1834 ledger: A glimpse of Franklin from long ago
Some 185 years ago, an unassuming ledger of transactions in a small Louisiana community called Franklin served as a chronicle of its people and their lives.
From its rediscovery sometime in the 1990s until today, this 1834, deteriorated, roach-eaten ledger has captured the wonder and imagination of those who have seen it, most especially Larry Bodin of Franklin.
“At first glance, without reading it, one would toss it in the trash can,” Bodin said. “If I recollect correctly it was in the 90’s that the ledger was removed by Dan Darden from the old Western Auto building.”
Darden was using the building to keep second hand furniture, Bodin said, though it was still owned by the Broussard family at that time, after the Western Auto closed in the mid-1980s.
“It was later bought by the Wiltz family and restored,” Bodin said. “Dan kept the book for a while and then eventually gave it to me. I already knew he had it, so it would not have been lost, he knew I was interested in preserving it. Before the store was Western Auto it belonged to the Delahoussaye family. I had always heard it was two brothers, but have never confirmed that fact.”
As evidenced by the photos, the ledger was in deplorable condition, but Bodin was undaunted. “I was able to make about six whole sheets from the back quarter of the book and save them,” he said. “The front top hole is very deep so all of those sheets were not usable for copies. I would suspect those were caused by roaches. I am very careful not to move it too often because the pages are very fragile.”
Bodin believes that in 1834 the structure that is now The Lamp Post was a general merchandise store selling thread, ribbon, material, brogans (shoes), stockings, suspenders, slippers, wool hats, frock coats, whiskey, wine, brandy, tobacco, flour, nails, paint brushes, coffee pots, buttons and ammunition, all of which and more were listed in the ledger’s fragile pages. The proprietor(s) even advanced cash on accounts.
“When Dan Darden found the ledger in the store, his first thought was that there might be an Indian chief listed in it,” Bodin said. “I don’t think so. First of all, no Indian chief would have been at that store in 1834. They would have had to have known either English or French or have an interpreter. I don’t think they would have ventured too far from the (Chitimacha) reservation and they did not have too much need for what was sold there. They were fishing. Dan kept the ledger for about a year then he finally gave it to me when he could not find a chief in it. I was familiar with most of the names of those who were buying.”
Franklin in the 19th century was quite a different place, of course. Though unrelated to the ledger, a statement dated May 31, 1899, to “CF Kramer, Tutor, Dr., Funeral Director, Livery and Sale Stable” demonstrates just how different:
“Establishments did not have a street number until 1927 when home mail delivery began,” Bodin explained. “The stable was located where the Teche Theater is now. I know the stable was in existence in 1914. Early on there were no funeral homes. People were laid out in the home and there was no embalming. I do not know to what extent the (business) played, if they dug the grave, and furnished a casket, etc. They probably furnished the hearse. A livery stable had to be well-established to be able to furnish those services. I did see where a stable in Baldwin offered that service.”
The cityscape we see today bears little resemblance to what Franklinites would have gazed upon in the 19th century, he said.
“Stop and think, which street besides Main Street has a boulevard?” he said, referring the Martin Luther King Boulevard. “That street had to be important earlier on. Everything near the courthouse square and Bayou Teche were very important.”
Bodin went on, “Hotels did not have bath accommodations then, so when salesmen (drummers) came to town they would go to a barber shop for a bath and shave. After that they would go to the livery stable and rent a horse and buggy to call on customers. My grandfather was a barber, I saw some of his earlier advertisements offering a bath…it was all on Willow Street.”
The legible parts of the ledger read like a Who’s Who of Franklin: William Palfrey, James Theall, W.B. Lewis, John Caffery, Donelson Caffery, Henry Foot, Joshua Baker, Brice Elloit, Wilson M. Mckearell, David Weeks, O. D. Langstaff, David Bell, John B. Murphy, W. S. Harding, H. D. Richardson, William Stirling, Judge Porter, Benifs Brashear, Dr. Allen (dentist), Peyton Smith, Dr. James Smith, William Parker, John D. Millerny, Charles Gravemberg, P. A. Vandorn Plantation, John Millet, James Hale, Jarard Y. Sanders, Mattew Nimmno, Michael Gordy, George Haydell, John Carson, O. D. Langstaff, Thonmas Wallace, Desire Carlin, Marshall Solonge, John Hartman.
Attorney Paul J. Breaux, a Franklin native, produced a detailed history of this city titled “A Five-Arpent Stretch at 1819 on the West Bank of Bayou Teche, Franklin,” based upon the works of James Cathcart and John Landreth. Breaux’s document is extraordinarily detailed and deeply researched, and thus reveals certain points and aspects of Franklin.
For instance, Breaux writes, “The site of Franklin at January 1819 contained 15 to 20 houses and some 120 to 150 inhabitants,” according to one source, while another notes “the number of residences at 12 or 13, calling them ‘dwelling houses’ and describing them as being ‘generally indifferent’ in appearance.”
A courthouse that also served as a school and for church services was noted, along with a tavern and a jail.
“The town as then situated was found to be five arpents in linear measure on and along the west bank of Bayou Teche,” Breaux wrote. “An arpent being 190 feet, Franklin proper at the time was thus some 950 feet in length from one end of the settlement to the other.”
When applying existing markers, Breaux estimates that the northernmost end of Franklin in January, 1819 was where Teche Drive and Adams Street meet, and to the south, at Teche Drive and Martin Luther King Boulevard.
“One should not be inclined to dismiss the importance of the role played by this place named Franklin or the significance of the influence it had exerted by that time on the political/governmental affairs and economic development of the lower Teche and even beyond,” Breaux wrote.
“The earliest instance of the word ‘Franklin’ being used in a public record to identify a specific place—that place some 30 miles by its courses above Berwick Bay at which Bayou Teche turns from a westerly track to a south and then southeasterly track on its meander to the Atchafalaya River—is the May 1815 sale document,” for land between local residents. It was not until 1820 that the state legislature officially designated the town as Franklin, and incorporated in 1830.
Victor Hugo once asked, “What is history? An echo of the past in the future; a reflex from the future on the past.”
And perhaps a nearly 200-year-old, fragile and yet magical ledger from a settlement that would eventually become home to thousands, can indeed reach us through an echo of voices long gone.