Time for a little bit of sleuthing.
This isn’t the mystery of a box car standing beneath a protective cover on the grounds of Louisiana’s Old State Capitol. Its explanatory plaque pretty much spells out that it was one of 49 World War I era, French railroad box cars in the Merci Train sent as a post World War II “thank you” by France in 1949.
No, the mystery here is about what was inside those cars, or one car, in particular.
The box cars were collectively filled with tens of thousands of gifts supplied by individual French citizens, who were showing their appreciation for the more than 700 American box cars of relief goods sent to them primarily by individual Americans during and after World War II.
The United States had only 48 states at the time. The 49th car was designated to be shared by the District of Columbia and what was then the Territory of Hawaii.
Apparently, the gifts’ fate was left to the states’ discretion.
Louisiana was no different. Its car was filled with everything from a wedding dress to a bust of Napoleon, all of which seems to have been lost to time. But Carol Haase refuses to believe that.
Haase has spent two decades volunteering at the Old State Capitol and authored the 2008 book, “Louisiana’s Old State Capitol,” tracing the castle’s history and restoration.
Even while writing her book, the box car’s contents perplexed Haase.
“I included references about the Merci Train in the back of my book, but I wonder where the gifts went,” she said. “Maybe people have some of these things and don’t know it.”
The Merci Train arrived in New York harbor on Feb. 3, 1949. Each of the 48 American states at that time received one of the box cars, all welcomed by parades and ceremonies in the state capitols and major cities.
The ceremony with the highest attendance was in New York City with more than 200,000 people turned out for the celebration.
The train pulled into Baton Rouge on Feb. 22, 1949, where its 397 gifts designated for Louisiana were exhibited through March 15 in the Louisiana State Capitol’s Memorial Hall.
“Ever since the gifts went on display on Feb. 23, the day after the small French box car was formally presented to Gov. (Earl) Long and the people of Louisiana, the lobby has been crowded with visitors,” reporter Margaret Dixon wrote in the March 6, 1949, edition of the Morning Advocate. “All day long, day after day, a never-ending stream of people passed before the temporary shelves on which are placed the examples of France’s gratitude.”
Dixon wrote that some of the gifts represented “the work of school children,” while others were gifts from cities and provinces of France.
“But others are there because the ‘little people’ of France wanted to show their appreciation to America,” she continued. “And it is these that give the most pleasure to the little people of Louisiana and which arouse the most comment.”
Among the gifts were French language books, including the French version of beloved children’s book, “Babar,” whose main character was — and still is — the elegantly dressed king of the Elephant Kingdom.
Also included was a 130-year-old fashion labeled dress, a German helmet, a watercolor painting, dolls in Brittainy and Normandy costumes, wooden shoes with pointy toes, a spinning wheel, swords, a piece of wood from Chateau Thierry, a portrait of King Louis XIV, a large cross of Lorraine made of French Francs and strands of American and French flags that flew from the Eiffel Tower on Victory in Europe, or V-E Day, at the end of World War II.
“There is an ash tray made entirely of mirrors,” Dixon wrote. “There are bronze statuettes, beautiful crystal wine glasses, exquisitely etched. Particularly attractive are the paintings. The one that has attracted the most attention is the wine merchant of Alsace, a well executed character, which brought the comment from one visitor that it might well be the portrait of an American politician.”
Still, the gift attracting the most attention was a wedding dress “for a happy American bride.”
“The wedding dress was brought to a festival in Opelousas, where all the festival queens from throughout the state were invited,” Haase said. “The dress was going to be given to the festival queen that it fit. All I know is that it was given to someone in Opelousas.”
Then there’s the question of the Napoleon bust, which Dixon described as an “imposing bust made of marble.”
“One of the most beautiful items in the display is the Sevres vase, which was sent to Gov. Long by the president of France. Of delicate porcelain with inlay of silver, it is still on display but will be removed to the executive mansion when the display is dismantled and the gifts permanently distributed.”
At that time, Dixon wrote, the gifts’ placement had yet to be determined.
“Some gifts, probably most of them, will go to museums through the state under direction of a special committee named by Gov. Long and including one reprsentative from each congressional district,” she wrote.
But were they? Haase’s research has led to a few dead ends.
“I’ve called around, and I was told that a lot of the items were donated to the French House at LSU,” she said. “I tried calling out there, but they don’t have anything. The 75th anniversary of the Merci Train is coming up in about a year, and it would be great if we could find out where some of these things are.”
Have information on possible whereabouts of Louisiana’s Merci Train contents? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.