Friday, January 5, 2018

The Odd Couple of Natchitoches and Their Saloon


Natchitoches (pronounced Nack-a-tish) is a picturesque town in south central Louisiana founded by the French in 1714.  There Henry Hughes, an Irish Catholic, and Morris Aaron, a Jew, forged a friendship that led them to open the Phoenix Saloon in downtown Natchlitoches during the 1880s and run it successfully for  years until local residents in 1907 voted to shut them down.


The Phoenix Saloon building, located at the corner of Horn and Front streets, still stands.   It can be seen above as it looks today, overlooking Cane River Lake, on the left, just to the right of the tall yellow building.  Fortunately, a photo also exists of the Phoenix as it looked in its heyday.  The first floor housed a lobby, a segregated pair of barrooms for blacks and whites (a law in Louisiana) and a gambling room where men played poker and faro.

Built in the 1830s, the saloon also featured an ornate winding iron staircase, shown here, that rose to a rear veranda and the second floor.  The Phoenix Restaurant was located there providing Natchitoches residents with a good Cajun meal.  Second floor balustrades also featured decorative wrought iron.  Behind the building was a smaller structure where the partners stored whiskey and wine.

Hughes and Aaron were not just selling liquor over the bar, they were mixing, bottling and labeling their own brands of whiskey, retailing it through their saloon in pint and half-pint glass containers. Shown here is a magnificently preserved clear bottle embossed with their names and address.  The partners asked that it be returned to them for washing and refilling.  Two other Phoenix Saloon bottles are shown below, one in aqua and the other amber, likely found by bottle diggers.

One partner was Morris Aaron, born on October 12, 1866.  He was the son of Hysuaa and Emily Aaron, the father a Polish immigrant and mother a native born Louisianan.   Hysuaa was a reasonably affluent dealer in wholesale merchandise and apparently an ardent adherent of the Confederacy, even to naming a son “Jeff Davis” after the war.  The 1870 census found four-year-old Morris living in Natchitoches with his parents and three siblings.  By the age of 15 he was working as a clerk in his father’s store.

The other partner, Henry Hughes, was Louisiana born, on June 19, 1864.  His father, a native of New York whose parents had emigrated from Ireland, worked as a stone mason in and around Natchitoches.  At an early age it appears that Henry was headed for the construction trades, as were two older brothers.  The 1880 census found him at 17, having left school and working as a laborer.

What brought the two men from such different backgrounds together to open a saloon is unknown.  Both would have been very young at the time.  They likely had financial assistance from Aaron’s father.  Their partnership was a highly successful one for more than two decades until the a clamor arose among a segment of the Natchitoches population who opposed the sale of alcohol.  Although Louisiana never imposed statewide prohibition, it allowed towns to license saloons and by vote to deny them a license and put them out of business.

The vote was held on August 17, 1907.   The headline in the Natchitoches Times told the story:  “Prohibition Wins.”  The goodly people of the town had voted 658 to deny saloon licenses and 481 to grant them.  By a margin of 177 votes, “dry” forces had been the victor.  The Times, that had editorialized in favor of granting the licenses, waxed philosophical, publishing:  “Law is law, and all good citizens must unite in upholding the will of the majority….”

During the next six months Hughes and Aaron did their best to unload their stock of whiskey and wine, and to provide for their customers who were dreading the dawn of January 1, 1908.  The Times ruefully opined:  “The closing of the saloons will mean a readjustment of business conditions….Some of the proprietors [will] engage in other branches of business.  We would like to see them all remain residents of the old city…and help in the making of a better and more prosperous Natchitoches.”


Hughes and Aaron heeded that call.  Their partnership survived as the two turned to a trade that was well known to the Irishman and his family — bricks.  They opened a factory to manufacture bricks in Natchitoches, calling it H. and A. Brick Works.  A small picture of their plant was included on the company letterhead, shown above.  The partners named their bricks after the town:  “Nakatosh.”  The enterprise must have been reasonably successful because the partners after only several years in business sold the brick works to other interests.

With a wife, Catherine (nee Quinn) and a family of three children, Hughes continued to engage in local business, opening a dry goods store, according to the 1910 census.  Aaron meanwhile had used the wealth accrued from the Phoenix Saloon also to go into banking and agriculture, having bought farmland around Natchitoches.  With the dawn of the automotive age, he opened a Ford dealership.

Hughes was the first to die, passing in July 1932 at the age of 68.  He was buried in the American Cemetery on Second Street in Natchitoches, a site that had was located across from a Catholic church and originally held a French fort.  Aaron lived until May 1943, dying at the age of 77.  He was buried at the Jewish Cemetery of Natchitoches. Their gravestones are below.


During the prime of their lives, these two men had come together in an enterprise involving strong drink — something that neither of their religious heritages disapproved.  But unfortunately for them, their town had a majority who were Protestant and for whom alcohol was anathema. Local opposition ended the more than two decade run of a memorable saloon, the Phoenix.  Shown below, at the far left, the building now contains a Natchitoches store catering to tourists.


Note:  I visited Natchitoches several years ago and became enamored of the town.  Intrigued by the photo of the clear flask shown above, I was doing research on the Phoenix Saloon and its proprietors when I came across an article in the Natchitoches Times of November 14, 2017 that told the story of the saloon closing in 1907, thirteen years before National Prohibition.  It was written by local historian Henry “Buddy” Maggio and had appeared in the newspaper only three days before I began my search for information.  Mr. Maggio’s article made this post possible.


















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