People flocked from miles around to shell beach

A steady breeze kept the 104 degree heat index at bay last week for an outing to Charenton Beach with the only remaining family member who lived there during its heyday as a resort. The Charenton Beach Resort at Grand Lake was frequented by the public from the 1800s until soon before the Second World War.

Wanda Viguerie Bailey was born in 1925 but vividly remembers the adventures she had with siblings during the late 1920s and 1930s when couples came to the resort and its popular dance hall. The hall had open rafters and the children would climb above the festivities and watch as couples moved to the sounds of big bands that included among many others, Cap Hebert and the Louisiana Six, a young Louis Armstrong and even The Harry James Orchestra.

“We were just a bunch of kids running all around here,” Bailey said. “They had lights strung all over. One string was all white lights, then others colored red, green and blue. When they’d play this ‘slooow’ music, they’d turn the white lights off and leave just the colored lights on. I can still hear that music and looking over the water see the lights reflecting in the lake. One of the songs they’d play was ‘Intermezzo.’

“They had an intermission and all the dancers were hot and out of breath,” she said. “They’d go to the front of the restaurant to the pop stand where barrels of drinks were iced down. They’d all stream out and drink to cool off. I can remember that at the pop stand.”

Elaine Griffin, guardian of the Iberia Parish Library I.A. and Carroll Martin collection that houses many of the photos Bailey has collected, said she remembers going out to the Charenton Beach Resort with her fiance in 1948 when she was just 21 years old.

“There weren’t many places for young people to go back then except the beach and the park,” Griffin said. “That’s what young people did. I haven’t been back since.”

Always a Destination

The 10-acre stretch along the natural shell beach of Grand Lake was a destination for horse and buggy riders long before it was officially named. Travelers came from Cypremort Point, Thibodeaux and even as far away as Plaquemine and Baton Rouge by boat.

“My great-grandmother bought land from the Bayou Teche to the lake, she in turn gave it to her daughter who was my grandmother, Ernestine Louisiana Burguieres Viguerie,” said Bailey. “In 1900, they made a seal and incorporated it as the Charenton Shell Bank Pleasure Resort Co. Ltd. They made it into a company. My grandfather Frank Viguerie Sr. must have been president.”

Before the levee system, the twelve mile stretch across Grand Lake made the opposite shoreline almost invisible. Now, with a sandbar growing yearly, the distance to the “other side” seems close and within reach.

“Before this Atchafalaya Basin levee was built it was all different,” Wanda Bailey said. “You’d have a spring rise, but now they control it like they want. They pay you for the land, very little. But at that time, we lost the resort.”

Bailey keeps a notebook with memories of the mirth and music once flourishing at the resort. The I.A. and Carroll Martin Collection at Iberia Parish Library have provided her with copies of pictures from by-gone days including vacant property before the buildings were set. Her uncle manned the entry gate collecting the 25-cents fee. Her father managed the bath house renting baskets to store street clothes while swimming.

Also on the grounds of the resort were a restaurant and cabins. Bailey lived at the resort part of her childhood years before the war took so many men away from the area. An active seven to nine year old can find much to do with six siblings at a lake side cabin. One of the treats included the surplus of food left by the campground patrons.

At the end of the dance hall was a screened in area where visitors could keep their picnics in the shade and away from ants and flies. After they left, a lot of good food remained, she said.

The popular picnic spot for folks dressed in their finest Sunday best, maxed out during one 4th of July celebration with a reported 20,000 visitors. Fireworks lined the long swimming pier annually.

Bailey remembers helping her uncle unpack the bomb-sized crackers. The fireworks were shipped in a straw material they would pile up and burn. On one occasion, the unpacking missed one of the firecrackers that burst to their surprise in the burning debris.

Indian midden, an indigenous shell made the natural mound of shells on the shoreline, but it didn’t stop the locals from running barefoot. Indian mounds are also on the property.

