Mature Living, February 1989
By Esther DeBar
It was the center of our small community
*Note – this article is about the site of what is now known as Smith’s Grocery
One hot summer day when I was eight, I sat on the steps of Papa’s store, dabbling my bare toes in the squishy Louisiana mud. Suddenly I was terrified. A giant alligator crawled across the muddy road from the levee toward me with its mouth wide open. Needless to say, I screamed and scooted to safety instantly.
Such an experience in the swampy Mississippi town of Hahnville, with a population of about five hundred, was just another exciting moment during my childhood in the pre-World War I years. I learned to be aware of alligators and other harmful creatures. A variety of poisonous snakes thrived in this environment. I rarely went to the outdoor facilities without confronting one. Even when my younger sister Ruth and I picked blackberries, we had to compete with the snakes for them.
But we took things in stride and thought little about them. Our roads were unpaved, and the torrential rains that overflowed the Mississippi River made them impassable. Even in good weather, when the roads were at their best, only the bravest drivers attempted the twenty-five-mile trip to New Orleans. In fact, the only two cars in our town usually were stuck in the mud somewhere.
The majority of the town’s residents were called Cajuns. They were descendants of the French Arcadians (sic) who fled from Canada in the eighteenth century. Papa, the only citizen of German descent, had been born along the Mississippi River. He spoke French and was well accepted in the community. He was respected for his efforts to get better schools, better roads, and better government.
He once attended a political meeting at the St. Charles Parish Courthouse. He later told me about something called a telephone where people could actually talk to others as far away as New Orleans. I thought Papa was telling me a fairy tale. I didn’t know it was the truth until I moved to California at age twelve.
The center of our small community was Papa’s store. It was connected to our living quarters. The store was about twenty-five feet long and twelve feet wide, with a woodburning black stove. There were no canned goods, packaged foods, or frozen items. Only two items we sold then are still around today-Colgate toothpaste and Ivory soap. My younger sister Ruth and I would run back and forth from our living area to the store. Ruth’s favorite game, which kept her in constant trouble, was mixing the bins of dried red beans, black-eyed peas, rice, and sugar. Papa spanked her several times, but she kept playing the game anyway.
When Mama had some extra time she weighed up one-pound sacks of beans, rice, and sugar, so they would be ready for customers. I can still see her scooping lard from a large tub and weighing one-pound scoops that sold for five cents. When customers complained about the high price, Mama would sell them a half a pound for two cents.
Pickled pig’s feet, selling for five cents each, was everybody’s favorite snack. Customers would buy them and eat them before leaving the store.
Papa traveled by train to New Orleans about twice a year to order supplies from wholesale houses. They were delivered later by boat to a dock three miles down the river from our store. The problem was that Papa never knew what day the boat would arrive until he heard the whistle down the river.
When the sound announced the boat’s arrival, we would hurriedly hitch up the horse and wagon and race to the dock.
Papa’s store was open from sunrise to sunset through the week. On Saturday night it remained open longer because it was payday for the farmers. After making their purchases, they expected lagniappe. This popular French word means “something extra or a treat.” It often was a piece of hard candy or fruit. If Papa forgot, the customer would remind him in a loud voice, “Lagniappe!”
Papa’s store was the information center of the community and the connection to the outside world mainly because we were the only ones receiving the New Orleans Times Picayune which arrived a day or two late. My daily job was to go to the post office and get the mail and the newspaper.
One day in 1917, the newspaper headline read, “U.S. Enters the War!” Hysteria resulted as townsfolk got the news. They knew their sons would be drafted to fight overseas. No doubt many never returned.
The war brought change. Papa kept the store open longer as neighbors gathered each evening to get the latest news. They would sit on the counter and eat cheese and crackers. Those who could read English, read the newspaper and discussed the horrors of war.
Then one day as I picked up the paper at the post office I read the headline, “Armistice Signed!” I ran all the way home with the news. The word spread quickly. Soon Papa’s store was packed with rejoicing townspeople. Papa sold more pickled pig’s feet that day than ever before!
For the most part, the little stores on the levee are things of the past. Today we have elegant supermarkets with everything imaginable. But they can never replace Papa’s store where personal service and genuine caring were top priorities!
Esther DeBar, Los Angeles, CA, is a secretary and homemaker.