200th anniversary of statehood

By James Ronald Skains
Journal Correspondent

On Monday, April 30, 2012, when Louisiana marks the 200th anniversary of its admission to statehood in the United States of America, part of the tribute will be directed to Julien Poydras of Pointe Coupee parish, who was the second delegate from the territory of Orleans to serve in Congress.

During his two years in Congress, 1809 to 1811, he laid the ground work for Louisiana to become a state on April 30, 1812. There was considerable opposition to Louisiana statehood in the early 1800's. However, Poydras was successful in lobbying both Presidents Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and the US Congress on behalf of Louisiana statehood.

"Poydras served as Chairman of the First Constitutional Convention in Louisiana," said Randy Harelson, President of the Pointe Coupee Historical Society. "He was also a close political ally of the first Governor of Louisiana, W.C.C. Claiborne."

"The Pointe Coupee Historical Society has decided to produce a play honoring Julien Poydras as the founding father of Louisiana during the Bi-Centennial year of Louisiana Statehood," Angelique Bergeron Gardner, the Director of the Pointe Coupee Historical Society and Museum said "We will begin our performances in April of this year."

"Phil Boudreaux, one of our Board members came up with the idea for our play featuring Julien Poydras," Gardner confirmed. "We hired a playwright, Mark Leonard, to write the Julien Poydras play, titled Poydras: 1812 Overtures."

"It will open at the Poydras Museum April 25-28," Gardner pointed out. "The play will also be presented in Baton Rouge on April 29th and in West Baton Rouge Parish on May 6th."

"The lead actor is Danny Ladmirault, a professional actor on the cable TV Show, "Treme." Gardner noted. "Danny now lives in New Iberia and is a distant direct descendent of Julien Poydras' first cousin, Benjamin Poydras."

The Julien Poydras School and monument sits directly across the street from False River which was created when the mighty Mississippi River changed its course a few centuries ago. There was no town of New Roads until a new road was built from the Mississippi River to the plantation homes on False River. So, the mostly French speaking people of the area decided to simply name the village that sprang up around the intersection of the road and False River, New Roads.

"Julien Poydras was a very unique individual, statesman, politician, poet, and plantation owner. However, he will probably be remembered most for his philanthropy," Harelson added.

"Poydras was really focused on education and started the first public schools in Louisiana right here in Pointe Coupee Parish," Harelson pointed out. "In fact, the Julien Poydras Museum and Arts Center is located in the old Julien Poydras High School which was named in his honor when it was built in 1924."

Poydras lived in what is now Pointe Coupee Parish in a plantation home on the "Pointe Coupee Coast." Although living in Pointe Coupee Parish, much of his business was centered in New Orleans. Poydras Street, in downtown New Orleans on which the Super Dome is now located as well as the Central Business District (CBD), was named in honor of Julien Poydras.

For many years, at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century, Poydras was the wealthiest man not only in New Orleans but in Louisiana.

Poydras was born in Rezi', near Nantes, Brittany, France on April 3, 1746, and arrived in New Orleans in 1868 by an unplanned journey. He served in the French Navy, and was captured by the British and taken to England. He escaped on board a West Indian merchant ship bound for Sainte Domingue. Poydras then immigrated to New Orleans in 1768, arriving virtually penniless, with only a pack on his back. He soon began his successful business career buying his first plantation in Pointe Coupee Parish in 1775.

"Poydras set up several financial trusts for philanthropy, some of which are still in existence today," Harelson added. "The Poydras Home was originally set up for orphans and later as an asylum for mental patients, but now operates as a home for elderly Alzheimer's patients.

"Some of these trusts still own property in the Central Business District of New Orleans from which they receive lease payments," Harelson explained. "Poydras is also given credit for founding the Charity Hospital in New Orleans."

Poydras High School in New Roads closed in 1983 after 59 years of classes. The school building was purchased in 1992 by the Pointe Coupee Historical Society.

