The History of New Iberia
by Glenn R. Conrad September 3, 1932 - June 4, 2003
What's in a town's name? Some names say little about the town or its inhabitants; others tie together diverse heritages to form a community. New Iberia is one of the later.
New Iberia was founded on the banks of Bayou Teche in 1779 by a group of Spaniards from Malaga. It is the only extant town in Louisiana to be founded by Spaniards during the Colonial Era. The Spanish pioneers called their town "Nueva Iberia" in consideration of their homeland. Their French neighbors along the Teche referred to the town as "Nouvelle Ibérie". Then, after the Louisiana Purchase, incoming English-speakers dubbed the site "New Town". In 1814, the Federal Government opened a post office here, and it was officially known as "New Iberia". Postmarks shortly thereafter reveal that the town was being called "Nova (Latin for new) Iberia" and "Nueva Iberia". Then, in 1839, the town was incorporated by the state legislature as "Iberia," to the consternation of French speakers who supported "Nouvelle Ibérie" and English speakers who favored "New Town". A compromise was worked out in 1847, and the legislature designated the town's name to be "New (not Nueva, Nova, or Nouvelle) Iberia". This exercise in nomenclature is, nevertheless, reflective of the town's varied cultural history. It does not, however, take into account the African-American contribution which was present from the beginning.
The Spanish pioneers found that most of the lands bordering Bayou Teche had already been granted to others. In time, however, they found a place for settlement on the third great bend of Bayou Teche. The site proved to be too small for the number of settlers, and many of the Spanish families began to move out onto the nearby prairies, particularly those to the south and west of a small lake which came to be called Spanish Lake. Here, they became planters and ranchers.
But the site of New Iberia, while it might not be able to support agriculture and ranching, remained a potentially good location for commerce. As the area around New Iberia became inhabited and merchants began to establish businesses in St. Martinville, some ten miles away, commercial interests set up warehouses at New Iberia for transshipping merchandise from New Orleans to the vast prairie country to the west. New Iberia was important in this regard because it was located at the start of a 25-mile bend of the bayou that flowed first easterly, then northward, and finally westward where the stream passed less than 2 miles from where the bend began. For merchants transporting goods in keelboats, flatboats, and schooners, it was far less time consuming and less expensive to land at New Iberia, unload their cargo onto carts and wagons, cross the narrow portage and reload boats waiting to take the merchandise upstream.
At the end of the eighteenth century and beginning of the nineteenth, some of the original owners of the large land grants began to subdivide them into small tracts, each having frontage on the bayou. Before long the west bank of the bayou in present-day downtown New Iberia became lined with the homes, warehouses and ancillary buildings of merchants or their agents. As late as 1819 the government surveyor, Leander Cathcart, reported that there were six houses, a general merchandise store, and a saloon at the place called New Iberia.
But 1819 marked a turning point in New Iberia's fortunes in that the Attakapas Steamboat Co. was organized. The following year the steamboat Teche arrived in New Iberia loaded with merchandise for the local merchants and prepared to take on freight for the return trip to New Orleans. Steamboat traffic increased measurably for the next 60 years transporting not only items of commerce but travelers as well. Only with the coming of the railroad in 1880 did steamboating begin to decline. The last working steamboat, a towboat, passed through New Iberia in 1943. An era had ended. Since then diesel-powered towboats pushing barges of sugar continue to ply the bayou.
The years between 1820 and 1860 saw the town grow and prosper. But town expansion was hampered by the fact that the still unincorporated town was hemmed in by plantations on the east and the west. Between these larger plantations were smaller ones which today would be in the heart of downtown New Iberia's commercial district. The first of these plantations was subdivided and lots were sold in 1829. Next to this first subdivision was the plantation of Frederick Henry Duperier, who in 1831 subdivided a portion of it and donated land in 1837 for the construction of St. Peter's Catholic Church. In March 1839 acting upon the petition of Duperier, the state legislature incorporated the town, bestowing on it the name "Iberia", to the consternation of the French-speaking population who thought it should be "Nouvelle Ibérie" and the English speakers who opted for "New Town." Finally, in 1847 the legislature compromised and gave the town the name New (not Nueva, Nova, or Nouvelle) Iberia.
