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From Lafayette I drove to Crowley, where Kaplan had lived since first stepping off the train there at age 18. Listening to zydeco on the car radio, I passed billboards for “boudin” and “crackling” (sausages and pork rinds). Crowley, with its 1940s theater and plentiful diagonal parking on a wide street punctuated with grass dividers, was pleasingly retro. I stopped in front of a mural depicting a rice farm. The town of some 13,000 people seemed to support a disproportionate number of banks, notaries, loan providers and lawyers, as if its early entrepreneurial spirit had never quite dissipated.
Kaplan’s house was gone now, but it would have been in a comfortably suburban-looking neighborhood on Crowley’s east side. On the west side, the houses were smaller, the people poorer. The division seemed to be racial, as well; the first, rushed impression was of two towns — one black, the other white — improbably stuck together.
But to see the remnants of Abrom Kaplan’s legacy, I had to go to nearby Abbeville, where both a train station and a rice mill that Kaplan helped to build still stood. The air in Abbeville was fragrant with the scent of flowers, and heavy tree limbs were propped up by little metal stands. On one corner stood a massive former bank building, bright pink and turreted like a Disney castle.
The train station looked neat and freshly painted; it had been repurposed as a gift shop. But Kaplan’s Planters Rice Mill was still running. I stopped my car beside it and lowered the window. The mill hummed laboriously, like the world’s largest air conditioner, like a force that had powered this region to life more than 100 years ago and was deciding whether or not to hang on.
Johnna Kaplan writes about travel, history, and Jewish issues. She lives in New London, Conn., and blogs at www.thesizeofconnecticut.com.