The story of the development of Downtown Lafayette
l(Provided by the Preservation Alliance of Lafayette)
In 1815, a travelling geographer-biographer named William Darby wrote about Lafayette, then called the Attakapas County. At that time there were fewer than two people per square mile living here, in an area Darby described as consisted of two vast prairies on either side of the Vermilion River. It was inhabited by Atakapa-Ishak and Canneci (Lipan Apache) Tribes and the competing Choctaw Tribes. Also from surrounding areas were the Chitimacha and Opelousa Tribes. Between 1765 and 1785 the first great wave of immigration occurred in South Louisiana as Acadian exiles settled the area, and they brought with them the Roman Catholic religion. The influence of the Church served to offer the first geographical organization to this region, the center of which was Saint Martin de Tours Catholic Church located in present-day Saint Martinville.
1700s – Pinhook Landing Outpost
In the late 1700’s and early 1800’s people lived along rivers and bayous, namely, the Atchafalaya River and Bayous Tortue, Teche, Vermilion and Mermentau. The only well-defined, maintained trails were LA Hwy 182 (Pinhook Road) and US Hwy 90 (present day Cameron St.) which together comprised what is called the Old Spanish Trail, established by the Spaniards as a land route from Santa Fe, New Mexico to the Spanish settlements in Florida.
During the mid-1750s, Louisiana’s French rulers made land available in the Attakapas District for the raising of cattle to supply meat for New Orleans. Before there was a village called Vermilionville, there existed a trading outpost located near the Pinhook Bridge. It had been used for centuries by Indigenous Peoples and was called “Pinsahuk” (pins’ a hook) meaning Linden or Basswood tree. In the 1700’s the outpost was used by French fur trappers and by the Spanish, because it intersected the Spanish Trail. Before the revolutionary war, it was frequented by traders seeking to avoid English tariffs, and others, primarily because it was the most inland water landing navigable by steamboat along the Vermilion Bayou from the Gulf of Mexico. Beyond the Pinhook outpost, nothing larger than a pirogue, flat boat or a very small barge could navigate through the rising sediment and fallen trees.
1925 photo of Vermilion Bayou north of Pinhook Bridge
1765 – The Arrival of the Acadians
By 1765, Acadians were arriving in New Orleans and the Spanish governor began settling them in the Lafayette area at St. Martinville and Opelousas. Both the French and Spanish officials granted lands freely along the Carencro and Vermilion Bayous. Generally, the size of land grants was 6–8 arpents along the stream with a depth of 40 arpents. The earliest settlers to receive Spanish land grants in or near today’s downtown Lafayette were on May 4, 1776. Rene Trahan received just under 24,000 square arpents, and Joseph Broussard and Michel Meaux received much smaller grants. Theodore and Olivier Thibodeaux received their grants shortly thereafter, on January 5, 1777, and Claude Martin received his on May 4, 1777. It wasn’t until Louisiana Governor William C. C. Claiborne created the counties of the Orleans Territory in 1805 did the Attakapas County exist, and it consisted of present day Saint Martin, Saint Mary, Vermilion, Lafayette and Acadia Parishes. In 1817, the Vermilion US Post office was established at Pinhook landing. Church records indicate that by 1815, Catholic Priest, Father Miguel Bernardo Barriere, housed at St. Martin de Tours church in Saint Martinville, traveled the region to visit families settled along the bayous of the Attakapas land grants. The families he visited were the Mires, the Carmouches, the Breauxs, the Frederick Moutons of Carencro, the Jean Moutons of Grand Prairie, the Jean Baptiste Broussards at Cote Gelee, (Youngsville), and Madame Claude Martin on the Bayou Vermilion.
1820 – Jean Mouton Develops Vermilionville
By 1820, the Population of Attakapas County numbered over 12,000 people. One of the several large and increasingly affluent families in the area was that of Jean Mouton. Mouton’s father, Salvador, had come to St. James parish as an exiled Acadian. Around 1760, Jean Mouton came to Attakapas area as a young man and settled north of Pinhook Bridge on the banks of the Vermilion near Carencro. In 1783 he married Marie Marthe Bordat. They had 12 children, for which he provided most successfully as a cotton planter. Because of the uncontrollable flooding that often occurred on south Louisiana waterways, the land adjacent to the river the river bottoms, was the most agriculturally productive. Therefore, when Jean Mouton decided to donate a portion of his land for the building of a permanent Catholic Church, he selected land far back from the river, an area which was much less agriculturally productive than the river bottoms. The land he donated for the church, the current site of Saint John Cathedral, was 2.5 miles north of the only regular settlement in the area, which was at today’s Pinhook Bridge. The establishment of a permanent church was a sign of prosperity and also of increasing confidence in the future success of the area. The church was not only a place of worship, but also served as the social center for the growing rural community where government notices, and other items of public interest were displayed, since it was the only place where all inhabitants frequented.