In September 1839 New Iberians experienced their first bout with yellow fever. The epidemic spread up and down the Teche. Almost every family counted at least one victim of the scourge with others greatly debilitated by it. During the epidemic, a black woman named Félicité, a native of Santo Domingo, Haiti, apparently immune to the virus, worked day and night nursing the sick, comforting the dying, and arranging for burial of the dead. Today, a marker stands before City Hall attesting to the heroism of this angel of mercy in a time of pestilence.
The 1840s and 1850s passed quietly for New Iberians. Portions of the two large plantations flanking the town were subdivided in the 1850s providing more town lots for anticipated future growth. What New Iberians did not know was that these years were the proverbial calm before the storm. Elsewhere in the country, however, the 1850s witnessed the growth of intense sectionalism which ultimately would rend the Union and result in civil war. The war not only brought death and destruction to New Iberians and their neighbors, it also brought economic stagnation to the region. Throughout the four years of the Civil War, the Teche country fell prey to the foraging of both Confederate and Union armies. The plantation system was completely disrupted as slavery ended and the freedmen sought to forge a new future for themselves. New Iberia was occupied briefly by Union forces in April and May 1863 during the Teche Campaign. The campaign had been designed by Union commanders to strip the Teche region's capability of supporting Confederate forces. Thus anything of any value was gathered together and placed on wagons which resulted in an eight-mile-long wagon train headed for Morgan City and then to New Orleans. The countryside lay prostrate.
New Iberia was again occupied by Union forces in October, 1863, as part of the Great Texas Overland Expedition and would remain in federal hands until the end of the war. The war had brought death and misery and with its end New Iberians and their neighbors hoped that the time had come for a return to normalcy. The next decade or so would dash their hopes.
Agriculture, the mainstay of the economy, was so disrupted by the war emancipation of the African-American workforce, and lack of investment capital, that it would take two decades to recover. Mississippi River floods in 1865 and 1866 destroyed much of the cotton, corn, and sugarcane of the region. Crops that escaped the floods froze in the fields in the winter of 1865-66. There was no one to harvest them. In 1866 and 1867 insects ravaged corn and cotton, resulting in little or no harvest.
If nature dealt bodyblows to New Iberians and others in the region, the worst was yet to come. Beginning in July 1867, a yellow fever epidemic swept the Teche country and within four months resulted in the deaths of thousands of people. In June 1870 a fire broke out in a store on New Iberia's Main Street, resulting in the destruction of approximately one-half of the town's commercial district. Truly, in the 1860s New Iberia had been visited by the sword, fire, and pestilence.
But before the end of the decade, change was in the wind. In 1868 Iberia Parish (county) was created and New Iberia was named the seat of parish government. At first, only rented space served as the courthouse, but by 1884 a new courthouse stood on a beautifully landscaped lot in downtown New Iberia, the present-day site of Bouligny Plaza. This courthouse served the parish until 1940 when the present courthouse was built on Iberia Street, two blocks from the downtown commercial district. Before the century ended, New Iberians built the town's first city hall which stood next to the first courthouse. In 1937, this building was demolished and the second city hall was built on the site. The present City Hall located on East Main St., some two blocks from downtown, was constructed in 1965.
An event of major importance to New Iberia was the coming of the railroad with its impact on the economy and transportation. The railroad was originally scheduled to be built through New Iberia in 1859, but the onset of the Civil War and its aftermath delayed that construction for 20 years. In late 1879, the first passenger train pulled into New Iberia from New Orleans. The following year it was possible for New Iberians to travel by rail to Houston. A few years later a spur line was built to Avery Island and then on to Abbeville. The products of those areas now flowed into New Iberia for trans-shipment to other parts of the nation.
