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By W. T. Block

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While the surname of Viterbo may not sound as familiar as other early Nederland family names, it was to connect in many ways with the infancy years of the Dutch colony. And all of the Nederland oldtimers could have told you that the earliest name for Canal Street during those three or four decades that it remained a dirt thoroughfare was "Viterbo Road," even if they didn't know why.

Likewise, the name "Viterbo" is a freight terminal slightly south of Beauxart Gardens, on the Texas and New Orleans Railroad tracks along the West Port Arthur Road. Although everyone in town is familiar with the Kansas City Southern trackage which runs through the heart of Nederland, perhaps many residents are not even aware of the railroad that runs in back of the airport, principally because they have seldom seen a train running along it in daytime. Nevertheless, that stretch of tracks carried passenger trains from Beaumont to Sabine pass before the Civil War, and continued to do so until passenger service to Sabine Pass was discontinued about 1922. For almost forty years, that rail junction in back of the airport was known as "The Cowpens," because the Hillebrant and Hebert ranches shipped their cattle to market from there. In 1897, Jacques (Jack) and Leon Viterbo began shipping sacked rice from that point, rice grown on the 1,600-acre "Viterbo rice plantation," two miles to the west on Hillebrant Bayou.

One of the Viterbo brothers' greatest contributions to Nederland history was the fact that their canal system became the template for the Port Arthur Rice and Irrigation Company's pumping plant and canal system at Nederland. In 1895, the Kansas City Southern Railroad was laying its rails to Port Arthur, was studying rice horticulture by experimenting with several varieties of that grain at its "Experimental Farm" at Pear Ridge, and although it had organized the Port Arthur Rice and Irrigation Company early in 1897, the railroad knew nothing at all about operating pumping plants and irrigation canal systems. The Port Arthur "Herald" (the railroad-owned newspaper) of March 18, 1898, ran a full-page article, titled "Green and Growing--800 Acres of Rice In One Field," detailing the visit of two railroad officials to the Viterbo rice plantation on Hillebrant Bayou to study all the "hows and whys" and "dos and don'ts" of operating an ideal canal system, and somehow transpose that knowledge into Nederland's canal system. The visit actually took place in August, 1897, even though it was not published until eight months later.

The Texas Gulf Historical and Biographical Record of November, 1987, concluded that "the Viterbos'....model farm became the template for the Port Arthur Rice and Irrigation Company, as well as for other canal systems which were then or later in the process of construction" in Jefferson County.

Jacques and Leon Viterbo were residents of Nederland insofar as they received their mail and purchased supplies there, but the Viterbo rice plantation was six miles west of town. Nevertheless, it was much closer than driving a wagon to Beaumont. To get there from Nederland, one needed to travel the dirt thoroughfare known as "Koelemay Road" (now Helena) to present-day 27th Street, turn right, and then follow the Koelemay Road until it ended at the John Koelemay Dairy (at present-day 27th and Canal). From there, the dirt trail became Viterbo Road and ended up four miles to the west at the Viterbo farm. Along the way, one would pass the original C. Doornbos home (near the present-day airport), the Viterbo rail junction on the T. and N. O. tracks, and pass a short distance from the old ranch and plantation house owned by Ben and Martin Hebert. There was no Beauxart Gardens or other residences in that area in the early days. (Beauxart Gardens began as a Federal farm project about 1932).

Jacques (Jack) and Leon Viterbo were actually "citizens of the world," although they considered themselves as being of Italian parentage. There is a town in Italy named Viterbo. They were born in Constantinople (Istanboul), Turkey, the sons of Elia and Gracia Viterbo, prominent bankers. Since Jacques Viterbo was to live out his life in Jefferson County while running the Viterbo plantation (as opposed to Leon Viterbo, who resided at Lake Charles, where he managed their even larger Louisiana rice interests), it is actually Jacques Viterbo who is primarily concerned here. Leon Viterbo was born on September 15, 1862, followed by Jacques on June 23, 1863, leaving them so close in size and age that most people probably mistook them for twins. They received their earliest education at Jesuit College of Constantinople, but while still in their teens, they moved to Paris, France, where they completed their schooling, to include good Latin educations. Having been exposed to both the Middle Eastern and West European cultures, the best of two worlds, the Viterbo brothers acquired excellent liberal arts and business training, and along the way, picked up a few foreign languages, including English.

