This is a research paper I wrote while at UL for my Cajun French class about the town of Kaplan. I wanted to include it on my website so folks can read a little bit about where I'm from. I love reading or hearing old stories about the town of Kaplan. I go back there several times a week to practice my French with some older folks who are also from there. They are helping me learn Cajun French. They teach me old French sayings people in Kaplan used, or tell me stories about when they were growing up. Anyhow, give this paper a read and feel free to send me an email if you have any questions.
When driving through Vermilion Parish you come across many small towns and communities. Some stretch for several miles while others you can miss with the blink of an eye. Small towns such as Gueydan, Maurice, Erath and others are spread out throughout the parish and all have a unique history. The focus of this paper is the town of Kaplan. I will look at how the town developed, the background of the town’s founder, the French language of the citizens of Kaplan. I also spoke with a citizen of Kaplan to find out first-hand what life was like in the old days.
The Parish of Vermilion was created in 1844. The territory was carved out of the southern portion of the then Lafayette Parish (History of Vermilion Parish, Louisiana 9). While many of the residents trace their heritage back to the Acadian deportation, there is a mixture of nationalities that migrated here including French, Germans, and Spanish (Perrin 7). According to the book, Vermilion Parish by Warren A. Perrin, the founder of Abbeville was a priest from France, the founder of Erath was from Switzerland, the founder of Henry was Danish, and the first settlers of Delcambre were from Spain. The land is rich with an abundance of farming, trapping, ranching and fishing. Residents farm sugar cane, rice, beans; they hunt alligators, duck, pigs, deer and other wild life. Located at the southernmost portion of Louisiana, the parish is situated against the Gulf of Mexico. The name Vermilion Parish derived its name from the Vermilion River, which is named for the reddish or vermilion color of its bluffs (Perrin 8). According to the U.S. census of 1990, the parish had the largest percentage of Cajun French speakers in the state (Perrin 7). Vermilion Parish retains its unique cultural heritage and is full of distinct aspects and places.
Dubbed as “The Gateway to the Coastal Wetlands” and as “The Most Cajun Place on Earth”, Kaplan is located in the center of Vermilion Parish at the intersection of Highway 14 and Highway 35. It is about 30 miles south of Lafayette and 175 miles west of New Orleans. With a population around 5,000 people; the town is situated in an agricultural area which has an abundance of natural resources. The town has one high school, Kaplan High, three elementary schools which include Kaplan Elementary, Rene Rost Middle and Maltrait Memorial, a post office, two banks, several restaurants, a public library and a city hall. Kaplan is governed by a mayor and five council members. It is the home of the Mardi Gras group, Chic-a-la-Pie, which was organized in 1955 by a group of women who wanted to preserve the traditions of Acadian Mardi Gras celebrations (History of Vermilion Parish, Louisiana 31). The town also held Bastille Day, a celebration to commemorate the storming of the French prison, the Bastille, in 1789 (History of Vermilion Parish, Louisiana 30). Activities included were: chasing greasy pigs, public talks and dancing in the streets (History of Vermilion Parish, Louisiana 31).
The town of Kaplan was established in 1902 and was named after its founder Abrom Kaplan. Abrom Kaplan was born on September 1, 1872, in the town of Most in Poland (Broussard 8). As a young boy, Abrom Kaplan emigrated to America nearly penniless and only spoke Hebrew (Broussard 9). He lived in the New York area for several years before packing his bags and heading south to Louisiana. It was in New Orleans where he went to school to learn English (Broussard 10). It wasn’t until arriving in Crowley when Kaplan’s life began to change.
At the time of his arrival, Crowley had become a new town and was the center for the area’s rice industry. It was in Crowley where he built his first home and lived there with his wife and child. According to an interview he did with The Country Home in 1930, Kaplan stated he had managed to save $18,000 by the time he arrived in Crowley and decided to run a store and buy some land. He began building rice mills, storage warehouses, pumping plants, houses for his tenants (Broussard 25). In addition to that, he was also buying land throughout southwest Louisiana. Land was being sold for ten to twelve cents an acre for marsh and lowland and from one dollar to a dollar and fifty cents for cultivable land (Broussard 27).
