Alfred was the son of Leomas and Emilie (née Hebert) Arceneaux. He was the husband of Wilda Duplantis and the father of Ralph Alfred and Alfred Phillip, Jr.
By Maria Russo Arceneaux
Born in 1906, Alfred Phillip Arceneaux was known to most as Fred and to his grandchildren and great grandchildren as PawPaw. Fred had a talent for telling colorful stories of his life, but he had little to say about his first fourteen years. Because his family was so poor, he told us, he quit school at 14, after the sixth grade, and left home to find work and lodging for himself. His beliefs in the values of self-reliance and hard work were born then and guided him until the end of his life.
Fred’s first job was at Mr. Clay Theriot’s small dairy. There he was also given food and a place to sleep in their barn. Fred fondly remembered Mrs. Theriot as the loving mother he had lost to poverty and poor health. The Theriot children adopted him, too, and forever held important places in his large circle of lifelong friends.
Throughout his teens, Fred lodged with family members or friends and worked at various jobs. He told of riding on horse drawn carts or trucks, on country roads, peddling ice or meat. He also worked for his brother, Andrew, in the construction of Sacred Heart Church, in Morgan City.
His repertoire of stories was endless. The most exciting ones were those of his younger years. He told how he and three buddies roamed the local streets and highways, getting into mischief. They were a swaggering foursome with a lighthearted outlook on life. Finally, tiring of their partying lifestyle and looking for some stability during those Great Depression years, the friends began to consider joining the military. Fred was undecided, but the other three made the decision to enlist. The friendship between those four men lasted, with loving care, for the rest of their lives.
Fred and his friends often visited Wilda and Ella, the lovely brunette daughters of Mr. and Mrs. Louis Duplantis, at their home on Fifth Street, in Morgan City. In this way, the courtship of Fred and Wilda took place. When his longing for a home of his own became stronger, Fred decided to ask Wilda to marry him. If she had refused his proposal, he confessed, he would have joined the Army with his friends. She accepted, and they were married on April 29, 1926.
Knowledge of the early years of their marriage is slim. Fred probably continued to find work wherever it was available. We know they were living in a house on Fourth Street when their first son, Ralph, was born on June 16, 1927. On that day, Fred reported, the waters of the 1927 Flood had finally begun to recede.
One short-lived venture that Fred tried was fur trapping. Seasons were set aside for this occupation, when groups of families packed their belongings, moved out to the nearby woods and set up camp. There they trapped and prepared the pelts for sale. When Ralph was just a toddler, Fred and Wilda joined the Stansbury family for a season of trapping. One story from this trip told of the frightening experience of Ralph falling off a dock into the bayou.
Those were the lean years of the Great Depression, of which he told many stories of hardship. One way he earned money in those years, he told me, was signing up for the Civilian Conservation Corps with his father-in-law. Together they worked as members of a road crew in North Louisiana.
The 1930 U.S. Census shows Fred, 23; Wilda, 22; Ralph, 28 months; and Alfred Phillip, 2 months, living in a “shotgun” rent house, in the 900 block of Florence Street. Sometime during the 1930s, Fred and Wilda purchased a lot, 1009 Florence Street, in a new subdivision called Ditch Annex.
Here they built a house of their own, with Fred contributing much of the labor. He often described the unforgettable picture that showed him nailing up walls after dark, while Wilda held up a kerosene lamp for light. He told this story with pride.
Fred and Wilda’s boys grew up in a loving home. Their parents encouraged them to get a good education and become honest citizens. They also learned to be as industrious and as frugal as their parents.
For the next ten years or more, Fred worked as a butcher at Michel’s Meat Market, in the City Market on Front Street in Morgan City. There he worked from sunup until sundown for six days each week and for a half day on Sunday. He learned to butcher cows and pigs and prepare the meat for sale. His meager, Depression-era wages were supplemented by some of the better cuts of meat he was allowed to bring home. Wilda became a thrifty, but talented, cook.
In the 1940s, during World War II, Chicago Bridge & Iron Works located a shipyard on the bank of the Atchafalaya River near Morgan City. There many men and women traveled long distances to work for the highest wages ever paid in the area. Fred became one of these workers, taking advantage of this opportunity to increase his income and acquire another skill. He became a welder, and, after the war, he found a good job at Sewart Seacraft, a local shipyard in Bayou Vista.
Having saved much of their income, Fred and Wilda purchased some vacant land on the outskirts of town as an investment in the future growth of the city. With the arrival of the oil industry, the rental of these properties provided additional income. Because of this, Fred was able to retire before he was 60 years old.
In the meantime, Fred suffered a serious health problem – severe abdominal pain. Examinations at Ochsner Clinic, in New Orleans, confirmed the diagnosis of stomach cancer. He was successfully treated at Ochsner with surgery and chemotherapy. During his many years of annual follow-up visits, he developed a fond relationship with his doctors. To each visit, he carried gifts of his special hogshead cheese, made by his grateful hands and heart.
Fred and Wilda enjoyed retirement for many years. With friends and family, they traveled to Florida beaches, many other states across the country and into Mexico. Fred’s primary hobby was his productive vegetable garden, the harvest of which he generously shared with others. His second favorite hobby was winemaking. He took great pride in serving his own vintage to all who came to visit.
He and Wilda often entertained their friends and family at parties they hosted at their camp on the Intracoastal Canal near Lake Palourde. Many were treated to boiled seafood, gumbo suppers and everyone’s favorite, Wilda’s famous smothered crabs. (See .)
After Wilda’s health began failing, Fred took over the kitchen, pleased to master a new skill. He experimented with baking bread, and, on special occasions, he treated his family and friends to homemade fresh pork sausage, boudin and hogshead cheese.
Fred always regretted he had ended his education before finishing high school. He valued education and was eager to learn. In his retirement, he had time to satisfy his huge curiosity about history, politics, world events and people. He enjoyed books and newspapers, educational programs on television and good conversation with everyone he met.
In 1981, Fred suffered a massive stroke, robbing him of the power of speech and the use of his limbs. For the next three years, he was cared for at home by nurses and family members. Although he could not speak it, the painful realization of his helplessness was clearly evident in his eyes. His last year was spent in a Thibodaux nursing home, where Wilda joined him, once home care was no longer possible. After Fred’s death in 1984, Wilda moved to a nursing home in Patterson. She lived there in contentment until her death in 2003. Both are buried in the Arceneaux family plot in the Morgan City Cemetery.