My cousin Bobby keeps reminding me we grew up in the greatest place in America and during the best time in America’s history. He may be right. Where exactly is this “greatest place” to grow up and when was that “best time”?
According to Bobby, and I agree, “where” was Kenner, Louisiana. It is now a suburb of New Orleans, but when we were kids, it was a small mostly rural community about 10 miles west of downtown NOLA. Kenner was far enough away to be somewhat isolated from the “city” and retain its small town feel, but that was changing even back then.
The “when” part was during the late 1940’s through the early sixties. But like many communities around America at that time, Kenner was experiencing a post-war boom that would forever change its rural, small community feel to a large almost characterless suburb. Back then Kenner had character, lots of it, and a lot of characters, as well.
Kenner is a fairly old city with a long history. LaSalle landed there in 1682 and the town was founded by Minor Kenner in 1855 on land that consisted of three plantation properties that had been purchased by the Kenner family. At the time, all land north of what is now Airline Highway (excuse me–Airline Drive) was swampland.
The population today is around 66,000, but when we were kids I remember the number 12,000 being tossed around. That would have been in the fifties.
Kenner today extends from the Mississippi River north all the way to Lake Pontchartrain, about six miles. It is bound on the west by St Charles Parish and on the east by Metairie and the unincorporated areas of Jefferson Parish. When I was a kid it was much smaller. While the east/west boundaries were already well established and north of Airline Highway had been drained as the city grew northward, everything north of what is now Veterans Boulevard remained swamp or land used for farms or grazing cattle. Williams Boulevard was a gravel road from about Veterans to the lake.
The most important feature of Kenner is the airport, called Moisant Field or Moisant Airport back then but now called Louis Armstrong International. The airport was carved out of drained swamp and built by a company out of Chicago, if I am remembering the story my father-in-law told about its construction. He claimed those Yankees were so stupid they used the very large and heavy bulldozers instead of smaller lighter ones to clear the drained land. They returned to work one morning to discover several had sunk out of sight into the muck. At least that is the way he told it.
But back “when” Kenner was the “greatest place” in America to grow up, it was just a small town with a main street (Williams Street, which became Williams Boulevard at Airline Highway Drive) and a CBD all of three blocks long. It was a bit longer until the Mississippi claimed a couple of blocks, and Third Street became the street closest to the levee. First and Second are in the river now.
The Kenner I knew is now called “Rivertown,” but we stick with “Old Kenner.” It extended from the river to Airline Highway, a distance of six blocks and two railroad right of ways. The one closest to the river was the Southern Pacific and the one along Airline Highway was the Illinois Central. I grew up between the two tracks on what was Sixth Street (now Toledano Street) and Williams Street, five blocks from the river.
Side note: My wife grew up a block away on Minor Street. My wife’s dad was one of nine siblings, and he claims those tracks were the reason he had so many brothers and sisters. They lived in a small three-bedroom house about halfway between the two sets of tracks. With so many kids and adopted cousins living with them, some slept in the bedroom with the parents. When a train came through in the middle of the night, usually shaking the house, Poppa would wake up Momma and—well, you know? New sibling on the way.
When I was a kid, Kenner, Louisiana was a small farming community of around 12,000 people. Many citizens of Kenner were of Italian descent and many of them were small truck farmers who would bring their produce to town where it would be packed and shipped north by rail. My future wife’s family ran the local produce packing shed and ice house that supplied the ice for this process.
Like most small towns, everyone knew everyone else, at least on the Airline Highway Drive side of Kenner. Many of my teachers lived within a few blocks of where I lived, so it was hard to get away with anything at school. The fact that my grandfather, Stephen J. (Buck) Barbre, was the principal also contributed to that. If I got into trouble in school, my mother knew about it long before I got home.
Kenner was a safe community, and doors were rarely locked. At night in the summer, we slept to the soft roar of an attic fan sucking in the cool night air through open windows. Air conditioning didn’t come along until the late fifties for most of us.
