Small Town Drug Store

In a small town, the local drug store is often a busy place, but not always in the ways you would think. Here is a column written by Frank Schneider for his "Second Cup" series in the newspaper, date published unknown. It tells about some interesting incidents at Hebert's Drugstore in small town Covington.

Smalltown, La., was once place where neighbors were always near

By Frank Schneider

When Covington was a small town, it was paradise for young­sters. It offered an unrestrained playstyle that could not be dupli­cated in the city regardless of how many parks or swimming pools it offered.

Consider the drugstore, an impor­tant ingredient in the social mix of a small town. The "downtown" cor­ner drugstore in Covington was Hebert's at New Hampshire and Boston, where once the major high­way funneled traffic through the town.

Oliver Hebert moved his drug­store there in 1940 after six years at a location a few blocks away. It's  still there, bearing his name, but under different ownership. When young people assembled there on Sunday mornings, "Mr. Hebert" would be in the rear of the store dispensing poison ivy lotion and rec­ommending balm for sunburn.

But up front was the social sec­tion where the delicious ice cream sodas and malts were concocted. The nectar sodas, with specks of crushed ice and globs of whipped cream, were particularly irresist­ible even for a "chocoholic." I always had one before a chocolate soda. We sat at round porcelain tables and chairs they call "antique ice cream parlor chairs" in Magazine Street shops today.

Everybody knew everybody, said Mr. Hebert's widow, Celeste. She made notes on some of the drug­gist's experiences, and shares these with us:

August 1937 — Mr. S., a stranger from the city, came to town without a tie and was invited to dine out. Would Mr. Hebert please lend him the tie he was wearing? The drug­gist took the man to his home to select a tie from his wardrobe.

August 1937 — The D. family called from outside of Covington at 1 a.m. They needed special medi­cine for their dog who was about to deliver pups. Could Mr. Hebert come out with the medicine and assist in the delivery?

March 1938 — A customer had too much money to carry around and did not do business with the  bank. Mr. Hebert took the money and issued them a check.

July 1938 — Customer wanted to "bor­row" a deck of cards.

1939 — Customer brought a live chicken to the drugstore asking Mr. Hebert to keep it for her while she shopped. He carried the wriggling chicken to the yard behind the store, and when she returned in a taxi he couldn't find the chicken. But he told her he was too busy to retrieve it then; he'd deliver it to her house on his way home. He called his wife. "Do we have a chicken?" There were two chickens cooked for dinner, she said. Mr. Hebert delivered one to the cus­tomer.

1940 — A New Orleans family lost their dog while spending the summer in Coving­ton. They called Hebert's drugstore. "Please put a sign in your window with a description of Vandy for us?" The druggist did, and a woman who found the dog said she was driving to New Orleans that day and would deliver Vandy to his owner.

1940 — A customer on the phone: "Mr. Hebert, please remind me to buy toilet paper when I'm in your store. I know I'll forget."

One customer instructed the "fresh eggs and vegetable man" to deliver her orders to the drugstore where she could pick them up at her leisure.

New Orleans department stores (whose customers did not reside on their routes) delivered packages to the drugstore. It was not unusual to see lawnmowers, garden hoses, wash tubs and 8-foot pecan trees awaiting pickup by department store cus­tomers.

A woman once borrowed one of the drug­  store's "soda chairs" so she could sit outside the movie theater to wait for her children.

An elderly man came in one day request­ing "Americated cotton" (he meant medi­cated) and rattlesnake bones to string around a baby's neck to ease "the teething."

A customer who planned her child's birthday party at a movie theater across the street from the drugstore asked Mr. Hebert to purchase the tickets and hold them for her. And to charge them to her account.

Mrs. M. called one day to complain about all the charges on her bill for toilet tissue. "I live alone and know there are 1,000 sheets on a roll and I could not possibly have used as much as I am charged for." Mr. Hebert adjusted the bill to her liking.

Pat Rittiner recalls her childhood in Abita Springs, so small that there was no high school there. She attended high school in Covington, where there was also a gro­cery called Hebert's. "When we'd forget our lunch money we'd walk to the grocery and borrow money from Miss Teen, Mr. Hebert's sister. After school we visited the grocery until our mother came to pick us up."

That's how small towns were.

See also:

Hebert's Drugs History

Covington Mardi Gras 1901

Here is an extensive article describing Carnival in Covington and Abita Springs in February of 1909, one hundred and ten years ago. Click on the images to make them larger. 

Three Rivers Art Fest Draws Thousands

This year's Three Rivers Festival brought thousands of visitors and art enthusiasts to Covington recently, offering dozens of art-filled booths and exhibits along six blocks of Columbia Street in Covington, with a number of other galleries taking advantage of the thousands of festival visitors as well. 

