For years, while working at the McHugh House Museum, Lois Hastings gathered and collected many antique artifacts with the hopes of one day having them fill another building in the Zachary Historic Village as a replica of the J.W. McHugh Red Chain General Merchandise Store.
When Hastings died in May 2013, Jean Byers, now the museum’s director, took over sorting through the collectibles, which were stored in hundreds of boxes in the garage attached to the McHugh House in the Zachary Historic Village.
“We hung onto it all, going through the boxes and re-creating what the inside of the store must have looked like,” Byers said.
Hastings’ dream was somewhat fulfilled on Dec. 12, when a mock-up of the J.W. McHugh store opened for tours during Zachary’s Christmas in the Village event.
Byers said she researched J.W. McHugh himself and the history of his store by poring over archive books and old newspaper clippings.
She ran across an interview of McHugh dated Feb. 10, 1955, in The Plainsman.
“McHugh had sat down and shared memories of his store with a reporter from The Plainsman,” Byers said. “For more than half a century, he was known as ‘the man behind the counter at the General Store.’ ”
According to Byers’ research, the J.W. McHugh Red Chain General Merchandise Store opened for business in 1911 where the Zachary Fire Department now stands on Main Street.
She said Jesse McHugh was the fourth of 12 children — six boys and six girls.
According to The Plainsman article, McHugh said, “My father gave us boys all a chance to have a little patch of land to grow cotton. He taught us to save the money we made from farming it and to always put something aside for a rainy day.”
Whenever McHugh was asked where he went to school, the family joke was to answer with Magnolia Academy, referring to a small, one-room school underneath a magnolia tree.
The young McHugh dreamed of studying medicine, but his plan failed to materialize, so at age 19, he took a job working for Amrhein & Blum, a general store in Zachary.
Amrhein & Blum, which mainly served the farmers in the area, furnished and supplied growers with food and other essentials from one year to the next.
When the harvest came in, the farmers would pay their bills but immediately open another account for the next year. In the event of crop failure, Amrhein & Blum would give the farmers another year’s worth of credit in spite of already owing a year of unpaid debt.
McHugh said it took a lot of cash to operate a business that way, according to the Plainsman article.
He said his beginning salary as a clerk at Amrhein & Blum was $15 a month, but by 1908, he was earning $50 a month and briefly considered going to LSU to become a doctor. However, he stuck with Amrhein & Blum, claiming that $50 a month was a pretty good salary in those days.
In 1911, McHugh opened his own general merchandise store on his birthday — July 1, 1911 — by renting out a building on Main Street for $10 a month from Bob Troth.
McHugh eventually bought the building, paying Troth $1,200 in cash that he had saved, a lesson he learned from his father.
Unlike Amrhein & Blum, McHugh’s store was not a supply store for farmers but a general merchandise store that started out on a small scale but sold a little bit of everything, according to Byers’ research.
During the years of building his business, McHugh remained single, but after meeting and “going with” Blanche Capdevielle, of Baton Rouge, for four years, the couple married on June 20, 1917, at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church.
They lived in a rented place for $10 a month until L. Walls, the depot agent at the time, moved and offered to sell the McHughs his house, which today stands as the McHugh House Museum at Virginia and Florida streets in the Zachary Historic Village. The couple spent $3,000 on the home before moving in.
In October 1918, when it became evident that McHugh may have to enlist in the military, he arranged to sell his store to Solon Farmbacher and Charles Kahn.
However, before going off to war, McHugh signed a contract and added a small clause that said if a truce was reached between the opposing sides before Nov. 15, the deal would be canceled.
Sure enough, the Armistice of Compiègne, an agreement that ended the fighting on the Western Front, went into effect at 11 a.m. Paris time on Nov. 11, 1918.
Byers said the clause gave McHugh the option of not going through with the sale of his store, which continued to thrive for several more decades.
Byers said part of the replica of the J.W. McHugh General Store is being painted and restored but is open to visitors of the McHugh House Museum or to Zachary Historical Village from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday.
Specially arranged tours for schools, groups or organizations can be scheduled for any day, any time by calling (225) 654-1912 or (225) 933-3261.