By Ken Dupuy
Before we can visit Abbeville as it was before the turn of the 20th Century, we must clear our minds of the way it looks and sounds today. Let’s use the year 1894 as an example of those times. There were no TVs, radios, or video games. No planes were roaring overhead, nor were there any garbage trucks rumbling through the early morning hours. There wouldn’t be any modern-highway traffic droning in the distance like a riled-up swarm of insects. Nor would one hear the angry-hornet sounds of weed eaters. Household appliances were virtually nonexistent, unless you consider a heavy, stove-heated clothes iron such a convenience.
So, what would we have seen and heard more than a century ago in Abbeville? First of all, the streets were not hard surfaced; they were muddy messes after a rain; they were choking with dust during droughts. Wooden “bridges” just on the surface of a street, at street corners and between businesses across from one another, helped the women from getting their dresses muddied and kept their dresses from dragging in the dust. Where necessary, as when the sidewalk was much higher than the street, there were angled wooden inclines to assist in getting up to or down from the sidewalk.
It was about 1903 before any hard surface was put down, and then it was only oyster shells. I believe that State Street was the first street to receive this surfacing. In 1918, some of the major streets were graveled, finally. It wouldn’t be until the 1930s that concrete surfaces covered our streets.
Traveling up and down these streets were buggies, carriages, other horse-drawn vehicles, as well as men on horseback. Everyone was subject to the kindnesses and cruelties of the weather, for most of these vehicles provided little or no protection from the elements. Did our ancestors have “carriage robes,” like the ones I saw photos of recently in a magazine? To me, these woolen, beautifully-crafted and colorful lap robes, look like blankets, in stripes, plaids, or checks. Today such robes—also called buggy shawls—cost from “$190 to $500.” Our ancestors had to have wrapped up in something to protect themselves on those cold, occasionally, icy days. Traveling beyond the town’s limits, on such days, put the unfortunate passengers at the mercy of the spare, bleak wintry landscapes for extended periods of time, given the slow pace at which their vehicles traveled. Imagine for a moment the sound of the woeful moaning of the frozen wind, and having to ride, virtually unprotected, in those horse-drawn vehicles. It gives me the shivers just thinking about it.
Wagons rumbled and creaked slowly and stiffly down the streets of Abbeville daily, as well, as they transported supplies from the depot or from the steamboat landings to the different businesses in town or to new construction sites, or as they brought freshly picked cotton to the cotton gins. Rice mills were not yet in existence in Abbeville in 1894.
On Sunday mornings, we would see the farmers, sharecroppers, and plantation owners, in their “Sunday” clothing, traveling to town for church services of one type or another. On the right day, we would have seen young Marion Young, Sr.—he would one day become a practicing physician in Abbeville—riding his bicycle with the new “pneumatic” tires.
Sidewalks were generally wooden; a brick one was rare. Cement sidewalks didn’t make an appearance until early in the 20th Century. Consequently, in 1894, people couldn’t walk by a home or a business without making considerable noise. Imagine the loud sounds made by cowboy boots strutting by with their spurs jingling, or the rapid scampering of excited, playful children. We mustn’t forget the short-stepping taps of women in high-heel shoes striding past in their long skirts.
Since domesticated animals roamed the streets of Abbeville freely, it is easy to picture them sometimes clomping up and down our sidewalks, in their quests for juicy weeds beckoning tantalizingly through the cracks in the walks and through the fences. Imagine shop and business owners, or their clerks, running outside, and shouting and gesturing wildly to chase some cow, bull, or pig away. Free-roaming bulls weren’t outlawed until 1895. However, horses, cattle, pigs, etc., were still being picked up by the pound-keepers in the 1920s. Because of these animals on the loose in town, there would be fences on almost every lot in town. Their construction was more utilitarian than they were for aesthetics. Fences were to keep out all of those loose animals. Fences were necessary even around our cemeteries and the courthouse grounds.
Eli Wise home, completed in 1893
Virtually all buildings in Abbeville, in the 1800s, were wooden. As a consequence, several disastrous fires, without much effort, wiped out whole blocks of businesses in different parts of Abbeville, on different occasions. So, if we picture a general view of Abbeville in 1894, it would have looked much like those small Western-movie towns most of us have seen on the big screen.
