really big promises and said he was going to do grand things. But in the end, he really did do grand things.
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