Before European and Canadian settlers occupied what would become Lafayette Parish, the indigenous Atakapa-Ishak, Choctaw, Chitimacha, and Opelousa inhabited the area. By the mid-18th century, French, Spanish, and Acadian colonists established settlements along the Vermilion River, surrounding bayous, and a long-established Native trading outpost called “Pinsahuk,” or Pinhook. In the early 1820s, Jean Mouton, the son of an exiled Acadian, and his surveyor, John Dinsmore, Jr., laid out a cross-grid town, with streets named for presidents, that they named St. Jean du Vermilionville. The name would eventually be shortened to Vermilionville.
In 1823, the Louisiana legislature carved off the western half of St. Martin Parish to form a new parish, named after the Marquis de Lafayette, hero of the American and French Revolutions, who would soon undertake a grand tour of the United States at the bequest of President James Monroe. A legislative charter of 1869 amended to rename the town of Vermilionville to Lafayette. Problem was, there was another town, a suburb of New Orleans, also called Lafayette. In 1884, however, New Orleans incorporated the other Lafayette into its boundaries, allowing the Acadian-area of Lafayette to finally switch names. By then, Lafayette was truly the hub city of Acadiana, with a railroad stop, a stable population, and business corridor.
A public research university with over 18,000 students, the roots of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette stretch back to 1898 when the state legislature passed an act for the creation of a school in southwest Louisiana. The Southwestern Louisiana Industrial Institute (SLII) opened in 1901 with 100 students attending classes. Twenty years later, the school, renamed the Southwestern Louisiana Institute of Liberal and Technical Learning (SLI), became a bachelor’s degree-granting college. The school’s name was changed yet again in 1960 to the University of Southwestern Louisiana (USL), which had then grown to include a graduate school and six distinct colleges. In 1999, the institution changed its name, likely for the final time, to the University of Louisiana at Lafayette (ULL). Today, the university is home to the Center for Louisiana Studies, founded in 1973; 120 undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral programs; and the men’s and women’s Ragin’ Cajun athletic teams.
For over ninety years, Dwyer’s Cafe has been feeding downtown Lafayette diners plate lunches, sandwiches, soups, and salads. In 1927, Wilbur “Pop” and Essil Stinson opened Pop Stinson's Cafe on Jefferson Street. By 1940, the couple’s reopened their lunch spot as the Gem, located in the Gordon Hotel. After Pop Stinson passed away in 1953, his widow reopened the restaurant as Mrs. Pop Stinson’s. In 1965, Stanley Dwyer, a veteran cook trained in FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps and the man now enshrined in a stained glass window that overlooks Jefferson Street, took over the business, and eventually changed the restaurant’s name once again. Now run by third-generation members of the Dwyer family, a luncheon steam table of daily special entrees and sides beckons. Smothered steak, smothered chicken, smothered pork chop, cow tongue. Fried catfish, seafood casserole, shrimp stew, shrimp étouffée. Creamed spinach, eggplant casserole, smothered cabbage. Dwyer's may be the oldest restaurant in town but not by much. Poor Boy's Riverside Inn began business in 1932 as a snowball and sandwich cart, while Don's Seafood and Steakhouse opened as a beer hall in 1934.
Originally built as a headquarters for numerous oil companies the Heymann Oil Center remains a sort of city within a city in central Lafayette. Maurice Heymann, a department store mogul, real estate developer, and philanthropist originally from New Orleans opened his eponymous Center to capitalize on Texas and Lake Charles-area oil companies then relocating their production to the Gulf Coast. The Oil Center also included the Petroleum Club, once a private dining space for oil executives, but open to the public since 1986. Heymann continued to invest in the area adjoining the Center. The Heymann Performing Arts Center opened 1960, and Lafayette General Hospital five years later. Today, the oil city remains a close-knit community of offices, restaurants, and shops.
Created in 1968 by the Louisiana state legislature, and headquartered in Lafayette, the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana (CODOFIL), according to its charter, works to “do any and all things necessary to accomplish the development, utilization, and preservation of the French language as found in Louisiana for the cultural, economic and touristic benefit of the state.” Spearheaded by James R. Domengeaux, a Lafayette-born, former US Congressman, Cajun, and cultural activist, CODOFIL reintroduced French language education to Acadiana classrooms, where students were once often punished for speaking the language they used at home. Domengeaux worked to recruit teachers from Francophone countries and embraced French language immersion instruction at home and abroad. After a half-century, CODOFIL continues to defend the teaching and speaking of French language throughout Louisiana.
