Ah, the 1970s and 1980s. TG&Y still was in business with a never-ending stock of sea monkeys. K&B sold the best ice cream ever in rectangular boxes (or huge tubs if you were having a birthday party). TV stations signed off the air with the National Anthem. And newspapers weren’t the thin leaflet they are today. They had miles of pages to fill, my friend.
I wasn’t reading newspapers in the 1970s and 1980s, but I go back and look at them now. They contain a wealth of family research.
Newspapers had space for genealogy columns and long, meandering family history stories. If you wanted to share a story about Great Uncle Edgar, the local newspaper would find a home for it. If you wanted to share photos from the family album, all you had to do was drive your Pinto to the newspaper office. If you wanted to sell a family history that you’d typed up at the kitchen table while downing a Tab, well, the newspaper could oblige with free publicity.
Here’s the story of the Augeron family of Lockport courtesy of Monsieur Gros.
Not long ago, a home in my neighborhood was reduced to rubble because of chronic flooding. This is a common teardown in south Louisiana, where the water table can make home construction tricky, but it always makes me sad. To me, houses have as much personality as people. They witness so much life: new babies being brought home, holiday gatherings and deaths.
That brings me to the Hicks Mansion, which once proudly stood in downtown Shreveport. I spotted a glimpse of the mansion’s rooftop in a book about historic Shreveport, and I was intrigued. I had no idea that an antebellum mansion once called 416 Travis St. home. Downtowns used to be much more residential than they are today.
Recently, I stumbled across a treasure trove of photos that offer a much better view of the mansion, which was torn down in the 1950s to make way for a high rise building.
Some of these photos are from the Jack Barham Collection at LSU-Shreveport. Barham was a Shreveport photographer who died in 2018 at age 92. He was a combat photographer during World War II. From taking battlefield photos, he transitioned into a newspaper photographer, which was still exciting work. A young musician named Elvis Presley was getting his start at the Louisiana Hayride at the same time Barham was snapping pictures for the Shreveport Journal. The two became friends.
Twin Blend Photography posted these on Facebook. Twin Blend apparently specializes in blending then and now pictures. It’s an interesting concept.
Diving into the newspaper archives, I discovered that the Hicks Mansion was built by the Howell family. R.H. Howell and Francis Marion Hicks once were in the grocery supply business together. The partnership ended in 1888. Hicks got sole ownership of the company, and eventually, the downtown mansion. Francis’ son, Samuel Bailey, succeeded his father and moved his own family into the mansion. It was Samuel’s son who decided to tear down the mansion in the 1950s to make way for a business venture in which he had a stake.
The demolition didn’t happen without somewhat of a fight. After all, this was a landmark.
By the time the mansion was torn down in 1958, it had been standing for so long that its history was a bit murky although someone recalled that the third floor was added much later in its life.
Old-timers remembered the mansion belonging to a Miss Mamie Hicks. This was Sam Sr.’s wife, who died just a few months before the mansion tumbled to the ground. She was the last person to live there. Her husband died in 1925, leaving her to live in the mansion for decades.
In her obit, she was remembered as one of the last old ladies to occupy a downtown Shreveport mansion. She apparently clung to the home through the years as skyscrapers were erected around it. I wonder if she literally rolled over in her grave the day a wrecking ball swung through it.
I have a jar of mincemeat that’s been sitting in my fridge since Christmas. Wondering what to do with it, I searched a newspaper database and found this cake recipe from the 1880s. I thought I’d share.
This is called a Swiss cake – and I love the pointers: Cream the butter and sugar with your hand for that body temperature touch, put in a quite hot oven (how did people cook before temperature dials) and test with a broom splint (the days before toothpicks). I can also flavor with any preferred flavoring – no measurements given on, say, adding cocoa powder. And I can add mincemeat!
Should I give it a whirl? What could possibly go wrong?
Back in the day, you didn’t have to be a debutante or a lady who lunches to make the newspaper society column. Something as ordinary as having company qualified for a mention.
My great-great grandmother was Mrs. Augustin Giroir (nee Elizabeth Montet). In 1919, relatives came to call from Lafourche Parish. I don’t know who the Mrs. Montet and sons were. It may have been her cousin Desire’s wife and sons.
Plug your ancestor’s name into a newspaper engine and see who came to call on them!
I tumbled down a rabbit hole today in search of a Louisiana newspaper that existed for just a few years in the 1840s. What I found was a “vituperative” Irish newspaperman in 1840s Napoleonville.
Word of the day: Vituperative means bitter and aggressive. More on that in a minute.
“The Star of Assumption” – such an ambitious name for such a short-lived publication – was published by John Keays. Keays lived in Louisiana for nearly 30 years after immigrating from Ireland. He edited several newspapers before publishing “The Star.” He died of a fever in 1844.