Here are some photos from Saturday morning. The event continued through Sunday early afternoon. Click on the images to make them larger. 

Big Easy Birdhouses by Gary Ward

Musicians Everywhere

Spanish Guitar Music by Oliver

Music on the Edge of the Lake Stage was provided by Brooke Hagler, Christian Serpas, Kass and Jon Michael, The In-Laws, Maddi Tripp, Reed Alleman, Jake Gunter, and Kathryn Rose Wood. 

Decorative Post Office Boxes by Lone Wolf Woodworks

Old musical instrument horns reborn as I-Phone speakers by ReAcoustic (Ryan Boase)

At the St. Tammany Art Association 

See also:

Three Rivers Art Festival This Weekend

Three Rivers Art Festival Flows Into Covington

Three Rivers Art Festival - 2016

Student Art Exhibit

A student art exhibit was held at Heritage Bank's lobby on Columbia Street at this year's Three Rivers Art Festival in Covington. Here are some photos. Click on the images to make them larger. 

Vergez Family Legacy

Every town had its own blacksmith back at the beginning of the 1900's, and Covington was fortunate to have master blacksmith and artistic metalworker Auguste Vergez decide to locate in the community in 1901. He was born on April 24, 1873, in Mazerolles, France, and trained as a journeyman metalworker with a blacksmith there.  When Auguste became 18 years of age, in 1889, his Godfather, Henri Cazentre, a wine merchant in New Orleans, offered to sponsor his immigration to America, where opportunities abounded.

He first traveled to New Orleans, but longing for the countryside, he moved to Carencro, near Lafayette, where he first worked for a baker, then got a job with the local blacksmith. That's where he met his wife Berthe. They eloped from Carencro, got married in New Orleans by a judge, and then a month later, were persuaded by friends and relatives to have another wedding ceremony at St. Peter Church in Covington in 1901.

They made the move to Covington that same year, where he became a partner in the blacksmith shop of M. Gatipon. "It was a great opportunity for Auguste," said Sharon Vercellotti, his granddaughter . Click on the images to make them larger.


"He was very good at creating copper flashing for roofs and making all kinds of decorative metal work, so he opened his own  blacksmithing shop in 1905," she added.

A paragraph about the new business in 1905

The new shop was located near the campgrounds used by the farmers coming in from out-of-town to sell their goods. They would bring their produce in wagons to Covington, sell them, and then with the money buy supplies from local merchants for the trip back home. 

While they were here, they would bring their wagons in need of repairs to Auguste.  Covington was an important trade center, and being at the end of a wagon trail helped keep the blacksmith business humming. 

Sharon's husband, Dr. John R. Vercellotti, recalls hearing  many stories about Auguste and his sons Henri and Jules Paul, as they became the Covington area's most appreciated metalworkng service providers. It was widely known that Auguste had many talents. He designed and created many of his own tools. He was a wheelwright, which meant he could fashion perfectly round wheels for wagons. "And those things couldn't be lopsided," Vercellotti said. Auguste had all the equipment in the shop for bending metal strips. He also made "whipple trees," which are the bars of wood with metal parts that led from the buggy  to the horse. 

"They say it was fascinating to watch him bend the metal for the turn on a wheel," John commented. 

He also offered the first forge-welding service in the parish, a technique he had learned back in France. He invented a roadbed smoothing mechanism called a "sheep's foot," and his carriage work was always being improved, using the strongest and lightest materials available. 

The First Elevator

His two-story building on East 25th Avenue had the first elevator in St. Tammany Parish. It consisted of a platform with a system of ropes and counter-weights that he used to lift up entire work projects to the second story, where rows of windows on both sides gave him a great deal of light in which to do his work.  Plus on the second floor there was no dust to hinder his work, as there was on the bottom floor. The wagons were built on the first floor, then lifted up to the second floor where he did the final artistic touches. 

In this first building, they repaired many of the ox carts that came to Covington every day. "There would be as many as 100 ox carts per day coming down from the north, as far away as Mississippi, and coming down through Franklinton and Folsom," John said. "Those were all miserable muddy roads,  and they could only make six or seven miles per day with a team of six or eight oxen each."

"On the trip, the farmers would break wheels, they would break axles, they had all kinds of damage to the carts, so there was always a stream of ox carts being brought into the wagon shop for repairs," he said.
They would get to Covington, put the oxen in an ox lot, and then head for the repair shop.

The shop had equipment for wheelwright work, that is, building and repairing wheels, and wainwright work, which is building and repairing wagons. Auguste was also an expert gunsmith.  