The world’s oldest and largest Cajun and Zydeco music festival, Festivals Acadiens et Créoles is held every October. The Festival’s roots stretch back to 1976, when a trio of Cajun musicians, Gladius Thibodeaux, Louis “Vinesse” LeJeune, and Dewey Balfa, represented Louisiana at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival. Balfa promised to “bring home the echo of the standing ovation” they received. A decade later, under the auspices of CODOFIL, Balfa helped organize the Tribute to Cajun Music Festival in 1974. The Tribute concert eventually merged with two other independent festivals, the Louisiana Native and Contemporary Crafts Festival and the Bayou Food Festival, to create what would eventually come to be called the Festivals Acadiens et Créoles. Spread across a three-day weekend in Lafayette’s Girard Park, the free festival grounds feature a crafts fair, food tents, chef demos, and six stages of local music.
In 1983, a pair of organizations dedicated to the revitalization and preservation of the city’s downtown district was launched. That same year, Downtown Lafayette Unlimited, a private nonprofit, along with the aid of the Downtown Development Authority, a city-run agency, helped launch Downtown Alive, now Louisiana’s oldest continuously running free outdoor concert series. By decade’s end, a series of commissioned public art projects, most notably a sequence of instantly beloved murals by Robert Dafford (“Escape from the Postcards,” “Ex-Garage,” and “Gateway,” among others), beautified the exteriors of several downtown buildings. In 1992, the Lafayette Natural History Museum and Planetarium, now known as the Lafayette Science Museum, relocated from Girard Park to the former Heymann’s Department Store. Three years later, a two-phase streetscape project improved the sidewalks on Jefferson and Vermilion streets, planted cypress trees, and created and/or renovated several permanent public parks, including Parc Sans Souci, Parc International, Parc Putnam, and Parc de Lafayette, which are all venues for festivals and concerts.
The Cajundome is a 13,500-seat arena, convention center, and much-beloved symbol of the Lafayette skyline. Designed by lifelong Lafayette resident and architect Neil Nehrbass, the Cajundome opened in 1985, after three-plus years of construction, at a cost of $64 million. On November 11, Country music legend Kenny Rogers inaugurated the Dome. Hundreds of national and international acts, including Stevie Wonder, Billy Joel, Cher, and Justin Bieber, have since played here. Since its opening, the Ragin’ Cajuns men’s and women’s basketball teams of first USL, now ULL, have called the Dome home. The Dome has hosted other local sports franchises, including, most notably, the Louisiana IceGators minor league hockey team, who skated on the arena’s “frozen swamp” ice rink from 1995 to 2005. In 2002, the Dome was enlarged to include an over 37,000-square-foot convention center addition.
A global-themed, annual music, arts, and food event, Festival International de Louisiane is the largest international music and arts festival in the United States. Conceived in 1985 to revitalize the city’s moribund downtown corridor, following the oil industry crash earlier in the decade, Festival International has, from the beginning, recognized and celebrated Lafayette’s cultural and historical diversity. Modeled after the Festival d’ete International du Québec in Québec City, the premiere Festival International, held in July 1987, featured acts from throughout the greater Francophone world, including the Rwanda Master Drummers and the Assemblée du Pays Normand from France. The following year, festival organizers moved the event to late April, taking advantage of the milder spring weather. Since then, Festival International has hosted bands from around the world, while placing local musicians in an international context. Today, the five-day festival, spread over downtown-area seven stages, draws upwards of 400,000 attendees. Staffed by 2,700 volunteers, Festival International remains free and open to the public.
A contemporary, mixed development of homes, apartments and condominiums, business offices, and retail shops that opened in 1999, the Village of River Ranch helped revitalize Lafayette’s south side. Occupying over 300 acres of former horse and cattle farmland, once nicknamed “the ranch,” the community is home to over 2,500 people and dozens of local and national businesses. An exemplar of the New Urbanism design movement, River Ranch features a centrally located town square, surrounded by walkable streets and sidewalks, dotted with green spaces and lakes, and filled with houses designed in seven major architectural styles. During the cooler months, River Ranch hosts Saturday morning races and its Rhythms on the River concert series on Thursday evenings.
A nonprofit organization functioning as the central cultural hub of eight Acadiana parishes — Acadia, Evangeline, Iberia, Lafayette, St. Landry, St. Martin, St. Mary, and Vermilion — the Acadiana Center for the Arts (AcA) is the region’s premier venue for arts entertainment and education. Originally established as an arts council in 1975, the AcA has transformed into a 10,000-square-foot gallery and theater space in the heart of downtown Lafayette. Visual arts programming includes twenty-five exhibitions annually. The 300-seat James Devin Moncus Theater hosts musical, theatrical, and dance performances from a diverse range of local, national, and global acts.