Courtesy of L’Observateur
First Published in ‘River Current’ magazine, January 2000
The town of Des Allemands developed on the Coteau de France, or Ranson Tract, part of the original claim of Antoine Folse, the acknowledged founder of Vacherie.
The Coteau de France included much of the area east and north of Lac Des Allemands to the river, with 640 acres confirmed as being under cultivation as of the cutoff date of Oct. 1, 1800. When, in 1812, the federal government confirmed colonial French and Spanish land grants, the children of Paul Toups claimed 18 arpents frontage by a depth of two and a half leagues (seven and one-half miles) of land south and east of the Coteau de France.
Toups received his grant from the Baron de Carondelet in 1796 for the purpose of developing a cattle ranch. This land extended from Des Allemands and Isle Du Price Noir (Black Prince Island) at Bayou Gauche, east to the rear of present-day Luling.
Des Allemands developed as a town after the Civil War, being home earlier only to the New Orleans Opelousas and Great Western train depot (1856) and a few scattered settlers. It was also the site of one of St. Charles Parish’s two Civil War skirmishes, this one in 1862. The Allemands post office was established on Aug. 19, 1868, with William Kussman the first postmaster. On April 1, 1964, the name of the post office was officially renamed “Des Allemands,” when Mrs. Garnet M. Simoneaux was postmistress.
St. Gertrude’s Catholic Church has its origins as a chapel from Holy Rosary Church in Taft in 1901. Prior to this, a priest would visit the area and have mass in the homes of residents. A newer church site was bought from Carrie and Bert Begue in 1953, and the new church opened in 1955.
Freight boats would ply the waters to take merchandise from the train coming from markets elsewhere, then accept the villagers’ produce.
Public schools in the area began as early as 1879, one built in 1895 on land owned by Charles L. Hopkins. Two teachers taught first through seventh grade.
In 1923, a wooden 70-by-40-foot schoolhouse was built in nine months on property bought from Ernest Peyregne for $300. It was a large room separated into two classrooms by a sliding chalkboard wall partition along its center. An additional room was built later.
That building endured until Allemands Elementary was built in 1931. The newer school was destroyed in an electrical fire in 1974. The ruins were finally taken down in early 1990s. Students then temporarily attended classes at the Des Allemands Assembly of God Church and the Mennonite Church. The 1923 school, however, took on a life of its own. It was moved to Comardelle Village, where it served local children until 1941, then to Bayou Gauche until 1959 and back to Des Allemands, there to become the American Legion Post 316 Hall on Highway 632. Across the street is the present Allemands Elementary, which opened in 1977.
Opal Matherne Dufrene’s family dates back in the area to 1770, when her ancestors arrived from Canada to St. James Parish. Her great-grandfather, Jean Matherne, settled in Bois Choctaw in the late 1860s, and her grandfather, Willie Matherne, moved up the bayou to Des Allemands, where he ran a store, later the DeJean Store.
Here, he bought and sold furs, served on the St. Charles Parish Police Jury for more than 30 years, and died in 1933 at the age of 52.
Opal’s father, Dewey Matherne, sired eight children in the area, whose descendents are many in the area with intermarriages. Dewey was denied the chance to serve in World War II, she remembers, because he already had too many children.
“I used to like to talk to the old people about the old times,” Opal said. “They had homes on both sides of the bayou from Lac des Allemands to Lake Salvador.”
She recalled attending mass at the original St. Gertrude’s with Father Gerald Barrett from Taft. The bell summoned the faithful to worship and woe to those who were late! Four years later she married Gerald Dufrene at the same little chapel.
Des Allemands was a lively place in her youth, especially since few people had automobiles. Amusements were all around, with stores and dance halls and the Fun Theater, Mitchell Dufrene’s ice cream parlor, the Candies restaurant and dances at the Ideal Club and the Smile Inn. (“That’s been there as long as I can remember,” she said.)
Landry Dufrene ran a dance hall next to his bar, and weekly dances were followed on Sunday by afternoon bingo. Other attractions were the duck-calling contest. In her youth “the old peddler” would go house-to-house, selling clothes. The “rolling store” would sell fruit and vegetables. Everyone raised chickens, and most had a cow and hogs.
“I don’t remember seeing any alligators when I was young,” she said.
“People used to visit a lot, lots more than they do now,” she recalled. Children occupied their play with toy boats, jump rope, hopscotch and more. “Kids today don’t have any imagination.”
She also remembered that families would always eat meals together. Special family outings included Audubon Park or Pontchartrain Beach. “It’s a different world today. It’s sad in a way,” she said.
A young lady, she would sometimes go with her sister to Adolph Leveque’s store near the old bridge to catch the Greyhound bus to Canal Street in New Orleans to go shopping.
Opal met Gerald at one of those dances at the Ideal Club. She was 14 and he was 17 and from Raceland, driving a 1930s-era Chevrolet. She remembered her father would tease, “Here comes your fishtail Cadillac!” when Gerald came to call. They married four years later. He served in the U.S. Marine Corps and worked at American Cyanamid from 1956 to 1994. They began married life in a little house built next to her grandmother, where they lived for 13 years, then to Murphy Lane, then to Autin Lane for 27 years before moving out to Green Acres near Bayou Gauche a year ago.
And when the wind is up, she can almost hear those chapel bells.