NATCHITOCHES, La. (KTAL/KMSS) – Can you imagine being an immigrant in the American South during the Civil War and not being able to speak English? Can you imagine being brave enough to wander from plantation to plantation, speaking a foreign tongue, with the hopes of making enough money that you might one day be able to open a mercantile store?
Because that’s precisely what Harris and Adolph Kaffie did in the oldest European settlement in Louisiana in 1863.
The Jewish and Prussian immigrants opened their business, which was eventually called Kaffie-Frederick General Mercantile Store, within months of the beginning of a significant Union offensive strategy known as the Red River Campaign.
Here’s how they did it.
In the 1800s, someone who went from place to place trying to “drum up business” was called a drummer. Many businesses were begun by immigrant salesmen who walked or rode horses from door to door and sold goods until enough money was raised for the said entrepreneur(s) to purchase inventory and find a suitable storefront.
Becoming a drummer was exceptionally popular during the Civil War, and the Kaffie brothers are a fine example of the business model. They peddled their much-needed goods to plantation wives who needed everyday items like dry goods, linens, and sewing needles.
By 1893, the brothers had made enough money drumming to pay for a piece of land on Front and Trudeau Streets in downtown Natchitoches. The customers began coming to them instead of vice versa, and their business was even better once they had a piece of ground to peddle their wares. Soon, the brothers began constructing a building on the lot.
They knew it would be an excellent site for a store because their sales on the lot exceeded what they had been able to muster walking from plantation door to plantation door.
Kaffie-Frederick General Mercantile Store was an immediate hit. They built a fine building that has stood the test of time, and the second floor of their store was used as a showroom from the beginning.
The exterior of the building is still exactly as it was in the 1890s.
So is the vast majority of the interior.
The freight elevator installed in the 1890s is still there.
The store’s first cash register, which runs by a hand crank, is still being used today. It’s said to work as well as it did in 1917.
The old mercantile store has survived world wars, epidemics and pandemics, economic depressions, and recessions, and it is still going strong and selling eclectic items. Looking for a Radio Flyer wagon? Garden tools? Items for your kitchen? What about houseplants? Nuts, bolts, or screws? If so, this is your kind of place.
And if you’re searching for a place to buy old-fashioned toys for all the kiddos this Christmas, the Kaffie-Frederick General Mercantile Store will hook you up.
It is, after all, Louisiana’s oldest general store. And though they don’t drum anymore, they’re good at peddling.
Oh, and one more thing. It’s still owned by descendants of the same family that began drumming in the area more than 150 years ago.
The Kaffie-Frederick General Mercantile Store is located at 758 Front Street in historic Natchitoches, La.