Auguste was also known as a very good artist, and he would often make fancy carriages for wealthy families in the area, adding fascinating creative touches to them.  He was especially proud of his talent in painting designs on the sides of the commercial wagons.  As part of his artistry, he would decorate commercial wagons with symbols of their business,  putting a loaf of bread on the side of the bakery wagon, a picture of a hog's head on the butcher's wagon, and other metalwork items appropriate to the business. 

 He made a beautiful Sunday carriage for the Poole family back in 1903 and he also built carriages for the Smith family. "These carriages would be hand-crafted. He was an excellent woodworker in addition to being a metal worker," John stated.  "He had a forge and he knew how to blend various alloys and do various kinds of forging (beating or hammering softened metal into a shape.)"

Auguste had a knack for knowing, just by its color, when a piece of metal heated in the forge was ready for shaping. When it reach a certain temperature, Auguste could tell just by its intensity of color, that it would be possible for him to work it into what it needed to become. 

He was also chief of the Covington Volunteer Fire Department in 1910, and he built the community's first fire truck in 1908. He incorporated many improvements to the fire truck over the years, making it faster and more durable. His pumper wagon was very helpful in fighting fires, as opposed to the previous  method of hauling water-filled leather buckets to the scene. 

A 1910 group photo of the firefighters and their new engine. Among the firemen in the picture are Chief Henry Ostendorf, Wallace Poole, Leon Hebert Sr., Johnny Cotton, Emile Beaucoudray, Ernest Jones, Jack Pechon, Ike Herbie, Frank Patecek Sr., and Auguste Vergez. The "Friends In Need Covington Volunteer Fire Department" was organized on October 21, 1908.

Auguste shared the knowledge of those two crafts with his two sons Henri and Jules. They were born in the early 1900's, but by the time they were ready to join the business, things were already changing in the  industry. Auguste died on December 10, 1927, and his children continued his legacy of being key Covington citizens.

"Jules had a better feel for the technologically advanced components of the trade," John went on to say. They lived right across the street from the St. Tammany Ice and Manufacturing Co., which became the first electricity-producer in the area. The company needed the electricty to make ice, and nobody else in the area was making electricity, so Jules talked them into letting him run a wire from the plant over to their house where it powered a single light bulb hanging down from the ceiling of his mother's kitchen. 

First Light

As a result, Mrs. Vergez had the first residential electric light in Covington. "That was really something, and they always laughed about that," John said. "I don't think it was installed to code, because there were no 'electric codes' at that time, but that's how Jules learned how his electrical skills."

During World War I, Jules was in his teens and he went to work at the shipyard in Madisonville where he learned all about wiring the warships being built there.  He learned as much as he could about electricity and watched as the newly-founded electric companies began stringing lines all over town. So after the war, he went into business for himself, connecting those new powerlines into buildings. 

"In the 1930's Jules went on to become the most eminent and foremost electrician in all of St. Tammany Parish.  He was in-demand for his electrical knowledge and skills for about 40 years up until he died in the 1970's.

He wired all the original shopping centers in St. Tammany, and he did so much electrical work out at St. Joseph's Abbey that at one point they started calling him Brother Jules .  He was their master electrician for years and also was their chief maintenance guy for all the mechanical things out there.  He was buried in the Abbey cemetery, in fact. 

Henri's Artistry

Henri, on the other hand, was really good at visualizing a three-dimensional object and bringing it into reality through his skills and equipment at the shop. His metal-working and artistry became legend. He provided a wide variety of fabrication and repair work for everyone in the community, from fixing broken axles to repairing gun mechanisms. 

The Vergez Machine Shop in 1938

He also served the community as the chief of the volunteer fire department for many years, as had his father. The original fire station on Theard was right down the street from the Vergez metal shop. 

Sharon, Henri's daughter, recalls how the phones would ring at the fire station, and the family monitoring the phones, Louis and Alice Braun, would get the location of the fire, then activate the siren on the water tower, using a special code to tell the volunteers which street the fire was on. 

All the firefighters would head directly for the fire (instead of going to the fire station first), and Henri would jump in the fire truck and head for the fire as well. They all converged on the blaze at the same time, and it was a pretty successful system. 

Even at night, when there was a fire, Sharon's mother would bring her and her brother to the scene of the fire to watch the goings on. It was a memorable childhood experience.

The volunteers would meet once a week at the firehouse to learn the proper techniques for fighting fires, Sharon said. They learned fire hose maintenance and other key skills.

