The city of Plaquemine sits along the Mississippi River where it meets with Bayou Plaquemine. Famous French explorer Sieur d’Iberville was brought to the bayou in 1699 by the Bayogoula Tribe, who inhabited land a few miles south. While trade boats and ferries began operating on the waterway during the early 1700s, it was not for another 100 years, in 1819, that the first foundations of a town began to appear at the mouth of the bayou. The cattle, sugarcane, and lumber industries brought English, French, Spanish, Italian, Irish, and German settlers and African Slaves. After building the Plaquemine Lock in 1909, the city became a commercial hub for trade as it connected New Orleans with the western half of the state.
Meet the Authors
Meghan C. Sylvester is a public historian and the director of the Iberville Museum in Plaquemine. Burke Devillier is a native of Plaquemine. After inheriting years of research from his father-in-law, Anthony P. Fama, he has devoted his retirement to sharing those stories. Together the two captured the town’s diverse essence using photographs from the local families that Fama collected and collections donated to the Iberville Museum.
In May, the City of Plaquemine began an extensive restoration project on the museum’s exterior. Our building is now over 170 years old, and it is one of the oldest buildings in the parish. It was built in 1850 as the Iberville Parish Courthouse.
In 1848, the parish Police Jury contracted Thomas and George Weldon, two Irish immigrants out of Natchez, MS, to construct a courthouse and jail in Plaquemine, the new parish seat. It cost a total of $16,119.17 and was meant to include a sheriff’s office, a clerk’s office, two jury rooms, one police jury room, and a room to be used as the recorder’s office, with a vault for safekeeping and preservation of the books and papers. A second jail was added to the building in 1883, and a 15 X 18 vault was added in 1888.
By the 1880s, flooding along the Mississippi River began to increase. Citizens worried about the courthouse’s proximity to the river. The parish had also grown in size due to the lumber boom. Many wished for the building of a larger and grander courthouse that was a safe distance from the Mississippi. In 1906, the parish moved into their new courthouse on Railroad Avenue, selling this building to the City of Plaquemine for $3,000. It was promptly renovated to be used as the City Hall.
When the parish completed and moved into the existing Courthouse on Meriam Street in 1985, city government operations moved into the courthouse building on Railroad Avenue, where it remains today. The old City Hall was vacant for several years as the community discussed how to use the building. Under the administration of the late Mayor Mark “Tony” Gulotta, the city, with participation from the community, decided to renovate the building. In 1998 the Iberville Museum Association (IMA) was founded. The following year, the city leased the building to the IMA for $1, and we opened our doors to the public in June 2000.
Recently, the building’s east wall began to bow out about one foot. The city brought in a historical engineer to determine the needed repairs. The building’s two-feet thick brick wall had to be dismantled to repair the structure. They then poured a new foundation, and a block wall was built.
They added stucco to match the existing exterior, and the museum’s roof was repaired and replaced. Additionally, the front columns that had been rotting away from water damage were repaired.
Now the remaining exterior bricks need to be sealed to prevent further moisture damage in the interior. Several interior bricks have eroded over the years. They will need to be carefully cut and replaced with matching old bricks.
We are immensely grateful to the City of Plaquemine for undertaking this massive project! The project was estimated to cost $125,000. It would have been impossible to complete without the support of our mayor and council members.
For one hundred and thirty years, steamboats navigated the Mississippi River and Louisiana’s bayous, providing reliable transportation of cargo and passengers. Despite their size, these riverboats were able to maneuver quickly, making the steamboat ideal for Louisiana’s snakelike bayous.
One Plaquemine company that utilized steamboat transportation was Consolidated Companies Inc.
It began as a retail grocery store, located on the corner of Railroad Avenue and Plaquemine St., but developed into a wholesale food distributor under the guidance of Victor J. Kurzweg. In 1925, Kurzweg ordered the construction of a new riverboat that became the first of its kind. The V. J. Kurzweg was a steel hull river packet built by the Canulette Shipbuilding Co. in Slidell, LA, but what set this boat apart from others was its diesel engine. Its oil-burning engine was the pride of the crew, replacing the wood-burning and coal-burning steam engines of the past.
The V. J. Kurzweg was 155 feet long, 32 feet wide, and drew 5.7 feet of water. It was operated by a stern paddlewheel, similar to the steamboats, which allowed for deftly maneuvering. At all its stops, onlookers referred to the Kurzweg as “a cow without its horns” because it lacked the smokestacks of a steamboat.
The boat made several summer trips to St. Louis, Missouri and traveled weekly from New Orleans to New Iberia. The voyage typically began in New Orleans, traveling up the Mississippi and stopping at the Consolidated Company Inc. branches in Lutcher and Donaldsonville before arriving in Plaquemine. Once the boat arrived in Plaquemine, the crew would scramble to find beer and cigarettes, while passing through the locks. It would then travel down Bayou Plaquemine into Grand River. From Grand River, the boat connected with Bell River, then Bayou Long, and Flat Lake, stopping in Morgan City before it continued up the Atchafalaya River and into Bayou Teche. Once it reached Bayou Teche, the boat stopped in Franklin and Jeanerette until it reached its final destination of New Iberia. Here, the crew restocked its cargo and headed back to New Orleans before the week’s end.
