With a very special kindness lighting his face, in 1955, Jesse McHugh shared memories with a reporter for the Plainsman. “God has been so good to me,” he said gratefully, and Zachary has been kind.”
For more than half a century “Mr. Jesse” was “the man behind the counter of the general store. Born on the McHugh Place located on McHugh Road, he was the fourth of twelve children – six boys and six girls. In recalling his boyhood, “Mr. Jesse” said, “my father gave us boys all a chance to have a little patch of cotton. He taught us to save our money we made with it and to always put something aside for a rainy day."
Whenever he was asked where he went to school, it was a family joke that he answered, “Magnolia Academy,” referring to the small one-room school under a magnolia tree. Young Jesse had long dreamt of studying medicine, but his determination failed to crystallize, when at 19 years of age, he took a job working for Amrhein & Blum, who operated a general store in Zachary.
That store existed principally for the farmers in the area. Amrhein & Blum would furnish or supply the farmers with food and other essentials from one year to the next. When the harvest came in, the farmers would “pay up” and they were ready, again to start another bill. In the event there was a crop failure, Amrhein & Blum would furnish the farmer another year in spite of the fact that the farmer had an unpaid debt. “It took a lot of cash to operate a business like that,” Mr. McHugh remembered. His beginning salary as a clerk was $15 a month. By 1908, he was earning $50 a month. He briefly considered going to LSU to become a doctor, but decided to stick with the business he was in, commenting that, “$50 a month was a pretty good salary in those days!” He never looked back.
In 1911, Jesse McHugh opened his own store on his birthday, July 1. He initially rented the building on Main Street for $10 a month from Bob Troth and eventually bought it for $1,200. He had learned the lessons taught him by his father and was able to pay cash with money he had saved up. He decided his store would not be a supply store for farmers. Mr. Jesse started out on a smaller scale, and during the years of building the business, he remained single, but after meeting and “going with” Blanche Capdevielle of Baton Rouge for four years, Jesse and Blanche were married on June 20, 1917, at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church. They began housekeeping in a rented place for $10 a month. When L. Walls, the depot agent was moving, he offered to sell them his house, which is today the “McHugh House Museum,” located at the corner of Virginia and Florida Street, in Zachary Historic Village. They spent $3,000 on it before moving in.
In October of 1918, when it became evident that he would have to go to war, McHugh arranged to sell his store to Charles Kahn and Solon Farmbacher. He was to leave on November 15 to enter the military. However, before he signed the contract, he put a clause in that if there were an Armistice before the fifteenth of the month, the deal would be canceled. It was that clause that gave “Mr. Jesse” the privilege of not going through with the selling of his store. The store continued and thrived for several more decades.
The original building has long since disappeared, but visitors can enjoy a recently created replica exhibit created from a large collection of mercantile artifacts that are displayed in the old garage behind McHugh house.