Growing Up Downtown - April 2015
The Beach Boulevard Experience
Anyone moving into the area after August 17, 1969 would never really be able to understand what the downtown Bay St. Louis Beach Boulevard experience had really been all about. Other hurricanes had done substantial damage to the Bay St. Louis beachfront, but 1969’s Hurricane Camille wiped the water side clean.
The only building that was left standing on the water side was the DiBenidetto building which lost the back third of the structure to the tidal surge. The building had been purchased by attorney Joe Benvenutti prior to the hurricane. After the storm, the rear of the building was sealed off and it was rented by a roofing company to store roofing supplies. Months later, the building was completely destroyed in a spectacular late-night fire.
Growing Up Downtown
By the year of my birth in 1949, most all of the buildings South of the railroad tracks had been destroyed by hurricanes, fire, or torn down. From the early 1900s, there had been many, many businesses on the water side of South Beach Boulevard extending past Washington Street. I have always been fascinated by the existence of these buildings, even though they were gone by the time of my birth. The only building left south of the railroad tracks in my youth was the Osoinach Bay Mercantile building which was across the street from Merchants Bank.
When I was a child, the buildings on the water side started up on the north with Trapani’s Knock-Knock Bar. Before the 1947 hurricane there had been at least several more buildings north of Trapani’s (Staehle’s Shoe Store, Hamburger King, and the original Dixon Drug Store). When I was a very young boy, I remember my dad taking me into Trapani’s, sitting me up on the bar, and buying me a Barq’s root beer and a bag of peanuts. Daddy would then have a couple of beers while shooting the bull with Frank. Little did I know that years later my professional musical career would begin on New Year Eve 1965 with my first band, the Saxons, playing for a private party in the rear bingo hall of Frank Trapani’s bar!
Moving south from Trapani’s was Dixon’s Drug Store, which I seem to remember having a really good soda fountain, and after Dixon’s there were a couple of smaller buildings that housed restaurants and other small shops. Through the years these shops included a record shop and photography studio (where in 1967 my band, The Subway Prophets had our first promo photos taken). Before the 1947 hurricane destroyed them, a sandwich shop and Martin’s Bar also stood in this space.
Taconi’s Pier was next in line going south. This space was one of the only breaks in the buildings where you could see the water. You could rent old wooden skiffs, buy bait and, from time to time, buy fresh seafood off the pier. The first and last time that I ever chewed tobacco was out on Taconi’s pier. I was probably eleven years old and my friend Donald Gavarnie and I went out there to “take a chew." Being a novice at the game, I swallowed some of the tobacco juice, turned green, got sick, threw up and my tobacco-chewing days were officially over. Never again!
After Taconi’s pier, came Bay Furniture, which sold used furniture. At one time, this building had also housed the Red Star Fish Market and Bay Seafood. The building was eventually renovated by Anthony Loicano in the mid-1960s when he opened the original Anthony’s Men’s Wear. Next to Bay Furniture was Manieri’s Restaurant & Bar run by the Manieri sisters, Dutch and Vee. Manieri’s was a downtown Bay St. Louis institution and had operated in several locations since the turn of the century.
After passing Manieri’s, there was Piazza Brothers Barber Shop. Sam Piazza and Oren Cuevas were the barbers. This barber shop was one of the local hangouts for males in downtown Bay St. Louis. Back then, men got their haircut once a week so there was always a bunch of guys there! There were framed photos of kids getting their first haircuts in the front display windows. Piazza Brothers also had a ladies beauty shop in the rear.
Next to the Mary Carter Paint store, there was a furniture store (among other things over the years) and then there was a duplex that housed two businesses. On one side was Eddie Marquez’s Bar and on the other side was the second location of Bresslers’ Café after Mr. Tom moved from Main Street. Later, H&R Block occupied this side of the building. After this duplex, there was another vacant lot. Prior to the destruction of the 1947 hurricane, this vacant area had housed Kergoisen Brothers furniture store and real estate business.
On the other side of this vacant lot stood my favorite of all the old downtown businesses, DeMontluzin’s Drug Store. This downtown institution was an absolute classic; a time warp right out of the 1890s because the business had been established before the turn of the century. From the exterior painting to the furnishings, everything was original from that time period. When you walked in the front door, it was like you stepped back in time seventy five years. This store still had the curved glass display cases, glass apothecary jars, and the big old-time free scale that you stood on and weighed yourself - and the best butter pecan and other scoop ice cream cones that I’ve ever eaten. They not only sold prescriptions, but fancy perfumes, ladies' body powders, stationary, magazines and confections as well.
Next to DeMontluzin’s Drug Store was Mr. George DiBenedetto’s Radio and Television Store. At one time this had been Mr. George’s father’s grocery store. I was buddies with Leo DeBenedetto, so we’d hang out there some also. The first PA speaker cabinets that I ever used in a band were speaker cabinets made by my dad and Ronnie Genin’s dad and the speakers we used were old speakers that Leo and I robbed out of junk stereos down in Mr. George’s junk room! The L&N railroad tracks intersected South Beach at this point.