There were hitching posts on which to tie up one’s horse, whether it was pulling a wagon, buggy, or whether it was saddled. As these animals stood there, they whinnied occasionally and shuffled their hooves as they tired of standing in one position too long, much like we shuffle our feet as we stand around exchanging small talk and laughter at parties.
Where the St. Mary Magdalen brick church stands today, there stood a white, wooden church which had been built in 1884. It stood closer to the corner than does the present one.
Across Port Street (Pere Megret) stood the recently-completed Sol Wise building. “Sol Wise” was originally in the brick design, at the top of the building’s facade. It was appropriate that the man who had this building constructed in 1893 should have his name on it for everyone to know who owned the building. It still stands on the corner of Pere Megret and Main Streets, although the appearance has changed drastically over the years.
Wise & Co. building 1894
If we had looked eastward, and across the street from Wise’s building, we would have seen several wooden buildings on church property, in front of where the present-day rectory stands. On the corner of Pere Megret and Washington Streets one would have seen the Post Office Drugstore—also known as the Young & Edwards drugstore—then owned by Drs. Robert J. Young and C. J. Edwards. In 1894, we could have walked in there, picked up our mail, drunk a soda or eaten sherbet at the soda fountain; we could have had our prescriptions filled. To the immediate west of this drugstore were at least 3 wooden structures that housed various businesses over the years. With the exception of the office of Dr. Robert J. Young just to the north of this drugstore, these buildings would be lost to a major fire in 1900.
1895 Sanborn Map
On Magdalen Square, we could have ridden on the carousel. It had been there, off and on, for much of 1894. Perhaps Abbeville’s Red Stockings baseball team might be seen there practicing for the showdown with the Jennings team that had gone undefeated for six years. In August 1894 these two teams met on a neutral field in Rayne for the championship of Southwestern Louisiana. After the last bat was swung and the dust had settled, the Red Stockings had been defeated 3 to 2. Graciously, as winning teams are still prone to do, the Jennings team conceded that Abbeville’s team had been the best that it had played.
You would not have seen much in terms of flowers, shrubbery, or trees. In fact, the massive oak trees, which are seen today on the square, had not been planted yet.
Looking to the north of Magdalen Square we would have seen the Wall House, a two-story building that had been constructed as a store and residence for Jacob Isaacs and his family. However, in 1894, it was a hotel run by Mr. and Mrs. Frank L. Wall. Under different ownerships, this building, on the present site of the Young Eye Clinic, stood sturdily and stoically through many decades. In fact, in a photo or two, it can be seen wading in the flood waters of 1940. On the other corner of North Street, where now stands the parish public library, we would have seen Abbeville’s first fire station.
Wall House, 1940 flood
Looking towards the bridge across the Vermilion River, we would notice that the bridge was somewhat lower than it is today. In fact, Port Street (Pere Megret Street), from Main Street to the bridge, sloped downwards towards the river. Occasionally the bridge would be opened so as to allow steamboats and other sailing vessels to pass northward toward Lafayette. One such steamboat, the Alice LeBlanc, was brought into local service by Eli Wise and J. Henry Putnam in 1892. This boat provided a means for the plantation owners and other farmers to get their crops to the depot and to the markets in other cities. On rare occasions, the Alice LeBlanc was used to provide “excursionists,”—often numbering in the hundreds—a means for an outing to the Gulf of Mexico. On board, bands provided entertainment along the way, while picnic baskets fed the hungry. Containers of lemonade and an occasional flask of stronger drink quenched the thirst of all. Other steamboats, over the years, also provided such trips down the Vermilion River.
The Alice LeBlanc
Looking to the east of Magdalen Square, we see on the corner of Concord and Jefferson Streets, not the Bank of Abbeville building that we see today, but Gus Godchaux’s wooden store. The original Bank of Abbeville building would be built in 1896, south of Godchaux’s store.
