Rayne loves frogs. Murals depicting the little amphibians are scattered throughout town from the interstate to the south side. Frogs grace the city’s official stationary and hang stylistically from the street lamps. Several businesses bear Frog City in their official names and little green figurines adorn coffee tables and bookshelves throughout the town. There is even an annually celebrated Frog Festival (51st annual; May 11-13, 2023).
Why does this love affair with the slimy, swamp-dwelling denizens exist? The answer surprises many people, even some of those born and raised in the town: Rayne sold and shipped hundreds of thousands of the little wetland beasts throughout its history.
That bullfrogs (Rana catesbeiana in scientific terms and ouaouaron in Cajun terms) inhabit the area around Rayne is no surprise since the amphibians thrive in bayous, rice fields, swamps, and ponds. What is surprising is that the Louisiana town was once famous worldwide for supplying frogs to gourmet restaurants across the United States and even to the European continent.
It seems natural that this bullfrog trade was initiated by Frenchmen and carried on by Acadians, two groups noted for their fondness for the tasty frog legs.
Shortly after Rayne’s birth in the 1880s, there came to the prairie town a French-born saloon keeper named Donat Pucheu. Since the town had a direct link to New Orleans and Houston by way of the transcontinental Southern Pacific Railroad, a ready market for perishable produce like eggs, cabbage or tomatoes, quickly developed.
Barkeep Pucheu had connections with some of New Orleans’ finest restaurants and began shipping freshly killed ducks, quail, and snipe to them (which was legal to do in those days). These restaurants also served frog legs and Pucheu invented the Rayne frog shipping business.
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For some reason, Donat Pucheu got out of the frog trade but his place in Rayne history was quickly taken over by a fellow countryman.
Jacques Maurice Weil, a Parisian by birth, was to make his name forever associated with Rayne and frogs. He arrived in America sometime in the late 1890s, first trying Jackson, Mississippi, before making the Frog City his home. His first business venture here was to manage the general store of Boudreaux, Leger and Weil.
Like every other general mercantile firm in Rayne, Boudreaux, Leger and Weil accepted produce in exchange for their wares. These items, such as eggs, live chickens, vegetables or butter were either sold in the store or shipped aboard the next train to larger cities like New Orleans.
Somehow, Weil’s store came to specialize in the exchange of wilder commodities like pecans, furs, and bullfrogs. While he didn’t invent the Rayne frog trade, Weil did perfect and promote it to the point where Rayne frogs were served on restaurant tables in St. Louis, Los Angeles, and even in Paris.
Behind his store, Weil built a large chicken-wire cage. This frog aquarium held up to 15,000 ouaouarons and kept a five-man cleaning crew busy. Bright lights above the cage attracted insects at night and fed the condemned amphibians their final meal before their fateful rendezvous with the skinning knife.
Jacques Weil did not believe in waste. Legend has it that when Weil’s skinners arrived at work and found that some of the caged frogs had suffocated overnight their employer urged them to “Kill the dead ones first!”
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All across Acadia Parish, the springtime nights belonged to the intrepid lantern-toting men and boys searching the prairie darkness for the elusive Rana catesbeiana. The next morning, their full sacks were deposited at Jacques Weil’s in exchange for some necessary groceries or for some even more necessary bouré money.
Rayne became famous for its frogs. Not only were restaurants begging for the delectable amphibians’ legs but even the frog skins were sold to tanneries and converted into leather goods.
Jacques Weil was joined by his brothers Edmond and Gontran and his business empire grew. The J & E. Weil Operating Company owned cotton gins, a rice mill and a theater besides the frog shipping business and general store.
When World War I ended, war-driven high agricultural prices dropped precipitously ruining many investors and farm products brokers. One such loser was the J. & E. Weil Operating Company. The Hibernia Bank of New Orleans purchased the bankrupt Weil brothers’ assets—the frog business included—and operated them under the name of Rayne Farm Products, Inc. and under the direction of A. J. Carriere.
Jacques Weil jumped back into the frog business and competed directly with Rayne Farm Products until the latter firm folded during the Great Depression. Other shippers fought for a share of the frog trade including Jake Laughlin and Leon Meche of Rayne, John P. Hoyt of Estherwood, Ben Johnson of Redlich, and E. D. Fruge of Mermentau. In 1906, C. LeBlanc even attempted to farm frogs commercially in Estherwood. But these small shippers were only a slight business nuisance to the legendary Jacques Weil.
Far more worrisome was the Louisiana Frog Company established by Lionel Babineaux and Louis Baer in Mermentau and moved to Rayne in 1933. Lionel’s brothers David “Pete” and Desire joined the firm and after Baer’s death in 1941, the company became a Babineaux family enterprise.
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Louisiana Frog eventually grew even larger than the Jacques Weil company. At one time they sold canned Frog a la Sauce Piquante under the brand name of Kajin.
The frog business was by then approaching its zenith. No longer could the rice fields around Rayne supply the demand.
Both Weil and Louisiana Frog trucked in unlucky ouaouarons from the Atchafalaya Basin, the swamps near New Orleans, the Sabine River bottoms, and even from as far away as Mississippi and Arkansas. Thousands of condemned bullfrogs left the now-famous Frog City every year to grace the gourmet tables of the world. Some even went to NASA for space experiments.
In 1951, a nationally syndicated cartoon called Strange As It Seems stated the following: “Didja know—Rayne, Louisiana—The Frog Center of the World—is the only U. S. city with a (train) carload rate on frogs?”
But all good things come to an end and the Rayne frog business’ days were numbered. Jacques Weil passed away in 1948 though his frog firm continued for years under the direction of W. J. Chatelain and Lionel Babineaux died in 1967.
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By the 1970s, the frog shipping industry was doomed, killed by cheap frogs from overseas and habitat degradation at home. The once massive trade to restaurants around the world was replaced by a small time supplying of biology labs and schools with dissection specimens. Weil and Louisiana Frog became a part of history.
At about the same time that Rayne was in danger of losing its title as the Frog Capital of the World, the town embraced and forever enshrined the dying industry by establishing its first Frog Festival in 1973. And while fewer people will remember the thriving frog trade as time goes by, Rayne will forever be associated with the ouaouaron.
Jambalaya (On the Bayou)
Goodbye joe, me gotta go, me oh my oh
Me gotta go pole the pirogue down the bayou
My yvonne, the sweetest one, me oh my oh
Son of a gun, well have good fun on the bayou
—Lyrics and recording by Hank Williams, Sr., 1954