There was a man who entered the United States illegally. Fleeing violence in his home country, he sought out a community of other immigrants who shared his culture and traditions. He worked at hard manual labor and built a life for a growing family in tough times. Sometimes facing discrimination and personal tragedy, the growing family relied on their Catholic faith for strength to persevere in a new homeland, and ultimately became an integral part of the community.
It sounds like a story taking place in 2015. In fact, it is the century-old story of the Cace family from Longview, operators of Johnny Cace’s Restaurant, a landmark in East Texas for decades. The restaurant is closing on March 28, like many family restaurants have in recent years. People from all over Texas, some from far parts of the nation, and a few from the rest of the world are making last trips to eat Johnny Cace’s signature New Orleans seafood. The story of the restaurant and the family who built it is an American story, and a Catholic story.
John Cace Sr. was born in 1887 on the island of Prvic off the Croatian coast, in the fishing village of Prvic-Luka. He became a sailor at a young age, enlisting in the Italian merchant marines and advancing to Quartermaster. Seeing an opportunity to escape the violence of World War I and become an American, John jumped ship during a stopover in New Orleans in March, 1915. He made his way to Plaquemines parish, far down the Mississippi river delta, to the Croatian settlement of Buras. At the time, the New Orleans area was already home to several thousand Croatian immigrants, most from the Dalmatian coast. New Orleans with its coastal culture and fishing industry was a good fit for them. They formed close-knit Catholic communities, celebrating the feast days of the Patron Saints of their hometowns in Croatia. The primary business was oyster fishing, and this was a back-breaking occupation.
Working in small boats, the oyster fishermen would collects immature ‘seed’ oysters from Gulf waters East of the Mississippi, using heavy tongs to scrape and lift the oysters into the boat. It usually took all day to load the boat in this way. The oysterman would row, sail, and push his loaded boat back to private oyster bedding grounds, leased from the state of Louisiana, and spread the oysters evenly over the bottom to grow. Each step in this process meant hours and days of lifting and scooping heavy loads of live oysters. The immature oysters required a year or more to grow. When the oysters in a plot were grown, he would again scrape and lift them into the boat by hand with tongs, and take them back to his camp to be culled. Marketable oysters were separated from the immature ones and empty shells. The oysters were sold by the bag to a ‘lugger’, a larger boat which came by to transport the oysters to market in New Orleans. Danny Cace, grandson of John Sr., describes the difficulty of this life, “When they were harvesting, they might come up with 25 sacks of oysters after a tremendous amount of work, they were worth only 25 cents per sack!”
This was the life John Sr. took up when he settled on the river delta in the Spring of 1915. Only 6 months later, his new life as an American almost ended. The New Orleans hurricane of 1915 made landfall on September 29, with the center of the path passing just a few miles west of Buras. It was a category 4 storm with sustained winds of 145 mph. For comparison, hurricane Katrina, which also hit almost precisely on Buras, had 125 mph winds at landfall.
A telegraph report of the event gives an idea of the devastation, “Whole country between Poydras and Buras inundated. Levees gone, property loss appalling. Life toll probably heavy. Conditions estimated worse than ever before. Relief needed. No Communications…” The 1915 hurricane killed 275 people, 200 of which were citizens of Plaquemines parish. Many bodies were never recovered and thousands were homeless. Beginning with this event, John Cace Sr. made it his goal to move off of the levee and find a life farther inland.
In January of 1916, John married Anastasia Evasovich, and one year later Johnny Cace Jr. was born. The Evasovich family had extensive holdings of oyster beds and boats, and Johnny worked with his father cultivating oysters and fishing when school wasn’t in session. He also learned to cook all of the seafood the family caught. The family briefly owned a market in New Orleans, but this attempt to move inland was scuttled by the beginning of the great Depression. Johnny graduated from Buras High School in 1933 and attended LSU for two years. The family achieved the goal of moving inland and opened a seafood market on Louisiana avenue in Shreveport. John Jr. drove the family truck from Shreveport to the oyster beds in Plaquemines parish to get fresh seafood for the market. Asked why the family chose Shreveport, Danny Cace recalls “Grandpa said that he wanted someplace far enough away that if he failed, he couldn’t come back to the oyster beds!”
Johnny volunteered at the beginning of World War II and served four years in the Army Air Forces. In 1949, Johhny, now married, decided to open a restaurant, and became interested in Longview as a potential location. Johnny came to Mass at St. Anthony’s and inquired of people he met whether they thought a New-Orleans style seafood restaurant could succeed in their town. Based on the enthusiastic response, the family settled on Longview and began the work of creating Johnny Cace’s Seafood and Steak Restaurant, opening on March 10, 1949 at the corner of Green and Tyler streets with seating for 37 guests, and an upstairs apartment for the family. As the restaurant succeeded, it was expanded to 200 seats. John Cox of Tyler remembers eating at Johnny Cace’s with his family in 1950 and 51. “It was fancy! Going to Johnny Cace’s was a treat. There wasn’t another fine-dining seafood restaurant for miles and miles. Me, I just loved the hot rolls, they were my favorite.”
In 1964, the restaurant moved to its current location with seating for 300 that was eventually increased to 450. The Cace family, with the addition of sons John III, Gerard, and Danny, had become an integral part of St. Anthony’s parish and the Longview community. In 1980, Johnny turned daily operation of the restaurant over to son Gerard and his wife, Cathy Painter Cace. The restaurant has received a long list of awards, and Gerard served as president of the Texas Restaurant Association in 2008-9. Johnny passed away in 2000. Gerard passed away in 2012. Cathy and their two daughters, Chelsea and Jenni, have run the restaurant for the last 3 years, assisted by a dedicated staff, some of whom are second-generation Johnny Cace’s employees.
Amy Allen, principal of St. Mary’s school in Longview said, “Gerard and Cathy Cace are alumni of St. Mary’s. They are founding members of Catholic Education endowment in Longview. They have supported all of our fundraisers for years and years. They have personally served food for so many events, and fed so many people. Our scoreboard is named the Gerard Cace scoreboard. The Cace family has meant so much to this school, that we named our chapter of the National Honor Society the Gerard Cace Memorial Chapter.” She said that there were many stories about the Cace family working in the parish and school over the years, mostly involving food. “People tell stories about Johnny showing up with hotdogs and feeding the students lunch, reading the ‘Cajun Night before Christmas’ to the kids at Christmastime, and many more. The Cace family has truly demonstrated putting love into action in Longview.”
Now, the restaurant is closing. March 28 will be the last day. 100 years almost to the day after John Sr. jumped ship to become an American, Johnny Cace’s Seafood and Steak House will serve its last meal. The family moves on to other challenges and the next chapters in the Cace family story. A family history began when an unknown Croatian fisherman jumped ship in Louisiana, and the hospitality of St. Anthony’s at a Sunday Mass in 1949 brought the Caces to Longview. In the truest sense, the rest is history.
Author’s note: Every year for the past 13 years, Johnny Cace’s has held a Mardi Gras celebration for charity. It was a special blessing to be present for the event, and despite being incredibly busy, the Cace family made time for my questions and photographs.