Concord Street, about 1896
If we look eastward down Concord Street, we would see the brick courthouse, which was completed in 1891, nearly six years after fire had destroyed our wooden one. The trees on the courthouse square were so small then, they gave no shade. At this time, the courthouse was one of the centers, not only of judicial matters, it was also a place of entertainment as well as a general meeting hall.
On November 28, 1894, many prominent citizens of the town and parish gathered in the courthouse to talk about building a high school in Abbeville. The meeting ended with the plan that certain individuals would solicit funds from the police jury, from the town council and from the school board. Alas, our high school would not be built until 1902.
1902 High School
As we stroll down these streets, we would see a few men with guns on their hips. “Toting” guns wasn’t outlawed by the town council until 1906.
At night there was the night watchman, whom property owners had hired recently, checking the shops, stores, offices, and alleyways. There wasn’t much light to assist him in his rounds, however, since there were no electrical street lights to guide him. There were but few oil lamps, fighting a losing battle against the darkness, on about only four street corners. Imagine the impact of a full moon, when so little man-made light was to be found in town. Even when there was but a sprinkling of stars, it would have been so much more prominent in the dark, cavernous sky.
We should not forget an essential structure that would be seen on most town lots: the outhouse. While outhouses are an indelicate subject, we would hardly be able to ignore their presence either with our eyes or with our noses. Mentioning the presence of privies helps to emphasize the distance our citizens have come since 1894. As late as June 1900, the Meridional urged that these outhouses “should be cleaned frequently and kept well limed always.” To quote further: “It is disgusting to pass along the street and be compelled to breathe the filthy scent arising from some dirty outhouse or vault.” Indoor bathrooms were still several years away. While considering such vile odors, we mustn’t forget those coming from barnyards, barns and stables. Such sites were common in town, since everyone needed horses to provide transportation. Also, other farm animals—cows, pigs, chickens, ducks, etc.—contributed to the variety of unpleasant, but common scents, throughout town.
Unfortunately, we would see trash in the streets. Some of our ancestors threw their garbage into the streets. After all, there were no vehicles that picked up garbage in those days. In 1914, an editorial in the Meridional complained that this practice was still going on. It stated that among items thrown into the street were planks with nails in them and broken glass and crockery. In 1920, Mayor Hayes put a notice in the newspaper that individuals convicted of such an offense would be “subject to the penalty of the law.”
Let’s not forget the smoke rising from the countless chimneys, in every home and business. Meals had to be prepared by burning wood or coal in chimneys or in wood-burning stoves. Additional fires were essential to provide heat in cold weather. Fireplaces and chimneys were less of a status symbol back then than they are today; they were essentials. Imagine the various smells we would have encountered on a daily basis! It would have been a rare day, indeed, not to have seen any smoke, following the whims of the wind, over one part of Abbeville or another. Because of the need for chimneys, and wood-burning stoves, we would see wood piles and/or piles of coal in almost every yard. The firewood would be cut and gathered from the swamps and woodlands some distance from town. After periods of excessive rainfall, the roads leading out of town became so muddy that the wood gatherers could not transport wood to town. At those times, other sources of fuel—such as coal—were sought. As late as February 1912, such conditions existed, and “boxcars of coal sold immediately when they came in.” Cooking, in 1912, was done on kerosene or coal oil burning stoves in most cases. However, wood and/or coal was still necessary as fuel to heat the interiors of buildings. I remember digging up small nuggets of coal in my searches for buried bottles in Abbeville in the early 1970s. Natural gas would not come to Abbeville until 1931.
Let me remind you of things we would not have seen in 1894. There was no powerhouse on Main Street; electricity wasn’t available to the town until 1902, at which time the powerhouse was located along the railroad tracks. Consequently, there were no power lines. Telephone lines, on the other hand, crisscrossed the central section of town. As one may have guessed by the talk about the privy, there were no municipal water or sewerage systems. There were as yet no automobiles; the word “car” was not used, locally at least, until well into the second decade of the 20th century. In 1902, the first automobile made its appearance in Abbeville. It was an electric one. As the old joke goes, “It must have had a long extension cord!” Dr. F. F. Young, whom we will meet on a later journey, was the proud, but soon-disillusioned owner.