In the old days, the first settlers planted rice in platins, which are natural depressions that held water for short periods after a rain (Broussard 13). Providence rice, as it was called, was a method where people raised barely enough rice for their families (History of Vermilion Parish, Louisiana 30). Kaplan had many endeavors in southwest Louisiana, but his main investment was in rice cultivation and majority of the credit for the development in the rice industry in Vermilion Parish was due to his efforts (Broussard 29).
While Kaplan continued over the years to invest his money in different endeavors, his main interest was acquiring land. In 1901, Kaplan bought hundreds of acres of land, which was known as the Jim Todd plantation, and would be the first step for the founding of the Town of Kaplan. A year later, the New Orleans Daily Picayune announced “Another New Town Added to Southwest Louisiana”. The following year in 1903, the town of Kaplan officially became a village.
One of the most important parts of Abrom Kaplan’s plan for the development of the town of Kaplan was petitioning railroad officials to extend their tracks from Gueydan to Kaplan and Abbeville. Prior to arrival of the railroad in the parish, transportation was mainly by ox-cart, steamboat, stagecoaches, and horse or mule-drawn carts, wagons, and buggies (Broussard 73). Farmers would have to transport their rice to Crowley by ox-cart or mule-pulled wagons on muddy, boggy roads and cross bayous due to the fact there were few bridges at the time. (Broussard 73). However, conditions would soon change once Kaplan donated huge amounts of land to the railroad and spent an enormous amount of his own money on the development. The railroad arrived in Kaplan in 1902.
The railroad from Gueydan to Kaplan to Abbeville was a crucial event in the history of Vermilion Parish. Cattlemen could ship their cows from Abbeville, Kaplan or Gueydan by rail to points west (Broussard 79). Rice farmers no longer had to make the arduous trips using wagons and buggies to transport their crop to Crowley. Abbeville benefited because it now had a route going west and could receive shipping from Lake Charles. Gueydan benefited because it now had contact with Abbeville. The entire parish benefited from the railroad extension and it was largely due to one man, Abrom Kaplan.
During the early days, the town of Kaplan was mainly a tent city. There were no homes or permanent buildings during those days. It was an area that was full of wildlife. It wasn’t until the development of the railroad running through the area that really helped the town move forward. Homes were being built, streets were developed and people began making a living there.
The main area of activity in Kaplan was at the intersection of Cushing Avenue and 1st Street (which is now La. HWY 14) (Broussard 82). Cushing Avenue had wide streets due to the fact that it was the business and municipal center. 1st Street, also had wide streets, ran along the railroad track east and west. With the help of civil engineers and other officials, lots of land was being sold for business and commercial use and some land was donated to churches and other organizations. Established in 1896, the first Catholic Church in the area was located in Cossinade which is four miles away (Broussard 84). Abrom Kaplan donated some land and had the church moved to the town of Kaplan in 1902. The new town also had a hotel (which was called the Saint Hotel), a funeral parlor, brickyard, lumber yard, a school and many other businesses. Kaplan was now on its way to becoming an important community within Vermilion Parish.
A study of the language spoken in Kaplan was done in the mid 1940’s by Erin Montgomery. Majority of the French spoken in Kaplan is a colloquial French that was brought here by the those who came from Acadia, Antilles, or directly from France (Boudreaux pg. 96). According to Montgomery’s findings, many of the words used in the Kaplan area are standard French; however, some words may have taken on a new meaning or a slightly different pronunciation or the grammar structure may no longer be in use in France today (Boudreaux pg. 96).
