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More to Morganza: Revitalization in action, breathing new life into a once-bustling town

https://countryroadsmagazine.com/travel/getaways/more-to-morganza/

BY ALEXANDRA KENNON AUGUST 24, 2020

Serio's Service Station, opened around a century ago, is still operated by second-generation owner Jack Serio.


Morganza has two things in clear abundance: sugar cane fields and railroad tracks. These are the things that stand out most prominently when driving through Morganza, as one does, as Natalie Thompson did for most of her life—until recently.


Growing up in Baton Rouge, when she’d pass the tiny town her family was from each year to celebrate Easter Sundays in Innis, her mother would point out Morganza landmarks as they drove by: “There’s Granny’s house,” “There’s the service station your great grandpa owned,” “There’s the church.” As a child, and even as a young adult, Thompson never gave much thought to the sleepy little highway town. After serving in the Air Force in the Korean Conflict and in the Philippines, her grandfather had moved to Baton Rouge, which is where she grew up and eventually started a family of her own. It wasn’t until she was engaged that she learned her now-husband’s family is from Morganza, too. “But I didn't really care,” Thompson said of the discovery. “I was twenty when I got married. I didn't give a crud about Morganza and ancestors.”


As her grandfather in Baton Rouge needed more assistance around the house, Thompson began spending more time with him, frequently hearing stories about their relatives and the “old days” in Morganza. “I just decided I had to go spend some time in this place that was so special to them and to my ancestors,” she said. About three years ago, Thompson told her mother she wanted to spend a day in Morganza. She listed off all of the places she wanted to visit: Melancon’s Café, where a seminal scene in Dennis Hopper’s cult classic filmEasy Riderwas shot; the Cedar Club, a dancehall her grandfather and great uncles frequented in the 1950s; St. Ann’s Catholic Church. She was disappointed to learn that most of the places she listed were closed, if not demolished. One business that remained open, though the gas pumps have since dried up, was Serio’s Service Station, which her great grandfather had opened around 1920, and her great uncles still run today. When Thompson and her mother Allison arrived at the station for a Thursday visit, a whole group of relatives greeted them with memories and glass-bottle Coca Colas. The history imbued into the small roadside building was, and is, absolutely palpable. “My grandpa and his brothers all worked at the station at some point in their lives—their dad built it, and there are so many stories there in that station,” Thompson recalled. “I could feel how special it was. I had a lump in my throat the whole visit.”

Brothers Eugene "Jack" and Vincent "Beaty" Serio in front of the service station their father opened around 1920.

Historic photographs and old car belts adorn the walls of Serio's Service Station. In the bottom left image, one of the Serio sisters works on a car during WWII, when women were called to do labor typically reserved for men at the time.


Since that initial visit, Thompson has been evangelical about the revitalization of Morganza, and returns to the little town every single Thursday. “This town could really be something,” she thought. “We could kind of bring it back to what it was like in the fifties and make it a little destination stop.” She has spearheaded a revitalization effort—starting with getting Morganza’s residents on board. They have since started a non-profit and applied to be a Louisiana State Cultural District, with the goal of providing momentum for people in Morganza to reopen businesses, or at least spruce up old buildings. “And it kind of worked,” Thompson said. “People started planting flowers, and saying 'I'm gonna fix up that old building that I own.' It just started happening.”


For one dollar a year, the Morganza Cultural District leases a vacant school building, built in the 1940s, where they hold their meetings and host events like town tailgates, Christmas parties, and even a festival. When she realized the Easy Rider connection to Melancon’s Cafe, she said, “We gotta get these bikers in here!” And that they did: last September, Morganza hosted a festival in honor of the fiftieth anniversary ofEasy Rider, which drew more than three thousand bikers and fans of the film from across the country.


The Easy Rider Festival is far from the only effort that has been made to revitalize Morganza. As someone who grew up across the Mississippi River in St. Francisville, I too have driven through Morganza more times than I can count. Recently, I took a cue from Thompson and decided to stop. I discovered a handful of creative, industrious, and inspired individuals who have restored buildings or businesses of their own, contributing to making Morganza once again a destination stop—only now fresher, more contemporary.


Leche House / HM Design

Three generations of women on the porch of a house with a storied history, ready to contribute their own. Left to right: Lisa Robillard, Hilary Meche, and Elise Meche.


Just across the railroad tracks from Serio’s Service Station is the Leche House: one of the oldest homes in Morganza, built between 1880 and 1908. Hilary Meche and her mother Lisa Robillard have always admired the house, but also recognized that restoring it would be a massive undertaking. “But I’ve always loved it,” Meche said. When the Leche House most recently went on the market, several people made offers, including some with the intent of tearing it down. Meche approached her mother, proposing that they first save the historical home, then utilize it as a hub for their respective businesses in interior design and party rentals: HM Design and LR Lagniappe Rentals. “We have all sorts of ideas,” Robillard said.

11.5' ceilings, original hardwood floors, and ample natural light make the Leche House a worthwhile "Fixer Upper".


