I wrote this back in 2007 for LA Road Trips Magazine.
Way back in 1913, the building that would become the Biedenharn Museum was just a glimmer in the eye of Joe Biedenharn. Joe had become quite successful in the family candy company business in Vicksburg and in his endeavor to bottle Coca-Cola. The business needed expanding. Joe bought a local bottling company and moved his family to Monroe, and by 1914, the Biedenharn home was completed.
Mr. Joe had only one daughter named Emma Louise. The family called her Emy-Lou. Emy-Lou was born on October 15, 1902 in Vicksburg, but grew up in Monroe. Being an only daughter, her mother Anne taught her art, literature and music. The little girl would sit (sometimes tearfully) in front of a piano for hours learning to play. Anne herself had been an accomplished musician in Vicksburg. Marriage cut short her ambition, but she wanted her daughter to have the opportunities she never had. All the pain and frustration would be worth it in the long run.
Little Emy-Lou grew to be an accomplished singer. Under the encouragement of the world famous Madam Schumann-Heink, Emy-Lou was sent to England to study under Sir George Henschel. He was considered by musicians to be the greatest interpreter of art songs and classic repertoire in the world. In England, under Sir Henschel’s tutelage, Emy-Lou would sing at receptions, benefits, and manor homes and even on the moors! Her contralto voice made her the darling of European Society.
In April 1932, Emy-Lou made her formal debut in her ancestral home of Copenhagen, Denmark. She was a success. Her concert tours took her through the major cites of Europe and America. She trained with the London Opera Company and performed on stage to packed houses. She was hailed as one of the great operatic voices of her time. Emy-Lou never forgot where she came from though. Louisiana continued to call her home. After the death of her Mother, and after an eleven-year singing career, Emy-Lou felt she needed to return to take care of her father. That didn’t mean she would give up her music however. On the grounds of the Biedenharn home, Joe built his daughter a European-style garden to showcase her music. It would be called ElSong: Emy-Lou’s Song. Full-grown cypress trees and water oaks were planted. A raised area with a magnificent fountain would become a stage for world-class ballerinas. Musicians from all over Louisiana and the world would come to perform among Emy-Lou’s flowers. It was a small slice of Europe brought to Monroe and shared with the community.
Joe loved to tell the story about the five massive iron statues of maidens that grace the garden. Emy-Lou was on a trip to New Orleans to buy a small ornament for a cascading pool. Her trip took her to an old neglected garden where she found five rusting “iron maidens” lying askew. Each statue weighed one thousand seven hundred pounds. They had been brought to the city from Italy before the Civil War to support the roof of a summer home. Emy-Lou fell in love with them and promptly bought them for her garden. When Joe finally saw them, he shook his head and exclaimed, “One Statue of Liberty is enough for New York, but Emy-Lou has to have five!”
Another love of Emy-Lou’s was the Bible. As a gift to cheer her up after leaving behind her singing career, Joe gave her an original, vellum-bound 1848 edition of the John Wycliffe Bible. That Bible became the foundation on which she would build her Bible museum. Opening in 1971, the collection now includes some of the most priceless bibles in the world and is world-renowned for scholarly Bible research.
On April 23, 1984, Emma Louise Biedenharn, world-renowned singer and patron of the arts passed away. Emy-Lou once wrote about her home and museum, “My fondest dreams become a reality in giving the Bible Research Center Foundation our home and the Elsong Garden…. My parents filled my childhood with beauty; my singing career provided a truly charmed Alice-in-Wonderland existence in my musical world. May those who come – see, share and appreciate OUR HOME.” That gift to Monroe remains.
Photo of my niece taken by my sister many years ago in Elsong Garden.