an ACADIA PARISH article
Lafayette (LA) Daily Advertiser, August 26, 1997
Eventually, through a clerical error, Nementou became Mementou and this was then corrupted into Mermentau through confusion with the French word mer, which means "sea."
The Mermentau area was once reputedly a refuge for smugglers. It was a crossing point for brave travelers on the Old Spanish Trail, but had such a bad reputation that until the Louisiana Purchase no one would go there to see how many people there were.
John Landreth was a surveyor who was sent from Washington D.C. , in 1818 to look for the timber in Acadiana that could be harvested for the use of building Navy ships. He kept a journal and had this to say.
"...these places, particularly the Mermentau and Calcasieu are the harbours and Dens of the most abandoned wretches of the human race... smugglers and Pirates who go about the coast of the Gulph (sic) of vessels of a small draught of water and rob and plunder without distinction every vessel of every nation they meet and are able to conquer and put to death every soul they find on board without respect of persons age or sex and then their unlawful plunder they carry all through the country and sell at a very low rate and find plenty of purchasers."
During the Civil War and the years immediately after it there were widespread reports of bushwhackers, robbers, and other fugitives hiding in the Mermentau woods and tales of hidden treasures in the area. According to one of the stories, a man named Frank Quebedeaux once found an iron pot filled with coins. The cache had been hidden between four copal trees that had grown close together.
One of the earliest known settlers was John Webb, an English seaman who came in 1827. It is said that Webb was a member of the crew of Admiral Horatio Nelson's flagship at the famous Battle of Trafalgar (Oct. l, 1805) in which the British defeated French and Spanish fleets but during which Nelson was killed. Webb lived in an area that came to be known as Webb's Cove, near the junction of the Mermentau River and Bayou Queue de Tortue. Cornelius Duson McNaughton who was running from the law in Quebec joined Webb there about 1837.
Jean Castex, a native of France came to Mermentau around 1856. He opened a mercantile business in 1859 and later became one of Acadia Parish's leading merchants. He was also a cotton and rice farmer and built what may have been the first cotton gin in the parish in 1860. A sawmill was also built at the town about that time. The Mermentau post office was established on Sept. 2 1859.
Victorin Maignaud, another native of France, came to Mermentau in 1866 and opened a dry goods store. Maignaud operated the river ferry for some 40 years, was postmaster for 17 years, and eventually owned a store, hotel, sawmill, and rice mill.
Timber from the Mermentau area provided much of the building material and fencing used by the prairie settlers. The lumber was hauled by oxcart to places as far away as Opelousas.
On May 18,1872, the Opelousas Courier reported: "For the last two weeks the streets of our town have been almost daily crowded with carts and wagons loaded with pieux, boards, and shingles coming from Pointe-aux-Loups and Mermento (sic). Never has there been such a crowd at one time, and so successively we counted eleven ox-wagons in one expedition in one day this week. Eight feet pieux are worth $12 per 100; six feet pieux, $6, and shingles, $6 per 1,000.
Many of the houses used by prairie dwellers were completely built at the Mermentau sawmills, then loaded onto wagons and hauled by ox team across the prairie. As Mary Alice Fontenot reported in her history of Acadia Parish, "When such a house was bought, the owner called his neighbors together and organized a hauling bee, or halerie. With a dozen yoke of oxen and three wagons and willing hands, the structure was soon on its way. The loading was accomplished by taking the beds off two of the wagons. Long logs, some of them 30 feet long, were used in place of the regular coupling poles. The house was jacked up, then the poles run under it. The log poles were then chained up to the two front pair of wheels thus supporting the house. Haulers could make 12 to 15 miles a day across the prairie."
Jesuit priests from Grand Coteau began to visit Mermentau in the 1860's. In 1871 , Father Joseph Anthonioz had begun to gather lumber to build a chapel there, but it was never finished. The first church was built in 1882, next to the Maignaud Cemetery on Hwy. 90. It burned down in 1886.
In 1891, a temporary chapel was built at another location. Property for the church in its present location was donated in 1889 by Jean Castex and Mrs. Marie U. Duhon, widow of Aurelien Duhon. A larger church was built there, but in August 1900 it was blown off its foundation by a storm and damaged beyond use. It was finally rebuilt in 1908.
The Louisiana Western Railroad reached Mermentau in 1880. In February of that year only four miles of roadbed remained to be graded between Lafayette and Mermentau. Some 150 convicts were at work on the stretch near Bayou Blanc. By the end of July the road was completed from Mermentau westward to the Texas line. The Opelousas Courier reported on July 31,1880:
"East of Mermentau the track is laid for a distance of 22 miles westward from Vermilionville, leaving a gap of 14 miles, which is now being tied and ironed as fast as a force of 70 hands will permit. The bridge over the Mermentau is nearing completion.... "
By the end of August 1880, the railroad line from New Orleans to Houston was open for freight business. Passenger trains with sleepers attached were running a regular schedule from New Orleans to Houston by the end of September.
The trains, however, did not solve all transportation problems for the area. Produce, lumber. and cattle had to be transported to the rail line. On Jan. 22, 1887, the Acadia Sentinel reported that Vic Maignaud of Mermentau had purchased "a fine little steam tug called the Harry Bishop," and would use it to "tow logs, freight, rice and other produce and will soon start weekly trips from Mermentau Station to Grande Chênière.
Capt. George W. Caldwell began carrying freight on the Mermentau about 1890, eventually owning a fleet of small boats and 24 barges. The barges hauled rice, oil, cattle, cotton, wood, and general freight. Capt Caldwell also operated a commissary on the river front and issued metal tokens in denominations of 5,10, 25 and 50 cents and $1. These became known as "Mermentau Money."
During the 1890's, the 96-ton Olive operated as a popular passenger and freight hauler on the Mermentau River, making round trips every other day from Mermentau to Lake Arthur. People from Crowley and elsewhere would take the train to Mermentau, then board the Olive for a weekend trip to Lake Arthur. The boat was described as "a splendid sternwheel packet." The Louisiana Press Association members and their wives, meeting in Crowley in 1894, were entertained on one such excursion. Fares were 50 cents one-way or 75 cents for a round-trip ticket.
Mermentau achieved legal village status on Nov. 11, 1899.
This article is copyrighted © by the Lafayette (LA) Daily Advertiser and is used with permission. This web site was originated through a grant awarded to Carencro High School (Joel Hilbun/Bobbi Marino, Grant Administrators) by the State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education from the Louisiana Quality Education Support Fund - 8(g).