Friday, September 27, 2013

The Iconic World of Frenchie’s Bar

A few months ago I came across the photograph, shown here, of a crossroads store, bar and gas station in a hamlet called Melrose, located in the cotton-growing region of Louisiana,.   The photo, entitled “Frenchie’s Bar.” intrigued me so thoroughly that I bought a refrigerator magnet bearing the image.  It also set me on the path of finding out more about the origin of the photo. In the course of my research I discovered that it  has achieved iconic status.

First the origins:  The image is from a photograph taken under the auspices of the Farm Security Agency (FSA), a federal body that provided salaries for photographers who traveled the United States making an historical document of America during the difficult times of the Great Depression of the 1930s.   Among their number were such famous names as Dorthea Lange and Walker Evans.  Joining their ranks was the lovely and accomplished woman who took the photo of Frenchie’s Bar.  She was Marion Post Wolcott, born in June, 1910, in Montclair, New York.

Beginning in September 1936.  age 26, Wolcott spent three and one half years photographing in New England, Kentucky, North Carolina,  Florida, Mississippi, and Louisiana.  Her camera, as she is shown here holding, was a Speed Graphic,  a heavy, awkward mechanism that required reloading after every shot.  Called “a photographic pioneer on America’s ragged frontier” by a biographer, Wolcott is said to survived illness, bad weather, rattlesnakes,  skepticism about a woman traveling alone, and the sometimes hostile reaction of her subjects.

Through it all Wolcott remained dedicated to her responsibilities:  "As an FSA documentary photographer, I was committed to changing the attitudes of people by familiarizing America with the plight of the underprivileged, especially in rural America....FSA photographs shocked and aroused public opinion to increase support for the New Deal policies and projects, and played an important part in the social revolution of the 30s,”  she once wrote.

Of the thousands of photos she took for the FSA,  I wonder if Wolcott, who received many awards during her lifetime, understood that it would be Frenchie’s Bar, taken about 1934,  that would reach iconic status, a little like Grant Wood’s “American Gothic”  painting of a farmer and his daughter.  After all,  Melrose is just a spot on the map in Natchitoches (pronounced “Nag-o-ditch”) County,
Tom McLeod
Louisiana, adjacent to the Red River.  The bar was what was known in Southern parlance as a “juke joint, an establishment that featured music, dancing gambling and drinking, primarily operated by African-Americans. Usually found at rural crossroads like Melrose, juke joints catered to the rural black workforce who were barred from white roadhouses by Jim Crow laws.

Tom McLeod is a Southern artist who says on his website that he is devoted to capturing in his paintings the “mystical authentic essence of Southern culture.”   When he paints a scene, this one clearly based on Wolcott’s photo, he says, “I strive to capture the essence of a place, not just the architecture.  That is evident from his version of Frenchie’s Bar.  Gone  is the figure in front of the gas pump.  The entire frontage has been foreshortened and the colors of the signs are more vivid.
Tom McLeod's "Frenchies Bar"

All this is in keeping with McLeod’s philosophy that he paints “what is felt, but not seen, the memories of the essence, not the details of the ordinary.”  He also believes that the playfulness of distortions in perspective, very evident in this painting,  emphasizes the “authentic.”   In this painting he seems to have captured something authentic, as did the original by Marian Walcott.

Jim Lappe is a self-taught artist who grew up in the Middle West but moved to the
Jim Lappe
Roswell/Alpharetta area of New Mexico in 1981.  With his wife and two grown children his day job is selling real estate.  But following a lifelong interest in art,  he found his passion was painting in vibrant acrylics old trucks and automobiles and other relics from the past. 

