A Ride Through The Quarter
New Orleans’ Mid-City Carriage Company
by Lynn R. Miller of Singing Horse Ranch
New Orleans, one of America’s oldest and certainly most cosmopolitan cities, dates back almost 300 years to its Spanish colonial days and pivots today on a rich mixed history the center of which embraces a unique quality francaise. Home to ornate Creole, French Colonial, Greek Revival, and antebellum architecture. With more cultural affinity for the great Caribbean cities than the Gulf of Mexico, the New Orleans attitude and operation flirts with the city-state traditions of old Italy. On a recent visit several locals were heard to explain; “there is the south, then there is Louisiana, and quite separate from both there is New Orleans.” This is a city to see, a town to experience. New Orleans is held together by a combination of cultural imperative and mechanical specifics. “You don’t do that here” or “this is the way to cook shrimp” or “you want something done you talk to so and so” or “you want a carriage ride in the quarter, you go to Decatur street at the square.” To visit a rich and varied city like New Orleans on vacation, often all you see are the clothes, the balconies, the hanging vines, the dance moves, the superficial, the facade. You miss the rehearsals, the experimental sauces, the little inside stories, the trash collections, the private courtyards, the power plays, the little hustles, the whispered endorsements, the payoffs, the reasons. These are the tiny threads that make up the fabric. If you get a taste of these, you get a true taste of the place.
Good friends, Kenny and Rene Russell, along with Ken Bauerly of Hog Branch Harness, made it possible. I had requested inside access to one of the New Orleans French Quarter Carriage Services. I wanted to see the guts and feathers, learn how it was done, and, equally important, why. My rationale for pursuing this story was that carriage services are customers for animals, vehicles, and harness as well as feed, miscellaneous tack and services. These businesses dovetail into the farm and draft horse community. Understanding what makes them tick could help those of us who raise and train animals, as well as all the related cottage industries (i.e. harness makers, wheelwrights etc.) do a better job of supply.
It was night time when we drove into the heart of New Orleans and a dark spot under a Highway 10 on-ramp where a busy, modest, carriage stable was situated. Trucks, trailers and carriages were parked helter-skelter around an open gate passageway to courtyard-centered sheds where horses and mules were stabled in panel-built box stalls. The owner wasn’t there, but he was on his way. Snoopin’ a bit, we watched a welder repairing a hitch rail while another young man hosed down the concrete slab. A fancy white Vis-a-vis sat up on a jack with one of its front wheels missing. Looking around, my eyes rested on an antique rubber-tire machine mounted under the porch roof. Looking out curiously from their stalls two red Belgian-cross draft mules seemed to ask us what we wanted or what we might have for them.
Then the man we were here to meet, arrived. After brief introductions it was decided we’d all go together to dinner, Kenny and Rene, I and our host. I was keen to sample the legendary cuisine of New Orleans offering up a few suggestions from a casual reading of gastronomic digests. Galatoire’s and Antoine’s were batted down as expensive and overrated. Our host was anxious for us to get a real taste of the true ‘inside’ of New Orleans. He loaded us up in his Cadillac and we scooted to a neighborhood soft spot called Mandinas. The crab toe appetizer, oyster artichoke soup and Shrimp Creole I had were truly outstanding. And so was the company.
Gray-haired mustachioed handsome Creole gentleman, Louis Charbonnet, is a fascinating and important fellow, a study in contrast, ingenuity, and diversification. Once a member of the Louisiana legislature, an important aid to the Governor, an activist in New Orleans (pronounced by many locals as ‘nawlins’) politics and a constant cheerleader for his city, Charbonnet is centrally involved in at least three businesses and the vitality of his city. The Charbonnet Labatt Funeral Home was established in 1883 and remains, according to Louis, as his most stable enterprise. He also has a contract to provide Limousine shuttle service from the New Orleans International Airport. And then there is Mid-City Carriage Company which, along with his daughter, he owns and operates.
