Covington in the 1940s and 1950s
By Phil Pfeffer
Everyone talks about the “Good Ole Days.” Let’s take a look.
About 70 years ago, Covington was a sleepy country town of about 5,000 people. It was two hours away from New Orleans to the south of Lake Pontchartrain and two hours east of Baton Rouge. The only industry was a turpentine factory of Delta Pine Products, known earlier as Mackie’s Pine Products. Pine oil as the name suggests was made from pine knots and the logs of pine trees, and the plant was subject to frequent fires.
In those days, the crime rate in Covington was at a minimum. People would get out of their car, without locking it, and leave the keys in the ignition, on a seat or on the dashboard. On a warm, dry day, they would leave the windows rolled down (very few cars had air conditioning).
The houses were not locked a night or even when the resident was away during the day. On a warm night, the doors and windows were left open for circulation (very few houses had air conditioning). A woman or young girl could walk home after a movie at night without fear of being assaulted. In the 1940s a call to the police may take a while for a response because the police had to call a taxi before they could go to the site.
The Fire Department
The fire department was a completely volunteer unit except for the fire chief. The fire chief and his family lived above the fire station. When a fire broke out, a siren on the city’s water tower alerted the volunteers as to the location of the fire for the volunteers to assemble. For example, if the fire was on 19th avenue, the siren would sound one long blast, followed by nine short ones.
The telephone exchange was located on the northeast corner of New Hampshire street and Independence street. When you picked up your telephone a female voice asked, “Number, Please.” Note that all of the telephone operators were women. You would give the operator the number that you wanted to call, and she would connect you. If you did not know the number of your party, you would ask for “Information.”
The phone numbers were two, three or four digits. Some numbers had a letter suffix. These were party lines. You might remember that Granny on the Beverly Hillbillies wanted a party line installed in the mansion so that she could eavesdrop on other conversations. Phones with rotary dial systems did not come to Covington until around 1951.
The Coming of Television
Television was in its embryo stage. Not many families had a television and if they did it consisted of a small, round cathode ray tube. The picture was in black and white and tended to roll, skew vertically or was often comprise of “snow.” Replacing the picture tube periodically cost about $90.
There was only one television station, Channel 6 (WDSU), and it came out of New Orleans. WDSU was later joined by WWL and if you had a high enough antenna and aimed it correctly, you could pick up WBRZ from Baton Rouge. None of these stations operated 24 hours a day. Shows consisted of such classics as “Howdy Doody” and “Morgus the Magnificent.”
Sports on television was minimal. Sometimes there was a professional baseball game shown on Saturday afternoon or a football game on Thanksgiving Day, but the teams were whatever the network wanted to show. Baseball was often on the radio (Mutual Broadcasting System). College games were not on the tube. L.S.U. and Tulane could usually be heard on the radio.
The Local Movie Show
Entertainment was primarily the movie house. The Star Theatre had movies every night. On Sunday and Monday was the main feature for the week. On Saturday night was the weekly cowboy show. Boys would bring their cap pistols and sit on the front row and shoot the bad guys. The cost of admission was nine cents if you were below 12 years old. Otherwise the price was 36 cents. Children would try to lie about their age for the first year after turning twelve.
The Majestic Theatre was also in Covington, but it was only open on the weekends. The Majestic also had branches in Madisonville and in Mandeville.
On the Mandeville highway were the drive-in theatre and the bowling alley. The drive in was open on the week ends and the teenager would do whatever they had to do to avoid the price of admission. If a girl had a long, full skirt, someone would lie on the floor under the skirt. Boys would get in the trunk of the car and get out once they were inside the fence. Some boys would climb the fence and meet the car and driver inside the fence. Typically, when a couple went to the drive in, they didn’t watch the movie.
The Music Scene
Teenagers were introduced to Rock and Roll. Beginning with “Rock around the Clock,” the airwaves were suddenly filled with Fats Domino, Little Richard, the Platters and soon to be with Elvis. It all drove the parents crazy.