I feel sorry for kids today. My son won’t let his daughter play outside alone, and they live in what most would consider a very safe neighborhood. It wasn’t like that back in the fifties and sixties. We came home from school, changed clothes, and disappeared into the neighborhood. Our parents never knew where we were, and we were never in any danger, except to ourselves because of some of the stupid things we did. We sometimes stepped on a nail—tetanus shot. Cut a foot or hand on a piece of metal—tetanus shot. Burned a finger with a match or firecracker—tetanus shot. Fell in the ditch—tetanus shot. My dad, the town doctor, dispensed so many tetanus shots and penicillin shots we were probably immune to every disease known to man. We lived through it, even thrived, and we certainly had fun, and our parents worried very little.
We never had any formal playgrounds. The whole world was our playground. Unless it was raining, we were outside, and even when it was raining, we were sometimes outside. And we stayed outside until it either got dark, or a parent rounded us up.
Our homes had fairly large yards but only rarely were they large enough to contain our activities. We needed and sought more room and more varied topography to play in, and in Kenner back then there was plenty of variety. In my neighborhood alone, I could count three heavily wooded lots to play in, two quite large, plus several open fields, one of which was a full square block. And that was within two blocks of where I lived.
We could play cowboys or army and build forts in the wooded areas, or play football and baseball in the open fields. We always had some place to play, and our parents were never overly concerned about us or where we were, since we were usually within shouting distance.
For organized sports like football or baseball we had at least two immediate choices. There was an open field on the corner of Sixth Street and Minor Street. It was plenty large enough for us to use for baseball and football until we grew old enough and strong enough that it became too confining and risked putting a baseball through someone’s window. No problem—when we needed larger we had a whole city block to play in and only a block away. Our Lady of Perpetual Help School now occupies that block. When we were growing up in Kenner it was completely unoccupied by any permanent structure.
Kids love the woods, and we had plenty of wooded lots to choose from. When we were really young we had Joe Lorio’s wooded lot between my grandmother’s house and the Manard’s house. It was small but large enough we could hide from parents and do kid stuff in it. We also had the key lot behind the double belonging to the Manards and the Legasses. It was only lightly wooded but remote enough to be a wonderful playground. Next door was a huge (to us) wooded lot facing Williams Street. When we were old enough to be allowed machetes and hatchets, we chopped down small trees in that lot and built forts in the Manard’s key lot.
One year they bulldozed most of the trees on that lot and pushed them into big piles and left them there like gracious gifts for us kids to play in. We scampered over those piles of trees with our hatchets and machetes and built even bigger forts to play army in.
Every summer the Manards would bring in a load of spillway dirt and dump it in the key lot, and they allowed us kids to level and spread it for them. That process started with “dirt wars.” There was enough clay in the dirt we could make balls and throw them at each other like snowballs. And they hurt! Then we dug small tunnels and built little villages in it to play with our toy trucks and cars in it. After play we all went home covered with river sand and tracked it into our respective houses. My mother hated those dirt piles! I usually had to undress in the garage.
On Minor Street near the IC tracks, two blocks from my home, was another wooded lot. Beside it was the closest thing we had to a creek in our little world, a nice deep ditch with flowing clear water containing small fish and crawfish.
In the summer our “uniform of choice” was shorts – period – no shoes, no shirts. That was from the end of school in May until it stared again in September. At the beginning of summer, our feet were tender and sensitive from a year confined to shoes, and our skin was pale white. By the end of summer our feet were so calloused we could run across the clamshell-covered streets and feel no pain, and we were nearly as dark as some of the African-Americans in Kenner.
We had no TV. The elderly Manards were the first to get a TV in our part of Kenner. Why them, I have no idea? We had one or two stations broadcasting only a few hours a day. It was a novelty for us kids, but outside was far more interesting.
Though “unique” to us, I imagine Kenner was pretty much like many small towns in America just after World War II. It was indeed a great time to be a kid, and Kenner was a great place to grow up.
Some of what I will be writing in this blog will be short “remembrances” from my childhood. Mostly they involve me and my family and friends. I will try to keep them light and humorous. I intend for this to be a WIP (Work In Progress), as I remember more stories or my cousins and friends remind me of things I have forgotten. When I accumulate enough, I will publish them as a book. I hope you will enjoy reading about them as much as we enjoyed living them.
The next post on this subject will be a story that sort of started this, and that was Bobby reminding me of how much he loved The Ditch.