By Ray Brassieur and Elizabeth Brooks
During the summer of 2005, the property popularly known as the Horse Farm entered a period of dramatic transformation. Since then, local residents have been avidly observing, planning for, and participating in the conversion of a neglected university-owned property into a public park that seems destined to figure prominently in Lafayette’s future. In October 2005, the editorial director of the Independent Weekly, Leslie Turk, characterized the property as: “100 acres of pristine prairie land balanced by mature trees that have never been touched by a developer’s hand.” Certainly, this beautiful, peaceful, open expanse of nature stands in stark contrast to the noisy bustle and urban sprawl of the Johnston Street corridor. No other comparable tract of open land exists in the city, and perhaps because of its “undeveloped” rareness, the Horse Farm encourages visionaries to think in terms of preservation, creative use, and sustainability. But, of course, this property is not virgin wilderness. In addition to its splendid natural history, this landscape has enjoyed a long history of human use. Perhaps this introduction to the history of the Horse Farm property will encourage a richer appreciation for the remarkable transformations currently taking place there.
Among all historical events associated with this property, those of the last fifteen years are likely to prove the most impactful. During this period, the Save the Horse Farm Movement was born and took hold. Students, educators, civic leaders, and a wide range of progressive citizens came to some important common agreements: unrestrained commercial development would not rule every situation; a public park could occupy prime real estate; posh shopping centers would not be Lafayette’s only legacy to future generations. The outcomes of this social movement are yet to be determined, but the history of its beginnings is reported here.
How old is the Horse Farm?
The Horse Farm belongs to a landscape that has invited human habitation and use for a long time. A part of the Prairie Terrace, most of this terrain that has been relatively stable for the last 12,000 years. Although specific habitat conditions may have changed occasionally, the riverine and prairie resources of this landscape were rich and supportive of life. A combination of mixed forest and prairie grasslands provided a wide range of natural foods for human foragers and wildlife. Ample water was available for drinking, fishing, and waterborne travel. A naturally-meandering stream, Coulée Mine, finds its path through the property to the flood plain and course of the Bayou Vermilion. During the mid-1950s, this coulée was diverted into a ½-mile-long canal dug along the east edge of the property, but evidence indicates that the natural meanders of the coulée have been stable for thousands of years. Such landscape stability implies the potential for prehistoric archaeological finds on the Horse Farm property.
Indeed, one ancient archaeological site has been found in the near vicinity. In 1988, archaeologists found a small artifact scatter, including prehistoric ceramic fragments, at a site they named 16LY60. This site is located on a relatively high, well-drained surface near the red milking barn currently standing on the Horse Farm property. The pottery fragments indicate that the site was possibly associated with the prehistoric Woodland Stage (ca. 2,500 – 1,000 years before present). Archaeologists James Whelan and George Castille recommended that this site was not sufficiently significant to warrant additional testing, but there is no doubt that prehistoric peoples did frequent the area currently called the Horse Farm. Much older prehistoric sites, evidenced by the discovery of Clovis and Early Archaic points (ca. 10 – 12,000 years before present), have been found within a mile or so of the Horse Farm. Sure, the Horse Farm has been a place where the deer and the antelope roamed … but evidence indicates that it also was a place for mastodons! In 1975, archaeologist Jon Gibson reported the discovery of mastodon remains (Site 16LY63) embedded in the bank of the Vermilion barely a mile upriver from the Horse Farm.
Of course, the likelihood is much greater of uncovering evidence of historical activity at the Horse Farm. Direct activity on this property began no later than 1776. Spain owned Louisiana at that time, but French-speaking settlers, mostly Acadians, were just then staking claims along the Vermilion. Alexandre François Joseph De Clouet, Commandant of the Attakapas Post (he served from 1774-1786), and resident of St. Martinville, was then in charge of delivering Spanish concessions to settlers. According to testimony provided in the Louisiana State Supreme Court case, “Meaux’s Heirs v. Breaux,” De Clouet himself, in 1776, surveyed a series of Vermilion River concessions that included the property now known as the Horse Farm. De Clouet initiated the survey of properties at a place on the west (right descending) bank of the river called “Isle des Copalmes” – the same Isle Copal that later became the home of Governor Alexandre Mouton. In 1776, Isles Copal was established as the upper boundary of Rene Trahan’s grant, and De Clouet proceeded down river from that point to mark and measure boundaries and arpent frontage for properties along the west bank. Michael Meaux took possession of his property at that time, as did Fermin Breaud (alternately spelled Breaux). Concession owners were granted lands on both sides of the river. Breaud’s property, on the west bank, was established as Section 53 – the same property that was to become the Horse Farm.
