Mannequin of Earl Long in shirt sleeves, standing in front of an old car with giant loudspeakers on its roof.
Earl Long and his 1951 campaign car. The speakers broadcast Earl three miles in every direction.

Louisiana Political Museum and Hall of Fame

Field review by the editors.

Winnfield, Louisiana

The political parties in Louisiana may be no different than in any other state, but the politicians are.

Exterior of Louisiana Political Museum and Hall of Fame, which is an old railroad depot.
The Political Museum and Hall of Fame was built inside an old railroad depot.

Governor Huey Long, for example, ran Louisiana as a dictatorship, used convict labor to tear down the governor's mansion -- replacing it with one that resembled the White House -- and was shot dead in the state capitol. Earl Long, Huey's brother, spent part of his governorship in a lunatic asylum, sent there by his wife, who was upset about his affair with a New Orleans stripper named Blaze Starr. Jimmie Davis, "the singing governor," once rode his horse Sunshine to work after critics claimed that he'd spent too much public money on his Cadillac limousine -- then rode the horse up the capitol steps and into his office because, he said, Sunshine had never seen the governor's office. Edwin Edwards, Louisiana's only four-term governor, said the only way he'd lose an election was if he was "caught in bed with a dead girl or a live boy," and once ran a successful campaign with the slogan, "Vote for the Crook." He was imprisoned for racketeering, extortion, fraud, and money laundering, and later starred in the reality series The Governor's Wife with his 50-year-younger jailhouse bride.

Mannequin of Huey Long stands in his recreated dining room.
Huey Long's dining room: home of beer, card games, and Louisiana politics.

All four men are in the Louisiana Political Museum and Hall of Fame. According to director Carolyn Phillips, the main requirement for inclusion is that the person "must have had a tremendous influence on Louisiana politics." That influence is usually good, but not necessarily.

A campaign button for Earl Long insists,
Earl Long turned his time in a lunatic asylum into a campaign slogan.

The Museum and Hall of Fame is an official creation of the state legislature. It is not in some colonnaded marble hall, but in an old railroad depot that volunteers spent years fixing up before it opened in 1993, on Huey Long's 100th birthday. Carolyn said that the current governor has visited the museum (as did Blaze Starr). "We are the only place like this in the world," she said, and her vote in Louisiana elections goes to whichever candidate promises more money for the attraction -- a personal involvement, she said, typical of Louisiana politics. "What are you gonna do for us?" Carolyn said she asks the candidates. "We can't exist on nothing."

Display cases line the walls, enshrining the Hall's 200-some inductees. Most are not as well-known as Louisiana's flashy governors, and seem quirky but respectable. There's Sheriff Harry "The Chinese Cowboy" Lee, whose listed accomplishments include being born in the back room of a New Orleans Chinese laundry; Jay Chevalier, who failed to win any elected office but who wrote and sang a song about Earl Long that sold over 100,000 records in Louisiana; and Nathan Burl Cain, warden of Angola Prison, whose display features a photo of him posing with the jail's lethal injection table.

Mannequin of Huey Long stands in front of shelves of law books.
Huey Long in front of the family law books, perhaps making a point about Louisiana's Napoleonic Code.

Examples of Louisiana's rabble-rousing campaign fliers and posters are everywhere, even on the walls of the bathrooms. One from the 1940s calls attention to a local politician whose kinfolk, it claims, "have their heads in the public trough." Its display raised the hackles of one of the kinfolk's daughters. "She wanted me to burn that sucker," said Carolyn. The poster was placed in storage as a courtesy, "but I assured her that once she was dead and gone, it would come back out." It has.

Old photo of Governor Jimmie Davis on the day he rode his horse into his office.
Governor Jimmie Davis once rode his horse Sunshine into his office.

Two of the largest exhibits in the museum feature Huey and Earl Long, who were both born only a few blocks away. A dummy of Huey stands next to his golf clubs, in front of a bookcase filled with his brother's law books, apparently giving a speech to his dining room furniture. The furniture is historically important, said Carolyn. "That's where all the deals were made," she said of the Long dining room. "A lot of late night card games and beer, trying to get votes for the bills that Huey wanted passed." (Note: Huey Long was governor during Prohibition, when beer was illegal).

Push button console enables visitors to hear Earl Long stump speeches.
Press a button, listen to Uncle Earl.

A dummy of Earl Long stands next to his 1951 campaign car, topped with four giant loudspeakers that may have inspired the Bluesmobile of a later generation. "Uncle Earl" stands in his shirt sleeves, giving a stump speech; push-buttons in front of the dummy allow visitors to hear six different orations in Earl's own voice. Carolyn originally wanted Earl broadcast through the loudspeakers, just like he was in the 1950s, but the owner of the car curbed her enthusiasm. "I was told, 'If you do that, you're gonna be blown out of your office,'" she said. "'Those speakers were built to be heard three miles away.'"

Earl died in 1960 but he's still a presence in Winnfield. "Uncle Earl's Hog Dog Trials" -- dogs herding wild hogs -- are a popular event every March (the museum sells t-shirts for it), and he's buried just up the block, at the Long birthplace, under a statue of himself atop a big block of granite. As with everything else in Louisiana politics, it sparked controversy. Earl's political rivals grumbled that at least the statue and granite monument wouldn't hinder Earl's trip to the afterlife, as he was not heading upward.

Despite Louisiana's sometimes sketchy political history, Carolyn is proud of her state, and said that voter turnout in Louisiana is among the highest in the nation. "It's always kinda been a sport," she said of Louisiana politics. "It sometimes gets a bit more hairy and sometimes a bit more hilarious, but we're used to it. We've seen just about everything."

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Louisiana Political Museum and Hall of Fame

Louisiana Political Museum and Hall of Fame

Address:
499 E. Main St., Winnfield, LA
Directions:
East edge of downtown, on the north side of E. Main St., just east of the train tracks.
Hours:
M-F 9-5, Sa by appt. (Call to verify)
Phone:
318-628-5928
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

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November 21, 2019

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