As far as I know, no issues of “The Star of Assumption” survive. They were swept into the dustbin of history.
Other newspapers, however, dutifully read the competition and reported on the contents to their own readers.
In April 1843, “the Times-Picayune” reported the launch of the “Star of Assumption” with a writeup by Keays on the state of things in Napoleonville. Apparently, the town boasted a modest number of dwelling houses, a courthouse, a jail, a fire proof brick office, a store, two coffee houses, one billiard table and a religious meeting house. There was no doctor or resident lawyer, but fresh oysters were in abundant supply on a daily basis.
Soon, the newspaper was immersing itself in local politics and sparring with rival publications. Apparently, there was quite a dustup later that year over the removal of a land office from Donaldsonville. “The Baton-Rouge Gazette” sniffed that “the Star of Assumption’s” take on the matter was spirited because of its length – not its import on the matter.
A dispute between “The Baton-Rouge Gazette” and “the Star of Assumption” apparently went beyond reporting on a land office. Also in 1843, the Baton Rouge newspaper took John Keays to task for his “vituperative language against the late editor of this paper.” I don’t know what that language was, but the “Gazette” told Keays “you may foam and rant, friend, but your end will never be like his.”
“The Gazette” was kind in reporting on the “Star’s” demise less than a year later.
What did the “Star” in was a new state law involving the advertisement of sheriff’s sales. I don’t know what the law was – only that it killed rural papers.
Keays removed himself to Texas only to die the same year his newspaper met its demise. Let’s hope he got a glorious end despite the ill wishes of “The Baton-Rouge Gazette.”
Years ago, Ancestry had a wonderful newspaper database that was included in your subscription price. Then some bean counter told Ancestry to spin that database into a separate subscription service because people would pay extra for it. The bean counter was right.
I subscribe to Genealogy Bank and Newspapers.com. I’m not thrilled about the monthly cost, but I do use them. However, I would much rather donate money to a university digital project that makes historic newspapers free to all.
If you flip through one of my mother’s yearbooks, you’ll see handwritten death dates scrawled underneath the pictures of three of her classmates. Brenda, Lucie and Robert Verrett weren’t just her schoolmates. They were her cousins in a Cajun-iffy way.
My mother can explain to you how the Verrett children were related to her. I cannot. Cajun lines tend to crisscross. We treat second and third cousins like regular cousins. It gets confusing.
What I do know is Brenda, Lucie and Robert went to school one Wednesday in 1966, returned home and vanished. Their mother, Barbara, also disappeared. Left behind were a bloody hammer and bloody bedclothes. Someone tried to set a fire inside the house to destroy the gory evidence.
The Verretts weren’t a traditional family. The parents, Robert Sr. and Barbara, were separated or divorced. Barbara took the kids and moved in with a man named Bernardo Mejia. That type of living arrangement might be normal nowadays. In the 1960s, it would have been the talk of the bayou.
I’ve always wondered if the untraditional arrangement caused a delay in the family being reported missing. It wasn’t until Mejia returned home from a fishing trip on Sunday that the police were called. Regardless, I don’t think the outcome would have changed.
Mejia discovered the doors locked and blankets tacked over the windows. His brand new Ford Falcon wasn’t in the driveway. He crawled through a window to get inside. Why didn’t he have his own house keys? Probably because no one bothered locking doors back in those days. They sure didn’t in the 1980s, when I was growing up.
By this point, no one had seen the kids in four days. Barbara was a housewife so her disappearance probably wasn’t as noticeable as the kids not showing up for school.
The Verretts weren’t the only ones missing. Mejia’s cousin, Roy, who was living with them, was nowhere to be found.
Unlike his Mexico-born uncle, Roy was born in Louisiana. His father was Chitimacha Indian. His mother was a Savoie, which means she was Cajun.
Roy had gotten in trouble for raping a woman but lucked out when the charge was lowered to simple battery.
He must have traveled to Mexico frequently because he had a fiancee in Nuevo Laredo. A few weeks before he disappeared, he visited his fiancee. Back in Louisiana, he stayed with his uncle and the Verrett family while working on a visa that would bring his fiancee to Louisiana. Just before the disappearances, the visa application was denied, supposedly because the fiancee was a known prostitute.
No trace of Roy or the Verretts was discovered for days. Heavy rains thwarted the search at first.
Those heavy rains also brought the mystery to an end. They exposed Barbara in the shallow grave where she was buried near Grand Isle. Nearby were the bodies of the three children, lined up in a triangular shape.
According to newspaper reports, Barbara had been strangled and a piece of cheesecloth stuffed in her mouth. Little Robert was shot in the head. The girls had been beaten. All were only partially clothed.
According to court records, all were shot.
As a child, I remember being told the children had gone to bed partially dressed in their school clothes without getting supper. The sense I always got was they didn’t have the best home life. I wish I could remember more about what my granny said.
