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Ken DupuyFourth of July in Abbeville—1889 and 1898

By Kenneth A. Dupuy

(Excerpted from longer works by the author)


Fourth of July 1889

. . . . The morning of July 4, 1889, was somehow different from the days just before it.  Oh, it was hot; the temperature was probably in the mid-seventies as it is on our own July mornings, but it was less noticeable on this day.  Naturally the windows were wide open to entice whatever cool breeze was in the neighborhood to come inside.  On this particular morning, an anticipation of something thrilling could be felt in the air.  It was something the blue sky, unmarred by the usual clouds, seemed to reflect. Today was the day of the Parade!  Even the crickets, and frogs were more melodious, and less aggravating.  The roosters, horses, cows and the other farm animals—Abbeville had its share of these animals at the time—added their bit to the commotion and to the excitement.

Children did their chores with less resistance.  Even the odious task of emptying the  chamber pot, or pot de chambre as it was called in my day, wasn't so bad on this special day.  The women arose earlier than usual, knowing that the children would awaken soon in a state of excitement and agitation.  Breakfast had to be fixed, and there was much else to do also.  The women had to see to it that the clothes were clean and ironed; ironing involved the heating of a heavy iron on the stove—no electricity, remember. The dirt and grime of the morning's play and work had to be removed from everyone before the families left for the parade.

The men, unencumbered by domestic chores, had their own tasks to perform.  The razor strops emitted more zing this morning as the men sharpened their razors.  The trimming of beards and mustaches was a major task;  these beards, etc. had to look perfect, especially those of the men who would be marching in today's parade.  The men also had to shine the reins and other apparatuses that would  be used to hook up the horses to the vehicles later that day.

Nothing could go wrong on this day.  At least that's what everyone must have thought that morning.  However, such was not to be.  Most of the preparations for the parade were made before the disheartening afternoon showers came.  It was probably what we call a popcorn shower; that day the Abbevillians probably had a few other choice words for it.  The heavy rains started around 2:30 p.m.  All that could be done was to wait for them to stop.  I wonder where the crowds went for refuge.  I suppose that the merchants allowed everyone to come inside their stores, hoping that a few sales would be made, and that such a public service would be good for business.  The stores probably closed for the parade, however.

At last, and not a minute too soon for the antsy children, the rain dribbled to a stop.  The firemen rushed to their "truck houses" to make final preparations, and the people gathered on the wooden sidewalks, everyone thinking: "Let's get this show on the road."  Alas, the roads were muddy!

Finally, after a considerable delay, the parade began at 4:30 p.m.  It was led by the U.S. Flag, which surely caused a perceptible hush and stillness in the crowd as it swept past solemnly.  The response of the crowds must have been opposite to those of the loud waves made at sporting events today.  Men all wore hats at the time; these hats were surely removed and held to the men's chests as a show of reverence to our flag as it passed by.  Next, J. J. Abadie, the parade marshal, "and his aide" waved to the crowds as they passed by.  Then came what was surely the most anticipated unit of the parade—the Iberia Artillery Band.  Surely they didn't play cannons as in the "1812 Overture"!  That would have been memorable, to say the least.  Whatever musical instruments were played, the music was surely of a patriotic nature, something that aroused feelings of pride and a sense of well being along the parade route.

The first of our two volunteer firefighting units was next.  Thirty-four members of  the Hook and Ladder Fire Company, which had been founded in 1882, came by "on the ropes,"  that is to say, they were pulling their "truck."  It was not horse-drawn then, nor, I think, was it drawn by horses when it was brought to fires.  Anyway, the truck was decorated, and on the ladder atop this vehicle were six "handsome misses," including Myrtle Sokoloski and Effie Labit.  Effie was born in 1881, and I believe that Myrtle was born about the same time.  The firemen were dressed in red shirts, and black belts and caps.  The color of the pants wasn't given.  This uniform must have given the firemen a pleasing and professional appearance that probably provided a sense of security to those who waved at these firemen as they paraded down the streets.

Behind this first group of firefighters came the Protector Fire Co. with twenty-two men pulling their "pretty little Engine."  It, too, was festively decorated for the occasion.  On board the engine rode Misses Daisy Feray and Anita Leotaud.  Anita was born in January 1885, which puts her at four and a half years of age for this parade.  A year and a half after this parade, Anita would be involved in another major event—the photographing of the new courthouse in January 1891, just days before it was first occupied for use.  She and her older sister Lily are said to be the two little girls who are standing in the main entrance in that photograph.  [Click the thumbnail below to enlarge.]

1891 courthouse

[Photo courtesy of Mrs. Lorraine Hebert.]

The Protector company had organized only recently, so this was their first parade.  Their uniforms consisted of white shirts, and black pants, hats and belts.

The next group to come down the street was the French Benevolent Society.  Not having anything to throw out, they probably passed out at least some bons mots to the crowds.  These Frenchmen were followed by the Junior Cavalry.   It is likely that some of the members of this organization rode small, skittish horses, while others rode slow, sedate ones.  No matter what they rode, these junior riders must have beamed in the limelight cast upon them at this moment.