We would not see any traffic lights, stop signs, or even street signs. It was not until 1920 that the “City Fathers” had “signal posts” erected at the corners of the most traveled streets in town. Apparently all that these signs did was to warn drivers to drive to the right. Of course there were some driving regulations already in place. In 1909, the town council set the corporate speed limit at 7 miles an hour! That’s dizzying to think of. The council also made it mandatory that “drivers of automobiles before turning any corner from one street to another shall slack speed, blow a whistle or horn at least 3 times before starting to turn any such corners within the corporate limits.” The council had street signs placed throughout town, beginning in 1919. The task was completed in March 1920. This action by the town council was in response to the federal government’s mandating that delivery of mail be made at the recipients’ homes or places of business. Until 1920, apparently, mail was still being picked up at the post office.
We heard several sounds a short while ago from 1894, but what about other sounds typical of that era? Because windows and doors were open much of the time, we would have been more aware of many sounds that we would not be likely to hear today. Some of these sounds would not be readily available today, and others we would not hear because of the incessant, vast amounts of noise that assail our ears constantly. How many of us hear birds and insects from inside our homes? Imagine being awakened by quarreling Blue Jays or by boastful roosters. And we can’t forget the noises of cows, horses and chickens, and even frogs and crickets, especially during the nights. Dogs seem to have roamed freely about town, and as we all know their howling and arguing cannot be ignored, especially at night. As late as 1912, the town council was paying someone to kill loose dogs. A. Dartez was paid $158 in May 1912 for killing 316 dogs. The following month he received $58 for killing 116 more dogs. The noises of all of these various animals would have made sleeping with open windows almost impossible at times.
Since virtually all our buildings were wooden—and poorly insulated, if at all—imagine how loud and prominent the racket of hammers and saws were as they argued with each other at new construction sites, even ‘way down the block! A century ago, all of these sounds could hardly go unnoticed. Each and every nail had to be coaxed in forcefully with hammers, and boards had to be cut with hand saws. There were no power tools—like nail-guns—nor were there any prefabricated stud walls, rafters or door frames. And construction materials had to be hauled by grouchy-sounding wagons that were pulled by tired and spiritless horses, or mules.
Let’s look at two sites where these sounds of construction were being made, in 1894. On the south side of Concord Street, A. J. Godard had a wood frame, two-story building constructed. His wooden building housed his drugstore on the ground floor, while upstairs Dr. Cushman had his offices. This building had a short life. In 1903, a disastrous fire swept away all of the buildings, including Godard’s, on the south side of Concord, and destroyed others as well. About a block away, on the west side of State Street, one of our well-known bakers—Florian Keller, and his family—moved into his new bakery and residence opposite the Masonic Hall, also in 1894.
Speaking of bakers, Jean Boyance, who had supplied Abbevillians with their daily bread and with other baked goods since shortly after the Civil War, died on July 27, 1894. He and his skills with ovens would be missed. His shop, which he had had built on the corner of St. Victor and Washington Streets in the 1860s, would continue to be used as a bakery into the 1940s.
Colomb's Bakery, formerly Boyance's Bakery
Occasionally, winter winds would howl and sneak around the buildings looking for ways to enter, as though seeking warmth and refuge from themselves. These gusts would rattle windows and doors as they tried to force entry. They would make whistling sounds as they squeezed themselves through tiny gaps around the panes and window frames, and through cracks in and around the doors. Hanging blankets across the insides of the windows was sometimes necessary to keep out some of the cold. Towels or sacks were stuffed at the bottom of the doors for the same purpose.
If we were in the area of Main and Pere Megret Streets, we might hear the curses and drunken laughter coming from J. O. Lege’s saloon that stood at the southwest corner of this intersection. We might feel a pang of sadness as we noticed the black wreath hanging at his saloon’s door in February. At that time we might also have seen death notices, bordered in ominous black, hanging on telephone poles and on other wooden surfaces around town. They would have announced that Mayor Lege’s 21-year-old wife, Marie Bernard, had died.
