St. Landry Parish Courthouse.
Fire brought big fight, new parish
The embers were not cold from the fire that destroyed the St. Landry Parish courthouse when a group of citizens began agitating to have it rebuilt in Washington instead of Opelousas. When firefighters got to the fire early in the morning of March 22, 1886, it was “leaping in fearful flames from the . . . windows.” They could only turn their hoses on nearby buildings to keep them from catching on fire.
The Police Jury met three days after the fire and Senator M. D. Kavanagh, J. M. Lalanne, Elbert Gant, Achille Dupre, and several other Washington civic leaders were there to “urge . . . the propriety of delaying the rebuilding . . . until an election could be held to take the sense of the people on the question of making [Washington] the parish seat of St. Landry,” according to news reports. The Police Jury voted against the proposition, but that would not be the end of a sometimes uncivil debate.
Making the issue even stickier, some people in Rayne took the opportunity to push for creating a new parish from western St. Landry, and some leaders in Opelousas were willing to support that cause if Rayne backed keeping the St. Landry courthouse in Opelousas. Nineteen “businessmen, lawyers and citizens of Opelousas” and a “large and representative contingent from Washington” went to a big meeting in Rayne in April to discuss “division of the parish, and . . . removing the [courthouse] to Washington,” according to the Opelousas Courier. It said Opelousas “carried the day,” but that was disputed by the editor of the Washington Argus, who said the plan was just a business proposition, and that if Washington pledged $30,000 to build a courthouse it could bring “a very large return in dollars and cents.”
When the state legislature convened in May, a bill was introduced to submit the courthouse question to the voters, even though the Police Jury had already contracted with Hannon & Voss of Baton Rouge “for the building of a new Court House on the ruins of the old one, recently burned.” Another bill called for a referendum on creation of the new parish.
Battling delegations visited Baton Rouge to lobby for or against the two pieces of legislation. In the end, Senator Kavanagh, a Washington resident, was the only St. Landry legislator to support the courthouse move, and that bill failed. The legislature did set up a vote on the creation of Acadia Parish, which was approved in October by a difference of 2,505 to 1,519.
Opelousas, true to its leaders’ pledge at the April meeting, voted 507 to 110 in favor of the new parish. Washington went along, 227 for to 29 against. Port Barre, Church Point, Ville Platte, Grand Prairie, Prudhomme City, Coulee Croche, and German Settlement each voted against it by substantial margins, but not by enough to outpoll the bigger towns..
In Rayne, which everybody expected to be the seat of the new parish, the vote was 678 to one. It quickly became evident, however, that Rayne would not be an automatic choice, and another fight began over where the Acadia courthouse would be built, ultimately won by the newly created town of Crowley.
A collection of Jim Bradshaw’s columns, Cajuns and Other Characters, is now available from Pelican Publishing. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.