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.
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, 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.
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 J. H. "Harry" Warner with Mackie Pine Oil, saying that Warner's 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," John commented.
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.
Auguste's life was celebrated along with many other Covington pioneers during the 1994 history tour of the Covington cemetery.
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