History of Lafayette

Ever wonder why some towns are bigger than others? Why some grow like a weed and others die on the vine? In some cases it's just a matter of happenstance, but in most cases it's the result of a tiny few who had a vision and worked hard to make it a reality.

And in the case of Lafayette, that tiny few made a big difference.

The first Europeans arrived in what is now Lafayette in 1770's to take possession of land grants awarded by the king of Spain.

But, it would be a French speaking Acadian some 50 years later that would be responsible for transforming vast cotton plantations of that time into something far greater.

“Jean Mouton started out as a former and then began a thriving land speculation business by buying up land, developing the land and eventually creating the sight the town of Lafayette would develop on.” said Dr. Michael Martin.

Dr. Michael Martin, the director for the Center for Louisiana Studies at UL Lafayette, says part of Moutons plan involved donating land for the construction of a church because mouton was shrewd enough to know that when you have a religious structure, development come around it. And that's exactly what happened.

“He also has a surveyor come in and map out the land, so we are talking about the street grid from about where St. John's Cathedral is, roughly to Jefferson Street. From about where Convent Street is over to roughly Vermilion, that kind of square.” said Martin.

A couple of years, in 1821, Mouton's development was named Vermilionville. And today St. Johns Cathedral stands in the very same spot as the first church did.

For the next 60 years the citizens of Vermilionville rely on the agricultural industry.

That is until 1880.

The arrival of the railroad changes everything and four years later Vermilionville is renamed Lafayette in honor of the French general who helped the United States secure victory in the Revolutionary War.

But, the railroad also brings with it another name, the Hub City.

“It creates Lafayette even before oil as a kind of hub city because you get the railroad coming from New Orleans. You have a spur going to Baton Rouge. You have a line going up through Opelousas to Arkansas. You have a line going to Houston and they all come together right here in Lafayette.” said Martin.

If you spend any time in Lafayette you are probably familiar with this old brick building located directly across the street from the parish courthouse. It was first built in 1898. A lot of people know it as the first city hall, but that wasn't what it was originally built for. It was originally built for a bank by a gentleman by the name of George Knapp. George, believe it or not, was a self-taught architect who learned his trade through correspondence courses.

In 1900 the establishment of the South Louisiana Industrial Institute , today known as UL Lafayette, was another enormous step forward for the city.

But it was the arrival of the oil industry in 1950 and the efforts of one man who helped to transform Lafayette into what it is today.

“That development we can pretty much lay at the feet of one man, Maurice Heymann and his foresight to creating what we now call the Oil Center, on his former orchard land.” said Martin.

It was no cake walk.

Lake Charles and New Iberia were also doing their best to lure the oil companies into their communities.

But Heymann new just how valuable this opportunity was so he offered them the Oil Center at a price that was impossible to refuse. That was in 1952 and since then that deal has paid for itself more than a thousand fold.

Heymann went on to amass a huge fortune in real estate and was said to be the first man in Lafayette with an air conditioned house.

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