Archive | February, 2011

A Look at Rayne, Louisiana

18 Feb

An early twentieth-century view of Louisiana Avenue facing the railroad. Cunningham's Louisiana Western Railway station was the reason for Rayne's founding, and development quickly grew up around it. (Image from "Images of America: Rayne")

I spent a lot of my younger days in Rayne, Louisiana, a small town in Acadia Parish about twenty minutes west of Lafayette by Interstate 10, population approximately 8,500.  My mother’s from Rayne, and her parents and their parents and their parents before them were all born there.  My mother’s aunt lives just off of the Highway 90, the Old Spanish Trail that once linked Spain’s Florida territories with their lands in Texas.  My mother’s sister and her family still live in the 1910s house that my great-grandparents called home (it’s a fantastic shotgun house-meets-Gustav Stickley bungalow house hybrid).

Rayne has managed to hang on to many of the buildings from its early history, but it still makes my jaw drop to hear that there are only two buildings there listed on the National Register of Historic Places: the Joseph Bernard House, an 1880s cottage once owned by Rayne’s first mayor, and the Lewis & Taylor Lumberyard Office, a long-porched shotgun house downtown next to the railroad tracks.  It’s astounding that there aren’t more buildings recognized from Rayne’s architectural past, especially given the town’s unusual early history.

Acadia's Cash Emporium shortly after its construction in 1914 and the same building today, now home to Worthmore's. (Image above from "Images of America: Rayne;" image below by author)

The story of Rayne actually began about one mile south of downtown in the long-gone town of Pouppeville, Louisiana.  Founded in 1852 along Bayou Queue de Tortue, Pouppeville was one of many small stagecoach stops stretching west across the Louisiana prairie toward Texas cattle country.  In 1880, finding their small community bypassed by the new Louisiana Western Railway, residents proposed abandoning isolated Pouppeville in favor of land surrounding Rayne Station, a new rail stop first established by railroad official Dr. William H. Cunningham and named after railroad executive B.W.L. Rayne.  North across the prairie, oxen moved Pouppeville’s homes and businesses (and even the brand new Jesuit church!) to a site adjacent to Cunningham’s new station.  Rayne was incorporated in 1883; today nothing remains of Pouppeville.

Acadia Parish prospered in the late nineteenth-century.  The Southern Pacific Railroad purchased Louisiana Western in 1881, connecting once-remote Rayne to markets along the east and west coasts.  Local rice farmers found eager consumers for their product in far-off American cities, and the land around Crowley and Rayne became one of the leading rice producing centers of America.

Mervine Kahn Department Store was a one-hundred year fixture in Rayne until it closed for good in the 1990s. The store has been rehabilitated as an events venue. (Image by author)

In the early twentieth-century, Rayne became world famous for another, amphibious export.  Jacques Weil, a Paris, France, native, came to Rayne in 1901 and saw opportunity in the large frogs he found in Acadia Parish’s bayous and rice fields.  Weil and his brothers made a fortune shipping frogs by train to restaurants and universities across the country.  At its height, the company was shipping out 10,000 pounds of frog legs a week.  Today, visitors to the “Frog Capital of the World,”  can see dozens of public murals commemorating the town’s honored swamp baritone, and every fall Rayne hosts its very own Annual Frog Festival, where visitors can see the Frog Derby and Frog Jockey Competition and can watch the crowning of the year’s Frog Queen, Junior Frog Queen and Teen Frog Queen, and, last but not least, Mr. and Miss Tadpole.