Finally, "civilians in carriages" were the last to come down the muddy streets.  I take "civilians" to mean that they didn't belong to any of the other groups in this parade.  Many of our business and professional men and their wives must have been among these "civilians."  Naturally they were in suits and long dresses as was the custom, so we can imagine how hot they must have been on this July afternoon. At least there was no dust.

In fact, it was so hot that "a perfect steam was rising from the damp earth."  Despite this heat and humidity, "the boys marched steadily along the route, through the mud and water, sweating like wood choppers in August."  Many were exhausted.  R. C. Smedes narrowly escaped heatstroke.  He had to be carried to a shady spot under the gallery of Ulysse Abadie's saloon, where he was tended to by "kind hands."   After he had recovered somewhat, Smedes was brought to his home.

Before continuing on with the festivities, let's stop a moment with Smedes as he is being cared for outside of Mr. Abadie's saloon.  Robert C. Smedes was admitted to the bar, that is he became a lawyer, in 1877.  I trust I clarified what I was saying here so as not to be confusing, since he's in front of the saloon as we speak.  By January 1878, he was practicing law in Abbeville.  This was shortly before Elijah Ewing's funeral which we attended only recently.  Also in 1878, Mr. Smedes was hired as the corporation attorney at $50 a year.  He continued in this role through 1881.  In 1882, he went from being the town's attorney to being Abbeville's  mayor.  Later that year, Smedes was the defense attorney in a murder trial; his client was acquitted.

Smedes was reelected mayor in 1883.  In 1884, he switched roles once more.  This time he became an alderman.  Later that year he resigned this position because he had moved out of town.  In 1889—the year of this parade—Smedes had become District Attorney.  Approximately one year later, Robert C. Smedes died of typhoid fever.  Almost ten years later, in 1898, his remains were removed from the Catholic Cemetery and were taken to the burial ground of the Cade family near Royville (Youngsville).  A few months later, his son Bernard died, also of typhoid fever.

And so ladies and gentlemen, here before us is not just another face in the crowd.  No, R. C. Smedes had been our mayor and today, July 4, 1889, he is our District Attorney.  Sadly we know, although he doesn't, that this is to be his final Fourth of July.

Well, they are taking him to his home, so let's get back to the celebration.  Across the street from here—we're at the corner of Port (Père Mégret) and newly-named Washington streets where Piazza Office Supply is located in 1996—the people have gathered on Magdalen Square.  It is now 5 p.m. and the parade is over.  The apparatuses of the two fine fire companies are parked on both sides of that fire well, the one with an opening so large that a calf could fall in, on Magdalen Square.  Thank goodness for the wooden covering.

W. A. White, who was selected as the "orator of the day," is about to speak  Walter A. White's major contribution to Abbeville, as far as I know, would occur  in 1900.  At that time he "had built...a bridge 16 feet wide and 150 feet long," over Coulee Valcourt  "at the extension of Main Street."  By doing so, W. A. White put the lots of his addition in a direct connection to the town of Abbeville.

According to a descendant of Judge W. W. Edwards, White successfully outbid Edwards for "the peninsula lying between the bayou (Vermilion) and Coulee Valcourt," or what is now known as the White addition.  This fierce bidding war came about in 1878 when the Blanchet estate went on the auction block.  I was informed recently that Mr. White was victorious in the bidding only because he had $5 or $10 more in his pockets than did Edwards. Walter A. White was a local attorney, as was Edwards.

So, let's listen to his excellent speech on Magdalen Square.  In general, we will hear him give liberal praise to these two fire companies for their "unselfish devotion ... on behalf of the public welfare."  He went on to say that even without pay these volunteer firemen "have devoted yourselves ... to the preservation of life and property from the devouring elements of fire and flame, and I wish you prosperity and success."

White cautioned these two firefighting companies not to let their feelings of rivalry come between them.  He urged them to give one another a hand, adding, in a humorous vein,  that the council had made the town large enough for both of them.

If we listen well, we can hear the laughter, and the generous applause this speech must have aroused.  Remember, it was all or mostly men in the audience, so there may have been a few curse words buzzing through the audience like playful insects, now here, now over there.

That night, the day's celebrations were capped off at French Hall where "Ten Nights in a Barroom" was performed before an appreciative audience. Imagine how hot it must have been for the actors and their audience.  Since electricity would not arrive in Abbeville for another thirteen years, there was no air-conditioning, not even any fans—and it was the Fourth of July!

Fourth of July 1898

. . . . Nine years later, the Fourth of July celebration was even grander. In 1898, America went to war with Spain, and Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders fought in Cuba.  Preceding the celebration on Magdalen Square, Mrs. G. A. Levy and Miss Georgie Labit, one of Postmaster J. T. Labit's daughters, went around town collecting donations for a ten by twenty foot silk U.S. flag and a hundred foot high flagstaff.

Let's remember that this flag's design was something few of us have seen floating in the breeze.  Oh, the red and white stripes were there like they are today, but the stars—there were only forty-five stars on it.  The flag of forty-five stars became official on July 4, 1896, according to The Stars and Stripes.  And how it must have stood out, this ten by twenty foot flag waving ninety feet above Magdalen Square.  Ten feet of the hundred foot pole had been buried in the ground.