Jacques and Leon Viterbo reached Southwestern Louisiana about 1885. Their first business activity there was to start a "large commissary, twelve miles north of Jennings," that became known as "Viterboville," and supplied the planters of that region. By 1890, the Viterbos also owned several square miles of rice plantations there and one of the first canal systems in that part of the state.

In 1895, they followed two Crowley, Louisiana, bankers and rice growers, P. S. and Willard Lovell, to the Taylor's Bayou region of Jefferson County, where the Viterbos bought their 1,600-acre Hillebrant Bayou plantation. The miracle was that in just the span of twenty short months, they converted two and one-half square miles of bald prairie and high marsh into one of the most ingenious canal systems and productive farms in Jefferson County. According to the "Green and Growing" article of 1898 in the old Port Arthur "Herald," much of the success of that accomplishment was due to a ditching and levee-building machine of their own design, perfected in Louisiana (probably some type of large, mule-drawn scoop), which allowed the Viterbo brothers to build 1 1/2 miles of levee a day. During that twenty months, they had completed one main elevated flume through there property, thirty feet wide and two miles long. Before the spring planting of 1897, they had laid out eight 100-acre fields, four on each side of the canal, complete with laterals and levees, steam engine, boiler and lift pump, and when Colonel Furlong and J. R. Gleason of Port Arthur (and the K. C. S. Railroad) visited the Viterbos in August, 1897, those eight fields of rice were already shoulder-high with rice pods, with harvesting well-advanced before the visitors arrived. The Viterbos had already managed to harvest 600 acres (worth $30,000), but lost the last 200 acres to a small, but severe, hurricane, which struck Port Arthur, killing ten people, on September 10, 1897, being the first storm to deal significant damage to Texas' infant rice industry.

The Viterbo brothers agreed to accompany Colonel Furlong and Mr. Gleason to the proposed site of Nederland and its canal system the following Monday (of August, 1897), and inspect the railroad's proposed pumping plant location at Smith's Bluff. The Viterbos would then make their recommendations for the building of Nederland's elevated, main canal flume, two miles long and 100 feet wide, four main canals scattering in all directons, and 25 miles of lateral canals.

While Colonel Furlong was on the Viterbo plantation, he observed an infant child in the Viterbo household; first "he (Furlong) captures the baby and then he is sure of the mother." That infant baby was Verne D. Viterbo, who was born on the plantation on September 27, 1896. Earlier, Jacques Vierbo had married Liza Reeves, the daughter of William Reeves and Jane Seaman, who was born in Freemont, Michigan, on June 23, 1873. The Reeves family owned and operated the Lakeshore Hotel in Lake Arthur, Louisiana.

The children of Jacques and Liza Viterbo were as follows: Verne D. (b. 1896-d. December 1, 1943, who married Emilie Catherine Hebert (b. April 5, 1899-d. May 26, 1987); Doris Viterbo (b. June 10, 1898-d. May 21, 1970); Inez Viterbo (b. February 5, 1905-d. May 14, 1975); and Ralph J. Viterbo (b. April 10, 1907-d. December 12, 1955).

Verne Viterbo was to unite the Viterbo family with a descendent of their Hebert neighbors when he married Emilie Hebert. His wife, the daughter of Jules Hebert and Ada Truett, represented the fifth generation of the Hebert family to live in Jefferson County. Her paternal grandparents were Joseph Martin Hebert and Emilie Broussard. Her paternal great grandparents were Joseph A. Hebert and Melina Andrus, who founded the Hebert cattle barony on West Port Arthur Road, that their children continued. Joseph Hebert, who came to Jefferson County with his father, Louis Hebert, in 1842, had accumulated a herd of 3,000 heads of cattle on West Port Arthur Road by 1860, making him and his neighbor, Christian Hillebrand, the two largest cattle barons in antebellum Jefferson County. In 1861, Joseph Hebert was elected captain of Jefferson County's first cavalry militia company, the 55-man "Jefferson County Mounted Rangers."