This is evident from Lappe’s rendition of Frenchie's Bar.  Although the original had a gas pump,  there were no vehicles in sight.  The New Mexican artist has added three,  an ancient wrecker, a pickup and a flatbed truck.  Like McLeod,  Lappe has distorted the perspective to some degree but he substantially has changed the atmosphere of the scene.   The original photo conveyed isolation and emptiness.   Lappe’s painting presents Frenchie’s Bar as a place of activity, of vehicles coming and going, of drivers somewhere inside having a Regal Whiskey or  a JAX Beer.
Jim Lappe's "Frenchies Bar"

Although our next depiction of Frenchie’s Bar includes a model automobile,  it lacks the same sense of activity that Lappe suggest.   By contrast, this representation seems somewhat sterile.   Unlike McLeod,  the artisan who fashioned this three-dimensional version of the Melrose juke joint has captured the architecture but not the essence.

This model  is the product of the Tin Whistle Sign & Kit Company of Arden, North Carolina.  Costing  $89.90,  the kit comes with a laser-cut basswood body,  two billboards, interior flooring, 2 gravity fed gas pumps, assorted resin castings, and assorted graphics.  In addition to the model car,  two accouterments are a rocking chair and a laser-cut dobro guitar,  none of them in the original photo but identified with Southern culture. A hobbyist, I suppose, would set this scene into to his model train set and let the action be supplied by the choo choo coming down the tracks.

If an iconic image has many aspects to it as Frenchie’s Bar does,  even a small portion may be emulated.  Shown here is a paperweight, ostensibly issued by the Coca Cola Company, that shows a  black woman in a kerchief with a small black child, with a gasoline pump in the foreground.   There is a single sign that says “Ice Cold...Coke” and displays a bottle.  The  Wolcott original has a large Coke sign at right but also smaller signs that advertise Nehi and Hires Root Beer.

Clearly those fascinated by the image of Frenchie’s Bar have only touched the surface of what might be done with this iconic  image.  It could be the set for a play or a scene in a motion picture of Southern life.  We have not begun to fathom the character of the man in the straw hat and suspenders who has his back to us, filling a gas can.  Perhaps it is for the figure sitting at left, partially hidden by a pillar.  We also can image this “juke joint” on a Saturday night when the cotton pickers roll in.  Word is that these places got loud and rowdy along about midnight.

Marian Post Wolcott, who died in 1990 after a long bout with lung cancer, might find it fascinating that her photograph, taken almost 80 years ago in a sleepy Louisiana crossroads, would find so much appreciation and imitation (the sincerest form of flattery, remember) in the 21st Century.  She might even have enjoyed seeing the “digitally painted” and elegantly framed version of Frenchie’s Bar available for sale on the Internet, shown below.

Note:  For those interested in finding out more about Marion Wolcott, a truly extraordinary personage, a more complete biography can be found on the Internet. The original photo is in the public domain and available from the Library of Congress Collection.   Both Tom McLeod and Jim Lappe have websites that feature their artistry. Both are well worth a look.  And for model builders, Tin Whistle Sign & Kit maintains a website with lots of scenes to choose from.


  1. Hi there,

    nice articel to read :)
    Is this Bar still there or is it destroyed? Do you have further information about what happend to the bar?


  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Really interesting article sir!

    I would also like to know about the existence of the bar and what has happened.

    (forensic investigator)

  4. I think I have the jax beer bottle sign on the top of the bldg

  5. I think I have the jax beer bottle sign on the top of the bldg

  6. I am fascinated by this photo as well. I drove through Melrose (really just a crossroads) looking for this building. There is an abandoned store and a bunch of farm storage buildings around the intersection that may have been associated with the huge Melrose Plantation house located across the road, but none match the architecture of this store. I would love to go back when I had more time and see if anyone remained in the community who remember the place and had any stories about Saturday nights there. Thanks for the post!

  7. Here's a view of the buildings around the intersection of Parish Roads 493 and 199. The building on the left looks like a former store and may be the Melrose post office as shown on Google maps, but it is clearly not Frenchie's.,-92.9670644,3a,75y,206.68h,82.13t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1sei4t7k-vBeOfx2YIMDUwAA!2e0!7i13312!8i6656?hl=en

  8. I stumbled on this article after doing some research on a painting I recently found that I'd bought at a garage sale a few years ago. Turns out I have a wonderful original watercolor of this place. I wish there was a way for me to post a photo of it on here.