City Hall proclamation precedes celebratory events
Gretna will mark its 100th anniversary Tuesday on the steps of City Hall with an official proclamation and an actor playing its first mayor, John Ehret, as part of a series of special events running throughout the fall.
But it was the talk he was scheduled to give this weekend about his nearly century-old hardware store that had Ken Donewar chuckling Thursday about his moment of celebrity.
“I’ve been taking some notes,” he said, surrounded by tools and fittings in his Lafayette Street shop. “We’ll see ... I’m sure that some of the people who show up will be people I’ve known for a number of years. Gretna’s a small town, you know.”
Neeb’s Hardware store is a local institution, one of many that will be celebrated in the coming months. The city’s preservation of its history and a renewed interest in the character of its downtown have Gretna upbeat as it approaches its centennial.
“It’s something to be proud of,” Donewar said. “Over the last few years, there have been more people — younger people, I guess — moving into Gretna, renovating some of the older homes, especially in this area.”
Belinda Constant, Gretna’s new mayor, recalled renovating her home on Huey P. Long Avenue in 2000.
“My house was the only one that was occupied on my block,” she said. “Now, if you drive up and down Huey P, you would think it was always this way, but the amount of revitalization that has happened in this city in the last eight or nine years is incredible.”
Events like the weekly farmers market and the art walk have helped make downtown relevant beyond its 9-to-5 life as a government hub.
“We’ve begun to embrace the great things about our city,” she said. “We have really concentrated on bringing back the culture and embracing our historic places.”
The city’s Centennial Celebration, which will include the popular Gretna Heritage Festival in October, will celebrate its notable citizens, who include baseball hall-of-famer Mel Ott, Roman Catholic Bishop Stanley Joseph Ott and musicians Emmett Hardy, Frankie Ford and Joe Clay.
Though it was incorporated in 1913, Gretna’s roots actually go back to 1836, when it was a settlement called Mechanicham.
Historian Mary Curry, who has written one book on Gretna and is working on another, said there is some debate over how the community was first settled, and whether it was St. Mary’s Market Steam Ferry Company or the Destrehan family that played a larger role in selling the first lots.
“I don’t get involved in that,” she said of the dispute.
It became the Jefferson Parish seat in 1884, giving the city the political DNA it retains today.
“It’s very involved with the political scene and it’s been that way since 1884,” she said.
Curry, who is the great granddaughter of Ehret, said Gretna’s first burst of development went from 1860 to 1930, and was fueled by heavy industry, rail and the river. It’s second, during the postwar period, was led by the development of the oil industry, particularly along the Harvey Canal.
Curry said unique people, events and landmarks along the way included:
- Derbigny Street, which is marked by a sign where Gov. Pierre Derbigny’s horse and buggy turned over in 1829, killing him.
- The fire station on Lafayette Street, which is now home to the Gretna Historical Society Museum. Its fire company, formed in 1841, remains the oldest continually active volunteer fire company in the country.
- Gretna’s City Hall, which began as the Jefferson Parish courthouse in 1907, was modeled closely after the Apsley House, the townhouse of the Dukes of Wellington at Hyde Park in London. It was reproduced twice more in Rapides and Tangipahoa parishes, though the buildings have been torn down, Curry said.
- The Stumpf family, which developed the Westside Shopping Center and included Sen. Alvin Stumpf. In 1915, Stumpf’s Magic Hoodoo factory received a medal from the Panama Pacific International Expo in San Francisco for the role its insect repellent played in fighting disease during the construction of the Panama Canal. Curry said Stumpf also had a rust remover that was ubiquitous. “Everybody had a bottle of Rust-Away in their cabinet, that I can tell you.”
In the 1980s, Gretna was hit hard by the oil bust, as companies pulled back to Houston and shuttered their operations along Peters Road.
“It was an awful time in the ’80s,” Constant said. “People were leaving.”
But over the years that followed, the city and its economy recovered. Donewar and Constant credited Gretna’s leadership, particularly Ronnie Harris, who’s tenure as mayor just ended after 28 years.
This year, two of Gretna’s institutions have taken a hit. The ferry, which had traveled between the city and Jackson Avenue since 1836, was shut down earlier this summer and will only be used for special events.
Also, the U.S. Postal Service plans to close Gretna’s downtown post office to save money, but Constant and others note the postal service rents the building for a dollar a year, pays nothing in maintenance and only employs one person there.
“And the volume (of mail) that leaves through there is incredible,” Constant said.
Crossing the street just outside the post office Friday, Clerk of Court cashier Harrietta Tipado said she’s got no complaints about her hometown.
“Actually, it’s a great place to live,” she said. “Downtown has come a long way.”
She said the city has not only grown, but gotten more diverse.
“We have a lot of new people here in Gretna — and they must love it because they’re still here.”
Editor’s note: This story was changed on Aug. 19, 2013 to correct the name of baseball hall-of-famer Mel Ott and the spelling of Mechanicham.