Des Allemands man recalls family’s boat builders

Michael Matherne has always been interested in area history, but he just didn’t expect it to be his own family’s boat building legacy that he’d help preserve.

Matherne agreed to represent his family when the St. Charles Parish Historical Society places a model of yet another one of his family’s historically significant boats in the Paradis Library soon.

“There is nobody can build these boats like this anymore,” said the Des Allemands resident. “This history is gone now.”The legacy of water would literally become the watermark of the Matherne family in an area that is surrounded by it.“It’s an art to build these boats with a round bottom and round shape,” he said. “You had to know what you were doing to build these boats.”

It started with Pierre Dufrene is the boat builder who started their line of the Dufrene boats. These were the days when boats were the workhorses of transportation. They were appreciated for their craftsmanship, as well as their utility.

Matherne is also historically significant as being among the last of his family to have lived on a houseboat in Bayou Gauche. His mother, Edna Matherne, known as the “prayer warrior” for publishing prayers in the Herald-Guide and died at age 90 in December, was remembered for her rugged, pioneer life living on that houseboat in the area’s watery reaches.

This also was Matherne’s life until age 7 when the family moved into a house in Des Allemands. It seemed like a mansion to them with its indoor plumbing and running water, and he still lives at the family homestead.

The houseboat that had been home to the Matherne family those many years went to his sister until Hurricane Betsy claimed it.

This story along with many others were passed on to Matherne, who eagerly listened to them for hours.At Ormond Plantation in Destrehan is home to another of the family’s historic boats, where it remains on display today.“As far as I know that is the last cypress wooden tugboat on earth,” Matherne said.

The Denver was built by Joseph “Yap” Dufrene in 1949, son of Pierre Dufrene who started the family’s line of boat builders.

When his father got too old to maintain it, he passed it along to the St. Charles County Historical Society for sharing and safekeeping at the plantation.

St. Charles Parish government allocated $45,000 toward the 1950’s wooden tugboat’s preservation about 10 years ago. The vessel was documented as the last of its kind in Louisiana, as well as recognized by the National Trust for the Historic Preservation as an official “Save America’s Treasures” designation.

Marilyn Richoux of the St. Charles Historic Foundation, documented the boat, recalled the “Denver” was being restored.

An estimated 80 years old, a second historic boat made by his family is in Mimosa Park.

These days, it’s Matherne who is deciding that it’s too much work to maintain any of the family’s historic boats anymore.But, every so often, his love for history still wins.

He recently bought an old diving suit that reminds him of life on the water.

In a life so richly textured by this element, Matherne wants people to remember the beauty and craftsmanship of his family as boat builders.

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