Situated a few blocks from the French Quarter, the Charbonnets stable 28 mules and 12 head of horses along with a wide variety of carriages, the staple of which is the Vis-a-vis. They hold seven hack permits for the Quarter which is the cornerstone of the service. Along with this they do weddings, funerals, and special events. There are twenty drivers and ten support people including office help, checkers, a full-time farrier and a wheelwright. This is a busy and successful enterprise which was built slowly and deliberately.
A little history and background: New Orleans is a tough town. The winners in this city are those who are quick, imaginative, lucky, hard and resilient. New Orleans is a beautiful town, one which loves to look in the mirror and see music, poetry and humanity over its shoulder. New Orleans is a party town always looking for ways to do it better. And New Orleans is a tragic and realistic town where many of her people live in unlucky poverty and neglect. All of these aspects blend together to make New Orleans a major tourist destination.
Back over ten years ago New Orleans native, Louis Charbonnet and his daughter, had a single horse and carriage to enjoy in the park. People kept coming up and asking for a ride, or if the outfit was available to rent. The answer was a repeated gracious no until an offer came, with good money, to use the horse and carriage for a fancy wedding. Other little outings followed and Louis was hooked. Open to the idea of new and exciting ventures he looked for ways to build a little carriage business. Because of his work at city hall he understood how permits and regulations worked for “hacks.” He made an effort to secure seven “numbers” or hack permits for the French Quarter and came up against a political firewall. The process led to law suits and Charbonnet won out securing the coveted “numbers.”
That wasn’t enough, however, to guarantee success. The established companies had the upper hand in the Quarter. They employed large wagonette-type carriages or horsedrawn trolleys which handled many people so that, at $7 per head, they could, they thought, maximize profits. But this meant waiting on the curb until a full-load was had. Louis Charbonnet had a different idea, he didn’t want his drivers waiting on the curb. He introduced the more elegant and mobile Vis-a-vis which, instead of waiting at the curbside hackstand on the square, moved about the Quarter willing to take for $75 two or four people either on a tour or where they wanted to go. This introduced an element of exclusivity and privacy for those customers who wanted to show off or those who wanted the taste of romance. Louis’ idea caught on and today most of the carriages are vis-a-vis style.
Because of the legendary summer heat and humidity and the tragic death, a few years back, of some commercial horses, New Orleans passed an ordinance forbidding anything but mules to be used on hack permits in the French Quarter. (Horses are allowed by permit for special applications such as weddings, funerals, and cool weather events such as the famous Celebration in the Oaks.) The French Quarter regulation includes restricted hours and the requirement that all animals leave the streets whenever the temperature would reach 93 degrees or greater. Charbonnet and his drivers, all lovers of the animals (horse and mule), added their own restrictions, preventative measures and quality care to guarantee long, healthy, happy, and productive equine lives. Veterinary checkups are a regular feature, with blood work watched closely. Those animals showing a need receive Red-cell supplement and even Aspirin. Joe, the resident full-time expert farrier puts a new set of Boreum-treated shoes on each mule every 30 days. A close inspection of the stables shows well-fed animals everywhere.
New Orleans is a party and parade town. Early on Charbonnet saw a way to expand his business and put more horses and mules to work. He developed a diverse menu of charges to hire out drivers, vehicles and animals for conventions, parades, weddings, funeral processions, and private parties.
A look at an October weekend schedule showed seven weddings and one funeral just on that Saturday. At $300 per wedding and $600 for the horsedrawn hearse, this “average” Saturday looked mighty successful for a small business. And fancier weddings at the Plantation setting at ‘Southern Oaks’ run to $600 plus for a 45 minute use of driver (usually Lawrence) and pumpkin carriage.
I asked Louis if it was difficult to find qualified drivers for his carriages. He explained that he preferred to hire people, men or women – black or white, with little or no experience driving horses or mules.
“The ones who come claiming to have experience usually cause trouble. I’m more interested in the driver who can talk a good talk about the Quarter. People want to be entertained. We can train drivers to drive. It’s hard to make someone entertaining. Our drivers come from every walk of life. We have one who was a Kidney Dialysis Technician, another who was a Hot Dog salesman, and one who is a millionaire. They do it more because they love it than because its a good job. But don’t get me wrong. It can be a very good job for the right person. With tips our drivers can make $30,000 or more a year. The way it works is that they get 35%, we get 65%. All the driver has to do is drive his designated mule and carriage and entertain the customers, we take care of everything else.”
