Go inside Port Arthur history and culture to become the Cajun Capital of Texas

Published 9:53 am Monday, June 19, 2023

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It became state official this month, Port Arthur is the Cajun Capital of Texas.

The Texas House and Senate passed the bill, and the governor signed it into legislation June 9.

This official designation is good for the next 10 years. In this Quasquicentennial year for Port Arthur — celebrating 125 years — it’s time to celebrate the Cajun in so many hearts.

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How Port Arthur became “Port-Art-Ture”

Cajuns flocked to Port Arthur in 1927 when Louisiana flooding brought farmers looking for black gold. Big refineries meant big jobs here in Southeast Texas.

Our coastline allowed Cajuns to provide for their families while living the same bayou lifestyle reminiscent of their years spent in southern Louisiana.

Visit Port Arthur has used the Cajun Capital phrase in their marketing efforts clear back to the ’70s to describe the historical, cultural and modern makeup of Port Arthur and Sabine Pass. Alli and Elli Gator, Visit Port Arthur mascots, have fallen in love and exchanged wedding vows in front of motorcoach tourists enjoying multi course meals and that famous Cajun Cake by our very own Cajun Queen, Esther Benoit.

Crawfish racing at a previous Cajun Heritage Fest (Courtesy photo)

Ça C’est Bon (That’s Good)

We know the French appeared in Novia Scotia and ventured to Louisiana and the Acadians became Cajuns. When they converged in Port Arthur, the city’s coastal economy was just right for what they brought to Texas. They had found an additional home. Here are some bullet points from our resolutions that highlight some of our Cajun ties:

Resolutions and Proclamations

Government talk has a lot of “whereases” and fancy language. Here’s where we break it down and just tell you what we are proud to convey:

  • Port Arthur’s coastal economy and appetite is fueled by the shrimping industry serving and sales of Cajun delicacies such as crawfish, gumbo and boudain that bring joy to restauranteurs, shopkeepers, residents and visitors.
  • Residents have been two-stepping and toe-tapping for generations to Cajun, Zydeco and Creole music, including that from Harry Choates, called “Godfather of Cajun Music’ and “The Fiddle King of Cajun Swing” and Choates lived in and is buried in Port Arthur, and his 1946 recording of “Jolie Blon” is considered iconic.

Letting the Good Times Roll

  • These new Lone Star lovers set their hearts to work in fields, refineries and myriad occupations. They had a heart to celebrate good family times with events such as Mardi Gras of Southeast Texas — founded in Port Arthur and first celebrated in 1993 — to Cajun Heritage Festival in Port Arthur. There were fais do do house parties and family style Cajun dancing at the historic Rodair Club and Larry’s French Market and Cajun Cafeteria. The desire remains to  “laissez les bon temps rouler,” or “let the good times roll.”
  • The lowly washboard patented in 1833 and sometimes used as a percussive instrument, reached international status in Cajun Zydeco music, fused with Creole music; and as Clifton Chenier designed and metalworker Willie Landry designed the wearable frottoir in 1946 during the time they worked at Port Arthur’s Texaco Refinery; and this wearable board frottoir, (FWA-TVJAH) meaning “to rub” in French, is considered one of the few musical instruments invented entirely in the United States; and Chenier received a Grammy for his music and his brother, Cleveland, commenced to creating music on these boards using bottle openers.
  • The rich and reedy notes of the accordion are known to waft from dance halls, crawfish boils and back porches, with many of these instruments made by local Jude Moreau.

Sabine Pass Shares in the Story

The fishing village of Sabine Pass, just beside Port Arthur, was the home of world-class restaurant “Granger’s Seafood” founded and operated from 1927 until it was destroyed by fire in 1958; and Granger’s was recommended by noted restaurant critic Duncan Hines and invented such iconic dishes as its often copied “bar-be-que crabs” and their stuffed crabs that were so wonderful they are still revered by the local Cajun folk today; and

In the deep darkness of the era known as Prohibition, on the back ridge of the Port Arthur suburb called Sabine Pass, Cajun extraordinaire and whiskey smith Jack LaBove would emerge to bring light into the darkness by establishing two historic distilleries to produce his much sought-after libations that were hailed as “the best corn and rye whiskeys in the region.”

Crawfish Racing and the Judice Family

Former State Sen. Carl A. Parker introduced Port Arthur Days in Austin, with Greater Port Arthur Chamber of Commerce members and Cajuns gathering at the Capitol, and proposed Jim Braud and A.J. Judice as Crawfish Racing Commissioners, and the days grew into ever-larger events dubbed Golden Triangle Days in Austin.

Port Arthur supporters and Allie and Ellie Gator themselves have for years have filled the Capitol with fiddle music, Esther Benoit’s legendary gumbo from Esther’s Seafood, the famous restaurant open for decades under the towering Rainbow Bridge, and Cajun esprit de corps during Golden Triangle Days in Austin in support of legislative action to benefit our community.

Personalities including A.J. Judice, “The Crazy Frenchman,” became ambassadors of Cajun Culture; and Judice’s mother, Lariza “Maw Maw” Judice and family opened Judice’s French Market in 1927 in their single car garage becoming the first store in Texas to sell life crawfish and hot boudain, and other seafood said to have “slept in the Gulf last night” and extended family operated Judice’s French Market in nearby Groves; and the family is credited with making crawfish season as popular as football season in Port Arthur; and Texas Gov. Preston Smith appointed him as Texas Crawfish Racing Commissioner.

Got Gators?

Port Arthur’s coastal marshes and wetlands provide a home one of the state’s highest concentration of alligators to sun themselves, and these wetlands are a bridge away, connecting Jefferson County to Cameron Parish in Louisiana.

The heritage of this culture’s early life in the area is displayed with an Acadian home display at Museum of the Gulf Coast in Port Arthur and in our neighboring towns of Nederland, via La Maison Acadienne in Nederland in Port Neches, at La Maison Beausoliel.

Bienvenue, Welcome

Port Arthur is a city of diverse cultures, each celebrating their own proud identity. These cultures continue to include the “bon ami” or “good friend” welcoming relationship of the Cajun culture to all residents and visitors as they “laissez les bons temps rouler,” or “let the good times roll.”

Submitted by the Port Arthur Convention and Visitors Bureau, the official destination marketing 0rganization for Port Arthur. For more information on why Port Arthur is the Cajun Capital of Texas events, hotels, good eating and bird-friendly practices, visit visitportarthurtx.com.