History in the making…60 years of service

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, April 26, 2000

LEONARD GRAY / L’Observateur / April 26, 2000

LAPLACE – It’s been an Airline Highway landmark for 60 years and now Airline Motors Restaurant is on the internet, sharing its history and asking former employees to share in that story.

Just log on to www.stjohnparish.com/airlinemotors to see the story foryourself. The website, hosted by Whitman Internet Services, features ahistory of the business, historical photos with familiar faces and something different – plans for a list of everyone who ever worked there.

That’s an ambitious project, since few local businesses can claim so many former employees over such a period of time. Anyone who ever worked thereis asked to phone 652-7529 to be added to the list.

Airline Motors, a festival of art deco design, opened in 1937 as Airline Chevrolet Company, selling cars, providing a wrecker service and repair shop.

It was established by H.C. Cotham and A.L. Woods to take advantage of thesweep of auto traffic along the still-new Airline Highway, two lanes of which opened in 1935 between New Orleans and Baton Rouge.

When the business opened, LaPlace was a tiny bump in the road with a population of 1,000.

In 1939, a small cafe was opened as a convenience, with Mrs. Cotham incharge, as the new-car dealership ended. After the war, in 1948, a majorexpansion of the cafe happened, with a second enlargement in 1958, as the garage was moved out and a private dining area added.

Slot machines were a regular feature of Airline Motors from 1939 until they were withdrawn in 1951. The gasoline pump area still remains, though the oldEsso pumps are long gone.

Airline Motors was a 24-hour, seven-day operation for most of its life until it closed on Dec. 24, 1993. Mrs. Cotham remained in charge of the restaurantfrom 1939 until her retirement in October 1981.

Over the years, the business has provided a wealth of services, besides good food and automotive services. It’s also served as a hurricane evacuationcenter and even a check-cashing service in lieu of a local bank. When theLaPlace Volunteer Fire Department began in 1959, there was no place to have an emergency phone manned around the clock. Airline Motors stepped inand provided the service.

However, according to present owner Richard Alford, who re-opened Airline Motors in December 1994, “I wish it was more important to other people.”Committed to a sense of historical preservation, he’s carefully maintained the 1950s look of the restaurant. “We try to keep it the same as it everwas. This is what we’ve fought so hard for.”However, Alford admits business is spotty and it’s hard to keep a wait staff.

“I just wish people would appreciate the place the way we do.”A 24-hour operation needed a lot of employees, and a bus service brought employees to and from work for many years, until that was discontinued in October 1982. At one time, there were 17 working in the service station,two in the garage and 65 restaurant personnel, including five managers.

The 24-hour restaurant also became a local gathering place on election nights and during football season, when LSU and Tulane fans would gather. Italso served as a supper stop for high school teams during away games.

Airline Motors also maintained a presence with local industry, delivering lunches for up to 200 employees working overtime at 2 a.m. Dupont,Marathon, Kaiser and Bayou Steel used to get most of their meals from the restaurant. To this day, these industries and others still patronize therestaurant for business meetings.

The menu hasn’t changed much, still featuring Louisiana seafood, steaks salads, desserts and other cuisine. “We really don’t get any complaints aboutthe food,” Alford said.

“Our seafood platter is out of this world,” added Alford’s sister, Jennifer Cassidy.

But despite looking closed much of the time, with few cars out front, Airline Motors remains open every day, closing now only on Sunday and Monday nights, from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.Breakfast crowd is slowly developing and more are re-discovering its lunches and expanded bar area, which recently took over the private dining area.

Long-familiar faces also still remain, such as gumbo cook Rosalie Creecy and all-around chef Randall Noble, each of whom have worked at Airline Motors for at least 15 years.

From the pastries under glass to the matchbooks advertising the place, Airline Motors enters the next century, still providing St. John Parish with alook backward.

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