History of MK

The beautifully restored Mervine Kahn building once again sits proudly along the railroad tracks in the heart of downtown Rayne, Louisiana.  Its watchful eye has seen both families, businesses, and railroad cars come and go along its streets for over one hundred twenty-five years.  Was it chance or fate that brought this building’s namesake to this bustling little town in the 1883?

The story reads like this…The son of a French-Jewish immigrant named Lipman Kahn, Mervine Kahn could easily be named the grandfather of retail in southwestern Louisiana…all because of a decision to step off a train one day in 1883.  He was a businessman en route to Beaumont, Texas to enter into a new business venture when he engaged in conversation with an unknown booster.  The young railway system carried a train that made one of its stops at Rayne Station.  The businessman stepped off the train to talk and look around.  Kahn can be said to have never left Rayne from that moment.  (The city of Rayne had not been established.  Rayne station was near Poupperville, a community 1 ½ miles south of the present city of Rayne, Louisiana.  Poupperville was soon to be moved to the three year old railroad stop, Rayne Station as it was then known.)

Previously, Kahn had operated a store with his future brother in law, Michel Schmulen, on the Skelly Plantation in Glencoe, Louisiana.  He must have abandoned the idea of a Beaumont venture because he returned in early 1884 to establish his store in Rayne.

On March 1, 1884, he entered into an agreement with Schmulen forming the partnership of Schmulen and Kahn.  The agreement was written in flowing long hand on a simple sheet of lined tablet paper.  No witnesses, lawyers of fanfare were needed by the two good friends when they sat down to draw up a simple contract to enter business together.  They purchased a small general merchandise store from A.S. Chappuis in Rayne Station and made plans to grow the business.

Each partner was to share in the profits of losses equally.  Schmulen furnished $3,000 and Kahn $2,000.  The latter was to give his time and attention to the business without any compensation except his half share of the profits.

Unfortunately, two years later Schmulen died; the widow Schmulen soon sold her late husband’s share of the business to his partner for $3097, which according to the partnership, indicates that a profit of $194 had been made.  Schmulen and Kahn, renamed Mervine Kahn’s, soon became the biggest mercantile in town and the area.  Mervine Kahn’s store remained the leader of commercial business for years to come.

After having established himself in Rayne, Mervine Kahn was married in 1885 to Miss Camille Schmulen, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Schmulen of New Iberia.  Kahn was born at Indian Village, near Plaquemine, LA in Iberville parish.  As was customary the young couple lived in the second story of the store and soon began a family.  They had six children:  Herbert, the eldest, Leo E., Julian, Florence, Hilda and Sadie.  The business of theirs was a family business, and their employees were a part of their family.  They took care of each other back then.  Dinner was prepared everyday in the family’s private quarters during the work day.  The family and employees sat side by side sharing their meal and the daily events.

Kahn helped to shape the city of Rayne’s early years of prosperous growth.  He founded the original Rayne State Bank in 1884 serving as its president and was also partner in the Kahn and Smith ‘Store in Crowley, Louisiana.  He was a Rayne city councilman in the early days of Rayne’s inception before the turn of the century.  He was an active board member of several rice milling, irrigation and canal operation, cotton ginning, and brick making companies in the area.  He was even active in real estate.  His hand stretched out to almost every commercial activity during his lifetime.  He was also a charter member of the Rayne chapter of the Knights of Pythias and of the Progressive Union organization.

Upon Kahn’s death on March 6, 1924, his oldest son, Herbert, took over as president of the family’s thriving business.  By this time, all of the children had been working in the business.  Commercial business was in their blood too.  Herbert Kahn was selected as president with the other children playing active parts in directing the enterprise.  Herbert remained in this position until his death on May 27, 1934.  Leo Kahn, the second oldest son, who had for years served as a buyer, was named president, a post he retained until the store closed in 1989.  Mrs. Sadie Kahn Kapsinow and Mrs. Florence Kahn Adler were vice-presidents while Julian Kahn served a secretary-treasurer.  Mrs. Kahn remained living above the store until her death on June 22, 1949.  She was a familiar figure in the store until her death, greeting the firm’s many friends throughout the years.

The Kahn family enjoyed a solid reputation for business foresight, honesty, generosity and carried the best quality in all goods sold.  Before the advent of modern transportation, Mervine Kahn’s business was with local citizens and customers from Rayne, Crowley, Castille, Roberts Cove, Indian Bayou, Duson and other villages in the area.  During the height of their business in the 1940’s and 1950’s, they drew customers from Houston, Texas to New Orleans, Louisiana.  They had over 4000 active credit accounts at one time.  A PBX telephone exchange was installed in 1948, and the store was completely air conditioned in 1950.

