I just had an opportunity to watch the “Louisiana Story” film for the first time. It may seem odd that it was the first time, being that it’s been around since 1948, but somehow this was the first time. It was being shown by Louisiana Public Broadcasting as part of their fundraiser. Many thanks to those folks.
The story is of a 14 year-old boy who lives in the coastal cheniers and is made to confront the coming oil industry as the first drilling rig moves into the bayou in front of his house. He spends much of his time in a pirogue and gradually makes friends with the people drilling the oil well almost in his front yard (front bayou?). The film ends with the boy and his father enjoying the newfound money from the successful well completion, and waving goodbye to the departing drilling rig from the top of the “Christmas tree”. You are left with a good feeling about the story and the people. And the oil company who financed the film certainly got good PR out of it.
I think it was basically a true story, not only for people living along the coast of Louisiana, but inland along the rivers and swamps too. I’m thinking particularly about the Atchafalaya Basin. I wasn’t in the Basin in the 1940’s, but I was very much in it in the 1950s. And I saw the changes happening. And it wasn’t only the oil industry, it was the timber industry too. People who lived during the changes mostly don’t complain about them. You ask them what it was like and the first thing they mention is the jobs. The jobs meant a chance to take part in an economy not available before. The new economy meant new material advantages to their lives. And the new economy meant changes. However valuable and
welcome the new jobs might be, the changes were inevitable, and irreversible. And, for those who linger on such things, sad, in a most profound way. But for the most part it is not the people who were personally affected by the changes who lament them most loudly, it is those of us who reflect from a distance.
Courtesy of Ms. Darlene Soule, I have pictures here of three generations of people who lived in the Atchafalaya Basin during the times these changes were taking place. The earliest of these was Mr. Homer Daigle (1882), and his wife Ernestine (1883). They lived in the swamp all their lives, most of it on houseboats, and all of it making the resources of the Basin support their growing families. Ernestine had 11 children in a three-room houseboat. If Mr. Daigle was ever part of the timber industry, I have no record of it. He fished and gathered moss, trapped and so on. Of the three generations, then, he was probably least affected by the economic changes that were about to transform the swamp economy. Not only that, but he rejected, it seems, any attempt to mechanize his life. The greatest need for newer and faster ways to do things was in transportation. But even though during his midlife a faster way to move around was invented (small engines) and introduced to the Atchafalaya Basin, he never would own a motorized boat. Rather than put an engine in a bateau, he pushed a “push skiff” through the water to do everything he had to do, sometimes going 20 miles to accomplish something.
The next generation, one of whom is pictured here with his wife of 50 years, was the generation who came fully into the timber industry. Myon Bailey (born 1905), was a stepson of Mr. Daigle's and was a fisherman first and a timber worker when necessary. But unlike his stepfather, he accepted the new put-put boats and later the very new outboards toward the end of his life. In 1985, knowing some of the good feelings we have about the simpler life and slower pace, I made a presumption and asked him:JD: “Myon, what were the good old days like?”
MB: “Jim, the good old days? THESE are the good old days!”
And he emphasized that electricity, and running water, and doctors, and movie theatres were an improvement over “the good old days”.
He mentioned that the very early beginnings of the changing oilfield environment were noticeable even though he didn’t work in it. He said one of the first things Basin people noticed was that the oil people tended to get around in these big, fast, deep-running crewboats. The deep-running part meant that, if they didn’t slow down, they caused big waves to sweep the banks in the narrow bayous. These narrow bayous were where the houseboats were tied up all along the banks. The big waves would severely rock these houses, knocking dishes down off of the shelves and upsetting everything. Mostly the women would be in the houseboats when that happened. There is nothing meek about a Cajun woman holding pieces of her china and looking at what did it going down the bayou and away. A short period followed where there was a certain amount of gunfire, mostly one way, that damaged (some say sunk) a few of the crewboats. It became good manners after that to slow down.
The third generation would be Myon’s son Milton (born 1932), pictured here. Milton was of that part of the Atchafalaya Basin that was caused to move out of houseboats and out of the Basin, onto land – the first time that family line had been off of the water in more than 75 years. Progress and the floods from the Mississippi caused that to happen. The timber industry was mostly through, the trees were gone. Now comes the oil and gas industry into the Basin. By the time he was 20, the oil industry was developing facilities in the Basin and hiring young, capable people like Milton Bailey and the rest of his generation. These men eagerly accepted the new jobs and their natural skills of resourcefulness and toughness and pride-in-work made them sought after. His generation found they could work the shift schedules of so many days on and so many off and still practice their exceptional fishing and hunting talents to earn extra income. In other words, the economy had shifted to oilfield jobs as the primary wage provider, with the traditional industries of fishing, etc, still being practiced but to a lesser degree. Milton was very good at almost anything he did, and while the oilfield offered a way into the wider world outside the Basin, it also was the scene where his life was lost at age 39 in an accident on a drilling rig. It is tempting to accuse the setting of his end as being somehow guilty of something just by being there, but that is foolish, I think. Young men died in boats too. It is tragic either way.
Each day is different, the degree of difference sometimes makes us notice, sometimes not and we think it’s just another day. But it is different. All of these people lived their lives in periods of change. They all lived their lives in their own time and circumstances, and they all left a dent in their seat on the train. And that’s enough.
The river is at 14.8 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge, rising slowly to 15.5 feet by next weekend. The Mississippi and Ohio are both rising slowly and there is more water on the ground up there to keep the rise coming. Looks like a good year for Basin crawfishermen as soon as the water warms up.
Rise and Shine, Jim