All of these buildings on the water side were built on the hill that ran from the street down to the seawall. They were continually at risk for damage when hurricanes occurred. The entrance to each store opened on to the sidewalk but the building was built out on creosote pilings and underneath them was a vast empty overgrown no man’s land.
Sometimes this space was used as a place for the building’s owner to store junk or lumber. There was very little beach and what was there was overgrown with vegetation. This was another secret play area that provided a cornucopia of delights for a young boy’s imagination. There were thousands of pigeons that roosted under these buildings and an abundance of hiding places to retreat to when it was playtime. Many hours were spent chasing rats, catching snakes and pigeons and playing with my cronies down there. We all would have been “half killed” or “beaten within an inch of our lives” if our parents had known we were down there hanging out.
Across State Street was The A&G Theatre. Originally starting as an open air theatre across the street on the water side, the A & G stood for Ames and Gaspard. In its day this was a very nice first class theatre. By the nineteen sixties, the A & G was getting kind of run down.
Next to the A&G Theatre was Ms. Daisy Bordages’ boarding house. This was before bed and breakfasts became fashionable. Back then if you wanted to stay downtown it was either at Ms. Daisy’s or at the upscale Reed (formerly The Weston) Hotel located at the corner of Ulman Avenue (highway 90) and Beach Boulevard at the foot of the old car bridge. My Dad’s older sister Lucille rented a room from Ms. Daisy while her husband, my uncle Mitch Witter, was away in the military during the Second World War.
South of Ms. Daisy’s was Sunshine’s Ice Cream Parlor. This was the local malt shop and the hangout for teenagers after school as well as another downtown lunch spot. Sunshine’s was run by Mr. and Mrs. Gordon Gleim. Mr. Buster Heitzmann told me that this building had previously been a pool hall with a bookie operation in the back room during the nineteen thirties. Before that it had been a drug store.
Ramsey’s Department Store was located next door to Sunshine’s. This was one of two really nice full service department stores in downtown Bay St. Louis. Doc Ramsey was a local dentist and a good friend of my grandfather Stevenson. Doc had his dentist office upstairs above the department store. In the early nineteen forties The Bay Café had been located downstairs on the Main Street side of the Ramsey Building.
Next to Ramsey’s there was a concrete block building on the corner of Main Street and North Beach Boulevard. Mr. Henry Osoinach, whose family had been the proprietors of The Osoinach Opera House and The Bay Mercantile Company since the turn of the century had relocated Bay Mercantile and built this building in the early 1950s. Before I was born Mr. Charlie Breath - as well as the Gilmores - had operated a garage and Standard Oil gas station at this corner location. Back at the turn of the century, this lot had been the site of Taconi’s Tavern.
Next to the Hancock Bank Building heading south was a vacant lot (now home to Tercentenary Park) then Delph’s Department store, the other really nice downtown department store. This business had previously been Mauffray’s Dry Goods that encompassed both sides of the building. Mr. Oc Delph married Ms. Oleah Mauffray and they bought the dry goods operation from Mrs. Delph’s father, Joseph Mauffray around 1939 and totally remodeled the store by the early 1950s.
Mauffray’s Hardware store was in the other half of the building that housed Delph’s. Alden Mauffray, Mrs. Delph’s brother was the proprietor of Mauffray’s Hardware. You could walk into this store and ask for any given item and Mr. Mauffray would tell you to take nine steps turn left and go to the end of the aisle and look at your left elbow and the item would be right there where he said it would be. Everybody called Mr. Mauffray “Uncle Aldee”. Mr. Alden Mauffray was an avid fisherman and was known nationally for his fishing abilities.
Next to Mauffray’s Hardware where the city parking lot is today was an AutoLec Auto Parts Store with Gulf Chevrolet’s body shop behind it in the rear yard. The next building was the location of Bay St. Louis’ Chevrolet dealership, Gulf Chevrolet. Later, when Gulf Chevrolet relocated out on Highway 90, this building would house Casanova’s Auto Parts and eventually The First Precinct and The Firedog Lounges.
On the opposite side of Court Street next to the railroad tracks was Mr. Ed Arceneaux’s Shell Station and Garage. Arceneaux’s had been in business since the nineteen thirties and it was a mainstay in downtown Bay St. Louis.
Next month - The Beach Boulevard Experience, Part 2 - South of the Tracks
Across The Bridge
At Home In The Bay
Beach To Bayou
BSL Council Updates
Casting My Net
Coast Lines Column
Friends Of The Animal Shelter
Growing Up Downtown
House And Garden
Legends And Legacies
Mother Of Pearl
Murphy's Musical Notes
Old Town Merchants
On The Shoofly
Shore Thing Fishing Report
Talk Of The Town
The Eyes Have It