1983 Map of Vermilionville drawn by Alexandre Mouton
Around 1820, Jean Mouton realized there was an increasing demand for space in the developing settlement. He carved from his land holdings, a new development adjacent to the church and designed to be centered around the courthouse square. The new development consisted of 156 lots, each measuring 96 x 140 feet with streets aligned in a north-south grid and named for US Presidents.
1824 Reeves & Mouton Contest for Courthouse Location
In January of 1823, Louisiana Legislature carved Lafayette Parish from the western portion of Saint Martin Parish. Lafayette Parish then included present day Acadia and Vermilion Parishes and extended west to the Mermentau River and south to the Gulf of Mexico. Being that there was already a jail building close to the Pinhook outpost settlement, brothers, John and William Reeves, who owned land adjacent to the outpost, donated land on the river for the purposes of erecting the necessary parish courthouse and other parish seat buildings. Five months later, Jean Mouton convinced the Louisiana Legislature to direct Parish citizens to hold an election that would choose a place for the courthouse building. This resulted in a contest between the Reeves’ plot and Mouton’s plot. Mouton won the election and on September 20, 1824, Jean Mouton donated the land where the Lafayette Parish Courthouse is currently located. The Parish maintained the jail at the river until 1827 when it was moved to the Main Street location.
The Village of Vermilionville grew up around Saint John Catholic Church and the Lafayette Parish Court House. The Pinhook settlement outlived its limited usefulness, since all commercial traffic was still bound to the river, and heavy commerce was only feasible along the deeper and thus more accommodating Teche River with landings in New Iberia and Breaux Bridge and on the Courtableau Bayou in Washington, Louisiana. Still, Vermilionville with its strong and stable core created by the proximity of the church and Parish Seat began a slow and steady growth into a thriving municipal development.
1830 – The Influence of Les Américains
Mouton’s settlement, even without the advantages of convenient water transportation, and with only slightly more convenient access to the Spanish Trail as the overland route to New Orleans, still managed to surpass the growth and development of the apparently more advantageous river towns of Washington and New Iberia. This was partly due to its growing middle class. The court house building was built in 1835. Americans began to immigrate to the village from the Eastern Seaboard and southeastern states in search of inexpensive fertile land and also as a resting point on their journey to Texas. Families such as the Baileys the Mudds and the Campbells settled in Vermilionville and brought with them additional skills and technology that helped to encourage urban growth. Dr. Francis Sterling Mudd became one of the best known doctors in town, and William Bailey in partnership with Eraste Mouton, operated the village newspaper, which later became The Advertiser. John Campbell was the area’s surveyor and map maker. The American immigrants also brought with them their Protestant faiths, and by 1837, Vermilionville’s first Protestant church, the Methodist-Episcopal church, was built on the corner of West Congress and South Washington Streets.
1835 – Transportation
Due to the higher elevation of the property, the location of present-day Café Vermilionville was the staging point that traders used to transport goods from river craft to overland horse-drawn travois and after roads were constructed, via horse-drawn wagons. Traders camped in that location on property owned by H. Monnier, to trade with nearby planters and the local merchants. The tiny Sans Souci Building on Vermilion Street was used as an inn for travelers as early as 1840. In those days the only points at which inhabitants of Lafayette Parish could secure barge service for transporting goods was at the Vermilion Bayou landing at Pinhook, the Teche Bayou landings in New Iberia and Breaux Bridge and at the Bayou Courtableau landing at Washington. Fortunately for the early inhabitants, horses were an inexpensive source for transportation. They were available for the taking in those days, since they roamed wild, having escaped from various early Spanish settlements. Everyone rode on horseback, even on long journeys. Prior to 1840, Carriages were uncommon, due to the lack of roads. The later Spanish and French Governors encouraged road building by requiring those who received land grants along waterways, to build a levee if needed, and to maintain a road on the levee. By 1836 the Police Jury of Lafayette Parish envisioned the need for a Parish-wide system of roads that would lead to neighboring settlements, and by the time of the Civil War in 1861, there were regular stagecoach routes along dirt roads from Lafayette to New Iberia, Abbeville, and Opelousas. Also, transportation was greatly improved in 1850 when the railroad was completed between New Orleans and Morgan City. From Morgan City station, Morgan’s steamboats carried freight and passengers up the various waterways to destination points throughout Acadiana. That trade enhanced the economy and the need for better ground transportation.