Registry of Treasures

Among the memorabilia in Bailey’s book of the beach, including posters and newspaper clippings, is a copy of the original deed dated July 6, 1900. Her great-grandmother and father had traveled to the lake via the road now known as Louisiana 87 passing in front of what would become the family property now occupied by her son Earl “Butch” and Mary Bailey.

The entrance into the beach changed years after the purchase to allow visitors to enter in the middle of the property instead of the end. The same road is still used today, crossing the levee and down to the private property where a boat launch remains and is used by permission, for a small fee. The family owned cabin is still near the launch and was once used as Dave Robicheaux’s bait stand in the movie, “In the Electric Mist,” adapted from a James Lee Burke book.

Fall festivals benefiting churches or sponsored by other organizations also were part of the fun days at the beach. Sunrise services were perfect with the sun cresting on the opposite shore.

Among the memorabilia left from the glory days are a stack of cypress planks saved by Butch Bailey when he tore down some of the last remaining buildings. Frequent visitors often carved their full names as well as initials into the raw wood benches in the dance hall and other buildings around the resort. Descendants and locals may recognize the names which include J. Baldwin, Hy Baldwin, Trappe, Trappey, M.A. Thiel, Alex S. and T. Robichaux. Families interested in the plaques can contact Bailey through The Daily Iberian to claim them.

People at the Resort

The Viguerie Brothers, Wanda Bailey’s father and uncles, were the proprietors of the resort back in the day. Closed during the winter months, they would often reopen on Easter weekend for “the season.” They made repairs during the winter so things would be ready in the summer. Bailey said the winters were cold along the shore and walking from their home to her grandmothers was a chilling experience.

Among the amenities were the 4-H Cabins, the engine room where the resort created its own electricity, and cabins for rent. Bailey remembers the Boy Scout Jamborees bringing troops from throughout South Louisiana to camp on the shores of Grand Lake.

The restaurant at the Charenton Beach Resort was at times run by the family but often was leased out to others along with each of the facilities available for public use. New Iberia’s “Mother Deare’s” owner and cook worked at the resort which opened seasonally.

The memory of those days also remains in their family line and was told as part of a food story in The Daily Iberian Feb. 4, 2016, memories of Ruth Nugent Boudreaux, 88.

“Ola Katherine Kelly Deare had a house full of children. Boudreaux’s mother, Essie Florence Deare Nugent, was one of Mother Deare’s daughters. In the summers as a child, Boudreaux remembers going to Albania and Charenton, a summer place for the well to do. Mother Deare would cook in the restaurant and Boudreaux’s mother would go and help. She said it was great for the kids. Those were the early years before Mother Deare’s opened,” the article said.

Attention Still Needed

When the U.S. Army Corp. of Engineers built the hydraulic flow for waters with the levee system, the resort was destined to closure. Seasonal flooding was no longer controlled by nature but man’s desire to raise and lower the Mississippi River. Now because the basin uses the area as a flood plane during certain seasons, the shoreline is subject to flooding thus lost for the leisure pleasures it was intended.

The basin use has also caused the hard rippled-bottom of the sandy shore to become mushy with silt. The resort is not the only thing affected by the “progress.”

There’s now a need for dredging to keep the lake opened up for commercial and sportsman fishing. The sandbar and shore are slowing closing at Taylor’s Point, the place where professional fisherman and sportsman and kayakers enter and exit the lake. At certain times of the year they can barely go through to the Atchafalaya River. Hindsight is reflective as to the wisdom of allowing the levee to pass through the land once loved by many as a resort. But even if it had been put in a different spot, the property may have been part of the flood plain. For now, all that remain — and for only a few — are the memories of a fine time, back in the good ole days.

The family would love to locate pictures from others with stories of parents or grandparents meeting or vacationing at Charenton Beach Resort. If you have pictures of the area or would like to claim a family board, contact Vicky Branton at 321-6734 to connect with the Baileys to arrange for copies or share stories.

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