E.J. Caire’s legacy lives on

Published 12:00 am Saturday, July 31, 2010

By David Vitrano


EDGARD – Very few reminders of Edgard’s heyday as the center of commerce in St. John the Baptist Parish remain, but among those that do is the E.J. Caire Store, which turns 150 this year.

Although the store exists in name only these days, its prominent position on a particularly history-laden stretch of River Road that also contains the courthouse and St. John the Baptist Catholic Church ensures its legacy will live on.

“This whole little section right here has a lot of history,” said Warren Caire, who owns the buildings where the store was located. He noted that many of the houses in that same stretch are 100 years old.

The business was founded in 1860 when traveling salesman Jean Batiste Caire bought the brick structure that still makes up part of the store complex today. That structure was built in 1850.

“It’s been a part of the community over there since it opened,” said Vincent Caire, nephew of Warren. Vincent’s father, E.J. Caire II, is the surviving family member who worked in the store.

Jean Batiste’s son, Etienne Joseph Caire, changed the name of the store from Caire’s Landing to the E.J. Caire Store and set the store on its way to becoming the largest store of its kind in the area. Under his stewardship the store’s offerings were expanded to include a pharmacy, clothing, hardware, dry goods and groceries.

“It expanded from a dry goods store into a hardware store and became virtually the first model for a department store,” said Vincent.

Because of its location at the ferry landing, the store enjoyed years of prominence. It even served as the payroll center for a number of the area’s sugarcane farmers.

In 1881, the original brick structure had to be moved to its present location to make way for an enlarged federal levee. A few years later, in 1898, a wooden structure was built next to the original brick one. Subsequently, the newer building became the main store, and the brick building was used as a warehouse.

Throughout the decades, the store enjoyed much prosperity and growth.

“When I was small, I remember people would buy furniture. It was quite a busy enterprise,” said Warren.

Vincent added, “When I was a kid, I used to get my school uniforms there.”

After U.S. Highway 61 and Interstate 10 were built, the center of commerce shifted to the East Bank. Then, the proliferation of large grocery stores and, finally, all-inclusive stores such as Wal-Mart, left many smaller ventures shuttered for good. In the mid-70s, the E.J. Caire Store ceased operation.

Since then, the building has served as a library, a senior citizens’ center, a law office and a dry cleaners, to name a few.

The Caire family hopes to eventually turn the structures into a museum of sorts documenting the history of commerce along that stretch of the Mississippi River.

“There’s a lot of artifacts and things we’ve kept,” said Warren.

Although the process has been somewhat slow going and parish involvement has not yet reached the level the Caires had hoped for, the first step was taken when the buildings were placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2001.

The Caires hope the promised return of the Reserve-Edgard ferry will renew some interest in this ever-evolving piece of local history.