More to Morganza: Revitalization in action, breathing new life into a once-bustling town
BY ALEXANDRA KENNON AUGUST 24, 2020
Serio's Service Station, opened around a century ago, is still operated by second-generation owner Jack Serio.
Morganza has two things in clear abundance: sugar cane fields and railroad tracks. These are the things that stand out most prominently when driving through Morganza, as one does, as Natalie Thompson did for most of her life—until recently.
Growing up in Baton Rouge, when she’d pass the tiny town her family was from each year to celebrate Easter Sundays in Innis, her mother would point out Morganza landmarks as they drove by: “There’s Granny’s house,” “There’s the service station your great grandpa owned,” “There’s the church.” As a child, and even as a young adult, Thompson never gave much thought to the sleepy little highway town. After serving in the Air Force in the Korean Conflict and in the Philippines, her grandfather had moved to Baton Rouge, which is where she grew up and eventually started a family of her own. It wasn’t until she was engaged that she learned her now-husband’s family is from Morganza, too. “But I didn't really care,” Thompson said of the discovery. “I was twenty when I got married. I didn't give a crud about Morganza and ancestors.”
As her grandfather in Baton Rouge needed more assistance around the house, Thompson began spending more time with him, frequently hearing stories about their relatives and the “old days” in Morganza. “I just decided I had to go spend some time in this place that was so special to them and to my ancestors,” she said. About three years ago, Thompson told her mother she wanted to spend a day in Morganza. She listed off all of the places she wanted to visit: Melancon’s Café, where a seminal scene in Dennis Hopper’s cult classic filmEasy Riderwas shot; the Cedar Club, a dancehall her grandfather and great uncles frequented in the 1950s; St. Ann’s Catholic Church. She was disappointed to learn that most of the places she listed were closed, if not demolished. One business that remained open, though the gas pumps have since dried up, was Serio’s Service Station, which her great grandfather had opened around 1920, and her great uncles still run today. When Thompson and her mother Allison arrived at the station for a Thursday visit, a whole group of relatives greeted them with memories and glass-bottle Coca Colas. The history imbued into the small roadside building was, and is, absolutely palpable. “My grandpa and his brothers all worked at the station at some point in their lives—their dad built it, and there are so many stories there in that station,” Thompson recalled. “I could feel how special it was. I had a lump in my throat the whole visit.”
Brothers Eugene "Jack" and Vincent "Beaty" Serio in front of the service station their father opened around 1920.
Historic photographs and old car belts adorn the walls of Serio's Service Station. In the bottom left image, one of the Serio sisters works on a car during WWII, when women were called to do labor typically reserved for men at the time.
Since that initial visit, Thompson has been evangelical about the revitalization of Morganza, and returns to the little town every single Thursday. “This town could really be something,” she thought. “We could kind of bring it back to what it was like in the fifties and make it a little destination stop.” She has spearheaded a revitalization effort—starting with getting Morganza’s residents on board. They have since started a non-profit and applied to be a Louisiana State Cultural District, with the goal of providing momentum for people in Morganza to reopen businesses, or at least spruce up old buildings. “And it kind of worked,” Thompson said. “People started planting flowers, and saying 'I'm gonna fix up that old building that I own.' It just started happening.”
For one dollar a year, the Morganza Cultural District leases a vacant school building, built in the 1940s, where they hold their meetings and host events like town tailgates, Christmas parties, and even a festival. When she realized the Easy Rider connection to Melancon’s Cafe, she said, “We gotta get these bikers in here!” And that they did: last September, Morganza hosted a festival in honor of the fiftieth anniversary ofEasy Rider, which drew more than three thousand bikers and fans of the film from across the country.
The Easy Rider Festival is far from the only effort that has been made to revitalize Morganza. As someone who grew up across the Mississippi River in St. Francisville, I too have driven through Morganza more times than I can count. Recently, I took a cue from Thompson and decided to stop. I discovered a handful of creative, industrious, and inspired individuals who have restored buildings or businesses of their own, contributing to making Morganza once again a destination stop—only now fresher, more contemporary.
Leche House / HM Design
Three generations of women on the porch of a house with a storied history, ready to contribute their own. Left to right: Lisa Robillard, Hilary Meche, and Elise Meche.
Just across the railroad tracks from Serio’s Service Station is the Leche House: one of the oldest homes in Morganza, built between 1880 and 1908. Hilary Meche and her mother Lisa Robillard have always admired the house, but also recognized that restoring it would be a massive undertaking. “But I’ve always loved it,” Meche said. When the Leche House most recently went on the market, several people made offers, including some with the intent of tearing it down. Meche approached her mother, proposing that they first save the historical home, then utilize it as a hub for their respective businesses in interior design and party rentals: HM Design and LR Lagniappe Rentals. “We have all sorts of ideas,” Robillard said.
11.5' ceilings, original hardwood floors, and ample natural light make the Leche House a worthwhile "Fixer Upper".
As an interior designer, Meche typically tackles one aspect of the process at a time: the renovations are completed, the walls are painted, then come the furnishings and artwork. The Leche House was such a daunting undertaking, she and her mother decided to do things a bit more unconventionally. “When we first came, the excitement is what kept us going. But the house was so dirty, and so overwhelming once we started,” Meche said. There seemed to be an endless amount of cleaning. So, exhausted of that, Robillard suggested they “switch gears” and paint the smallest room in the house, off the back foyer. “It made no sense, but that’s just what we needed,” Meche said. “We put some paint on the walls, and [Robillard] hung a plant. Everything is falling apart, but we just have this plant and this painted little room. And still, it’s not done, but we do fresh flowers, we have some candles, we have some art hanging. We’ve just had to motivate ourselves that way … just to bring a little hope each day.”
“Small victories,” like a fresh coat of paint and artwork, make a daunting restoration more manageable.
Certain areas, like a center hallway and the second floor, still exist as evidence of the extreme “fixer-upper” nature of the building—but Meche and Robillard have carved out several oases via cool, earthy paint colors on the walls, artwork, potted plants, and window AC units. Birthday and Mother’s Day gifts to one another have consisted of milestones such as a new kitchen countertop, or a new sink. The features of the old home that inspired them to purchase it in the first place, like its eleven-and-a-half-foot ceilings, ample windows, and hardwood floors, still shine. Though the pandemic has slowed down certain parts of the restoration process, since closing on the house in April Meche and Robillard have made considerable progress toward not only saving the home, but converting it into a comfortable, timeless space that will perfectly suit the spirited, creative women and their businesses.
The Red Apron
The Red Apron, a catering business delivering plate lunches to farmers, sits in a historic bank building.