The railroad helped introduce a new industry to New Iberia in the 1880s—lumbering. The great virgin cypress forests within a few miles of the town attracted the attention of northern lumber companies. They were soon on the scene and the harvest of these magnificent trees had begun. Sawmills, planing mills, shingle mills, sash and door factories hummed day and night for the better part of forty years. New Iberia was given an opportunity to pull its economy up by the bootstraps after the dismal years of the Civil War and Reconstruction. It is said that New Iberia produced trainload after trainload of cypress shingles to roof homes in Kansas and Nebraska and supplied homeowners of the Midwest with cypress cisterns.
During the 1880s and 1890s New Iberia was home to five brick factories manufacturing bricks and tile pipe. Foundries built and repaired steamboat and sugar mill machinery. Food processing and packaging plants became an important part of the town's economy. Three rice mills operated in the town at the turn of the century. A wagon works, founded in the late 1870s, operated for nearly one hundred years. These wooden wagons were indispensable for sugarcane, rice, and cotton farmers until the era of mechanization dawned. In the 1930s and 1940s, many of these wagons were sold to Hollywood and appeared in "cowboy " movies. Finally, in 1920, the town became host to the Charles Boldt Paper Mill, which manufactured boxboard from rice straw.
In the early 1900s New Iberia was abuzz with activity as salesmen and buyers visited the town to buy and sell. Main Street, though as yet unpaved, was filled with buggies, wagons, carts, and jitneys, all horse or mule drawn. But with the new century came new ideas in the area of transportation. The automobile appeared on Main Street in 1903, and a few years later, a interurban trolley line was laid on Main Street and ran twelve miles to Jeanerette. Now, people living in the countryside could easily ride the "streetcar" to do their shopping and enjoy sporting events in New Iberia. Children could attend New Iberia and Jeanerette schools without a thought given to the condition of roads.
But if this was an evolving picture of the ideal small American town, an ugly stain was appearing— not only in New Iberia, but also in towns and cities across the South—racial segregation. Jim Crow came to town in the 1890s and, like the man who came to dinner, extended his stay—for seventy-five years or more. Three generations of African Americans were condemned to live as outcasts in their homeland—simply because their skin was black. Their industry, their ideas, and, indeed, their feelings were not to be a matter for consideration for decades. Only with the passage of time "on the cross" did this minority and others come to be regarded as individuals, as a community, and as Americans entitled to our country's bounty.
As New Iberians looked forward to the turn of the century with expectations of progress and prosperity, tragedy enveloped the town on the night of October 10, 1899. Shortly after 6:00 p.m., someone in a downtown store screamed "Fire"! Storekeepers and customers raced into Main Street just as the flames leaped above the roofs of this primarily wooden commercial district. With no municipal water system yet installed (voters had approved a bond issue for this purpose the previous August), New Iberians and people from St. Martinville and Jeanerette fought to contain the fire in a one square block area. After six hours of struggle by bucket brigades and a small fire brigade, the fire's spread was halted. Ironically, an hour later, after months of drought, rain began to fall on the town. As the century closed, New Iberians began rebuilding the stores of nearly one-half of the commercial district. A lesson had been learned concerning wooden structures crowded together. The rebuilt stores were constructed of brick with metal roofs and decorative metal facades. Today many of the buildings built in 1900 still stand, albeit with updated facades. One building, which served as a firebreak because it was constructed of brick and had a metal roof, the Gouguenheim Building, has been recently restored to its original turn-of-the-century appearance. Restoration work is proceeding on other downtown buildings.
An event of major importance to New Iberia and all of Southwest Louisiana was the discovery of oil and natural gas that led to the development of the present-day oil industry that plays such a major role in the state's economy. Oil exploration near New Iberia resulted in the opening of the Little Bayou Oil Field in 1917. Nearly ninety years later that field is still in production. A great boost to the industry occurred just after World War II when the technology became available for off-shore drilling. Drilling platforms began to dot Vermilion Bay and steadily marched out onto the continental shelf of the Gulf of Mexico. All of this activity led directly to the development of the Port of Iberia. Today, the port is a beehive of activity with 70 industries producing over $200,000,000 in retail sales annually.
