Kahn and Michel Schmulen were on their way to open a store in Beaumont in 1883, but when the train stopped at Rayne, one of the boosters of the town convinced them that the prospects were better there. Kahn and Schmulen had run the store on the Skelly Plantation in Glencoe, so they knew a little bit about the business and thought they saw a good prospect in the little town on the main line of the Southern Pacific.
They bought a general store from Anselm Chappuis and opened Schmulen & Kahn in 1884. Michel died in October 1885 and his widow sold her share to his partner. The store was renamed Mervine Kahn's
In 1885 Kahn married his partner's sister, Camille Schmulen. The young couple lived above the store and soon began a family. They had six children: Herbert, Leo, Julian, Florence, Hilda and Sadie, and treated the employees of the store like family too. The Kahns cooked dinner every workday not only for the family but for the staff of the store, and everyone sat down at a big table for the midday meal.
At first, Kahn's offered "everything needed to live on the prairie." In an 1886 ad, the store claimed to be "headquarters for wagons, buggies, hacks and agricultural equipment, clothing, hats, shoes, foods, dry goods, notions, gents and ladies furnishing goods, hardware, tinware, crockery, furniture, paints and oils." In the years before World War I, Kahn's even had an undertaking department complete with hearse and coffins.
After the turn of the century, the store began to specialize and soon became the place where fashionable folk from all around came to shop for clothes brought in from New York and other fashion centers. During its heyday in the 1940s and 1950s, Kahn's drew customers from Houston to New Orleans and had more than 4,000 active credit accounts. That's pretty remarkable when you consider that in 1940 Rayne had a total population of 4,974.
The store ultimately spread through six adjoining buildings that covered two thirds of a block. Part of the success came from the store's location, just a short walk from the railroad station, so that ladies could take an easy train ride from Lafayette or other places to shop in the stylish store.
Marketing played its part, too. Old-timers recalled in interviews several years ago how ladies dressed as if for a social occasion before going to shop at Kahn's. People would come from miles around for a weekly drawing for a handful of gift certificates, or simply to watch, fascinated, at the system of pneumatic tubes that swooshed money and sales tickets from the ground floor to the business department upstairs.
Mervine Kahn's acumen extended beyond his store. He founded the original Rayne State Bank in 1884 and served as its president. He was a partner in the Kahn & Smith Store in Crowley. He was a Rayne city council member and a board member of companies involved in rice milling, canals, irrigation, cotton ginning, brick making and real estate.
He was also known for his generosity, giving deep discounts at Christmas for his employees and their families, leading the community in funding and promoting all sorts of civic charitable causes, and for his quiet acts of philanthropy.
When Mervine Kahn died on March 6, 1924, his eldest son, Herbert became president of the family business. When he died in 1934, Leo, the second oldest son, who had been a buyer for the store for many years, was named president. He held that post until the store was closed in 1989, a victim of malls, interstate highways, and the oil bust of the 1980s. Other family members remained active in the store. Sadie Kahn Kapsinow and Florence Kahn Adler were vice-presidents. Julian served a secretary-treasurer through much of its history.
Mervine's widow continued to live above the store until her death in 1949, coming down to the store regularly to greet clients who had become friends over the decades when Kahn's was the place to be seen in south Louisiana.
You can contact Jim Bradshaw at email@example.com or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.