When Julius Freyhan died, his obituary in the New Orleans newspaper said, “Through his energy and business acumen, he was able to build up one of the largest supply houses in the states, and during the hard times which swept over the country at various periods, he was able to keep the farmers on their feet until the price of their crops rose.” As hard-working immigrants like Julius Freyhan prospered, the South became the center of Jewish population in the country, and the Jews shared their prosperity in great philanthropies, funding museums and civic improvements, hospitals and public schools for both black and white students. Upon his death in 1904, Freyhan left $8,000 to help build the first public school in St. Francisville, a legacy increased by his widow by another thousand, and in 1905 the eight-room slate-roofed brick structure of 2½ stories opened to great public acclaim. Imagine the horror, then, of the townsfolk when, on the evening of February 8, 1907, the magnificent new school building caught on fire and burned to the ground despite the best efforts of the frantic local hose companies.
Within a year, the school would be rebuilt, on the same site and of almost identical construction, spacious classrooms resplendent with beaded wainscoting and archways, divided stairways and patterned tin ceilings, and a splendid third-floor auditorium; down the hill toward the Mississippi River was a football field and amphitheater used for graduation exercises. Today’s members of the ROMEO Club (Retired Old Men Eating Out, the social monthly gathering of Julius Freyhan graduates, whose numbers decrease yearly) are too young to remember school benefactor Julius Freyhan himself, but some of them vividly recall the outdoor privys and later the unheated lean-to restrooms where the water froze in the toilets in winter. They also remember the row of horse stalls behind the school for youngsters who rode in from the surrounding countryside; during rainy weather students were let out early, as some had many miles to ride home, and when the creeks were up and fords impassable, some of these country students had to spend the night in town with relatives or friends. Other country students boarded in town during the week and went home to their families only for weekends. One garrulous Cajun actually rowed across the Mississippi River every day to attend Julius Freyhan School and survived the experience to graduate with the Class of 1907.
Used until the fifties, Freyhan School has fallen into disrepair, but a move is afoot to restore it as a community center and museum of early education and early Jewish community involvement. The granddaughter of Julius Freyhan, Pauline Freidman of California, left a sizable bequest to assist with the project, and the Freyhan Foundation is attempting to save the school and make it once again a viable center of community life and activity. Architectural studies are being conducted and donations requested. Please contact us to learn more.