Remnants of Vermilion Parish's once-robust cattle industry can still be found in an overgrown, wooded area along the bayou in Abbeville.

It's visible in rundown buildings that once served as a cattle auction barn and slaughterhouse. And it's understood through conversations with the 69-year-old man who lives on the property.

"Nobody has time to listen to what I have to say anymore," Johnny Richard said. "Nobody tells stories anymore. Young people don't have the time to listen or don't care enough to listen."

That's all about to change thanks to a historic preservation grant that will provide $20,000 toward documenting the Richard Cattle Auction Barn's rich history.

Corey Saft, an architecture professor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, will work with about a dozen students on the project during the spring 2020 semester.

Saft and his team will document the property's oral history, which they'll use to determine how everything worked in the auction barn and slaughterhouse. They'll measure the buildings in their current state and draw them to scale in a computer drafting program.

Their work will be submitted to the U.S. Library of Congress.

"We do this kind of project every year, but this one is different for us because we're talking about a building that has such a huge economic impact and history on an area. This is exciting for us," Saft said.

Cattle have long been raised in Louisiana, but they didn't become an important economic factor until the 20th century. Production increased throughout the South in the 1930s, in part due to diversification and improved disease control. 

The Vermilion Parish slaughterhouse was constructed on Richard's property in 1937, and the auction barn was built in 1946. They were listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1997. 

"Abbeville wouldn't exist without the cattle farmers and meat market and processing facilities," Richard said. "They raised cattle in the harshest conditions. South Louisiana has just about every predator imaginable."

The cattle were tough, and the cowboys who worked with them were even tougher.

Richard broke his neck on three separate occasions while wrestling, vaccinating and tattooing the animals.

"The cattle I grew up with was bad, bad cattle," he said. "They saw humans as predators just like anything else."

The slaughterhouse and auction barn haven't been operational since the early 1980s.

Cattle once transported on barges along the bayou were eventually moved in trailers along Interstates 10 and 49. Cattle once sold at in-person auctions that served as social events would eventually be sold instead through televised and later internet auctions.

And those who grew up in the industry moved away from Vermilion Parish to pursue other occupations. 

"I was different," Richard said. "Everyone else wanted to leave, but I wanted to stay here."

Richard almost didn't have the opportunity to stay in the place he called home. As a young adult, he was busted for smuggling marijuana from Columbia to America. His family and neighbors told him he would have to move away and start over.

"I'm well known," Richard said. "I'm not well respected, but I'm well known."

Instead, he returned home after serving 18 months behind bars.

Richard was determined to work in the family business he's been in since the age of 7. He never attended school on Tuesdays because of the weekly cattle auction.

"It depresses me that it looks like this, that it's so rundown now," he said, casting his gaze toward the cattle barn that once bustled with activity.

The recently awarded historic preservation grant will provide funding to document the building and its history, but it won't directly fund the restoration of the building.

It's possible the project could generate interest in the property, though. It's something Saft and the Richard family hope to see.

"This builds interest and engagement in the place," Saft said. "The Richards are certainly interested in figuring out how to continue the life of the property, but it has to be economically viable."

He said there should be a way to make it work.

"It's an amazing location, and it's rooted in the cultural traditions of Acadiana," Saft said. "We just have to find some way to reinvent that place for the 21st century." 

The slaughterhouse currently serves as an art studio for Richard and his wife. A portion of the auction barn is intact enough to serve as a live music venue.

The lobby where women once wrote checks for the cattle their husbands bought has been transformed into a bar for concert-goers. The open-air space where cows once trotted now includes a stage for musicians.

Proceeds from the blues shows, which are held the last Saturday of each month in the fall and spring, go toward maintaining the barn through the nonprofit Richard created, Le Bayou Legendaire.

The French name translates to Legends of the Bayou. It's a reminder of the property's rich history.

"I'm real proud of where I'm from," Richard said. "I'm real proud of the people that came before me. I got a buddy who's dying right now in the hospital, and I told him 'There's not going to be more of this. We're the last.'"

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