Bogalusa, La. In Dixie Gallaspy's day, young ladies of the South learned poise and grace at home, basic social skills passed on by elders in the normal course of daily life.
Today, Gallaspy is doing her part to keep those fading charms alive as working parents and busy children reduce home life at times to little more than a bed-and-breakfast.
For the past 18 years, the 60-something interior designer has spent one week each summer in this small timber town imparting the importance of gracious living to girls from Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Texas and elsewhere.
On a recent Friday afternoon, 27 emerging Southern belles dressed in various summer prints accepted roses from Gallaspy and her staff after five days of schooling in table manners, healthy eating habits, first impressions and note writing, among other lessons.
"I'm really going to try to remember this stuff," says 12-year-old Ellie Hughes of Bogalusa, a 2001 graduate who returned this year as a counselor. "I liked learning about modeling, walking, makeup. Hopefully, this will help me make a good impression when I go on job interviews."
The success of Smoky Creek Summer School for Girls, whose graduates number more than 300, underscores a reality of the times, says Gallaspy, who grew up in rural Washington Parish, La., and attended Texas Woman's University.
"The basic thing is this: Both parents are working, they're sending their kids to the best schools they can afford, but they just don't have any time left over," she says. "A lot of these little girls are growing up without any kind of domestic understanding. I'm trying to recapture those skills."
Classes for all ages
Gallaspy is not alone. Etiquette and finishing schools have popped up across the country, and they're not just teaching young ladies.
Deborah King, who operates Final Touch Finishing School in Seattle, says her classes on etiquette, appearance, self-esteem and time management have attracted students as young as 4 and as old as 78.
King says she often hears from women whose family lives in the 1960s and 1970s included little training in social graces. Now, she says, those same women are faced with raising their own children.
"We're in the third generation of people who've lost touch with what's appropriate for dress and behavior," says King, who's moving her business to Dallas. "We're trying to train our children, and we don't have the skills. We're desperate, and we don't know where to go."
At Smoky Creek, Gallaspy limits her classes to about 25 girls and charges only $50 for the week. Most of her students are 11-year-olds, and most of the out-of-towners stay with grandparents or other relatives who live in the area.
Community volunteers are a primary reason she's able to charge only $50 for the week. One doctor speaks to the girls about clean living, and a high school teacher helps with music.
"This is a wonderful age because they're still listening," Gallaspy says.
The school is set at Smoky Creek Plantation, the creation of Baltimore native Vertrees Young in the early 1940s. Young, now deceased, moved from St. Louis to Bogalusa, about an hour's drive north of New Orleans, to run the paper mill.
Gallaspy and her husband, John, an attorney, bought the two-story English Colonial home and tree-filled grounds in 1981.
No tattoos, ladies
As might be expected, change doesn't occur haphazardly in this part of the world. But even the guide to becoming a Southern belle needs a tweak every now and then.
Blended in with traditional lessons such as using the proper fork and penning that perfect note are topics that might make Scarlett O'Hara blush body piercing and tattooing.
Of course, the message is: A true Southern lady would never do anything to permanently alter her body.
"What we tell them is there's a reason God made it hurt," says Annie Hughes, Ellie's mom and one of the school's coordinators. "We tell them, 'You can do fads. Fads aren't bad. But don't do anything that's permanent."'
As one of Gallaspy's assistants, Hughes says she takes away as much from the sessions as Ellie and the other girls.
"It helps me understand my daughter," she says. "As an only child, I expect her to be a grown-up, and it's hard for me at times to remember she's only 12 years old. It helps keep things in perspective. And it's just fun playing with the girls. They have such a wild view of things that I never would have thought of."