Ponchatoula is a small city in Tangipahoa Parish, Louisiana, United States. The population was 5,180 at the 2000 census. Ponchatoula calls itself the "Strawberry Capital of the World". It is part of the Hammond Micropolitan Statistical Area. The current mayor is Bob Zabbia.
Ponchatoula was established as a logging camp in 1820, and incorporated as a town on February 12, 1861. William Akers was the city's first mayor, and is credited with founding the town, establishing it on land he purchased from the federal government in 1832. At the turn of the 20th century Ponchatoula changed its main export from lumber to commercial farming. Nearly every family farmed in some form. The main produce was the strawberry of which the town grew so much it earned the nickname "The Strawberry Capital" or "Strawberry Capital of The World". The families that were major farmers during this era that lasted for eighty years have their last names engraved on a large plaque in front of the city hall. During the 1980s the city's economy changed to tourism when farming stopped bringing enough money to sustain the town. The mayor at the time devised a plan to open antique shops where former businesses used to be. There are still about six of these shops open today.This also earned the town a second nickname being "The Antique City".
The Strawberry Festival's roots go back to when farmers joined to sell the spring harvest of strawberries. It wasn't until Ponchatoula changed from farming to tourism, however, when this gathering became a festival. Today the festival is the second largest in the state, only second to Mardi Gras.
Ponchatoula is a name signifying "falling hair" or "hanging hair" or "flowing hair" from the Choctaw Pashi "hair" and itula or itola "to fall" or "to hang" or "flowing". The Indian name Ponchatoula means "flowing hair", arrived at by the Indians as a way of expressing the beauty of the location, with much moss hanging from the trees. "Ponche" is an Indian word meaning location, object, or person. The name is eponymous with the Ponchatoula Creek, which flows from points north of the city and into the Natalbany River southwest of the city. See Ponchatoula Creek, USS Ponchatoula (AOG 38), and USS Ponchatoula (AO 148).
Ponchatoula was pillaged in 1863 by the Union Army during the American Civil War. After a light skirmish, Confederate troops withdrew, and the Sixth Michigan occupied the town. Historian John D. Winters describes the fate of Ponchatoula:
"Women and children scampered about, begging for protection. There was no Confederate force to be found, and suddenly all discipline crumbled. The men went wild, and they were joined in the orgy of pillage by their corpulent commander Colonel [Thomas S.] Clark. First the depot was sacked, and the men grabbed up bundles and boxes they found stored within. The next targets were the two small stores in the village. The doors were battered in, and the blue-coated soldiers rushed in. The liquor supply was quickly confiscated. The post office was.
"Colonel Clark was disappointed to find no cotton in Ponchatoula, but he consoled himself by gathering all of the mules and wagons in the vicinity, loading them with valuable turpentine and resin and with the plunder of the village, and sending them . . . to be loaded aboard waiting schooners. The citizens of the town who remained behind were administered the Federal oath of allegiance and promised protection by the officers."
Satanic ritual abuse
In May 2005 local police discovered that "ritualistic child abuse accompanied by sacrifices and group sex" had been carried out at the town's Hosanna Church between 1999–2003. The investigation followed a telephone call made to the sheriff's office in April 2005 in which a local woman said she had fled to Ohio, fearing for the safety of her child. On June 20, 2005, Louis Lamonica, the pastor of Hosanna Church, walked into the Livingston Parish sheriff's office and "matter-of-factly ticked off a list of offenses committed by himself and others in his flock [including] anal, oral and vaginal sex with children." Rituals conducted at the church involved the use of robes, pentagrams on the church floor, sex with a dog and the sacrifice of cats, and the rape of "up to two dozen [children] ranging from infants to young teenagers", including the perpetrators' own children. Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff Daniel Edwards, a former state prosecutor, said some of the perpetrators had admitted that "devil worship was the reason for their participation." Police reported that Lamonica also claimed that the children were taught how to perform sexual acts with each other and with animals.
In November 2007 the first trial arising from the investigations began. Don Wall, assistant district attorney in Tangipahoa Parish, said there would be "little mention" of devil worship as it was not itself against the law. Speaking in 2009, Wall said: "I kept this devil worshipping stuff to a small portion of the trial. Worshipping the devil is not illegal. Child molestation is. That's what I focused on." On December 5, 2007, Austin "Trey" Bernard III was convicted of three counts of aggravated rape involving children, including his own 2-year-old daughter and a 12-year old boy. He received 3 life sentences. Another church member pleaded guilty to sexual battery of the same girl and received a 10-year sentence. Lamonica was convicted and sentenced in 2008 to four concurrent life terms for having sex with his own sons.