1835 Café Vermilionville Building
1840 Sans Souci Building
1830 to 1840 – Growth of the Village: A Town Council, A Courthouse and A School
In 1835, the village began to outgrow the courthouse donated by Jean Mouton. That year the Police Jury contracted the construction of a courthouse for $6000 to replace the small wooden structure. It was a one-story brick structure with slate floors. In 1836, the State Legislature established the corporate limits of the town of Vermilionville and a town council of 5 members. By 1840, the town became large enough to warrant a branch office of the Union Bank of Louisiana, located on the corner of Saint John and Vermilion Streets. Also in 1840, a group of concerned citizens founded the Vermilionville Academy on the corner of Jefferson and Vermilion Streets. They were Basil C. Crow, Robert Cade, Charles Mouton, Joseph Beraud and John Greig. The school operated until 1872, at which time it was sold and the proceeds were used to support free public schools in the parish.
1830 to 1880 – Lafayette Grows an Urban Middle Class
By the 1830’s Lafayette Parish was developing a unique profusion of small plantations, which helped to make things favorable for the development of an urban middle class. Also contributing to the growth of the middle class in Lafayette was the growth of the city of New Orleans. Between 1840 and 1850, due to the influx of overflow of immigrants from Germany, France and Ireland, New Orleans had doubled in size and was second only to New York as a port of entry into the U. S. Since 75% of those immigrants moved on from New Orleans westward toward Texas looking for land, many settled in the Attakapas country. Since the very fertile land in Acadiana had already been taken by Acadian planters, the new immigrants either settled on less productive land north of the town center, or became merchants, artisans and manufacturers in town. Unlike on large plantations, it was less economically feasible for each separate small plantation to employ fulltime, the skilled laborers regularly needed, such as blacksmiths, wheelwrights, carpenters, etc. Therefore, the need for trades grew and increased the demand for merchants and skilled artisans and craftsmen. Pierre Gerac arrived from France and set up the Gerac Cotton Gin. Michel Eloi Girard born in France became a prominent attorney in Vermilionville. Jewish merchants such as the Plonskeys, Levys, Falks, and Wises found Lafayette to be a warm and friendly place. Since as Eastern Europeans, mostly Polish and German, they were already familiar with the French language, they found it easy to establish mercantile outlets. Vermilionville had an atmosphere that spoke of opportunity for material advancement, as such, there was an increasing need for products services and skills.
Since the area was populated with many small plantations, and because of the increases in middle class population, Union forces during the Civil War were far less destructive in Lafayette Parish than in neighboring areas consisting of much larger plantations. Comparatively speaking, rebuilding efforts after the Civil War in Lafayette Parish was done more quickly and with far less effort.
1880 Map of Vermilionville
1884 – Vermilionville becomes Lafayette, LA
Between 1850 and 1880 the town of Vermilionville grew from a population of 173 people to a total of 866 people. During that same time period, the population of Lafayette Parish grew from 6,547 to 13,235 people. In June of 1877 the first professional medical group formed in Lafayette. Its members were Dr. E. F Beauchamps, President, and Drs. Mudd, Hopkins, Francez, Lyons, Courtney, Scranton, Guidry, Lusby, Blades, Prejean and Cunningham. The group included other doctors from several neighboring communities. This and other factors indicated that Vermilionville was quickly moving toward establishing itself as a major growth center in the Attakapas region. 1n 1859, Lafayette built its third parish courthouse for $8,900. It served the parish until 1929.
1914 Main Street Lafayette – 1859 Lafayette Parish Courthouse on left. Photo courtesy of Louis J. Perret, Clerk of Courts, Lafayette Parish.
In 1884, the town of Vermilionville changed its name to Lafayette, Louisiana. It had grown to 2,106 people based on the Census of 1890, which was more than double the population from the previous Census in 1880. There are a few buildings that were downtown at that time that still exist today. Those structures are:
- William Brandt House – 1820 (in use as Charles Mouton Plantation overseer’s house)
- Alexandre Mouton House – 1825 (expanded to a full time residence)
- Café Vermilionville – 1835
- Sans Souci (inn) – 1840
- Mount Carmel Convent 1846
- J.D. Trahan House – 1869
- Lafayette Hardware Store – 1880 (housed Lafayette’s telephone switchboard in back room)
- Maison Revillon – 1880
- Caffery House – 1886
- Caillouet House – 1886
- Grado Building (residence) – 1890
- Garfield House – 1890
- Old City Hall – 1898
The William Brandt House at West Congress and Madison Streets was considered “the edge of town”, and in 1856, incorporated into Vermilionville as the first added development, Mills Addition was developed. It quickly became a thriving upscale suburb of Downtown. So was area on Garfield Street between Jefferson and Johnston Streets, called Mansion Row. Everything else was rural, agricultural land.
Between 1835 and 1850, Vermilionville enjoyed a prosperous economy resulting mainly from the increasing immigrations, the many small plantations that encouraged the healthy growth of an urban middle class and the fertile land that sustained the growing population. Growth slowed during the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1853 and due to the Civil War and reconstruction period that followed between 1861 and 1870.