I met some of the drivers. Their backgrounds were amazingly diverse and a first thought might conclude that they’d taken a step down the ladder of success but each one of them were quick to state that this was what they wanted to do. When I asked two of them the same question, what do you prefer, the people or the animals?, they both quickly responded the same, “oh, the animals of course.”
With varying levels of manifest ability, understanding, demonstrative passion or protective reticence, every single driver loves the horses and mules. Stories flew right and left about this mule or that horse and how well they perform or some little experience demonstrating superior intelligence or athletic ability. It was clear these men and women understood their dependence on the harnessed partner. But it went much further into genuine admiration and fondness. I was told the story of how one of the drivers carried a whip to use on unruly drunks who bothered his mule.
This working partnership frequently grew to a love which posed management challenges for the business. Lawrence, Louis’ foreman and wheelwright, is responsible for assigning animals to drivers and working out schedules. As a rule, a driver is assigned one or two animals as his or her own. Occasionally when drivers need to take time off for holiday or illness Lawrence needs to “lend” or assign their mules to other drivers. This usually results in hard feelings, and sometimes hard words and even fisticuffs. The driver is not responsible for feeding, hoof or veterinarian care, or stabling but just the same an abiding sense of ownership exists. Lawrence told me, “the drivers notice things about ‘their’ mules, things I don’t notice, they are real picky about making sure they get the right care.”
A perpetual concern for everybody involved in Mid-City Carriage are the animal rights activists and supporters who have one agenda for the carriage mule, they want to get them off the street and out of harness. Louis says, “I wish they could see what we see. When a mule is not being used and has to watch the others hitched and driven off, he gets mad. He wants to work. There is variety on the street, its interesting light work for the mules. Its boring in the stall. We take the best care of our animals because they are our livelihood.”
A business such as Mid City Carriage needs supplies, harness, vehicles, hitch gear, and animals. Louis has leaned on his friendship with local folks in the draft horse industry as well as the expertise of his foreman, lifetime horseman, Lawrence. Ken Bauerly, and his business of Hog Branch Harness of Mississippi, is Louis’ gear supplier of choice. On a fairly regular basis Louis is a customer of the Reese Brothers Mule auctions.The vehicles come from all over with no one manufacturer or supplier predominate. Charbonnet keeps a close watch on the carriages and has strong opinions, born of experience, as to what makes and models to stay away from. Some of the newer lighter tube steel constructed units have not held up well. Lawrence is regularly challenged by the rough treatment wheels receive from regular collisions with curbs. One carriage was retired the day I visited because a run-in with a curb had broken the fifth wheel.
As part of my research for this article a Mid-City Carriage driver took me on a quick photo tour in his Vis a vis drawn by Le Blanc the mule. She was outfitted with black bat wings and black wig to fit in the Halloween mood. We went up St. Louis to the infamous Bourbon Street with its anything-goes nightclubs and voodoo parlors. After a curbside visit to the pirate Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop (built in the 1700’s and preserved as a bar) we went down to beautiful Royal Street with its French Colonial wrought iron balconies covered with blooming vines and then to Chartres and finally around to Decatur to be dropped off at Jackson Square. My last view of the line of carriages was from the corner at Cafe Du Monde. With a sidewalk trumpet beautifully bending blues notes I could hear the hack drivers hollering “Hey see the French Quarter from your own private carriage. Right here, carriage rides!”
The winners in this city are those who are quick, imaginative, lucky, hard and resilient. People like Louis Charbonnet. New Orleans is a beautiful town, one which loves to look in the mirror and see music, poetry and humanity over its shoulder. The horsedrawn carriages add to her beauty, magic and poetry. In his own way, Louis Charbonnet has made a gift of the carriages to this city that he loves. New Orleans, no ‘Nawlins,’ is a lucky town.