The Vergez children and friends at the old fire station. Left to right:  Shirley and John Braun, who lived in the fire house upstairs, Sharon Vergez and Melinda Blanchard, and Henri Leon Vergez, Jr.

Acetylene Welding

Jules Vergez (also known as Paul) was able to update the metalworking shop when he noticed that the new Model T Fords had headlights powered by acetylene lamps.  The company making those calcium-carbide acetylene headlights was called Presto-Light, and  Jules arranged with the company to purchase  acetylene welding equipment using the same principle and installed it in the Vergez shop, giving them a great new advantage in repair work. 

By introducing a new system of welding that had just been invented, they were able to offer a more modern welding service other than using just the forge to heat up the broken pieces. With the acetylene-powered cutting torch, they could also cut through steel beams, John explained. 

Mackie Pine Oil Plant

Vergez did a lot of work for the Mackie Pine plant just down Jefferson Avenue, where the new courthouse is located today. Having a quality repair shop so close was handy for Mackie Pine Oil because almost every day, something was breaking and needed to be fixed. Mrs. Vercellotti remembers the huge pile of pine knots that were stacked up high at the Mackie Pine Plant, later called the Delta Pine Oil plant. 

John recalls that J. H. "Harry" Warner got a job as a chemist with Mackie Pine Oil. He had just graduated from college with a chemistry degree, and his work brought him into contact with the Vergez family, and they became long-time friends. "He was a nice young man, and he had his office right across the road and that's where he did all the testing on the pitch that was taken from the pine stumps," John commented. Warner later became secretary-treasurer for the company. 

The Mackie Pine Oil plant was a continuing challenge for Auguste and Henri in their position as Covington fire chief, because of the occasional fire that would break out at the plant. In addition, the ditch flowing away from the plant southward along Jefferson Avenue would also sometimes fill with pine pitch and catch on fire. "It was a recurring problem,"  Sharon recalls. "The flames from the ditch would scare a person to death."

 In 1935, the entire plant exploded in flames and burned down, with fire departments called in from miles around to help fight the blaze.

New Block Building

The old wooden building that originally housed the Vergez operation was replaced in the early 1950's by a modern concrete block structure at the corner of Jefferson Avenue and East 25th Avenue. All of the vintage wheelwright and wainwright equipment was moved into the new building at that time.  Those were busy times for Henri, who was still doing the basic metalworking and wrought iron projects, plus the welding and repair work for many other customers. 

The new building, although one story, was sturdily built. "Everything he built was sturdy," Sharon stated. "Everything he built was designed well and built to last. Precision and exacting, it was a drive of his." 

Still visible on one interior plankwall of the building is the place where Henri would test the cattle branding irons he fabricated in the shop for area ranchers. The wall is filled with dozens of brands, representing the large number of cattle operations located in St. Tammany and Washington Parishes through the years.

Henri also made a variety of wrought iron items for use around the house, from candle holders to pot stands, which he gave out as gifts for friends. Sharon has a picture showing a candelabra he made.  

John recalls Henri sharing many stories of young Covington with the family, the way of life, the problems and the overall community progress being made, often through difficult times.

"For years, Henri was rated the best rifle shot in St. Tammany Parish," John said. "He could hit the center of a bulls-eye ten out of ten times." He was also very good at shooting pool, with many customers at Nathan's Bar and Grill enjoying his expertise with the pool cue. 

"There was often some side-betting going on among the customers," Sharon recalls, adding that Henri would never bet on himself, however. "He wouldn't do that," she said. 

"He was also a serious hunter," she added. "He had some great hunting dogs, setters and pointers, and he trained them all himself."

Many of the machines in the shop were powered by belts and pullies

While he and his workers went out occasionally to do work on site, most of the work was brought in from around the community to his shop, where he had the equipment all set up. The forge was there and the anvil was there to hammer metal into shapes, so it was not a portable operation. 

Henri died on April 10, 1989, and was buried in the historic Covington Cemetery No. 1, the same cemetery where his father Auguste and his mother Berthe had been laid to rest. His workshop, the concrete block building on Jefferson Ave., was emptied out in 2012, after taking pictures and  identifying all the tools and equipment and what they were each used for. "It was quite a challenge, cleaning out the building for the new tenants," Sharon said. Some of those tools were put on display at the LSU Burden Rural Life Museum in Baton Rouge, and a detailed photo catalogue pictures each one and tells what it was used for.   

Cemetery Presentation

Auguste's life was celebrated along with many other Covington pioneers during the 1994 history tour of the Covington cemetery. 

See also:

Blacksmithing Was A Key Community Service

When Competing Fire Companies Used To Race To Fires

V-LABS Earns Industry Recognitions