A large number of differences occur in the verbs. For example the verbs “Être” and “Aller”. Below is both the standard French conjugations and the Kaplan French:
Je suis J’ sus
Tu es T’es
Il, Elle, On est Il, Alle est
Nous sommes On est, Nous-autres est
Vous etes Vous, Vous autre est
Ils sont Ils sont
Je vais Je vas
Tu vas Tu vas
Il, Elle, On va Il, Alle va
Nous allons On va, Nous-autres va
Vous allez Vous autres va
Ils vont Ça va
Other differences can be found in the pronunciations of words. For example the verb avoir is pronounced aoir; quelqu’un becomes quèque’un, vendre becomes ven’, and etc. The French spoken in Kaplan appears to be simpler with less verb conjugations and simpler with the pronunciation of words (Boudreaux pg 104).
One part of my culture that I wasn’t aware of was the fact that some people who did not have the benefit of an education had to use pictographs to function in a modern society. There are several illustrations in Anna Mary Boudreaux’s study of the French language of the Kaplan area that show the creativity of the people. According to her study, an elderly woman, who can neither read nor write, draws pictures of the items she needs when she goes to the grocery (Boudreaux 140). There are also illustrations for when a person needs to pick up several items at the pharmacy and illustrations for a phone list. The phone list illustrations are made up of drawings the person made to remember each person’s telephone number. For example: If a person has a daughter who is fat, they draw a figure that is big. If the person has a mustache, they draw a mustache. According to Boudreaux’s study, this was a common practice among people.
While conducting research on a place or people it is necessary to get some first-hand experience with the people who are from there. I spoke with a lifelong resident of Kaplan, Della Hoffpauir. She was born and raised in Kaplan and lived about seven miles north of town. We met several times to discuss different aspects of growing up in Kaplan. I was really interested in how she learned French and how often it was spoke when she was growing up. Much of our discussion was focused on the French language of Kaplan.
“When I was born, all the people spoke French. My mom and my dad taught me how to speak French. I never spoke in English with my father. Always in French. When I was about four years old, my mom started to speak in English because she knew I would have to start school soon. The people started to teach their children how to speak English to get by at school, but everyone spoke French.”
I then asked about her academic skills with reading and writing of French. While she has some ability with reading French, she cannot write French at all. In the days she went to school they did not learn or speak French at school. It was strictly English. Hoffpauir spoke of the days when she attended school.
“I think all the girls I went to school with knew how to speak French, but we wouldn’t speak French to each other. We always spoke English. The boys used to speak French a lot more.”
We also spoke about her childhood in Kaplan. We discussed what types of dishes her family would make to eat, what her parents did for a living, and what she did as a child.
“We would eat everything from gumbo to fricassee to sauce piquant. We ate lots of seafood. My mom would cook mainly. My dad would cook outside. He would boil crawfish and BBQ and things like that, but in the house mom cooked all the time.”
I chose the town of Kaplan as my topic for a number of reasons. I was born and raised in Kaplan and lived there most of my life until I moved to Lafayette to attend UL. When I was a child, I didn’t have an interest about the town I grew up in. It was just another small town to me, but it wasn’t until after graduating from UL, my thoughts began to change. I began to develop an interest in my culture. I wanted to learn the French language that my grandparents spoke, know what kind of people first settled in Vermilion Parish, know the history of my last name. After moving away from Kaplan only do you find out how unique of a place it really is. You see how connected the people are to one another, how different the dialect is than from other places, how the locals take pride in their culture. The town of Kaplan once was a booming small town in the early 1900s and was quickly accelerating in population growth with the addition of the railroad, new businesses, the rice mill and more. It was a French speaking area when it first became a town and while much has changed since then and much will change in the years to come; we will always take pride in our cultural heritage.
- Perrin, A. Warren. Vermilion Parish. Charleson, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing, 2011. Print.
- Broussard, L. Whitney. Abrom Kaplan: The Early Years, 1872 - 1911. Lafayette: University of Southwestern Louisiana, 1999. Print.
- History of Vermilion Parish, Louisiana. Dallas: Vermilion Historical Society, 1983. Print.
- Boudreaux, M. Anna. A Profile Study of the Folklore and the Idiomatic Expressions of the French Language of the Kaplan Area in Vermilion Parish. Lafayette: University of Southwestern Louisiana, 1969. Print.