The local hangouts were primarily on Claiborne Hill. The younger crowd would congregate at the Dairy King where a milk shake costs twenty cents and a hamburger cost twenty-five cents. As the crowd grew a little older, Claiborne Inn became the preferred location. There, there were car hops for service. Cokes cost a dime and a beer was twenty-five or thirty cents, depending on the brand.
A special was “Chicken in the Basket” consisting of three pieces of chicken, French fries and toast. The cost of the basket was eighty-five cents. Also, on “the Hill” was Village Inn which had a band on Saturday nights, Jim’s which was a more upper-class establishment and the Circle Tavern, better known as “The Bloody Bucket.”
Another popular hangout for the younger set was Harvey’s House. Here there was an ice cream and soda fountain, comic books, pinball machines and on weekends, roller skating in the back at night.
The two Boy Scout troops were Troop 116 and Troop 325. Troop 116 met at St. Peters school. Troop 325 met at the Presbyterian Church on Friday nights and would occasionally go camping. One favorite spot was a boy scout facility, just east of Mandeville near the lake. There were several cub scouts packs around town and one girl scout troop.
With the arrival of summer, it was time to go swimming. The most popular spot was Bogue Falaya State Park at the end of New Hampshire street. Other popular spots were Red Bluff up toward Folsom and Fontainebleau State Park just east of Mandeville. The lake at Fontainebleau was shallow near shore and you had to go out quite a way before the water was waist deep. It was also the location of the annual barbeque held by the Covington Lions Club.
The Covington Country Club opened in 1954. The main activities were the swimming pool and the nine-hole golf course. The back nine was added a few years later. There was food and a bar and people where often seen sun bathing by the pool or playing cards inside. One had to own a share of stock in the country club as prerequisite for membership. A share of stock cost $200.
To travel to New Orleans, you had to go around the lake via Slidell. Besides being a longer journey, you had towns of Mandeville, Lacombe and Slidell with their traffic lights. If you got behind a slow car, you had to wait for your chance to pass because it was only a two-lane highway. Travel time was about two hours. The causeway wasn’t opened until the late 1950s. Students at Covington High made temporary and permanent friends with students whose dads came over to work on the causeway construction. It was also about two hours to Baton Rouge with even more town and traffic lights. Here again, Interstate-12 was still on the drawing board.
The Greyhound Bus Connection
One way to go to New Orleans was by the Greyhound bus. The bus originated in Abita Springs, then to the parking lot of the Southern Hotel and made stops in Mandeville, Lacombe and Slidell (remember the White Kitchen) before arriving at the terminal on Canal street. It would also stop along the way if someone on the roadside flagged them down. Once in the City, you would shop primarily at Holmes or Maison Blanche. New Orleans had a good transportation system. The bus or streetcar cost seven cents to ride and you could get free transfers to change from streetcar to bus or change buses at intersections to continue your journey.
The newspapers that were published in New Orleans were sent to Covington via the bus. The paper cost a nickel. Boys would distribute the afternoon paper to the subscribed customers while riding on their bikes (rain or shine). They often had trouble collecting the monthly subscription fee from their customers. The Baton Rouge newspaper was seldom available.
Doctors Made House Calls
Home delivery was not uncommon. The milk man brought fresh milk and/or cream to your back door. The daily morning newspaper would be thrown to your front steps. Laundry could be picked up at your back door and taken to St. Joseph’s Abbey where the nuns would wash and iron it and return it in a few days. Even soft drinks and watermelon would be sold door to door. Occasionally, men would be standing on the side of the road selling strawberries or soft-shell crabs. If you were very sick, the doctors made house calls.
There were several automobiles in Covington that no longer exist today. Packard was a luxury car to compete with Cadillac and Lincoln. Studebaker had a car that looked very similar from its front or back. Then there was the Kaiser and the Henry-J. The Edsel made a brief appearance. The price of a Cadillac back the was about five thousand dollars.
