By Ken Dupuy
As the tides of Time sweep Abbeville into the uncharted waters of a new millennium, it seems appropriate to turn our attention to the early part of our town's travels.
Abbeville is a unique town for having been founded by a Catholic priest. Another feature that distinguishes it from other Acadiana towns is its town square: Magdalen Square.
The founding and early development of Abbeville was inexorably bound to the establishment of the Catholic religion in our area. Father Antoine Desire Megret came to America in 1842 and was appointed pastor of the Catholic church in Vermilionville (Lafayette). To meet the religious needs of his parishioners in the southern part of Lafayette parish, he bought, on July 25, 1843, 160 arpents of land from Joseph LeBlanc. Father Megret intended to build a church on this property. He had LeBlanc's home converted into a chapel where he said Masses for the citizens of Perry's Bridge and the surrounding area.
By February 1844, at the request of the residents in the surrounding area, Megret named his future town "Abbville." He then notified his superiors that his church was no longer named St. Mary Magdalen of Perry's Bridge, but was now St. Mary Magdalen of "Abbville." "Abbville" is not a typo. Father Megret wrote it that way on his original map of the town and in his letters to his superiors. In 1848, the legislative act which permitted another election regarding the location of the seat of justice for our parish also spelled it "Abbville."
In March 1844, Vermilion Parish was created. Despite the stipulations set forth by the act creating the parish, Father Megret and his supporters fought to have Abbville, instead of Perry's Bridge, chosen as the parish seat of government. For ten years these two towns fought for the right. The cause of Perry's Bridge was championed by Robert Perry, the founder of that town, while Father Megret took up the cause for Abbeville.
In 1854, the state legislature enacted legislation that made Abbeville the permanent seat of justice for our parish, thus ending the battle between these communities. However, the principals in this conflict were not there at the finish line. Robert Perry died in 1852; Father Megret died in a Yellow Fever epidemic on December 5, 1853—three months before his victory. From the language of the legislative act, it appears that the parish seat of government, in 1854, was at Perry's Bridge.
From his church and residence in Vermilionville, Father Megret witnessed the incorporation of Abbeville in 1850. The town's measurements were the same as those listed on Megret's 1846 map—848 feet, north and south, by 1,979 feet, east and west. It enclosed only about 40 arpents of the 160 arpents that he had purchased. The boundaries were St. Victor Street on the north, Lafayette Street on the south, and East Street on the east. However, in 1846 East street bore a different name with "Francois" imbedded in the indecipherable name on Megret's map. Five years later, in 1855, the town's boundaries were expanded northward by incorporating the lands of Victor Boete. The dimensions changed to 1,328 feet by 1,979 feet.
Father Megret assisted the first pastors of St. Mary Magdalen church, and he donated land to the archbishop for religious use. Megret demanded that there would always be a church for Catholics on the land that he donated. He helped to establish Abbeville's first newspaper, and he donated land for the creation of Abbeville's streets, for a courthouse and for a town square. The latter he named "place de la Magdeleine," or Magdalen Square.
Abbeville was not settled solely by descendants of the Acadians. Father Megret, its founder, Eugene Isidore Guegnon, the founder of the Meridional, and J.P. Gueydan were but a few of many who came from France. The latter two settled in Abbeville. Citizens from other countries and other cultures were also involved in the settling of Abbeville. Today, Abbevillians represent numerous nations, creeds, and faiths. Many of their ancestors helped to develop our town during its early years.
For many years, Abbeville looked like a typical western town, with dirt streets and predominately wooden buildings, sidewalks, and fences. Major fires—one in 1900, and another in 1903—convinced the townspeople to begin to build with bricks, and to install firewalls in their buildings. Fires, therefore, helped to change the architecture of our cityscape, particularly in the downtown area.
Fences were required to protect the yards of residences, as well as the courthouse square and the cemetery behind St. Mary Magdalen. As late as 1920, loose livestock was such a problem that the mayor published a reminder in the Meridional that such animals would continue to be impounded, as they had been in the past. The mayor also warned Abbevillians not to tie their horses and cows in such a way as to impede traffic on the streets and sidewalks. The latter were mostly cement by this time. The year 1913 could well be called the year of the cement sidewalks, as so many of them were constructed that year along the major streets.
The first hard surface put on Abbeville's streets, around 1903, consisted of oyster shells. The roads remained primarily dirt until 1918-1919 when the town had the principal ones graveled. Another improvement completed at this time was the construction of cement curbs and gutters. Despite these improvements, there remained huge bog holes, and tractors and other vehicles continued to tear up the streets. In late January 1919, there was so much mud and slush on State Street, a merchant hung out a sign which read: "No fishing allowed, Private." In March 1920, the Meridional compared the ride over Abbeville's streets as being equivalent to "riding a bucking bronco." In 1920, there were as yet no traffic lights or stop signs. In 1920, the names of our streets were finally posted.
Until 1892, when the railroad connected Abbeville to New Iberia and to the rest of the world, transportation was principally by means of steamboats, stagecoaches, and by the use of other horse-drawn vehicles. Essentials and luxuries were transported by steamboats, and even a few schooners. Steamboats also transported passengers and local goods to Morgan City and to New Orleans. Even after the railroad came to Abbeville, steamboats continued to ply the Vermilion River, connecting the plantations with the railroad. In 1902, the railroad ventured westward to Gueydan. Between these two towns, the village of Kaplan sprang up like a wildflower along the railroad tracks. Thanks to the railroad, Abbeville was more effectively connected to the east and to the west, thus providing the stimuli for the development of much of the rest of the parish.
An "aeroplane" first flew over Abbeville on January 13, 1918. Thereafter, airplanes soared above our town more frequently, most being flown by airmen in training during World War I. On July 4, 1918, four airplanes flew over the celebrations taking place, most probably on Magdalen square. How stirring and thrilling that first flyover must have been for our ancestors.
Abbevillians were entertained by traveling circuses, side shows, fairs, traveling medicine men, and by stage troupes. Magdalen Square, French Hall, and even the courthouse were centers for these productions. Abbevillians formed their own glee clubs, fraternal and service organizations, women's clubs, debate clubs, bands, and theatrical groups. The Abbey Players are a creditable successor to these entertainers of the past. At about the beginning of the 20th Century, silent movies made their debut in Abbeville. Like the rest of America, Abbevillians became hooked on them.
Electricity didn't come to Abbeville until 1902, while municipal water and sewerage wasn't provided until 1907. Full 24-hour use of electricity wasn't supplied until 1915. Initially, it was supplied only at night until midnight. Gradually, fan service was provided during the summer months. Electrical appliances, other than fans, weren't in use until 1915.
Natural gas for the heating of homes and businesses, and for cooking meals didn't reach Abbeville until 1931.
On a negative note, Abbeville had its share of tragedies. Diseases, accidents, fires, hurricanes, and other natural disasters kept the early days of Abbeville from being idyllic. There were whooping cough, typhoid fever, pneumonia, cancer, as well as other fatal diseases. Yellow Fever took lives and terrorized the town, as well as the parish, on numerous occasions. In 1918, the deadly, world-wide Spanish influenza took the lives of several Abbevillians and other parish residents. Wars claimed the lives, the limbs and the spirits of too many of our citizens.
Despite these calamities, Abbeville and its citizens remained unconquered, and indomitable. Abbeville has been nurtured by the spirit and resolve of its founder and by those of its early settlers. Our city continues to grow, to prosper, and to lead. Indeed, Abbeville's voyage into the future will not be hampered by the uncharted waters of the new millennium.
By Ken Dupuy