Cries of scores of men rang out Sunday and Monday — day and night on Weeks Island — followed by short periods of silence as they listened for a reply. There was nothing but the occasional rustle of dry leaves as a racoon foraged for its next meal.
The searchers knew the island terrain well. Many had lived in the Morton Salt Company houses on top of the salt dome all their lives. The white families were grouped in one neighborhood and the blacks in another. It was 1960 in the segregated South. But on Feb. 28, inhabitants of the island were working together, side by side, in a desperate search to find two-and-a-half-year-old Ricky Francis.
On Sunday afternoon Ricky had been spending time with his aunt and uncle, probably to give his expectant mom a rest.
“Sit right here in the kitchen,” his aunt had admonished, “and finish eating your ice cream.”
When Ricky didn’t follow her as he normally would, she became concerned. When he wasn’t in the yard outside, she notified Ricky’s father. A search of the immediate area was started just before dark, the nearby neighbors were quickly joined by every able-bodied man on the island of 1,400 residents.
The searchers included the Iberia Parish Sheriff, his deputies and Company “E” of the Louisiana National Guard. The going was rough through the thick underbrush for the men in boots and thick clothing. Rickey had been wearing blue jeans and a tee shirt — he was barefoot — and it was February.
A set of tiny footprints that could have been his were found near what is known to locals as Shell Bank. It was a long way from the place where he went missing — nearly a mile. But it was the only lead the searchers had to follow.
Divers from the U.S. Naval Auxiliary Station in nearby New Iberia were brought in to search the dark waters of Warehouse Bayou. The current was swift and the bayou 35 feet deep. But nothing was found.
By Tuesday, hope was running out. Onlookers whispered among themselves. “I think a bear got him!” Black bears had been spotted recently in the area.
“I done seen people walk through here to go fishing down there,” said one neighbor. “Someone might have snatched him up,” was another theory. No one wanted to speak the obvious: He’d somehow made it down the road to Shell Bank and fallen into the deep water. The red eyes of an alligator reflected in the glare of the search lights as he listened to the murmurs from the bank.
The Daily Iberian ran the Ricky Francis story as front page news with large headlines for two days. Eventually the men went back to their shifts in the salt mine, the housewives continued to hang their wash on the clotheslines while keeping their children nearby. When Spring arrived, children’s voices could be heard playing outside through the open screened windows.
Little Ricky hasn’t been forgotten, even after 59 years. But if you go to the Weeks Island Reunion in Lydia coming up April 27, listen. You’ll catch snippets of conversations.
“Remember that little boy, Ricky Francis? Was he ever found?”
JULAINE DEARE SCHEXNAYDER is retired after a varied career in teaching and public relations. Her email address is julaines14@gmail.