What Happened in Morganza
arthur nead illustration
I always drive slowly through Morganza ever since a local policeman stopped me on the adjacent spillway named after the town. He had clocked me traveling a breezy 65 miles per hour in the business part of town alongside Louisiana Highway 1, where the law, if not the traffic flow, demands 45 miles an hour.
On my last trip through the Pointe Coupee Parish town if I violated any speed law, it might have been traveling too slow. I had heard about a monument that had just been placed there, so my Crown Vic creeped along as I looked for it.
As plain and countrified as the town is, there are those who know it as a landmark in American culture. It was there that a famous scene in the 1969 movie Easy Rider was filmed. Two free-spirited motorcyclists, played by Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, along with a traveling companion, played by Jack Nicholson, were – in those stressful Vietnam counter-culture days – out to find America. On their way to Mardi Gras in New Orleans (where, of course, America can be found) the men stopped at a café in Morganza. In the scene, some of the locals didn’t take kindly to the bikers. The scowl on one of the local policemen in the café suggested bad things ahead.
That evening, the bikers camped out near the spillway where they were attacked by thugs. Fonda’s and Hopper’s characters were beaten but survived; Nicholson wasn’t so lucky and became an addition to the era’s body count. What happened in Morganza morphed into a global metaphor for the nation’s social tension.
Easy Rider would become a cult classic, and the café, operated by local lady Blackie Melancon, became a stopping point for the film’s followers who were out to find their own slice of America – and perhaps a slice of pie too.
Had Morganza, and Melancon, wanted to, they could’ve capitalized on the attention that the film brought to their town. She might’ve changed her business’s name to the “Easy Rider Café”; the town could’ve put up signs to attract tourist dollars. But none of that happened.
There was always uneasiness about the film in Morganza, a concern that the locals were unfairly portrayed as ruthless hicks. In retrospect, one could almost hear the dueling banjos from another film, Deliverance (1972), as depraved Southern rubes attacked outsiders. That wasn’t the image Morganza wanted for itself.
Melancon’s café was eventually closed. Worse yet, the building was torn down. Where it stood is now a gap-toothed green space along the highway next to the Baptist church.
Attitudes, however, have mellowed. Last November some motorcycle groups, with the encouragement of the Pointe Coupee tourism office, funded a monument to be placed at the café site.
That is why I was driving slowly. I was looking for the marker. It was easy to miss because instead of being upright, it was placed on the ground, on the sidewalk in front of where the café’s entrance once was. The message is simple and restrained:
Former site of Melancon’s Café 1969 filming of the movie Easy Rider.
Listed are the names of the film’s three stars as well as the locals who participated in the movie. At the top is an image of a Harley.
By its nature the monument seems to represent a compromise to an ongoing debate. Yes, it finally recognizes the film and the famous scene; but it can also be easily walked on.
Strangers still cause a reaction in Morganza. A local lady saw us taking pictures and came by to talk. She said that there had been some debate in the town about tearing down the tattered building, but finally the council ordered its removal. The same went for a jail located not far behind the café. “It didn’t even have a lock,” the lady explained.
“The drunks could just let themselves in and sleep out the night.” Demolition was taking its toll. Nothing, the lady lamented, was like it used to be.
Except for one thing: When driving through Morganza, you should still watch out for the police. If you’re searching for America, do so within the speed limit.