Columnist - Jim Bradshaw
The fact that there is a Frog Festival in Rayne is proof enough that in Louisiana we will celebrate just about anything, but there are actually historical roots for the celebration.
The early French settlers of south Louisiana were not only familiar with the delicacies of frog legs, but they were also willing to use just about anything in nature for food, fiber or fun. Along with crawfish, alligators, crabs, oysters, turtles and other critters, frogs became a part of the Cajun cuisine and spread onto their neighbors’ tables.
Donat Pucheau, who came to Rayne from France in 1887, is credited with putting Rayne and frogs together. The Southern Pacific had come through just a few years before, and he saw the possibilities when rails and ouaouarons connected. He was the first to start shipping live frogs from south Louisiana swamps to New Orleans restaurants.
Before too long, another Frenchman, Jacques Weil, and his brothers, Edmond and Gontran, began what developed into a huge frog shipping business that in fact made Rayne the Frog Capital of the World.
Jacques became the senior partner in the firm of Jacques Weil, Boudreaux and Leger. The firm at one time shipped as much as 10,000 pounds of frog legs from Rayne in a week (as well as poultry, eggs and produce) for New Orleans and other markets. For years, world renowned restaurants like Sardi’s in New York boasted about their frog legs from Rayne.
The frog shipping season usually began in late February and peaked in April. Hunters stalked the south Louisiana wetlands with lighted lanterns and burlap sacks. The frogs froze when the light was shined in their eyes and the hunters just picked them up and plopped them into the sack.
Frog legs were the pièce de résistance of the frog business, but the hides brought a few bucks, too. As the frogs were butchered and skinned, the hides were put into barrels, covered with salt, and sent to tanneries to be made into purses and other leather goods.
According to a 1902 newspaper report, “While the frogs sent to New Orleans are shipped alive, those consigned to Texas points are killed and cleaned here, the edible parts being packed in ice. …. A shipment of five barrels of hides was made this morning, weighing no less than 1,600 pounds. … The shipment went down on the bill of lading as ‘Five barrels green frog hides’ and it’s ten-to-one that more than a couple of railroad men will think it a josh. But the barrels will be there to speak for themselves.”
The Crowley newspaper reported in the summer of 1906 that 9,000 pounds of frog skins taken from 64,854 frogs had been shipped from the depot there.
As late as 1952, one Rayne firm reported that it expected to ship up to 50,000 pounds of frog legs and another 20,000 to 30,000 live frogs. By that time, a lot of the frogs were going to science labs instead of restaurants and would end up under a dissecting knife in somebody’s biology lab.
The frog leg market took a dive in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but Rayne still shipped a fair number of frogs for the science market.
In 1946, Rayne’s froggy reputation was furthered when the International Rice Festival invited Rayne to host the first Frog Derby, the event in which frogs are dressed up in jockey uniforms and raced. The idea took hold, and in the early 1970s Myrta Fair Craig, editor of the Rayne Acadian-Tribune, began promoting the idea of a Frog Festival as a way to put Rayne on the tourism map.
Folks who knew her remember that Myrta Fair was a hard woman to say no to, and the Chamber of Commerce, YMBC, Jaycees, Lions, Rayne Garden Club, American Legion, and practically every other organized body in Rayne soon began to play some role in putting on a festival.
The first Frog Festival opened on Sept. 1, 1973, and it’s been hopping ever since.
You can contact Jim Bradshaw at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.