In the 1880s, the Industrial Revolution spurred economic growth in most parts of the civilized world. The arrival of the steam locomotive to Vermilionville in 1880, propelled the town from a small frontier village to a fast-growing center of commerce and distribution. Vermilionville became the town of “Lafayette” in 1884. Between 1870 and 1890 Lafayette’s population grew from 777 to 2106. By 1900 the town had 3314 people.
Before 1900, everything outside of downtown beyond University Ave Simcoe St., and Johnston Street was rural, agricultural land. There were small plantations belonging to the descendants of the recipients of the original Spanish land grants and others who purchased property after the Civil War. Small plantations were owned by families with the names of Mouton, Girard, Daigle, Broussard, Martin, Breaux, Billeaud, Reeves, Crow, Creighton, Beraud, Bernard, Leblanc, and Montgomery, to name only a few.
Southwestern Louisiana Industrial Institute (SLII) was founded in 1898, which spurred Lafayette’s population growth again. Many people moved from rural, agricultural occupations to businesses connected with SLII, the railroad, distribution services, and selling products and services to Lafayette’s growing population and beyond.
The wave of construction that occurred after 1900, evidence of Lafayette’s fast growth can be seen today in the following buildings remaining from that time period:
- J. Arthur Roy House – 1900
- Moss Building – 1906 (was Moss Pharmacy and the epicenter of social life in Lafayette as the iconic drug store with lunch counter and soda fountain)
- Old Guaranty Bank – 1905
- Crow Girard House – 1900
- Clayton Martin House – 1905
- Levy Brothers Store (Now Teche Drugs) – 1907
Between 1900 and 1910 Seventeen (17) new subdivisions developed in Lafayette around downtown. Within the twenty years before 1930, development slowed to one half of the rate of the previous ten years, with another seventeen (17) new subdivisions developed at the edges of the 1910 developments.
ELMHURST PARK (and Vicinity)
- Crow Girard House – 1900
- J. Arthur Roy House – 1901
- Hohorst House – 1905
- Martin House – 1907
- Yandle House – 1907
- 1304 St. John Street House – 1910
- Frank Jeanmard House – 1910
- John Montgomery House – 1910
- Maurice Pollingue House – 1910
- Oscar Daigle House – 1910
STERLING GROVE (and Vicinity)
- Louis Bazin House – 1880 (moved to McComb after 1900)
- John Nickerson House – 1891
- Givens Townhouse – 1893
- Greenhouse Senior Center – 1900
- Hanley Gueno House – 1900
- Barrios House – 1902
- McFaddin House – 1904
- Prudhomme Begnaud House – 1906
- N. P. Moss School – 1926
- Nickerson-Chappuis House – 1931
With the Industrial Revolution came the automobile, the steam locomotive and a boom of economic growth throughout Europe and the US. Lafayette was no exception. The train depot was built in 1911. Lafayette’s first automobile dealership was built in 1920 and was owned by the Billeaud family. That building is now called the Poché Building on our historic register. The Grado Building, now Pamplona Tapas Restaurant and Bar, was converted to a commercial building in 1922, which exemplifies the expansion of Downtown from a residential & commercial mix, to fully commercial.
DOWNTOWN & SURROUNDING AREA
- St. John Cathedral (new building) – 1916
- Hope Lodge #145 (Masonic Temple’s new building) – 1916
- St. John Rectory – 1921
- Most Holy Sacrament Convent 1924
- Maurice Heymann Building (Lafayette Science Museum) 1925
- St. Mary’s Orphanage – 1924
- N. P. Moss School – 1925
- Lafayette Middle School (originally High School) – 1926
In 1927 the Mississippi River flooded most of central US, and droves of people moved to Lafayette, because rural areas became inhabitable. That year, the Bell Telephone and Telegraph switchboard needed to build its own building to accommodate the influx of people into Lafayette..
- Southern Bell Telephone and Telegraph Building – 1927
- Evangeline Hotel – 1928
- Tribune Building – 1928 (built by Senator Dudley Leblanc to house Hadacol Distribution Center)
According to the 1930 Census, Lafayette population had grown from 7,855 in 1920, to 14,635 in 1930. In October of 1929 the stock market crash marked the beginning of the Great Depression. Maurice Heymann, a successful Lafayette businessman, extended credit to many families so they could buy food.
- Heymann Food Store, 1935
Throughout the 1930s and 1940s as the economy struggled through the Great Depression and then began to recover, downtown continued to expand and increase in density toward University Avenue and Johnston Streets.
- Lafayette Second City Hall, 1939
- Borden’s, 1940
- Keller’s Bakery, 1948