Mervine Kahn’s was “the place to shop” for over 100 years.  They started out as a general mercantile store, carrying just about anything a person would need living on the Louisiana prairie during the late 1800’s.  A newspaper advertisement in 1886 ran as follow…”My Motto…Money Saved is Money Earned.”  In the ad, they proclaimed themselves as “headquarters for wagons, buggies, hacks and agricultural equipment, clothing, hats, shoes, foods, dry goods, notions, gents and ladies furnishing goods, hardware, tinware, crockery, furniture, paints and oils.”  Many Cajuns even bought their first accordions from Mervine Kahn prior to World War II and perhaps as early as the late 1880’s.  How the first accordions arrived at this store is unknown.

The Kahn family business reflected the signs of the times as the years progressed.  At one point, an undertaking department complete with hearse and coffins thrived; it was discontinued shortly before the First World War.  The furniture department was closed after World War I and the grocery store was closed in the mid 1950’s.  The Mervine Kahn building was renovated several times over the years, the most notable in 1953 when the wooden boards were covered up or torn down in favor of a more modern brick structure.  Fires had been a problem in the city’s past, and Mervine Kahn had narrowly escaped some of these fires.  A brick building was a sager building.  The beautiful upstairs balconies were torn down as well.  Progress was changing things in this little town.

By the mid 1900’s, Kahn’s “mercantile store” had become a “department store.”  In 1952, newspaper ads for the newest Kelvinator were followed by ads for hunting gear, kitchen accessories and such.  A brand new bridal salon was added in 1952, too.  As various departments were discontinued, more space was given to remaining departments.  The store ultimately grew to six buildings joined together that almost covered two thirds of a block.  For some time, a New York office was even maintained.  Buyers visited the New York, Dallas or California markets to make their purchases for the next season.  They were always careful to stay ahead of the latest trends and deliver them to the people of Rayne.

Perhaps the most memorable experience for many of Mervine Kahn’s younger customers was the network of pneumatic tubes that shot payments and messages upstairs to the business office.  Clerks were never allowed to make change downstairs…it all flowed upstairs through the tubes.  Eager children usually asked to tuck the money in the tube and shoot it to the top, but that was not allowed.  Strictly professional rules always prevailed.

Mervine Kahn was noted for their special events, too.  They sponsored cooking schools and demonstrations by representatives from firms it dealt with.  At one point they had a drawing once a week.  Mothers and their children crowded into the Mervine Kahn store to see who the lucky winner was that week.  Whether it was a gift certificate, a discount on a certain item, everyone was thrilled at the prospect of being a winner.

However, over time, Mervine Kahn’s became another sign of the times itself.  Gradually some of the buildings and warehouses were sold off as business changed or declined.  During the 1970’s shopping malls and discount stores began popping up everywhere and small towns like Rayne felt the effects of business leaving town.  The oil business was booming and people wanted more.  They now had the means to get what they wanted.  Then, during the 1980’s Louisiana was hit hard by the oil industry’s bust.  People were accustomed to shopping elsewhere and they now frequented the discount and import stores.  In order to make ends meet, most families were now two income families and that meant people shopped where they worked.  They worked in larger communities, so they shopped in larger communities.  It was more convenient for them.  Unfortunately, that was bad news for Mervine Kahn Company.  The end of a grand era was at hand.  In 1989, Mervine Kahn’s closed its doors.  Comeaux operated an antique mall featuring antique dealers from the area for almost 20 years.  Eventually, Comeaux wanted out of the business and he closed his doors in the end of 2008 after having sold the building to another young entrepreneur from Rayne.

The building was purchased by its current owner, Eric Thomas on December 18, 2008, and another dream came true.  This dream was to restore the old beauty to some of her old glory and to share her with others.  The building will now house “The Crossing at Mervine Kahn,” an incredible venue for special events, wedding receptions, parties and meetings.  It will feature a full service staff for catering, music, and décor.  With over twenty years in the catering and food service industry, Thomas plans to ensure fabulous memories for a lifetime.

Sources:

  1. Rayne Acadian Tribune, Acadia Parish, Louisiana;
  2. History To 1920 – Mary Alice Fontenot
  3. Rice, Railroads and Frogs – A History of Rayne, Louisiana – Gene Thibodeaux
  4. Charles Sidney Stutes
  5. Kahn Family Members