Death notices would have been posted during 1894 for Charles Caldwell and Caesar H. Leguenec who, along with others during these early years, died of Typhoid Fever. These two men were only in their 20s at the time of their deaths. Occasionally, whole families would be stricken with this disease. Because whooping cough was prevalent that year, we would have heard the racking coughs of many pitiful, innocent children. These coughs would have been followed by desperate attempts by the victims to catch their breaths by inhaling deeply, hence the “whooping” sound.
In the distance we can hear the “tu-tu of the schooner man’s conch shell,” as well as the shrill whistle of the steamboat Alice LeBlanc. As it nears our location, we would begin to hear the incessant sound of the paddles slapping the water. On board, the captain or clerk would be shouting out orders as the boat neared the landing at the depot or at the one in the middle of the block between the bridge and Lafayette Street—about where the Wells Fargo building is located. However, that particular building would not be constructed until 1897. If the boat were to travel farther upstream, then we would hear the mechanical gears as the bridge was moved aside to allow passage of this vessel. On July 4, 1894, nearly 400 persons of all ages boarded the Alice LeBlanc, which transported them past this bridge to “Shady Grove,” about 10 miles upstream. There, a grand picnic, which included a rousing game of baseball, took place.
While we’re at the river, let me add that on June 17th, we could have witnessed the baptism of several of the “colored Baptists” by their preacher in a shallow part of the Vermilion River. While it can be friendly, the river has demonic undertows beneath its placid surface, and it has claimed numerous victims—from swimmers to those who had fallen overboard—over the years.
The Vermilion River, on days when it isn’t trying to escape its banks, looks today as it did back then. Depending on the angle of the sun, the pinpoints of light riding like surfers on the tops of the river’s ripples can number in the dozens or the hundreds. The location of these ripples is determined by the wind’s playfulness as it skims the surface of the water. At night, it is another story. Without light reflecting on it, the river flows by unseen, and only occasional liquid whispers alert us to its presence. At night, the blackness of the water blends in perfectly with the abyss of night. However, in the lights reflecting on the surface, the water seems to be a thin, oily substance sliding across a hard surface, ever morphing the shape of the reflections. So, in 1894, we might have seen the reflections of lanterns, torches or other fires at the residences of such families as Lugwig Sokoloski’s or David Frank’s across the river shining on the river’s nocturnal black surface.
Another site for action that year was near the depot. Train service had come to Abbeville in December 1892, only a short while ago. Therefore, the sounds of the trains’ whistles—mournful at times, sharp and piercing at other times—and the mechanical groans of the engine would have been relatively new and noticeable for most Abbevillians. Add to those sounds the noises coming from the wharf at the river, just to the west of the freight depot. There, hogsheads of sugar and molasses, bales of cotton, and sacks of rice would be unloaded from the boats for shipment by train.
Railroad passenger depot
On July 8, 1894, this area became the hubbub of activity for hundreds of citizens and tourists. Early that morning over 500 excursionists—from Houma, Morgan City, Franklin, and New Iberia—boarded a special passenger train bound for our fair town. The visitors arrived at 12:30 p.m. under a hot, blazing sun and were greeted with the hospitality of grateful Abbevillians who must have prepared for days for this day’s events. Even a special platform was constructed near the depot so that those inclined to do so might let their feet and their souls follow the dictates of a lively band. The hotels, which had to have included the Veranda Hotel, were “open to the guests.” There was also entertainment for the sports-minded individuals among the visiting crowd. A baseball game was held on that hot, sweaty afternoon. The Abbeville team—possibly the one that met Jennings on the playing field—crushed the Morgan City team by a score of 17 to 1. What a long train ride home that must have been for the visiting team.
Before we leave the sights and sounds of Abbeville in 1894, imagine how aware we would be of the rain as it hit our roofs and slid down, splashing playfully into the cisterns, rain barrels, and newly-formed puddles.
There are other sights and sounds that you can imagine, but I hope that the ones that we’ve seen and heard today will give you a better realization and an appreciation of what our ancestors in Abbeville and in other small towns experienced shortly before the 20th Century. You should also have a better feeling for the nature of Abbeville’s physical characteristics.