ABITA SPRINGS, La. — March 7, 2016 On the outskirts of the timeless town of Abita Springs flow beautiful natural springs whose water, according to local Choctaw legend, is said to possess medicinal and healing properties. The town’s origins are traced back to the 1790s, when a Spaniard, with the chief’s permission, married a Choctaw Indian only to have her fall ill shortly after their wedding.
Not a single medicine in New Orleans, some 30 miles away, could heal his ailing bride. Only after returning her to her home, where she rested and drank from the springs, did she escape death, returning to the dashing and healthy damsel who first stole his heart.
Word of the water’s magic spread throughout Louisiana and within a few years, inns and restaurants had popped up to serve folks who travelled south from New Orleans seeking a taste of the legendary elixir.
By 1889, the railroad ran through Abita Springs, and in 1912 Abita Springs officially became recognized as a town that has become one of Louisiana’s most alluring.
While the town’s genesis can be credited to Choctaw legend and Abita’s magical springs, it is another elixir to which the town owes its current national renown. The Abita Brewing Company founded in 1986, has become one of the nation’s most popular microbreweries.
Using water from the famed springs, the Abita Brewing Company more than 151,000 barrels of beer annually, and its tasting room and restaurant are located in Abita Springs’ quaint downtown circle and business district.
One might argue either way as to the actual healing properties of the Abita Springs beers, but if magic and mystery are what you crave while visiting Abita, after some jambalaya and couple of choice IPAs from the Abita Brew Pub and tasting room, you must wander down the road a hundred yards to the Abita Mystery House, where the term “mystery” is an understatement.
Once an old filling station, the Abita Mystery House, part museum and part funhouse, is a collection of more than 50,000 discarded objects: taxidermy, bottle caps and old computer motherboards that have been brilliantly redesigned and repurposed into dozens of interactive, historic and provocative dioramas depicting New Orleans culture, Louisiana and its natural world.
The journey through the Mystery House begins in the gift shop, where John Preble, the gruff but affable visionary behind the Abita Mystery House, greets guests, collects fees and offers fistfuls of quarters, which are necessary to bring many of his dioramas inside the mystery house to life.
Once the nominal fee is paid, one departs the normal world for a brief tour into a most pleasing sort of artistic madness.
The house is several connected structures, each featuring a series of exhibits. Upon entering, one is face to face with an encased Elvis shrine covered in ephemera and knicknacks.
Above the Elvis rests a Santa Claus Mickey Mouse, a Mozart and a Beethoven bust. Below it is a snake. Tightly clustered, covering the wall next to the shrine, are three watercolors, one of a deer, another of tree and last, a wolf. There is an American flag made of yarn and next to that some kind of lengthy small font document.
From here begins a hallway full of dozens more exhibits made up of thousands of objects, all as puzzling if not more so than the Elvis insanity. The dozens of objects make no sense, yet tie together in a wild cluster of recycled brilliance, and this only one step into an experience that goes on not just for one hallway but for three more buildings.
Exhibits, all made from repurposed junk and clay figurines, include dioramas of an old barbecue stand, a plantation home, motels, a garage, a general store and of course, Mardi Gras among others, most of which spring to life for the price of a quarter.
Each exhibit is designed with remarkable precision and constructed from materials that are both completely random and true to the exhibit.
The exterior of one entire building of the exhibit is made up of colorful shards of broken glass. In one room is a wild “marble machine” that calls to mind Rube Goldberg, made entirely of popsicle sticks.
In another an old hand-cranked reed organ on which visitors can play haunting melodies suited for the peculiar wanderings that lie ahead.
Outside, taxidermy has been deconstructed and reassembled to form very peculiar and arguably terrifying hybrid, almost mythical creatures. Most notably, is the intriguing yet disturbing “bassigator,” which is the preserved head of a giant alligator attached to body of a giant fish. Swimming around in a large tank outside is a real alligator snapping turtle.
One could spend a weekend reading each of the bits of wisdom and witticism that cover almost every square inch of wall space throughout the entire exhibit.
For each display that grabs your attention, a dozen more, even more interesting pop out at you. As you make your way through you can’t help but marvel at the Mystery House’s extreme peculiarity and grand vision.
As you return to the gift shop and watch John hand one of the uninitiated a handful of quarters to enter, you can’t help thinking you are at once in the company of one who is both brilliant and delightfully mad.
As the sun hits you and the world feels suddenly far more ordinary, you must do the only thing you can do in such proximity to a spring known to have healing properties. Head back to the Abita Brewing Company, have another IPA and try and find the words to describe the world from which you’ve just emerged.
And when the words don’t seem to come, drink another. After all, like the water from which they are brewed, those beers are magical.