Sweet Cecilia, the late Al Berard’s progeny and niece, are the real deal. They’re the latest St. Martin Parish musical sensations to perform at the Richard Sale Barn in Abbeville.
Richard Sale Barn, formerly a cattle auction house, was built in 1937 by J. Avery Richard. Back then, it was called the Abbeville Commission Company. In 2015, it’s one of the coolest musical venues in the South.
Avery Richard used to buy cattle from the rural communities and drive them up to a slaughterhouse in Abbeville. This was a daily routine, said his grandson, Johnny Richard (pronounced Cajun-style—Ree-shard), because there was no refrigeration.
“He dealt only in gold coins,” Richard said.
As young men, Johnny and his brother, Bert, were expected to work in the sale barn pens and herd the cattle through the chutes to the auction pit.
“From the time we were in ninth grade until we were seniors, we never went to school on Tuesday because that was the day of our sale,” Johnny Richard says. “We worked cattle all the time with everybody. That’s all we did. It was a family thing and we were in everyone’s family.”
But the cattle auction market bypassed Abbeville and Richard Sale Barn closed in 1978.
“Gooseneck trailers and I-10 killed this barn,” says Johnny. The building lay largely empty for years, but Johnny had an idea for another use for the old building. The unlikely source for the idea came from a hitchhiker who camped at the barn on his way through town.
Like most sale barns, a concrete base and heavy iron pipes fence the auction pit, which is in the center of the arena. Amphitheater seating rises up from the wood floor and surrounds the pit. A staircase at the back of the room provided a separate entrance during segregation days.
“The hitchhiker would play music in here,” Johnny says. “He had a 12-string guitar. He’d play the guitar down there sitting on the bench. I would pass by the barn and hear him play. It sounded really good.”
“I remember that guy,” says Bert. “He had a black dog. He’d sleep inside here.”
Johnny thought the old barn would make a great music venue.
Johnny and Bert, children of the 60s, developed an appreciation of music by sneaking into the local juke joints.
“I’d go to hear Carol Fran at the Starlight Club in the sticks,” Johnny says. “I heard Aretha Franklin, Irma Thomas and Etta James there too. They all used to come to that little bitty joint.”
Johnny would often throw parties at the barn and inevitably, someone would break out a guitar and begin playing music.
“There was always music,” says Johnny. “We took two boards and laid them across the top pipes to make a stage.”
Local rock bands would sometimes play at these parties and everyone always seemed to mention how great the acoustics were in the sale arena.
When a proposed highway project threatened to take the old barn, Johnny and his wife, Kathy, took action. They listed the building on the National Register of Historic Places in 1997. So the building had a modicum of protection. Now what?
“Johnny had his saddle repair business in the barn,” Kathy says. And that was the total use of the barn. The back stockyard pens, the scale, the old slaughterhouse were dormant.
Because Kathy was a jewelry maker and designed pieces using alligator teeth and Johnny had a reputation for making bull whips, the pair were often written about in travel magazines. In those articles, they talked about the sale barn, always mentioning the arena’s great acoustics.
Eventually, a call came from the booking agent for a French music group called Opus 37. The agent had read about Richard Sale Barn and thought it was a great venue for the 37-voice a capella choir that was touring through Louisiana. Kathy booked the group for April 6, 1999.
“I told Johnny, ‘You wanted it. I booked them. You better build a stage,’” says Kathy.
That first concert was a tremendous success.
The Richards hope to restore and preserve the entire barn, including the arena, stockyards and slaughterhouse and set up a non-profit organization, Le Bayou Legendaire, to handle any income derived from the concerts. Le Bayou Legendaire also accepts donations.
The final installment of the 2015 Le Bayou Legendaire Concert Series will feature Lil’ Buck on May 16.
This story was reposted from Louisiana-based agricultural and cultural blog LANote.org, a NoleVie content partner.