Further testimony from the above mentioned court case claimed that Fermin Breaud first lived on the east bank of the Vermilion for four or five years, after which he settled on the west bank where he built a house. This house site is somewhere on what is now the Horse Farm property. Breaux (c. 1749 – 1808) was one of the most prolific of the early Acadian pioneers. He arrived at Fausse Point (present-day Loreauville), on the Bayou Teche, in 1765 as a teenage orphan among the Acadian exiles led by Joseph Beausoleil Broussard. Surviving the great epidemic of that year, Fermin moved to Bayou Tortue where he lived a short while before returning to the Mississippi River and taking up residence near St. Jacque de Cabanocé. There he married, began a family, and soon returned to the Attakapas country. In addition to his activity on the Vermilion, Breaux also developed a residence on the upper Bayou Teche—he is said to have built the first bridge at Breaux Bridge. Breaux was progenitor of a very successful and numerous line of descendants many of whom played prominent roles in the development of the Acadiana region.
An old plat surveyed prior to 1825 indicates that Fermin Breaux’s property on the Vermilion was located within an area called “Grande Prairie.” This place name describes the natural landscape that supported Fermin Breaux and his early Acadian neighbors. This was grassland, and the predominant mode of production was ranching. Rich grass, and multiplying herds of cattle and horses, initially attracted settlers to the Vermilion, and it built generation of solid ranching families. Historical operators of the property now known as the Horse Farm have all been engaged in some form of animal husbandry and ranching.
The Dairy Farm Preceded the Horse Farm
We now call it a Horse Farm, but the Dairy Farm came first. By the late 19th century, interest focused on the products of milk cows; dairy operations remained central on this property throughout most of the next century.
By the late 19th century, German immigrants from the Midwest were farming and residing on what is now the Horse Farm property. Harold Schoefler recalls stories about his young Aunt Marie Pritcheau who was married to Peter Reupeter (ca. 1831-ca. 1893). In 1884, Reupeter moved from Sherman County, Nebraska, and bought 50 acres—half of the current Horse Farm property. Reupeter developed a dairy operation apparently reminiscent of his previous farm experience in Nebraska. He built the large, Midwest-style, gambrel-roofed, stock and hay barn that became emblematic to that property for over 100 years, until it was demolished in 2007. The form and size of that barn suggests that Reupeter was engaged heavily in hay production. The huge loft of this barn was built to store adequate winter fodder for a cow herd, horses used for farming and transportation, and whatever other stock he raised. Not far from the barn, Reupeter built his modest farm house, which survived on the property until it was demolished in September of 2013. Like many other houses of the Midwest—but not many in Acadiana—Reupeter’s house had a brick-lined root cellar.
Within ten years, Peter Reupeter had established a comfortable home and a productive dairy operation. But, as the story came down to Harold Schoefler, tragedy struck at the Reupeter farm around 1893. As Peter Reupeter was crossing the bridge over the Couleé Mine on his farm wagon, something spooked his horse causing it pull the wagon off of the bridge. Reupeter landed beneath the overturned wagon and perished. Reupeter widow, Marie, apparently continued to farm the property as head of the house until she remarried, around 1899, to Mathieu Mucha, a German immigrant. The 1990 Federal Census shows Mathieu Mucha, a farmer, born in Germany in 1859, living west of Lafayette with his wife Mary, age 38.
In 1920, Southwestern Louisiana Institute (SLI) acquired properties that came to be known as the Horse Farm. Initially, the property was made into a model dairy farm, specializing in Jersey cattle. Important agricultural experiments, some aimed at improving pasture and milk production, were conducted there.
During the Depression, Lether Edward Frazar, the second president of SLI, established the College of Agriculture, and Dr. Joel Lafayette Fletcher Jr., served as the first dean of that college. Activities at the Dairy Farm expanded during this period as Dean Fletcher took advantage of National Youth Administration and Works Projects Administration programs to provide jobs for SLI students. Many students worked at the Dairy Farm caring for the animals, milking, and helping to make cheese and butter. In 1941, Joel Fletcher, Jr. became SLI’s third president. He established his home on the Dairy Farm (see more at: http://www.louisiana.edu/about-us/history/presidents). After his retirement in 1965, Fletcher’s successor, Clyde L. Rougeou became president of SLI. Rougeou, who formerly had served as head of the Department of Animal Husbandry at SLI, apparently felt comfortable around the Dairy Farm. Both Fletcher and Rougeou resided in a modest home nestled in an oak grove located several hundred feet southwest of the bridge over Coulee Mine. That house burned down in August 2009, having been abandoned for many years.[i]
During the 1970s, the university’s cattle herd was transferred to the Cade farm, and horse training became an important activity, resulting in the property’s popular “Horse Farm” appellation. After receiving several donated mares, the university began offering equestrian riding courses to students and community members throughout the year. “Tally” Fournet recalls that the equestrian program was also an attempt to increase sporting activities for women on campus. In the late 1990s, the horses were relocated to the Cade farm alongside the cattle, and the 100-acre property was used to grow hay and had other various modern uses, such as ROTC training, testing grounds for the university Engineering Department’s “CajunBot” rover, nature tours for Plant and Animal Science courses and offered outdoor learning opportunities Environmental Sustainability lectures. Only two of the homesteads remained by this date – the ranch-style former presidents’ residence across the coulee bridge, and a small white farmhouse, known as the “Comeaux house,” along the Johnston Street frontage, which was “rented” out to university students as a dorm, in exchange for mowing the property in addition to ten hours of work per week at the Ira Nelson Horticultural Center.