All along New Iberians have worked hard, but beginning in the twentieth century found more time for entertainment. Although bands, dances, showboats, horse races, and other entertainment were well known in New Iberia before the Civil War, these pastimes were usually small in scope and attendance. Only the Centennial Celebration of American Independence was done on such a scale as to attract thousands to the events occurring in New Iberia. After the Civil War, however, there were few displays of patriotism, with the exception of the Centennial Celebration. For the most part, the old pastimes seemed to persist together with a circus now and then. Beginning in the last quarter of the nineteenth century brass bands became quite popular, particularly the municipal brass bands. As was happening all over America, Sunday afternoons in New Iberia usually found a brass band playing in front of the courthouse. City bands were a part of the towns entertainment for nearly 100 years. In the 1890s and the first two decades of the twentieth century, a favorite entertainment for New Iberians were wild west shows. Pawnee Bill's Wild West Show thrilled New Iberians in 1895. The most famous wild west show, "The King of Them All", Col. W. D. "Buffalo Bill" Cody, came to town in 1902.
But perhaps the favorite pastime of the community, as it was across America, was baseball. The game was played on sandlots dotting the town and led to the formation of a municipal team that challenged similar teams from nearby. The first recorded intercity contest was between the New Iberia Quicksteps and the St. Martin Attakapas Club in the 1870s. Semi-professional baseball came to New Iberia in 1920 when the local team became a club in the Texas League. The team dissolved in 1924. Ten years later professional baseball was introduced into New Iberia as the town's team and became a charter member of the Evangeline League. It served as a farm club of the St. Louis Cardinals. Prior to dissolution of the club in 1957, the New Iberia franchise furnished a host of players to St. Louis, including pitchers Mel Parnel, Red Monger, and Terry Fox.
Football was introduced into New Iberia in 1904 when the Central High School team was organized and played in intercity contests. These contests continue to the present with teams drawn from the city's high schools. A long-standing pastime of New Iberians has been and remains the little theater productions of the New Iberia Little Theater beginning in 1923 and continuing to today with the Little Theater's successor IPAL. Fishing and boating in the myriad waterways of south Louisiana not only bring relaxation and enjoyment but also an array of delectable seafood for the regions outstanding cuisine.
Movie theaters have a long history in New Iberia. A local opera house sponsored the first silent movie in 1905. By 1914 there were three movie houses entertaining local folk. Then, fans of motion pictures increased significantly with the coming of the "talkies". By the late 1930s, and throughout the World War II years, the town boasted four movie houses that were usually jammed with patrons in the evenings and on the weekends. Only with the coming of television and later the home video did the town's patronage of the traditional movie house begin to wane. Nevertheless, a modern movie complex with six screens offers the townspeople the opportunity "to go to the movies."
Parades, pageants, and special events have always fascinated New Iberians who give widespread support to these activities. In 1979 townspeople celebrated the bicentennial of the founding of the town. Ten years later there was a week-long celebration of the sesquicentennial of New Iberia's incorporation. Today, there are carnival krewes that annually provide lavish parades and balls. The three-day annual Sugarcane Festival and Fair, occurring in late September, sponsors street parades on two days of the event and a boat parade on Bayou Teche. The Sugar Festival also includes the staging of a contest among representatives from the sugar parishes for the title of Queen Sugar. In October the town enjoys the annual Gumbo Cookoff, a contest that pits culinary skills of participants to determine who is the very best gumbo maker in the world. Throughout the year Shadows-on-the-Teche, an antebellum home that is the property of the National Trust For Historic Preservation, is the site for many public exhibitions, lectures, children's programs, and re-enactments.
New Iberians enter the twenty-first century proud of their many past accomplishments, prepared to meet the challenges of the new century, and devoted to the concept of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.