Saturday, September 21, 2013

A Floating Dancehall on the Teche: The Club Sho Boat

While researching Bayou Teche I learned about a riverboat on the bayou that had been converted into a floating nightclub, dancehall, and restaurant. Christened the Club Sho Boat, it sat on the Teche at New Iberia from the late 1930s to the mid-1950s. (I hesitate to call the vessel a “steamboat,” even though it looked like one, because diesel engines often powered later riverboats. Thus they were not true steamboats.)

The Club Sho Boat on Bayou Teche (ca. 1940).
(Courtesy Angelle-Leigh Breaux)

I did not know, however, exactly where along the Teche the riverboat had been moored.

While driving in New Iberia about a month ago I saw a battered old sign along Main Street. It obviously had been there for decades, even generations, and yet I never before noticed it. The sign stood over the entrance to a grassy lot along the Teche, and its faded letters on a white field read “Showboat Apartments.”

“Showboat?” I thought — might not that be an oblique reference to the Club Sho Boat?

"Showboat Apartments" sign,
1915 E. Main Street, New Iberia, La.
(Photo by author, September 2013)

A short time later I examined a photograph of the Club Sho Boat in the book Looking Back: Historic Images of Iberia Parish. The book credited ownership of the photo to a present-day local photographer. Tracking her down through the Internet, I learned that the Club Sho Boat had belonged to her great-grandfather, a New Iberia entrepreneur named George Angelle. Despite his illiteracy, Angelle had excelled as a businessman, operating not only the Club Sho Boat, but an establishment on Lake Dauterive called George’s Place and another in Hot Wells, Louisiana, named Angelle’s Cafe. He also let rooms there to tourists who came to bathe in the hot springs.

Moreover, I learned that the Club Sho Boat had indeed sat on the Teche at the site of the Showboat Apartments. (Originally used as barracks at Fort Polk, the apartments opened after the Club Show Boat began operation; they are not the same apartments that stand on the property today.)

Former site of the Club Sho Boat.
The gravel at center marks the spot of the boat's slip.
(Photo by author)

Angelle’s great-granddaughter referred me to her mother, who shared with me much of the Club Sho Boat's history. She informed me, for example, that prior to its purchase by her grandfather the vessel had served as a crew boat on Lake Dauterive, perhaps for workers building levees in the Atchafalaya swamp. I also learned that Angelle first moored the vessel in the bayou (as seen in the above image) behind the present-day site of Darby Motors in New Iberia (1305 E. Main Street), then moved it a little downstream into a slip running perpendicular to the bayou (1915 E. Main Street). In addition, Angelle owned a taxi, its door bearing an image of the vessel, that conveyed club goers to and from his establishment.

Among the musicians who performed at the Club Sho Boat (the vessel’s original name is unknown) were “Cajun swing” artists Happy Fats LeBlanc, Doc Guidry, and their band — known commonly as Happy, Doc, and the Boys, a playful reference to the Seven Dwarfs in the 1937 Disney movie Snow White.

The small building at right served
as the Club Sho Boat's "fish house,"
where fish were stored and prepared for dining.
(Photo by author)

Sadly, Angelle was murdered in 1953 by a Hot Wells landowner with whom he quarreled about cattle trespassing on his property.

Article about Angelle's murder.
(Source: Lubbock [Tex.] Morning Avalanche, 23 May 1953)

After his death Angelle’s family tore down the vessel, razing it to the waterline before filling up the slip with pieces of concrete, dirt, and other debris. According to the family, the hull remains buried in the slip — perhaps awaiting excavation by a future archaeology crew.

The Club Sho Boat from the east bank of Bayou Teche,
by noted Louisiana photographer Fonville Winans.
Winans is the fisherman at left.
(Courtesy www.fonvillewinans.com)

Coincidentally, a friend of mine, eighty-nine-year-old Clarence Barrilleaux (pronounced BEAR-REE-OH in the Cajun French manner) of Avery Island, alerted me to a surviving artifact from the Club Sho Boat. Barrilleaux told me that around 1955 his former employer, Walter S. McIlhenny — president of McIlhenny Company, maker of Tabasco brand products since 1868 — sent him to the Club Sho Boat to pick up its ship’s bell. The riverboat was being torn down at the time, recalled Barrilleaux, and McIlhenny had purchased the salvaged bell as a decoration.

Ship's bell from the Club Sho Boat
as it appears today.
(Photo by author)

Barrilleaux directed me to the bell’s current location on the Island: atop a small wooden tower in a private yard. With permission from the lease holder, I hauled an extension ladder to the bell tower, climbed to the top, and photographed the artifact. The bell is stamped:

CAST.BY.
A.FULTON.
PITTSBURGH

Casting imprint on the ship's bell.
(Photo by author)

According to aficionados of vintage cast bells (there are indeed such persons), bells with this imprint date to 1865 or earlier, subsequent imprints reading “A. Fulton's Son & Co.”* If this is correct, the bell evidently predated the riverboat by many decades, for such vessels had extremely short lifespans because of snags, collisions, boiler explosions, and the like. It seems probable, therefore, that the bell had been recycled any number of times before winding up on the riverboat that ended its life as the Club Sho Boat.

Could one of these features be the ship's bell
as captured by photographer Fonville?
(Courtesy www.fonvillewinans.com)

____________________


*“The foundry went under the name Andrew Fulton from 1827 to 1865. . . . At this time they put 'A. Fulton' on their smaller, undated bells. From 1866 to 1889 they went first under the name 'A. Fulton's Son & Co.,' then under 'A. Fulton's Sons & Co.' . . ..” Source: Neil Goeppinger, posting on Americanbell.org, 1 March 2007, http://www.americanbell.org/forum/viewtopic.php?f=4&t=408, accessed 22 September 2013. While I do not know the source of Goeppinger's information, his claims do correspond to data provided by other bell enthusiasts. (I have corrected Goeppinger's punctuation slightly.)

1 comment:

  1. Hey man I just wanted to thank you for doing this. I grew up in New Iberia. Your blog gives an intense sense of place to locations I've never put deep thought to before. Thanks for that.

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