by Michael D. Wynne
Considered now to be in the top ten of the most endangered of the important historic sites in Louisiana, the Tioga Commissary Building is also one of the rarest buildings of its type that still survives in all of the south: an old-fashion sawmill commissary store.
To see this amazing building in person and to walk down the gallery on its old creaking boards can almost bring a person back to the Victorian 19th century, back to when the general store served also as the city hall, post office, train station, butcher shop, farmer’s market, the local news center, community meeting place, and so much more.
This giant building, a well-worn historic treasure, quietly sits in what was once the old sawmill community of Tioga, only a few miles from the bustling cities of Alexandria and Pineville. This, the oldest commercial building on the Pineville side of the Red River, could not be duplicated at any cost today as it was lovingly constructed from the original virgin pine trees forest that the first settlers to central Louisiana found when they arrived here by wagon.
Well, let’s tell the commissary’s tale from the beginning. While the first bricks were being laid in the streets of Alexandria in 1880, the Iron Mountain Railroad came to central Louisiana. Julius Levin (who gave the original name to the Tioga community) built a sawmill besides the railroad tracks. In 1905, Stephen “Sword” Lee bought the sawmill from Levin and built the commissary building to serve all of his mill workers and the residents of that area. In 1947, Rudolph Merritt bought the store and ran it for many years until his retirement. Back then, the commissary stood in the center of the community.
Jimmie Nell Adams Lewis, who was born and raised in Tioga, said of the commissary, “It was the Walmart of its day; it had everything.” The commissary was the only place that you could buy sewing fabric, work clothes for the mill, over-the-corner drugs, cosmetics, canned goods, fresh produce, meats, horse feed, hay and fencing. Ice cost 5 cents for a 10 pound block for your home ice box. Most importantly, the original store complex held the post office and a train depot (later destroyed by a hurricane) so all goods and communication coming in and going out of the Tioga area had to cross over the commissary’s elevated business counter where the cashier could overlook the store, and also the community’s activities.
“As a child, I used to bring in my mother’s grocery list and the cashier would get everything on the list and place it in a box for me,” Jimmie Nell said. “I would charge the groceries and my dad, who worked at the mill, would pay the bill on payday. When you walked in the store, you could smell the sawdust that was used to clean the floor. It was the community visiting place where you visited with everyone and could hear all of the community’s gossip.”
Alas, the commissary has fallen on hard times. After its use as a flea market and army surplus store, it first became one of the great rural state museums and reflected the culture and history of all of Central Louisiana. But the museum closed due to costly roof repairs and foundation problems and the ownership of the commissary building is in the process of being returned to the people of Rapides Parish by the state for the building’s restoration and possibly a revised usage.
“We are so blessed in this area to have such a historic landmark to serve as a reminder of our past.” Jimmie Nell said, “Few towns in America have such a magnificent structure and we need to save and preserve it for our children and grandchildren to show them our heritage.”
But the only question now is whether or not the people of central Louisiana will step up to save this irreplaceable link to our past.
There are currently efforts to raise the funds needed to save this important part of Central Louisiana history. For more information on donating to the Tioga Historical Society, call 318-443-1683.
A RECENT QUOTE FROM OUR WRITER:
“We’ve got to take care of ourselves, get this building stabilized and restored so that it can again become an active part of this community and serve the Tioga community, Rapides Parish and the people of Louisiana as a state museum,” he said. “We’re about to begin our official campaign, and what we’re hoping for are donations from people in the community, and corporate sponsorships. Ultimately, we would like to team up with a corporate sponsor who may have some connection to this building or would be able to use it regularly for events. We’re asking them to partner with us and help get us started again towards the restoration of this historic building, so that it can be opened again to serve the people here.”
PHOTO ABOVE: Jimmie Nell Lewis, sitting on the front railing of the Tioga Commissary Building, has many fond memories of the old Commissary.