Two decades in the making, the Bayou Teche Museum opens its doors in New Iberia.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010
Written by Mary Tutwiler
Photos by Robin May

20100707-livingind-0101Time seems to stand still under the oaks that line Bayou Teche. Change, when it comes, comes slowly. That suspension of modernization is part of the legacy of the people who chose to live along the bayou, the twisting water snake the Chitimacha tribe called “Teche,” the word for serpent in its language.

Perhaps 18 years is but the blink of an eye in a history that can be traced back 7,000 years, when the nomadic Paleo-Indians who crossed the Bering Straits into North America settled in Louisiana. But 18 years can seem like an eternity for active historians and museum board members anxious to preserve the history of their town in a permanent place.

The Bayou Teche Museum, which opens on July 10, is the fulfilment of that 18-year mission, presenting over two centuries of history, culture and environment of the residents of Iberia Parish.

Two of the original board members, siblings Paul Schexnayder and Becky Schexnayder Owens were working on finalizing exhibits in the days before the museum opens its doors to the public. “It’s been like a long childbirth,” says Schexnayder, a local artist. “We’ve just come through the labor part, and now finally the baby is arriving.”

“Eighteen years,” adds Owens, “that’s a passionate obsession. It has to be to see it through.”

Over the decades, the board tussled with all sorts of obstacles, from losing its first choice of building, the old Teche Wholesale warehouse next to Bouligny Plaza, to the forces of time and wind, which rotted the roof and tumbled some of the building’s walls, and to the usual struggle for funding. Frustration ran high. Even Owens lost hope at times. “I tried to submit my resignation,” she says, “but Mr. Smitty [then board president attorney Smitty Landry] wouldn’t accept it. He wouldn’t even open the envelope.”

Next week, the building that was once New Iberia’s notorious Sports Center, a dilapidated bar and down-low bourré parlor, will show the town a new face. The exterior, which had a rundown Deco flair, has been entirely renovated to look back in time to the 1890s. Inside, cypress beams frame a hallway that leads into the exhibits.

Owens particularly loves the Boutte dance hall display. Mrs. Octave “Gugueche” Boutte ran a Saturday night dance hall in New Iberia in the late

20100707-livingind-0102
       Becky Schexnayder Owens and Paul Schexnayder

1860s. Owens, a cultural anthropologist who did much of the historical research for the museum, found that the bandstand at Boutte’s was in actuality a four poster canopy bed. The mattress was replaced by wooden boards and provided a place for the accordion player and fiddler to entertain the crowd. As refreshments, Mrs. Boutte served gumbo, coffee and the refined French liquorice-flavored cordial, anisette.

Museum director Tasha Dugas is partial to the moonshine exhibit. A year ago her sister’s neighbors at Lake Peigneur got in contact with her. The scion of the family, Bernard “Blue” Alleman, was a famous moonshiner, taught in turn by his grandfather, Bernard Bourque. Last summer, Alleman was getting ready to make a batch of moonshine — the sugar already weighed, 100 pounds of peaches cut up and ready to go. Alleman passed away before he could fire up the still. “The family was raw with emotion,” says Dugas. They donated the entire set up — the kettle, coil, burner and barrels. “Last week, Tony Alleman [Bernard’s son] saw the exhibit and burst into tears. But he’s not the only one,” continues Dugas. “Everybody who comes in here cries.”

The culmination of 18 years of labor is really only the beginning for the Bayou Teche Museum. Operations are entirely privately funded. Owens is still working on the section of the museum that will address the industries of Iberia Parish: sugar, salt, oil and food.
Meanwhile, residents of the Queen City enthusiastically offer their services as docents, and both the valuable and the strange array of items that make up the past of any town continue to pour in the doors.

“I wish I could count the number of people who have been on the board, who have volunteered or helped us over the 18 years,” says Schexnadyer.

The Bayou Teche Museum will host a grand opening on Saturday, July 10, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Normal hours are Thursday - Saturday, 10 a.m.- 4 p.m., or by appointment. The museum is located at 131 E. Main St., New Iberia. Call 606-5977 for more information, or check out the museum’s website at bayoutechemuseum.org.

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