[caption id="attachment_2593" align="alignnone" width="600"] Photo courtesy of Ray Pellerin.[/caption]
St. Martin Parish, personified: Ray Pellerin
If you want to get to grips with Breaux Bridge past and present, take a seat opposite lifelong resident Ray Pellerin.
His people have been in Louisiana since 1718, when a direct-from-France ancestor named Louis Pellerin received a Spanish land grant, near Leonville up Bayou Teche. But it was Ray’s mother’s people, exiled from Nova Scotia by the British during Le Grand Derangement, which began in 1755, who he credits for his Cajun bona fides, and his Breaux Bridge roots, too.
“Unlike St. Martinville, which was French, Breaux Bridge was almost pure Cajun because it was settled by people from Nova Scotia,” says Ray. “In 1799, a man named Firmin Breaux built a footbridge to cross Bayou Teche. So when people needed to get to the other side, they would say, ‘Allons a Pont Breaux’ or, ‘Let’s go to Breaux’s Bridge.’”
Ray will tell you how Firmin’s son, Agricole, built the first bridge for wagons and buggies to cross, and created a nice business charging them twenty-five cents to do so. When Agricole died young, his wife, Scholastique Picou Breaux, took over the bridge business. Scholastique was a savvy entrepreneur, eventually laying out a plan for a village that spanned both sides of the bayou, joined by the bridge that bore her family’s name.
“St. Martin has the story of Evangeline, who is mythical. But Scholastique was the real deal,” Ray says. “Go visit the bronze statue of Scholastique Picou Breaux in Veteran’s Park today. I challenge you to find more than a couple of cities in the United States that were founded by a woman.”
Ray might not be a Breaux, but the Pellerin name has been part of Breaux Bridge almost as long. On Bridge Street, look up and you’ll spot the Pellerin name on the old building that is now home to Café Sydnie Mae. Ray explains that in the late nineteenth century, his grandfather, Frank Pellerin, owned a furniture store here. They built the furniture upstairs and sold it downstairs, using the elevator still visible to visitors of Café Sydnie Mae when they step into the restaurant today.
“As a kid I would help my grandfather with the furniture,” Ray remembers. “In 1940 he bought a Chevy half-ton pickup truck to make deliveries. When he died in 1954, that truck was sold to an auto mechanic named Mr. Cliff. For the next thirty years, every time I saw him I’d say to him ‘Mr. Cliff, when are you going to sell me my truck?’ One day Mr. Cliff says ‘Come meet us at the house.’ He sold it to me, and now my great-grandchildren get to ride in their great, great grandfather’s truck.”
"The Crawfish Capital of the World"
If folks know just one thing about Breaux Bridge, it’s probably the Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival. And even after sixty years, Ray is still proud of what the festival has done not only for his hometown, but for Louisiana, too.
“Most people don’t know this, but in 1960, when the Crawfish Festival started, there were five places in Louisiana processing crawfish,” he says. “By 1992, there were 160. The festival is the publicity arm for the crawfish industry, and now we’re selling crawfish all over the world.”
(Though the three-day fest took a pause this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, mark your calendar for next year's musical mudbug celebration: April 30-May 2, 2021).
After a sixty-year career running a funeral home that serves the whole of St. Martin, Ray might know the differing character of the parish’s people and places better than anyone. When asked to describe the kind of person Breaux Bridge would be, Ray says “Hard-working and fun-loving. They’ll tell you what they think, whether it’s right or wrong. They’re accepting and welcoming, but don’t cross ‘em! You better tell them the truth, because if they catch you in a lie, you’re history!”
Things To Do in Breaux Bridge:
Dance Saturday Away at Buck & Johnny’s Zydeco Breakfast. The best way to start a Saturday in Cajun Country is at Buck & Johnny's, taking to the dance floor bright and early with a Bloody Mary in hand. They don't call it world-famous for nothing! To learn more about the beloved local tradition, click here.
Walk in the footsteps of the early Acadians at one of Breaux Bridge's historic B&B's. The oldest historical building still standing in St. Martin happens to be Au Bayou Teche Bed and Breakfast, a beautiful restored home that dates back to the early 1800s in downtown Breaux Bridge. A few blocks away you'll find Josephine’s House, a picturesque property more than a century old.
Visit Teche Center for the Arts. Established in 2014, TCA is the primary hub for the visual and performing arts in Breaux Bridge, and in its newly renovated building on Bridge Street you'll find gallery exhibitions, workshops, and more. Read the story of the community-wide effort to create the town's first cultural center here.