Ninety feet, in the abstract, and without anything to compare it to, doesn't seem so high.  However, when it stood in the square, it was one of the highest things in our little town.  There was no Audrey Hotel, which is now our City Hall.  This building in only seventy-six feet high.  So, the pole would have stood fourteen feet higher than our present City Hall.  I believe that the courthouse that was built in 1890 was the tallest structure at that time.  This pole in the square was probably higher than that imposing building.  Consequently, this flag must have been visible from all parts of town.  Remember, the trees that are so tall and that block so much of the sky today all over town were mostly quite short in 1898, those that weren't still acorns then.  I wonder if any other town in Acadiana can boast of a similar community attraction in its history.

On July 4, 1898, about 2000 people swarmed over the square.  Miss Labit was chosen as sponsor and was given the enviable duty of raising this glorious flag, slowly and solemnly, to the top of the pole.  As the flag was raised with pomp, the Abbeville Band played "Columbia."  As the crowd followed the flag on its upward journey, many individuals were probably sorry that they were standing so close to the pole.  These people had to tilt their heads upward so awkwardly that the back of their necks began to hurt.  Others in the crowd who stood on the outer edge of the crowd had the best vantage point.  As they gazed skyward and listened to the band playing....BOOM!!! There was "firing of cannon."  Now no matter how prepared one is, when a cannon is fired, the body jerks and the senses are startled involuntarily.   Many in the crowd must have been taken unawares and were jolted by the explosion.  Some infants and small children probably cried in fear.  Some older individuals gasped  and turned their attention from the flag, if only briefly.

After the flag reached the top of the pole, ceremonies continued.  The flag was then presented to Abbeville, through Mayor J. R. Kitchell, by Hon. Minos T. Gordy, Jr.  Mayor Kitchell accepted it "in a speech," in which he promised that the flag would "remain floating over the town until peace shall have been declared and freedom of Cuba shall have been accomplished by American soldiers."

Let me digress once more, to name some of the local citizens who were soldiers at the time—1898-1899.  Charles Lampman was stationed in San Francisco in June 1898; in June 1898, he sent his brother, Van, photographs showing huge guns being mounted for the defense of the Pacific coast.  By November  1898, Charles had been transferred to the Philippines.

Vermilion Parish furnished three "soldier boys" to the "Second Regiment, U.S. Volunteers (Hoods Immunes)."  They were Captain (H. M.) Pickard of Co. K.; Orderly Sergeant F. M. Leguenec; and Private Fred Dupuy, who was in "Capt. Broussard's Company."  I don't know who this Broussard was.  Anyway, this regiment was reported to be sailing back from Cuba in June 1899.  Did these local servicemen fight with Teddy, or did they have some other duty in Cuba?

Now, let's get back to the notable occurrence on Magdalen Square on July 4, 1898.  After other patriotic speeches were given, various contests, including bicycle races and boxing matches were held.  With the exception of two businesses, all of the town's "business houses" were closed for the occasion.  Additionally, small flags waved throughout town, like little echoes of the gigantic flag over the square.  This day drew to a close somewhat like our current Fourth of July celebrations—with a "grand display of fireworks."  However, unlike today, the finale was a bicycle parade, but not just a procession of plain bicycles.  No, these were decorated with Chinese lanterns, the colorful tissue-thin outer papers lit from within by candles.  How bright and glorious these glowing bicycles must have shone in the near total blackness of our town, which was then still four years away from electrical street lighting.  The lanterns must have given the riders an eerie glow that made this parade over our dirt-surfaced streets a very special treat for the crowds.  These colorfully lit bicycles must have been as thrilling to see as are our gargantuan, gaudy Mardi Gras floats today.

To sharpen the scene we get of this fantastic celebration and the other events on the square, we must picture the people dressed in their finest attire, with both men and women wearing hats.  They didn't have casual, leisure clothing, so the women and girls had on dresses that covered them from their necks down to their shoes, and all the way down their arms to their hands.  The men wore suits and ties.  The boys were probably the least restricted in their clothing; they probably raced barefooted through and around groups of people that formed according to social and/or familial connections.  How hot and sweaty everyone must have been on that July-hot day!

Our huge flag flew somewhat longer over the square than the war lasted.  A year after it was first run up the pole, someone cut the "halyard" on the pole and took the rope.  E. W. Berdine, foreman of the Meridional at the time, put a "noose" around the pole, fastened it to himself and climbed cautiously to the top of the pole, ninety feet above Magdalen Square.  If anyone realized how high ninety feet was, it had to be Berdine.  That climb could not have been easy and must have taken awhile to accomplish.  Once at the top, Mr. Berdine passed the end of the rope through the pulley.  After the crowd applauded Mr. Berdine's  rare achievement, the silk flag was gracing the square and Abbeville once more.  Way up there, Berdine, the hero of the moment, must have had a most singular view of Abbeville, which had to have been its own reward.