by Ellis Anderson
If the 200 block of Ballentine Street is part of your regular route in town, you’ve probably seen Gaynell Acker sitting on the front porch of her bright yellow house. She’ll wave, even if she doesn’t know you - but of course, that’s the Bay St. Louis way and Gaynell has lived in the Fourth Ward for her entire life. In fact, she was born in the Fourth Ward, seventy-three years ago, in her great-grandmother’s house on St. Charles Street.
Gaynell grew up on Ballentine St., in a house built by Orin Heiztman and her father, Emmette Acker.
During Carnival season in the 1940s and 50s, the Mardi Gras Moss Men of the Fourth Ward livened up the day. An informal group of neighbors (including Slim and Grace Banks) would dress in show-stopping costumes made of Spanish moss, transforming themselves into the Moss Men - mystifying creatures that would sometimes scare the younger children. Mardi Gras “Indians” also joined in the fun of marching through town, outfitted in elaborate costumes that Gaynell helped sew. “People would come from everywhere to see them march through the neighborhood. They’d start across the tracks by Valena C. Jones and march on Main St, Union and Sycamore. Those were good times, no fighting or trouble.”
But Gaynell had to take on adult responsibilities early in life: her father died when she was only 13 years old and her mother was ill, so she became the family provider at a young age. After attending school at Valena C. Jones – when it was still housed in a hall and a church on Washington Street – she worked at the Sisters of St. Joseph’s and then at Bressler’s Café, on the beach across from Hancock Bank. Later, she began cooking at St. Stanilaus, where she became a beloved fixture for twenty-eight years.
“I’ve seen so many of them come and go,” Gaynell said. “I can name every Brother they had.”
Despite the hard work, Gaynell loved to dance and recalls fine times at the string of Sycamore Street clubs that ran from Old Spanish Trail to the tracks. She named Miss Eretta’s Lounge, The Big Five, Frank’s, The Onion, and The Crack as places where live music and jukeboxes provided plenty of opportunities for stepping out. 100 Men Hall, which recently unveiled a Mississippi Blues Trail marker, was one of her favorites and there Gaynell danced to the music of legendary acts like the Drifters, B.B. King and Irma Thomas.
“I’d put on my short skirt and my little black shoes and I’d be dipping it!” she says.
Gaynell raised her three children, Farren, Tanya and Don (and nephew Allison), in the Ballentine house built by her father. Tanya lives in Slidell now and Don is in nearby Gulfport, while Farren and her husband Morvon live a few doors down from Gaynell.
Farren, Utility Supervisor for the City of Bay St. Louis, laughs when she explains that she and her sister Tanya married brothers Morvon and William Washington, whom they’d known their entire lives.
“I’ve been on Ballentine forever too,” says Farren. “When I married, I moved my bags about three doors down. I didn’t even need a U-haul!”
Four grandchildren – Brent, Javon, William, and Farren - have made Gaynell proud, with Brent recently graduating as an orthopedic physician. Yet, like most Bay St. Louis families, Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc on their lives. Gaynell explains that she had taken refuge for the storm with her brother Renee Acker, on “high ground” at his house on Bookter Street. While the surge rose, Renee ferried her through the screeching winds to the nearby Senior Citizen’s Center in his boat, then left to rescue others trapped by the water.
“Part of the roof (of the Senior Citizen’s Center) was leaking,” Gaynell remembers. “It was bad. If there’s a storm coming this way today, I’m going that way,” and she points into the distance, away from the nearby beach.
Both Gaynell and Farren’s homes were completely destroyed and the family fled to Birmingham where grandson Brent was attending college. It was Gaynell’s first experience outside of Bay St. Louis and she remembers that during their month long stay at a Red Roof Inn, they were “treated like gold.”
“We had to cook and everything in that room,” says Gaynell. “But the manager of the inn was a close friend of the mayor of Bessemer, Alabama. That mayor took care of us. You name it, we had it.”
After another extended stay with Gaynell’s brother and sister in San Antonio, the family returned home and moved into FEMA trailers. Farren resumed her job with the city in November and by an “amazing” stroke of luck on her second day back at work, she ran into contractor friend Eddie Clark at the temporary city hall offices in the Depot. Clark was with Ian Crenshaw, a builder from Allen and Associates in Santa Barbara, California. Crenshaw was seeking to build a free house for a Bay St. Louis resident and when Farren suggested to the men that they consider her mother, “the blessing” began.
Before the house could be built, the lot had to be cleared. Neighbor Tyrone Williams undertook to massive job - and the cost? “Not one nickel, not one penny!” Then the components of the modular home arrived on a tractor-trailer truck at night, so family members and friends unloaded the heavy pieces in the dark, using car headlights to see. Later, when crews arrived to begin construction, Gaynell, who had retired ten years before because of crippling arthritis, prepared scrumptious down-home dishes for the workmen each day.
“No sandwiches, no hot dogs,” says Gaynell. “I cooked hot meals, the whole nine yards. Oh yes, they were so glad to get it!”
By Christmas 2006, the first house to be built in Bay St. Louis since Katrina was complete. Ian Crenshaw’s two pre-teen sons even decorated a Christmas tree for Gaynell, who says she’ll never forget the first time she entered her new home.
“I walked in and that tree was all lit up,” she recalls. “I’m telling you, I was happy, happy, happy!”
Gaynell reuses the same Christmas tree each year now and proudly displays pictures and cards from the Crenshaw family. It’s obvious that she enjoys the house, with its open kitchen where a pot of red beans simmered on the stove on the afternoon of her interview. The porch, of course, is a favorite feature of her new home. Farren notes that “from Beach to Third Street, she’s the Neighorhood Watch. She knows everything that’s shaking in the area.”
Then the smiling daughter reveals the activity her mother most enjoys. "And if she's not on the porch," says Farren, "You know she's at Bingo!"