Gasoline costs about twenty cents a gallon, sometimes as low as 18-cents or as high as 24-cents. Cigarettes were about 25 to 30-cents a pack. If the price in a vending machine was 27 or 28-cents, the package would have two or three pennies included in the cellophane wrapper as change for your quarter and nickel. Coke and other soft drinks cost only a nickel. Coke later introduced a 10-ounce bottle in addition to their six-ounce size and it cost six-cents.
Passenger trains had not run in Covington for several years, but a daily train still came through. It traveled from Bogalusa through Abita Springs, then through Covington in route to collect logs for the paper mill. It returned in the afternoon fully loaded. Occasionally a freight car would be dropped off on a spur south of Lockwood street. When the train was abolished, the track and land was sold, and it became Tammany Trace.
There were three primary high schools, CHS, St. Paul’s and St. Scholastica’s. It was in the 1950s that St. Paul’s built their “new” basketball gym. Non-students of St. Paul’s would sneak into the school grounds because they had a swimming pool and a couple of pool tables. CHS, located on Jefferson Avenue had several “out buildings.” Agriculture classes were held in a building near the football field. The band hall was a separate building across from the gym. Boys kept their bicycles in the band hall yard (and did not have to lock their bikes). St. Paul’s and CHS had a natural cross-town rivalry in football and basketball. Covington High has since been burned down; fire origin unknown.
The CHS band uniforms provided by the school consisted of a jacket and a hat. Band members had to supply their own white pants and sew a blue strip down each side plus provide their own blue tie. The band performed at half-time of the high school football games, had an annual concert and marched in several New Orleans Mardi Gras parades.
The gym served several purposes. Besides being home court for the school basketball team, Covington hosted an invitation tournament of sixteen local area high school basketball teams each February. The home team won this tourney several years in a row in the 1950s. It was the venue of the high school dances following home football games. After the CHS-St. Paul’s game was the Sadie Hawkins dance. The name taken from Dogpatch and Lil’ Abner whereby the girls asked the boys for a date. It was also used for school assemblies, a site for talent and magic shows, the annual senior class play, and it even served as the location for the performance of the New Orleans symphony.
Across from the high school was the softball field (now the location of the gym). It was a lighted field with bleachers, and in the evenings, softball was played, with the two dominate teams, Shell Oil and WASS (Western Auto Supply Store). In later years, this area was designated for high school boys to smoke, if they had written parental permission.
Driving to Madisonville
To drive to Madisonville, you would go down 19th avenue to Tyler street then to 16th avenue to Filmore (Tyler street was not open between 21st avenue and 19th avenue). At the end of Filmore was a “rickety” old bridge across the Tchefuncte River. The bridge at the south east end of Tyler street was not built until the mid-50s.
To go to Hammond, one would go northwest on 21st avenue to the end and then turn west toward Goodbee. There was no easy way. Traveling from Texas to Florida, the truckers used U.S. Highway 190. That main route came right through Covington down Boston street. It made the double 90-degree turn at Jefferson avenue before going down 21st avenue toward Hammond.
In the Spring of 1957, Covington undertook to renumber every house and building in a more organized way. The intersection of Jefferson avenue and 21st avenue was ground zero. From there, buildings were numbered on the streets every 50 feet. If there was no house or building in a certain span, a gap occurred in the numbers so that there was room for a future building to be numbered.
The street names were changed or modified to reflect north, south, east and west of ground zero. The numbers were assigned using a simple system first originated by Napoleon in France with odd numbers on the left and even numbers on the right as you left ground zero. For instance, a house that was originally 1104 21st avenue, became 406 West 21st avenue.
The parish courthouse was on Boston street. It was torn down in the late 1950s to make room for a new, more modern facility. The gymnasium of the grammar school was the temporary courthouse. It was during this construction period that Governor Earl Long was transported from the mental hospital near Mandeville to the Covington Grammar school gym for a sanity hearing. Rumor was that he told the state trooper that drove the car, that as soon as he let him out at the school, to find another job because he was fired!