On January 31, 1931, Verne and Emilie Viterbo became the parents of a son, Jules R. Viterbo, who was born in Beaumont on January 31, 1931. Jules, who is best known as "J. R." and apparently is the last survivor in Jefferson County to bear the Viterbo name, attended the St. Anthony Parish schools and graduated from St. Anthony's High School in 1948. He has one brother, Verne D. Viterbo, Jr. (b. August 14, 1921), a WWII prisioner of war now living in San Antonio, and one sister, Harriet Viterbo Avery (b. October 22, 1924) of Port Arthur. Verne, Jr., a navigator on a B-17 Flying Fortress, was shot down twice, but ditched the first time over the English Channel and was rescued. He was shot down the second time over Emden, Germany's submarine pens and spent 17 months in a POW camp, Stalag Luft I in Barth, Germany

Between 1948-1950, J. R. Viterbo attended St. Edward's University in Austin and Lamar College. In 1950, he joined the United States Marine Corps and served fourteen months of 1951-1952 in the First Marine Division in Korea. He received two combat decorations, attained the rank of sergeant, and was discharged from duty in September, 1953.

J. R. Viterbo then returned to college at Texas A and M University in February, 1954, and graduated with honors in January, 1957. In October, 1957, he was employed by L and W X-ray Company of Beaumont, and five years later, he became a junior partner in the firm. In 1963, he returned to Lamar University's Vocational School to complete an Industrial Electronics degree needed in his employment, and he graduated there in 1965. In 1972 he became the senior partner in L and W X-ray Company. In 1983, he sold his majority control of that company when he retired.

In July, 1958, Mr. Viterbo was married to Patricia Ann Moreau of Port Arthur, the daughter of Albert K. Moreau and Ruby Mae Guy. Mr. Moreau was born on December 18, 1914, in Moreauville, Louisiana, the son of Victor Ovide Moreau and Alice Gauthier. Mrs. Ruby Moreau was born in Halsum, Texas, on February 3, 1917, the daughter of John Taylor Guy and Lucy Anna Welch. Mr. and Mrs. Albert K. Moreau still reside in Port Arthur.

In 1963, Mr. and Mrs. Viterbo purchased their present home in Nederland at 504 34th Street. They became the parents of three children, as follows: daughter Elizabeth Viterbo graduated from Nederland High School in 1978 and from Texas A and M University in 1982. She is married to David McLaughlin of Midland, Texas, and they have one son, Gregory McLaughlin. Son Edward Viterbo graduated from Nederland High School in 1982 and from Texas A and M University in 1986. He is employed by Sonat, Incorporated in Houston. Daughter Catherine Viterbo graduated from Nederland High School in 1988 and attends Texas A and M University, where she will graduate in 1992.

Although J. R. Viterbo retired in 1983, his wife, Patricia Moreau Viterbo, is still employed as an elementary teacher in the Nederland school district. They are members of St. Charles Catholic Church of Nederland. Nevertheless, J. R. Viterbo is still actively interested in many pursuits. He owns the Belmont Company, a real estate and investment firm. He is still actively involved in rice farming, soy bean farming, and land management programs in Jefferson County. And he was a member of the Board of Directors of Gateway National Bank in 1981-1983.

Mr. Viterbo's hobbies are hunting and amateur photography. He enjoys working with the photography section of the Nederland high School Annual Staff. And whenever circumstances permit, the Viterbo family enjoys travelling.

J. R. Viterbo and his siblings still own more than 100 acres of the original Viterbo plantation, but not through the usual channels of inheritance through his grandfather, Jacques Viterbo. Actually, when Jacques Viterbo became ill in 1920, shortly before his death, he sold 1,500 acres of the land to J. Martin Hebert. The 100 acres was inherited through his mother Emilie Hebert Viterbo, from her father, Jules Hebert.

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Copyright 1998-2023 by W. T. Block. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, the material published on this site is copyrighted by William T. Block.
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