Russell Guerin - A Passion For History
by Pat Saik
- This month, a visit with one of the community's most dedicated historians, Russell Guerin, as he tracks down the truth behind Hancock County legends.
But Russell Guerin does not just admire history and read about history, he uncovers history. Even during his working professional life in the insurance world, Russell spent any extra time that came his way digging into questions about people and places he knew in New Orleans and the Mississippi coast.
“Doing research, you realize how much more there is out there to learn,” he observes.
Last year Russell decided to compile some of his most interesting stories into a book. Titled Early Hancock County: A Few of Her People and Some of Their Stories, the book is filled with original research on his subjects and is written so that one can imagine speaking with him face-to-face.
Russell’s book is not one that must be read from front to back. It may be more fun for the reader to peruse the chapter titles to see what catches the eye. Or just open the book to any page and start reading.
It is a safe bet that the reader will discover surprising and interesting stories that, thanks to Russell Guerin, have been dusted off and put in print, rather than languish untold.
“You can trust what Russell puts into print,” says Eddie Coleman (Cleaver Good Neighbor, Feb. 2013). “It is literate, historically accurate and well-researched.” This is high praise; Eddie is the editor of Hancock County Historical Society’s monthly newsletter and is well-versed in Hancock County’s history.
Charles Gray, Executive Director of the Hancock County Historical Society, concurs. “Russell’s work has added enormously to the body of knowledge of Hancock County. He is one of the most devout researchers I’ve ever met.”
A glance at Russell’s website confirms Gray’s observations. Russell’s website contains some 140 essays relating to Hancock County.
Russell explains how he does his work—“I try to put the meat on the bones.”
story continued below
“So many stories are part myth or legend. The fun part for me is to dig out the facts. Sometimes it is like putting together a puzzle. I’ll find a piece here, a piece there and sometimes these pieces of information make sense when they’re put together. Suddenly it all fits.”
“Those are my Eureka! moments,” Russell says happily.
When the weather gets a little warmer, Russell will put away his latest research project (temporarily, of course) and go fishing.
“My real love is to wade out in the water to catch speckles and red fish. I like being in the water with them. You become a part of the elements.”
The feeling of joining with nature may be as important as catching fish. “I go out to Clermont Harbor before dawn; I love to see the sun come up.”
Before Russell was born, his father, Wilfred Guerin, had built a summer place in Clermont Harbor for the family. And for a time, his father owned the grand Clermont Harbor Hotel. By day, his father commuted by train to his work in New Orleans (Clermont Harbor had a railroad stop), returning daily to hear about the adventures that the children had had that day, swimming, fishing and exploring.
Russell still owns a piece of property in Clermont Harbor. It’s a different time now. When Russell and family spent summers at Clermont Harbor it was a village community where everybody knew everybody. Two grocery stores, an L&N Depot, a community pier and an ice cream parlor served as the town’s hotspots. Singing and guitar playing by locals provided entertainment.
Russell recalls that the boys would play softball — the two teams being “the country boys” who lived year-round at Clermont, and “the city boys,” who came during summer vacation from school.
Clermont Harbor no longer is a village, and the Guerin land on Clermont Harbor “is going back to nature.”
“It’s like a bird sanctuary where egrets nest in trees, revealing their presence with deep ‘gawking' noise,” Russell says. “When I visit the land I see rabbits and squirrels, snapping turtles and alligators. But I worry about the long-term effects of the BP oil spill. Goodness knows what’s in the muck of the marshes.”
At present, Guerin’s continuing interest is in trying to excite people about preserving a prehistoric site in Hancock County. Despite its archeological significance, few residents even know of the site’s existence. Called the “Claiborne Site,” it is filled with clues about a culture of early peoples who thrived there some 3,500 years ago. Its age possibly predates a similar site called “Poverty Point” located in northeast Louisiana, which became a UNESCO heritage site last June.
The land is located at Port Bienville, a growing industrial park. Some discussion about preserving the site has taken place among local officials and the businesses located there, but nothing concrete has developed. Without a desire and a solution to protect this historic site, its secrets may never be uncovered. Russell has posted an article on his website, www.russguerin.com, that contains useful information about the “Claiborne Site.”
“Every area has its history,” Russell says. “We walk over it every day, but it’s there. We just have to dig it out.”
To meet Russell Guerin, drop by the Historical Society on Cue Street. You’ll recognize him as a white-haired gentleman with his nose in a book. If you're fortunate enough to talk with him, you may find that his enthusiasm ignites your own passion for the past.
Russell is featured in this cool video about the Battle of Bay St. Louis, created by Bay Middle School students in 2014