Claudia Troll-Johnson spent the past 13 years carving out stories of the forest and the sawmill in Long Leaf at the Southern Forest Heritage Museum (SFHM). She is the sixth director of the 57-acre attraction and the only woman.
She retired in August.
The time was ripe for her particular skill set when she arrived in 2007. A 20-year career in education teaching English, art, theater and technology was just what the museum needed as they embarked on new exhibits, or as Troll-Johnson says, “new stories to tell.”
Troll-Johnson grew up in McNary, just a short jaunt from Long Leaf, where her mother was born. Her grandfather was the engineer on the Red River & Gulf No. 106 steam locomotive that sits on the tracks at the museum.
“I remember the smell (of Long Leaf) back then,” said Troll-Johnson, recalling the sappy smell that marked her arrival to Long Leaf when she was a little girl. “I remember the whistle meant something to me.”
The mill’s workday started at 8 a.m., the first whistle of the day; another rang for lunch; and at 5 p.m. the whistle meant her father would be home, even though he didn’t work at the site.
“We lived by the whistle,” she said.
Those who haven’t visited the museum in the past few years will be amazed at the new exhibits in the historic cabins, all fitted with ramps for handicapped access. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) exhibit traces the camps in Louisiana with an interactive exhibit and video about the popular work relief program. The little touches that Troll-Johnson added include the mannequin of the CCC young man sitting on his vintage bunk and the bottled smells of the Thanksgiving meal as outlined on the menu from camp.
“The kids love to try that,” she said.
The bronze statue of the CCC man that once stood on the Interstate 49 Welcome Center also has been moved to the museum.
The Camp Claiborne exhibit opened two years ago, and along with it there is a sustainable forestry exhibit. The office of Henry Hardtner, who is known as the father of forestry in the South, also is showcased with the intricate design of the various woods in the flooring itself to showcase the products of his lumber company.
The Terrell World War II exhibit is an intact collection donated to Troll-Johnson by her aunt and displayed with a tremendous variety of sights and sounds. The new Caroline Dormon exhibit has a finished interior while work continues on the exterior. Rick Johnson, curator of Briarwood in Saline, where Dormon lived, has provided some of her personal belongings for the new exhibit.
“It’s like a time machine here,” said Troll-Johnson of this place where visitors do feel like they experience a part of Louisiana life that is gone. The Crowell Long Leaf Lumber Co. operated a sawmill in a company town at the turn of the century. The Red River and Gulf Railroad cut a path through the woods, and the 300-plus workers and their families had a café, doctor’s office, general store and a two-story hotel.
When the mill stopped running on Valentine’s Day 1969, everything froze in time until 1994. A train was stopped on the tracks, the calendar read February 1969 and the mallet used to grade the lumber as it came down the chute still lay at the grader’s post.
The Crowell forest management continued during those years and thanks to them, the site was kept intact. That was very different than the more than 100 other sawmill towns that were dismantled and disappeared.
The late Henry Pearson, a research scientist with the U.S. Forest Service, and a group of people backed by the Louisiana Forestry Association had the idea to embark on a museum that would show not just the Crowell operation but the forestry and sawmilling life that once dotted the whole Southern region. Long Leaf remained while the other mills and company towns vanished. With the cooperation and assistance of the Crowell family, the Southern Forest Heritage Museum began in 1994 and opened its doors in 1996.
J. Preston Lockridge was the first director followed by Alan Auter, Bob Madison (for a short time), Don Powell, Bob Carroll and finally Claudia Troll-Johnson.
“We were very fortunate to engage Claudia to take over as executive director (in 2007),” said C.A. “Buck” Vandersteen, executive director of the Louisiana Forestry Association and SFHM board member since its inception. “We wanted to find someone of the caliber we had with (the late) Don Powell and Bob Carroll. Claudia’s enthusiasm and love for the museum has served us well.”
One important innovation Troll-Johnson developed that helped the museum prosper was the marketing of the museum as a rustic outdoor wedding venue — long before similar enterprises got into the market. The planer mill with its open-air sides and covered roof was the first spot available. The wooden rafters were decorated with lights, caterers were brought in and guests lined up most Saturdays to discover the thrill of dancing on an outdoor wooden floor beneath the moonlight and beside the whistle and rumble of the occasional train.
The wedding trade helped the bottom line of the museum and introduced it to legions of people who had never thought to come to the place. Troll-Johnson designed another wedding venue called “Windows in the Wilderness,” located in the old equipment shed. One year, there were 60 weddings at Long Leaf.
Other highlights were the traveling Smithsonian exhibits that came to the museum. It was the national museum’s way to bring its mark to small town America with short-term themed exhibits that they provided along with expertise.
“They actually trained us in how to do an exhibit,” said Troll-Johnson. “They said you should always put more in an exhibit than they can absorb in one visit so they will come back.”
A big effort has been put into the trains at the museum. This keeps train enthusiasts all over the world in touch with Long Leaf. Preservation of the trains of the Red River and Gulf Railroad has been the priority. Restoration of the steam locomotive to working status has not been possible, but a motorcar ride on the track around the museum thrills visitors and is the getaway car for the bride and groom at weddings.
Troll-Johnson heaped praise on the six members of the museum staff.
“We have a staff that lives, breathes and loves this place,” she said.
The museum can’t run just on admission fees, so donations and endowments have made up the difference, along with grants from the state.
A new exhibit is about the Naval Stores Industry, which refined extractions from pine trees to make turpentine and other products. Agrarian Family Life is another possible exhibit to show everyday life in rural America.
The new director is Doug Rhodes, who retired from the U.S. Forest Service after 32 years as a wildlife biologist and later as a ranger. Having been a volunteer at the museum, he was ready to step into the director seat.
“We will try to increase the number of visitors,” he said of his plans, pointing out the effects of the coronavirus on tourism.
The coronavirus restrictions hurt the Southern Forest Heritage Museum just as it did other tourist-driven sites. Busloads of foreign tourists would schedule visits through the convention bureau regularly, but those have stopped since March.
The museum is reopened, but travel is light. It is a perfect fall getaway with social distancing already built in.
For Troll-Johnson, she looks forward to quilting and a new hobby of sewing machine repair. She and her husband, Bo, live only a whistle blow away from the museum.
(The Southern Forest Heritage Museum is open Wednesday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is $10 per adult and $8 for students. Other discounts also apply. For more information see the website at www.longleaf.la or call 318-748-8404.)
(Janet Tompkins is the former editor of Forests & People magazine.)