DAF launches General Store and Museum restoration project

Greg Fischer Editor-in-chief
The Mistretta Store/Chef John Folse Building that is currently being restored as the Donaldsonville General Store and Museum.

"A lot of great experiences there," Sam Mistretta, whose grandfather last owned and operated the grocery store, said. "One memory I have of my grandfather [Sam] is we were still delivering groceries when I was in high school, and we did it by car."

The Donaldsonville Area Foundation last week took the first steps to re-opening the General Store located at 430 Railroad Avenue.

"There were some people who really couldn't get out of the home, but needed their groceries so we'd bring it to them," Mistretta continued to the audience. "As we'd bring the groceries to their house, my grandfather would hum a little tune. It was beautiful! He was so happy, and it made me happy . . . I'm so blessed and happy to see it restored. I want to thank you for all that you've done."

Jazz music at the event was provided by the Michael Foster Quartet. Chef John Folse and the Donaldsonville Area Foundation (DAF) hosted the restoration launch of the future home of the Historic Donaldsonville General Store & Museum.

According to a press release by Chef John Folse and Company, the restoration project is the organization’s first undertaking focused on the preservation of history, culture and architecture in Donaldsonville.

"After analyzing the need for historic and cultural preservation of commercial and residential buildings, community leaders chartered DAF to manage and assist with the growth and development of the city by helping to raise funds for such projects," says the release.

"When the Mistretta's retired from the store and the building was sitting there we knew we wanted to secure it, not only for our own business but for the future," Chef John Folse said. "Donaldsonville's Historic District is second to size and importance only to the French Quarter in New Orleans, and naturally it's important to us to be here and do this work . . . We're dedicated to restoring this building to the grandeur that it once was."

The General Store, now officially known as the Chef John Folse building has a rich history, which dates back to 1883 when the lot was purchased by Thomas O'Malley. This information comes from archives of The Donaldsonville Chief, which opened in 1871.

Moreover, the General Store & Museum project is a key to a movement that is necessary to revive Donaldsonville. The city saw something of a hypothetical planning project this month by a Tulane Master's class in Preservation Studies. The class offered suggestions for making the city more attractive to visitors and potential permanent residents.

Next to the General Store is a concrete slab, that used to be known as the Chinese Laundry. This plot has also been purchased by the DAF for what sounds like enrichment outside the museum. Ideas of a coffee shop, bar, art gallery with outside seating are being discussed.

The only thing keeping Donaldsonville from restoring its history is money.

"We need about $250,000 to do both of the buildings," Lee Melancon, community and economic development director said. "That's nothing extravagant, but that's what it takes to make this stable, to open them to the general public. And that's what these buildings are for. These buildings are for our community."

Melancon said that the foundation is working on grants and federal tax credits, but they are also taking private donations. For more information, contact Lee at 225-445-1383.

Ascension Parish President Kenny Matassa also addressed the crowd. Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser made it a point to be at the ceremony, as well. Nungesser said that he prioritized the event over a parade in New Orleans because he believes in the project's importance.

The local GO YE! Church was painting one side of the building during the ceremony, perhaps signifying that it will take a community effort to get this project off the ground. Ascension Parish Sheriff's Office Capt. Darryl Smith led the ceremony's invocation.

Lastly, Sam Mistretta shared that his grandfather used to keep a notebook and extend no interest credit to patrons in the community. When the store closed, for 5-10 years afterwards, some people would still come into the house and pay on their grocery credit line.

"Nowadays customers are just customers," Mistretta said. "But in those days, they were friends. You knew them. It was small town. You knew everybody. That's what I grew up experiencing. They're wonderful memories."

For a full photo gallery of the event click here.