The cargo crew for this paddle-wheeler was predominantly black. C. S. Boyles, Jr., traveling on the Kurzweg in 1936, noted: “Sixteen Negros are carried as regular cargo crew. .. Extra ‘hands’ are picked up by advance arrangement at each landing, help to do the loading and unloading, and go back to wait another week.” African Americans have operated as riverboat crews since the early 1830s. During the Antebellum period, riverboat owners most commonly used slaves as their crews throughout the south.
According to Boyles, in addition to the cargo crew, three black women ruled over the boat’s galley. One of the women was named Carrie and she prepared the meals for the crew. For breakfast, an assortment of eggs, fried ham, grits, rice, cereal, syrup, hot biscuits, and drip coffee was served, and for dinner, the crew was provided with smothered chicken, boiled pork, sausage, beans, corn, more rice, French bread, beets, spaghetti with “wop” cheese, ice cream, cake, and thick coffee.
The V. J. Kurzweg was operated during the decline of the paddlewheelers. In 1936, the boat’s captain, Captain Blackman, predicted the Kurzweg may run another two years. He recalled, “[In the early 1900s,] the river traffic [was] so heavy, the woods echoed with the whistles the clock round!” However, by the 1930s, Blackman claimed he was the sole captain of a river packet on a regular schedule with freight and passengers out of New Orleans. The boat was eventually retired in 1943, which some argue was partially due to World War II rationing. It was later dismantled for parts.
Bernard, Shane K. Teche: A History of Louisiana’s Most Famous Bayou. Jackson, MI: University Press of Mississippi, 2016.
Boyles, C. S., Jr. “The Last of the Packets.” Holland’s Magazine, 1936.
Buchanan, Thomas C. Black Life on the MIssissippi: Slaves, Free Blacks, and the Western Steam Boat World. University of North Carolina Press, 2004.
Kurzweg, Frank Turner. “The Story of V. J. Kurzweg.” Frank Turner Kurzweg, ca. 2000.
Small notebooks of loose paper filled with well wishes, poems, and “remember me” signatures were once carried around by the masses. Otherwise known as autograph books, these little notebooks were the precursors of yearbook signings, business cards, and address books. The decorative “note boxes” fluctuated in popularity, being most popular during the Victorian era and 19th century, and dying out again in the mid 20th century.
The notebooks, or memory boxes, were made of cardboard sleeves that allowed for the loose sheets of paper to be bound after the sheets were sent around, hence the nickname of “note boxes.”
The practice of using autograph books dates back to the 15th century in the German and Dutch regions of Europe. Known at the time as Album Amicorum (Book of Friends) and commonly practiced by graduating university students for their peers and instructors to sign their goodbyes and well wishes.
As seen in the autograph books owned by Verna Mae Kirkland and Leana Boudreaux Brady, both women went to Plaquemine High School during the 1940s. During their last months there, they passed their books’ around.
These autograph albums were also popular to tote around while traveling. University professors at conferences would use the notebooks to have acquaintances write their information and current research. Additionally, tourists would ask any new friends or extended family to write small notes or addresses in the album for future contact. This can be seen in the notebooks belonging to “Bert” Nadler, Eliska Carmouche Hardingand, and Marie Pamelia Marchland.
Marie Pamelia Marchland was the granddaughter of Evariste Lauve and Celeste Brunet, who established Celeste Plantation in Bayou Goula. Her album contains well wishes, signed during Christmases at Tally Ho and Celeste Plantations in 1860-1862, as well as lithographs of girls, poems about the war, and newspaper clippings on Southern ladies and womanhood. Therefore, her book had a dual use as a scrapbook and an autograph book.
“Bert” Nadler, of Plaquemine, LA, also had a dual purpose for his book. It acted as a diary, documenting his 1916 trip to Alaska with his mother when he was eleven years old. But, it also includes addresses of people he met along the way.
Eliska Harding was a native of Plaquemine, LA, and a resident of Oakland, CA. Her books were gifted to her by friends. She used them to document trips she took around the United States in the 1930s. However, in her book, Harding appears to be thinking ahead for her album. Most of the pages are labeled “Verse or Toast,” and on the back were fill-ins like “full name,” “address,” “favorite color,” “eye and hair color,” “birthday,” etc. for her new friends.
Eventually, yearbooks, address books, and business cards became the norm, and the autograph books slowly faded out again. But these memory boxes are now signatures of the past that tell of once-close friendships, inside jokes, and travels.
Iberville Museum’s Annual Meeting will be held Tuesday, June 11, 2019 at 6:00 P.M. at the museum. This event is free and open to the public.
Our keynote speaker this year is local genealogist and Iberville Museum Board Member, Stella Carline Tanoos.
Tanoos will present her research titled, “Lost Louisiana: The Cattle Drives of Louisiana.” She discusses the earliest known cattle drives in French Colonial Louisiana to the last American cattle drives in the LA during the early 1900s, particularly the details from the diary of Louisiana born cowboy William Duncan Berry.
After the presentation, Cliff LeGrange, author of Spirit of the Atchafalaya and Heritage of the Atchafalaya, will be signing the newest edition of his latest book that includes Tanoos’ research.
For more information please call Meghan Sylvester at 225-687-7197 or email firstname.lastname@example.org