As an interior designer, Meche typically tackles one aspect of the process at a time: the renovations are completed, the walls are painted, then come the furnishings and artwork. The Leche House was such a daunting undertaking, she and her mother decided to do things a bit more unconventionally. “When we first came, the excitement is what kept us going. But the house was so dirty, and so overwhelming once we started,” Meche said. There seemed to be an endless amount of cleaning. So, exhausted of that, Robillard suggested they “switch gears” and paint the smallest room in the house, off the back foyer. “It made no sense, but that’s just what we needed,” Meche said. “We put some paint on the walls, and [Robillard] hung a plant. Everything is falling apart, but we just have this plant and this painted little room. And still, it’s not done, but we do fresh flowers, we have some candles, we have some art hanging. We’ve just had to motivate ourselves that way … just to bring a little hope each day.”

“Small victories,” like a fresh coat of paint and artwork, make a daunting restoration more manageable.


Certain areas, like a center hallway and the second floor, still exist as evidence of the extreme “fixer-upper” nature of the building—but Meche and Robillard have carved out several oases via cool, earthy paint colors on the walls, artwork, potted plants, and window AC units. Birthday and Mother’s Day gifts to one another have consisted of milestones such as a new kitchen countertop, or a new sink. The features of the old home that inspired them to purchase it in the first place, like its eleven-and-a-half-foot ceilings, ample windows, and hardwood floors, still shine. Though the pandemic has slowed down certain parts of the restoration process, since closing on the house in April Meche and Robillard have made considerable progress toward not only saving the home, but converting it into a comfortable, timeless space that will perfectly suit the spirited, creative women and their businesses.


The Red Apron

The Red Apron, a catering business delivering plate lunches to farmers, sits in a historic bank building.


Though the iconic Melancon’s Cafe fromEasy Riderhas long been demolished, the Spillway Café remains a community staple, serving comfort food favorites like fried chicken, po-boys, and bread pudding. A more recent dining development is The Red Apron—a catering company whose primary business is delivering plate lunches to farmers, situated cutely in a building that long-ago housed one of Morganza’s two banks. The menu, which is sent out early in the morning so orders can be placed before the farm deliveries, includes a plate lunch special, salad of the day, and burger of the day. Thompson swears by the daily salads with homemade dressing, in particular.


Salon 694

Erika Wright and Lindsey Bizette in front of Salon 694, formerly Rudy Burke’s Barber Shop.


Lindsey Bizette and Erika Wright have been friends “forever”. The pair never had the opportunity to work together, however, until Bizette decided to move to Morganza from the comparative metropolis of New Roads. There, Rudy Burke’s Barber Shop, where Rudy Burke did predominantly men’s haircuts and shaves for sixty-five years, had finally closed, providing the perfect space for Bizette to open a modern hair salon and work with her life-long friend Wright.

At Salon 694, which opened last September and is named for the phone prefix for Morganza, Bizette and Wright offer cuts, color, and makeup services—quite a different business model than the former old-school barber shop, though Bizette said she’s never done more men’s cuts in her life. Salon 694 draws clients from all over Point Coupee Parish and beyond. Burke, who cut hair in the building for sixty-five years, even goes to Salon 694 to get his hair cut these days—though more contemporary styling for women’s hair makes up most of their business.


The Cedar Saloon

Shane Shows, Co-Owner of The Cedar Saloon, in front of the stage where live music will one day resume.


Built in 1947 by the son of Sicilian immigrants Frank Sansone, many of the older folks who grew up in Morganza and the surrounding towns have fond memories of what was, back then, called The Cedar Club. Jack Serio, Sansone’s cousin and Thompson’s great uncle—who owns the service station down the road—remembers serving beer there at age sixteen. Not much, if any, ID checking went on at the time. When Serio finished serving in WWII, he took Ann, his future wife of sixty-five years, dancing there on weekends. The dance hall was at one point the social epicenter of Point Coupee.

From left to right: Ezra Richard, Josie Serio, and Annie Serio sit in the doorway of the unfinished Cedar Club in 1947, eagerly awaiting the many weekend nights they will spend dancing in the building when complete.


In 1992 the building was leased and later purchased by Donnie “Bear” Derbes, who changed the name to The Bear’s Den and ran it as a dive bar until 2016. Current owners Mark Allement, a cattle farmer, and Shane Shows, a consultant who used to work in oil fields and on pipelines, had the intent to renovate the space and reopen it as a live music venue, as it once was. On New Year’s Eve 2019, they did just that, and they hope that when gatherings are able to resume The Cedar Saloon will once again provide an outlet for live music, dancing, and general revelry to the community.

The interior of the remodeled Cedar Saloon, with extended cedar bar.


“We’ve had eighty-year-old people come in here and take their shoes off and get out and dance,” Shows said. There’s a considerable crowd of younger people who frequented the saloon once it reopened, as well. “I don't know what it is, we don't have a crystal ball,” Shows said. “But it's just the environment, everybody feels comfortable here.” On New Year’s Eve, Jack and Ann Serio came back with their niece Natalie Thompson and danced, just as they did as teenagers decades ago.

Co-Owner Shane Shows at the cedar bar at the Cedar Saloon.


Unfortunately COVID-19 has cleared the saloon’s schedule for the foreseeable future, but the goal is to eventually have a live band every Saturday night again. “We're happy to be here and they're happy to have us, I can tell you,” Shows said. He hopes that once they reopen, the live music at the saloon will continue for many years to come. “I could see myself an old man sitting in the corner, smoking a cigar and shaking everybody’s hand.”


Find HM Design and Salon 694 on Facebook.

The Red Apron: (225) 718-3104

thecedarsaloon.com

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