What I do know is the discovery of the bodies set off a huge manhunt for Roy. He ditched the car in the French Quarter and wandered the swamps until authorities caught up with him. By that point, he was dazed from hunger and offered no resistance.
Roy told police that Barbara angered him by criticizing the woman he planned to marry. Barbara characterized the woman as a whore and questioned why Roy would go to so much trouble to bring her to Louisiana.
That night, everyone went to bed, while Roy simmered. He was furious that Barbara would criticize his fiancee when she was known for frequenting the bars. He grabbed a hammer and went into the bedroom where Barbara was asleep with little Robert. He clubbed her to death and shot Robert when the commotion woke him.
Then, he headed to the girls’ bedroom, where he shot them. He shot Lucie three times but she was slow to die so he hastened her death with the hammer.
After loading the bodies into his uncle’s car, Roy tried to dispose of them in Assumption Parish but got spooked when a truck turned onto the shell road where he was parked. He drove back to Berwick with the bodies still in the car. He tacked blankets over the windows, returned the bodies to the house, walked around town, washed blood from the outside of the car and waited for nightfall.
Under the cover of darkness, he drove to Lafourche Parish, where he dumped the bodies. Then he returned to Berwick and filed his tax return.
Roy was convicted of murder in the Verrett deaths but that wasn’t the end of his adventures.
In 1967, Roy escaped from prison on Easter Sunday. Agents checking on shrimping violations found him 11 days later in the Avery Island Canal near New Iberia. He was just eight miles from open water, where he could have headed to Mexico. He later told reporters he was trying to get to his wife and children in Mexico.
I hate to end this talking about Roy. So, I’ll end it by talking about the Verretts.
They are buried peacefully along the bayou in a little town called Amelia. The children’s school pictures adorn their graves.
I prepared for Hurricane Laura by cooking everything in the fridge and laying down the garden statues. I was bracing for a week-long power outage and general mayhem. Turns out, we never even lost power. We’re lucky to live in Baton Rouge, which is far enough inland to escape the storm surges but sometimes not the strong winds of hurricanes.
Hurricanes are a deadly part of life in south Louisiana. I am hopeful that anyone who lives in Cameron Parish got the heck out of dodge before Hurricane Laura made landfall.
Years ago, when I was a newspaper reporter, I remember flying over Cameron Parish with Gov. Kathleen Blanco’s husband, Coach, and the rest of the press corps after Hurricane Rita. Coach was a great storyteller. As we swooped over the Cameron Parish Courthouse in a Black Hawk helicopter, he pointed it out as the only building left standing in the town of Cameron after an earlier hurricane. Hurricane Audrey decimated every other building in town and ripped babies out of their mothers’ arms.
Mother Nature can be cruel, as those of us who call this boot-shaped, water-logged state know well. And the ones who live in the coastal parishes are especially vulnerable.
I thought it fitting to revisit one the deadliest hurricanes to ever hit Louisiana. The storm hit in 1856, before hurricanes were named.
Back in those days, a barrier island off the coast of Terrebonne Parish was a summer resort. Vacationing families could escape the heat and enjoy Gulf breezes and white sand. It was known as Last Island, presumably because it was the last bit of land before the Gulf. However, a barrier island also is the last place you want to be during a hurricane. Barrier islands are called such because they act as a barrier for the mainland from storms.
In August 1856, a Category 3 hurricane hit and destroyed every building on the island, including a large hotel owned by John Muggah. Half of the 400 people on the island perished. The island itself disappeared. Today, it’s a series of small islands inhabited by birds.
During the hurricane, some people clung to trees while others were hit by debris or blinded by whipped up sand. The hotel held on at first before ripping apart. Many of the survivors made it out by making their way to a ship that was supposed to ferry people to safety but didn’t reach the island early enough and wrecked. Within days, the wreckage would be one of the few remaining landmarks of Last Island.
I went to Target today for laundry detergent. I got so distracted by the empty shelves that I left without laundry detergent.
But I did get a huge pack of toilet paper! And, after looking with much dismay at the pasta-less pasta aisle and the bean-less bean aisle (except for pinto beans), I noticed a stock cart filled with unopened boxes. One box said “black beans” and I could’ve jumped for joy in a way that I have never jumped for joy at beans of any kind. A worker obligingly opened the box and handed me two bags of black beans. The meat section was cleared out for the most part, but I found a pork roast that will go nicely with a crockpot of black beans. And I found a package of hot dogs for our hot dog-loving dog and two lonely boxes of frozen waffles for my waffle-loving husband.
In other words, I’m learning to make do much like my grandmother did during World War II. Newspapers during the 1940s filled their pages with recipes to help housewives dealing with limited pantries.
I thought it would be fun to go back to the future by seeing what insight I might get from wartime recipes. Here we go.