One of the last students to live in the white farm house was Danica Adams. The university administration asked her to move out in May 2005, which she reluctantly did. Months later, in September 2005, the Independent Weekly broke the story that the university was proposing a land swap for the first thirty-six acres of the Horse Farm in exchange for 4 acres closer to campus. Adams was in a class called “Community-Based Planning” that semester with the late Dr. Griff Blakewood, and she and her fellow students launched the “Save the Horse Farm” campaign to raise awareness about the development plans for the property and to engage the public, the university, and elected officials in a conversation about alternatives to the proposed deal.
After getting the City-Parish President Joey Durel involved, and the “Save the Horse Farm” activists rallying the support of thousands of community members through letter-writing, online petitions, rallies, yard signs and bumper stickers, and weekly public meetings on the topic, the Horse Farm was on the track towards preservation.
In July 2012, the Horse Farm was finally saved as a public greenspace, and Dr. Joseph Savoie and Mayor-President Joey Durel rode in to the property transfer signing ceremony appropriately – on horses! Six months later, the announcement was made that a non-profit, Lafayette Central Park, Inc., had been formed to oversee the design, development, and the long-term operations and maintenance of the park to be built at the Horse Farm.
Lafayette Central Park hired two staff members a few months later. Mr. David T. Calhoun was brought on as Executive Director; and Ms. Elizabeth “EB” Brooks was hired to serve as the Director of Planning & Design. Little did Calhoun and Brooks realize at the time that we were at the same meeting held on November 22, 2005, where former UL-President Dr. Authement explained the original land swap to a small group of neighbors and concerned citizens. Calhoun, who at the time was the Chairman of the Board for the Community Foundation of Acadiana, immediately began initiating conversations about their involvement and support; Brooks, on the grassroots side, was one of the leading organizers for the “Save the Horse Farm” campaign, along with fellow student, and former Horse Farm resident, Danica Adams. With Calhoun and Brooks having been committed to two different sides of this project for the entirety of the campaign has been advantageous for this new phase of the park’s development.
In the last sixteen months, Lafayette Central Park has gone through a rigorous community engagement process to develop a plan for the Park at the Horse Farm. They hired a ULI technical assistance panel, solicited design firms for the master planning and design, went through a rigorous selection process eliminating fifteen world-class firms to finally settle on the firm Design Workshop, out of Austin, TX. The firm was selected because of their commitment to the community engagement process that would shape the vision for the park – a critical component to the transparent and inclusive approach that the LCP board and staff felt was necessary to carry this project through from its grassroots beginnings to a well-received master plan.
After twenty-seven public meetings, five rounds of meetings with the adjacent neighbors, various stakeholder meetings, and five online surveys, a list of thirty-two programming items was unanimously approved by the City-Parish Council in December of 2013, followed by the unanimous approval of the master plan for the park by the Council in June of 2013.
The Lafayette Central Park staff and board of directors are now fundraising to build the park, and beginning work on construction documentation for park elements that will be included in Phase 1 of park construction, including a pond, treehouses, playgrounds, gardens, and an outdoor amphitheater.
Currently, the only public use of the property is a weekly Farmers’ and Artisans’ Market, which has been a very popular event, bringing thousands of community members to the park since June 2013. The market has also engaged the public in a series of culturally-sensitive programming, including farming and cooking workshops, Cajun and Creole jam sessions each week, and a large Courir de Mardi Gras chicken run open to the public. For this reason, a more permanent structure for the market will also be included in Phase 1 of construction, in order to facilitate even more programming and support for local farmers and artisans, reconnecting us to our agrarian roots.
The long and intense use of the “Horse Farm” property by historic peoples in the area, by university officials and students, and now by community members as a prominent public space should be thought of as a significant cultural legacy. Cultural, along with natural, resources inspired the public fight to save the Horse Farm. We encourage future stewards of this property to embrace these lessons as they continue to make plans for the park.
“Meaux’s Heirs v. Breaux.” In [Francois-Xavier Martin’s] Reports of Cases Argued and Determined in the Supreme Court of the State of Louisiana comprising Louisiana Term reports Volumes X and XI, 1821-1822. Volume 5, Issues 10-11, 1853. New Orleans: J.B. Steel, 1853.
Whelan, James P. Jr., and George J. Castille
1988 A Cultural Resources Survey of Three Proposed Vermilion River Bridge. Alignments in Lafayette Parish, Louisiana. Coastal Environments, Inc., Baton Rouge. Submitted to PENSCO, Lafayette.
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