Reprinted by permission from "Forest Hill, Louisiana: A Bloom Town History."
Multi-published author Kimberly Willis Holt was born to a military family while stationed in Pensacola, Florida. Throughout her lifetime, like most military kids, she moved around. Her parents, however, hailed from Forest Hill, Louisiana, as did numerous generations before them, so the central Louisiana piney woods was always home.
“It felt like home because we always went back to Forest Hill,” Holt said.
When she turned fourteen her father received a short-term assignment in Washington, D.C., that would end with his reassignment to the New Orleans area. Rather than uproot the family for nine months when they would only move back to Louisiana, the family moved in with their Forest Hill residents while her father headed to Washington.
Holt attended Forest Hill High School and was surrounded by cousins who showed her around and took her swimming in Tanner and Hurricane creeks. On Saturday nights, she could hear the stock car races from the Louisiana Speedway while chasing fireflies through the yard. On Sundays, she attended Elwood Baptist Church, where Clyde Holloway, who became a nursery owner, Congressman and Louisiana Public Services Commissioner, taught her Bible studies. At Christmas, she went caroling.
Those nine months left a deep impression on Holt’s heart.
“I feel like it was such a big part of my life,” she said. “Forest Hill was the kind of place that when people are sick they care about you. It was a community that’s rich — I think they know how lucky they are. I would ask kids, ‘You know you’re from someplace special’ and they would nod.”
Her parents grew up in the Elwood community, her father working for the Holloway Nursery. Her grandfather was a postman who would return home with items people left in their mailboxes for him. Her grandmother was an Avon lady. They would love visiting Vivian’s Vittles, a town restaurant owned and operated by Vivian and J.B. Butter. “My grandparents would go eat there because the food was so good.”
Holt is descended from the Rev. Joseph Willis, the first Baptist preacher to settle in Louisiana west of the Mississippi River. Born a slave in North Carolina, Willis established churches in St. Landry Parish, then Rapides Parish, including the Occupy Baptist Church near Pitkin, the Spring Hill Baptist Church near Forest Hill and the Amiable Baptist Church near Glenmora. Holt’s grandfather attended the Amiable Church. “That was an interesting person (Rev. Joseph Willis), what he had to overcome and the things he did in settling here,” she said.
Holt’s first book was "My Louisiana Sky," a novel for young readers that was later made into a movie. Her second novel, "When Zachary Beaver Came to Town," won the 1999 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. Almost all of her stories are set in towns based on Forest Hill and one, "Part of Me," makes no pretense where it’s located. "Dear Hank Williams" is set in a town called Rippling Creek but again, it’s actually Forest Hill.
“Anyone who does research on me knows it’s Forest Hill,” Holt said. “Setting comes first for me. I really think people are different depending on where they live. It shapes them.”
In 2021, Holt published "The Ambassador of Nowhere, Texas," a post-September 11 companion to "When Zachary Beaver Came to Town."
For Holt, she doesn’t hesitate to say that Forest Hill shaped her.
“Everybody has got their well — artists and writers — that they keep pulling from and Forest Hill is definitely one I keep pulling from,” she said. “I have such sweet memories not just of the times I lived there but the times I went back. Forest Hill’s a really special place and I’m so glad it’s a part of me — and always will be.”
"Forest Hill, Louisiana: A Bloom Town History" (The History Press, 2014) was written by
Cheré Dastugue Coen, author of the
Weird, Wacky & Wild South blog. The book tells the story of one small Louisiana town that boasts of a multi-million dollar nursery industry.