200 years after its founding, Covington retains its small-town charm

Covington “is a pleasant nonplace,” resident Walker Percy once wrote.

The words may appear disparaging, but Percy was praising his adopted hometown — he bought a house in Covington the week after first visiting. The same features of Covington that attracted the award-winning author — Covington’s small-town feel, easy going manner and simplicity — are cited by long-time residents as the city’s crowning virtues, and qualities that they hope to maintain in spite of the explosive growth around them.

This week, residents are taking time out to celebrate Covington’s 200-year history with seminars, reminisces, parades, a documentary premier and gala and other events, all commemorating the city’s founding on July 4, 1813.

Throughout the past two centuries, Covington has been economically dependent on moving goods and people between itself and New Orleans: first by boat, then by train and now by auto.

Through it all, however, its residents have worked to maintain Covington’s small-town feel.

Covington was founded by John Wharton Collins, who laid out the town’s grid pattern on land he bought.

Collins named the town Wharton after relatives, but it was soon changed to Covington. The reason for the change is unclear.

From the start, Covington acted as a trading post on the Bogue Falaya River, sending boats loaded with cargo from nearby plantations down the river to Lake Pontchartrain and across to New Orleans.

That method of trade persisted for much of the city’s first century, and its remnants remain in the city today, most notably in the Columbia Street shop, H.J. Smiths and Sons.

Today, the shop is being run by three of H.J. Smith’s great-grandsons.

“The store was founded on July 4, 1876,” Larry Smith said.

In the store’s early days, Larry Smith’s grandfather, John Lewis Smith, would buy cotton from farmers as far away as Monticello, Miss. Then he held it until the price in New Orleans was right, Larry Smith said.

“He would load it on schooners at the Columbia Street landing and send it down the Bogue Falaya to the Tchefuncte to Lake Pontchartrain to New Orleans,” Smith said.

Smith’s grandfather moved as much as 50,000 bales of cotton every year, Larry Smith said.

By the early decades of the 20th century, however, the mode of transit between New Orleans and Covington had changed.

“We used to have a passenger train that came into Covington,” lifetime resident Ralph Menetre Jr. said. Menetre was born in 1928 and with the exception of his time at LSU, has lived in Covington his entire life. He recalled the train fondly.

“We caught it at the trailhead and it took a couple of hours to get there,” he said.

Trips to New Orleans were infrequent.

“Just as general practice, there was no reason to go to New Orleans unless for a special type thing. Maybe some years, we didn’t go at all,” he said.

Despite the economic tough times, Menetre — whose uncle Emile was one of the town’s mayors — recalled the Covington of his youth as a good place to live.

“It was just a different time,” he said. “We knew everybody, all of our stores and businesses were run by local people — you could get what you wanted and visit with the people there.”

Menetre also recalled the city’s 150th anniversary celebration, held in 1963. By then the first span of the Causeway had opened — the second would open in 1969 — and the town was already starting to feel the effects.

Menetre said the growth brought by the Causeway was both good and bad for the city.

He lamented in the extra traffic brought by growth and the overcrowding in the parish’s schools — where he worked for 39 years.

But, he said, the Causeway made the amenities of New Orleans available to residents on the North Shore and opened up a more relaxed way of life to New Orleanians looking to escape.

“We have a lot of good citizens that have come over and been a part of Covington, which has been a plus,” he said. “We have all kinds of things that we never had in a sleepy town.”

One of the early escapees was Hank Miltenberger’s father.

“As soon as the Causeway opened, my dad bought a house right across the Bogue Falaya from the city limits,” Miltenberger said. “When we moved here in 1955-56... it was a neat old country town.”

Miltenberger recalled a bear being shot in the Pearl River swamp and its carcass being hung from the courthouse.

“People raised goats and chickens in town,” he said.

Despite growing up a generation after Menetre, Miltenberger described the Covington of his youth in much the same terms.

“It was a great place to grow up,” he said. “It was very safe, with good solid people.”

During the summers, Miltenberger said he “never wore shoes, except for baseball and to go to church.”

But Miltenberger decried the segregated environment of his upbringing.

“It had things I didn’t like,” he said. “It made me uncomfortable that there was another door for blacks.

“I thought I would be angry if I was being treated like that,” he said. When integration happened, “Covington changed pretty quickly,” he said.

Ellis “Butch” Badon, a former journalist who covered the North Shore for 25 years, grew up in Slidell, but has family connections to Covington — two Badon brothers married the sisters of John Wharton Collins.

“It’s an interesting place,” he said of Covington. “It was a sleepy little town back in the early parts of the 1900s, and through the 50s and 60s it remained a very slow town,” Badon said.

That explosive growth has been felt all along the North Shore, Badon said but Covington has managed to keep its essential character.

“It’s maintained that small town charm,” he said. “What you see in Covington today is pretty much what was there in the 1950s.”

That charm was cited by Ron Yager, the executive producer of the documentary “Covington: A 200 Year Journey,” which features archival photographs, video and interviews with longtime residents.

The 60-minute film was shown at a premier gala Thursday night as part of the bicentennial celebration.

“It’s a small community that not a lot of people know about,” he said. “It has the charm of an old city, but is modern in many ways.”

Yager, who has lived on the North Shore for 20 years, admitted he didn’t know much about Covington when he started on the project.

“I just think it’s a great community,” he said.

That’s the idea that Percy praised in his essay, which was titled “Why I Live Where I Live.”

“The best of both worlds: a small southern town, yet one can live as one pleases. There are all manner of folk here—even a writer can make good friends—indeed an unusual and felicitous mix of types,” he wrote.

Percy concluded by saying that Covington may not be a “place,” but it’s a good one:

“The best thing about Covington is that it is in a certain sense out of place and time but not too far out,” he wrote.”Here is one place in the South where a writer can live as happily as a bug in a crack in the sidewalk.”