CAROLA LILLIE HARTLEY
Publisher and Contributing Writer
Featured Photograph: Some members of the Louisiana Press Association pictured in the St. Landry Parish Courthouse for a meeting of the association in May of 1888. (Carola Lillie Hartley Collection.)
Opelousas was important to the newspaper industry in Louisiana. Over its centuries of existence, so many newspapers opened and closed in the town, it was known as the “Graveyard of Newspapers.” During the 1880s, the town had two competing newspapers, the Opelousas Courier and the St. Landry Democrat. Both papers were members of the Louisiana Press Association. In 1888 that association voted to hold their state convention in Opelousas. The two rival papers came together and worked with the town to produce one of the best conventions the LPA ever held. It was a grand time not just for the newspaper groups, but for all of Opelousas, neighboring Washington and the entire surrounding area.
The Louisiana Press Comes to Town
Opelousas went through very dark times during and after the Civil War. By the late 1870s, things began to settle down and the old village started a new chapter in its history. New people arrived, new businesses opened, and the town grew as never before.
It wasn’t long before Opelousas had rail service, connecting the town to other areas of the outside world. Traveling became easier and more visitors arrived. Soon the news of the rebirth of Opelousas, it’s hospitality and beauty, began to spread. In 1882 the Opelousas Social Club was formed with a mission to plan and produce events and activities in town.
The Social Club invited people from other areas of the state and beyond to come to Opelousas. In 1888 the Louisiana Press Association accepted the invitation and voted to hold its 8th annual meeting in Opelousas. This generated a great deal of excitement in the town and for months before the meeting Opelousas was buzzing. Mayor J. C. Mornhinveg appointed an arrangements committee to work with the town and the Social Club on this great event.
Professor R. A. Mayer, the Opelousas Music Man, selected a choir and musicians and trained them for the performances at the meetings and socials. The groups practiced several times a week to insure a perfect performance. Hotels and cafes were readied, local citizens recruited to help host the overflow of visitors, and all other necessary arrangements made, including completing the plans for a reception and Grand Ball to be held for the visiting editors.
Since the official meeting was going to take place in the St. Landry Parish Courthouse, the courtrooms were prepared, and a committee organized to take care of decorations and logistics. After months of preparation, the calendar pages turned, and it was time for the much-anticipated meeting and social activities to begin.
Representatives of the Louisiana press arrived in Opelousas on the seven o’clock train of the Morgan Road Monday evening, April 30th. They were given what was describes as “a most royal welcome” by the citizens of Opelousas and St Landry Parish. More than two thousand waited at the station for the editors. The Opelousas Brass Band was on hand as the train pulled into the depot, striking up a lively tune, and continued to play some of its finest selections while the members of the press were being attended to by the reception committee. Each editor was given a decorative badge inscribed with “L. P. A. Opelousas, May 1st, 1888” plus, a card introducing them to the families who were opening their doors for them and their families. The brass band led all the visitors into town, and the festivities began.
The meetings of the association commenced Tuesday morning in the large, airy and beautifully decorated courtroom of the St. Landry Parish Court House that newspapers described as “seated in the center of a magnificent square, among large trees clad in the green garb of nature which softly fanned the delightful breeze filled with the perfumes of the sweet flowers of the town of fair Opelousas – the paradise of Louisiana.”
Meetings and social events continued all week with numerous speeches, music, entertainment and a grand ball. The week ended with a trip to neighboring Washington for a farewell picnic at Woodworth Springs, with over 2,000 people in attendance.
On Friday, the Louisiana newspaper editors and their families departed Opelousas with great memories of the week’s events. So much was written about this convention, all positive accounts of a great time in beautiful Opelousas reported in all Louisiana newspapers and those in other states.
Soon that special event in Opelousas became only a memory to those lucky enough to have experienced it. But something else happened because of that state meeting. It seems the town had more pride, and the old village awoke from its long slumber. The town grew and prospered as never before.
In the months following the convention, a new era began in Opelousas. In 1890, the property on the corner of Court and Landry streets (once part of the Eureka Hotel property) was purchased and a new federal courthouse and Post Office constructed. Also, during that time, citizens united in a call to have a public-school building for the town. In the winter of 1893, the St. Landry High School and graded school was established, opening on January 2, 1894.
Before long Opelousas had electricity, and streetlights in the downtown. The telephone arrived as well as the bicycle and the automobile. More businesses were established as more new people arrived. By the turn of the twentieth century, Opelousas was called one of the most progressive towns in the south.
When that LPA convention ended on May 4, 1888, Catharine Cole (Mrs. Martha R. Field), of the New Orleans Picayune, considered the great writer of the South who attended the convention, wrote this about her stay in Opelousas: “And now it is past midnight, and my stub pencil is giving out. All around me are sleeping editors. Out on the hotel gallery some men are reviewing the recent campaign. I look over those far green trees, in the gentle crest of a hill and think on that pretty town where our welcome was written in roses and where we learned how kind hearts can be and how good are the Louisiana people of the Opelousas country. The night is dewy and still with moonlight and starlight everywhere, and the moon looks down on no fairer town in all the state than that from which we have come away, and if those beautiful homes (in Opelousas) could be unroofed the gentle spirit of friendship, unaffected, sincere and kindly, would be disclosed by every hearth.”