"The purchase of the old high school and the establishment of the Julien Poydras Museum can be credited to one outstanding lady, Gail Roberts," Gardner explained to the Journal. "Mrs. Robert believed so strongly that the old high school should be turned into a museum in honor of Julien Poydras, that she began the fundraising to buy the property by holding spaghetti dinners on the school grounds."

"My grandmother, Pat Laurent, was one of Mrs. Robert's first supporters for the Museum," Gardner added. "The Historical Society was eventually able to buy the property for $5,000 in 1992."

"The major reason that the Historical Society was able to buy the property so cheap was that Julien Poydras was buried on the school grounds," Gardner elaborated on the details of the purchase. "Several developers wanted the property, but the big question was what to do with Julien Poydras' tomb and monument."

"So, it all worked out as it should have," Gardner, whose Ph.D from LSU is in French Studies emphasized. "The old Julien Poydras High School on whose grounds Julien Poydras was buried became the Julien Poydras Museum and Arts Center."

"William Mumford Haile, Jr. was our first major Museum donor, so we named our theater in his honor," Gardner added. "We have regularly scheduled events at the Haile Theater."

"The last Friday night of each month we have film series featuring movies made in Louisiana," Gardner said. "We also have two Pelican Chamber Music Concerts on tap, one on March 18, at 3 PM. The musicians are mostly professors from various colleges and universities here in Louisiana.

Julien Poydras died at his home in Pointe Coupee Parish on June 14, 1824 at the age of 78, two years before his friend, former President Thomas Jefferson died at age 83. Another contemporary of Julien Poydras, and the President of the United States at the time Louisiana was added as the 18th state, James Madison, outlived Poydras by 12 years dying in 1836 at age 85.

Madison took office succeeding Jefferson just eight weeks before Louisiana officially became a State. The major issue that Julien Poydras had to deal with in Louisiana becoming a state was the distrust of Anglo-Americans in the northeastern states of the French descendants who made up the majority of the residents of Louisiana in the early 1800's. A second factor was the major slave rebellions in Louisiana inspired by recent immigrants from the eastern Caribbean Islands. Thirdly was the major effort of Aaron Burr, former Vice-President of the United States, to form a new country out of the Louisiana Purchase with Burr as its leader.

The newspaper obituary for Julien Poydras dated on the 25th of June, 1824 read as follows:

"Mr. P was a man of very large fortune and magnificent disposition. He was the first delegate in Congress, from the territory of Orleans. The act, which no doubt will do most honor to his memory, is the foundation of Female Orphan Asylum, to which he devoted L100, 000.

Long after many celebrated names shall have been sunk in oblivion, the name of Julien Poydras will be remembered by the innocent creatures that, by his wise providence and humanity, shall have been sheltered against misfortune and danger which result from misery, for a weak and defenseless sex. By his will he left for a college in Pointe Coupee, $20,000.

For marriage portions to poor girls of said parish, he left $30,000. To each of his god-sons and goddaughters, he left $5,000. For marriage portions to poor girls of the parish of West Baton Rouge, he left $30,000. To the Charity Hospital of New Orleans, he left his house on the Levee, between St. Louis and Cenli streets, and his house on Bourbon street. Also, to the Poydras Female Asylum, all his houses on Poydras street, and houses on the Batture, he leaves. The remainder of his fortune goes to his family with the exception of some legacies to his friends."

"We have so many exciting things going on here at the Julien Poydras Museum,'' Harelson pointed out. "In addition to our Film Nights and Chamber Music Matinees, many other organizations are beginning to make use of our facilities such as the Mardi Gras Krewes, High School Proms, Lecture Series, and the Pointe Coupee Farm Bureau.''

"We were the location for Mayor Robert Myers' inauguration, and one of the host sites for the first "Harvest Festival last September," Harelson said. "In addition the Historical Society has a new book coming out in September titled "New Roads and Old Rivers," an LSU Press publication.''

Randy Harelson is the author of "New Roads and Old Rivers." Brian Costello is the consulting historian and Richard Sexton is the photographer.

The Pointe Coupee Historical Society was recognized in 2011 by the Louisiana Trust for Historic Louisiana Association for its work in saving Poydras High School and through adaptive reuse, returning it to the community.