FIRST YEARS OF THE TOWN OF VINTON
If one were to stand at the heart of Vinton and look back in time over a hundred years, the view would have been unrecognizable. It was still frontier country largely uninhabited and untamed. That sense of being on the edge could be seen clearest if one traveled from the Sabine River to the east, following what was called the Old Spanish Trail.
The Old Spanish Trail, which was neither old nor Spanish, wandered north and south of what is now U. S. Hwy. 90 in large part because of the unstable roadbed. The chief means of outside travel in the Parish relied on riverboats plying the Sabine and Calcasieu Rivers. Much of the marsh and bayous remained impassable. River travel made Lake Charles possible, just as mining for sulfur led to the founding of Sulphur. There had been numerous attempts to improve transportation throughout the 19th century. Confederate soldiers in 1863 cut a road extending from Niblett’s Bluff on the Sabine River to Alexandria, but it never developed into a major artery. Settlers had long been in the Vinton area. Jean Baptise Granger settled acreage between what is now Vinton and Big Woods about 1827, one of the first pioneers of the area. Even so, the area remained sparsely populated.
Geography was not the main reason the area had few settlers. From the beginning, the Spanish and French disputed the western boundary of Louisiana. When America bought the territory, they inherited the dispute. In 1806, when negotiations bogged down, a neutral strip or buffer zone was created. Both countries agreed not to claim the land in question, referred to as the Rio Hondo Territory. Starting in 1810, both governments removed all settlers in the Rio Hondo Territory, which included a sizable portion of modern Calcasieu Parish. This policy of forced relocation continued until after the Civil War.
The parish, and Vinton itself, might have remained an undeveloped rural backwater if two signal events had not changed that forever. The first, which had the greatest material impact on the entire community, was the decision by J. Pierpont Morgan’s Louisiana & Texas Railroad Company to construct a railroad from New Orleans to Beaumont, Texas. The second, and most important for Vinton, was the arrival of a former professor from Indiana named Dr. Seaman Knapp.
Timber brought the railroad. The part of Louisiana that included Calcasieu Parish was also home to the finest longleaf pine in the world. When combined with the stands of cypress and other hardwood lumber, logging was a lucrative prospect. The railroad gave life to Vinton, starting with a switching track. Although there would be a depot later, Vinton began as a whistle-stop called Blair. The source of the name is unknown. Some have speculated that the railroad siding took its name from a local family. However, no family named Blair was in residence in the area at that time. Dr. Seaman A. Knapp completed the founding of Vinton. Precisely what brought Dr. Knapp to Louisiana is unclear. Formerly the president of the Iowa Agricultural College in Ames, Dr. Knapp arrived in Lake Charles in 1884 and went to work running an agricultural business for land developer Jabez B. Watkins. In 1887, he quit his job with Watkins and opened his own land company (some sources claim Dr. Knapp started his company in 1885, but the evidence is inconclusive).
Watkins was a native of Lawrence, Kansas who came to Lake Charles in 1883. Using English capital, Watkins bought 500,000 acres of prairie and marshland in Southwest Louisiana. To bring in settlers, he advertised in newspapers across the nation. It is assumed that Dr. Knapp was one of the settlers Watkins attracted to the area. It is also assumed that Dr. Knapp was the leading force behind the first settler in what would become the township of Vinton.
Dr. Knapp purchased from the U. S. Government the 160-acre tract of land that would form the basis of the town. At the time, he paid $2.50 an acre. On October 17, 1887 Robert F. Evans, also an Iowa native, purchased an additional 640 acres. The sources are unclear if the acreage was then sold to Dr. Knapp or Mr. George Horridge. However, the records show that the Southern Real Estate and Guaranty Company bought all land tracts by April 1889. The land was divided into lots and sold at prices ranging between 10 to 25 dollars each. In time, thirty blocks extended the original twelve-block plot of land. When the post office was registered with the U. S. Postmaster General, Vinton, Dr. Knapp’s Iowa hometown, was chosen as the name of the settlement. However, when the U. S. Postmaster designated the name, he left no explanation for his choice so there remains some doubt about the origin of the name.
It should be noted that it is possible that Dr. Knapp was responsible for the large influx of settlers from Vinton, Iowa. The Horridge, Stevenson, Eddie, Ferguson, Stockwell, Morgan, Nelson, Fairchild, Banker, Hall, and Haskill families were Iowa transplants. Some streets still bear the name of those families. Shortly after construction of the first homes came a sawmill, the Methodist Church, and the first public school building. In 1890, Mrs. Mabel K. Kelly became the first teacher in Vinton. A larger school replaced the older structure in 1901.
Between the initial founding of the settlement and its incorporation is an extraordinary event. The winter of 1895 brought a surprise. On February 14-15, the edge of the worst blizzard in American history touched southwestern Louisiana. A record 22 inches of snow fell on Lake Charles. Some areas reported snowfall between 18-24 inches. In Vinton, the blizzard crippled the new sheep industry and the farmers salvaged what they could by shaving wool from the dead flocks.
Despite the setback caused by the storm, the town grew steadily, aided by the oil boom following the discovery petroleum reserves in Ged, a settlement some miles to the southwest. In 1900, the population numbered sixty-two people. Until 1910, Vinton was officially a village. After a special election, Governor Jared Y. Sanders, who appointed Alexander Perry as the first Mayor, incorporated the Town of Vinton on October 10, 1910 by proclamation. Mr. Perry served as Mayor until July 1, 1911. That same year, a new mayor and council of aldermen were chosen in another election.
by L. Mark Hare 2002