This blog originates on the banks of the Atchafalaya River, in Louisiana. It proposes to share the things that happen on and by the river as the seasons progress. As the river changes from quiet, warm, slow flow to rises of eighteen feet or more, there are changes in the lives of the birds, fish, amphibians and reptiles that use the river. And the mood of the river changes with the seasons. I propose to note and comment on these things.

My Photo
Location: Butte La Rose, Louisiana, United States

I transitioned a few years ago from a career as a water-pollution control biologist. I want to do this blog to stay in touch with a world outside my everyday surroundings, whatever they may be. I like open-minded company and the discussion of ideas. Photo by Brad Moon.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Fishboat Commerce

Once the people of the Basin had learned to catch fish on a commercial scale, it was necessary to find a way to exchange the fish for money. This usually involved plugging into a system that had been in existence in the Basin for many years, probably since the early use of gasoline engines in boats. The central part of this commercial system was the part played by the fishboat – sometimes called a trade boat or grocery boat. It is difficult to overestimate the importance of the fishboat to the life of the commercial fisherman in the Atchafalaya Basin. It provided a way to sell the fisherman’s product, but it also acted for many people as the only contact with the world outside the Basin. Whether living on houseboats or on the bayou banks, the farther people moved away from centers of population, the more isolated they became with regard to news, medical help and other needs that could only be provided in land-based communities. The link to these occasionally essential places was provided by the fishboats. The experience of the people who were to become the Myette Point community probably serves as well as any to describe the fishboat system and its significance. It is their experience that forms the basis for what is provided here.

In the early part of the 20th century the Basin was richly, and widely, populated with people living in houseboats and in more fixed structures on the bayou banks. Given the size of the vessels available to most of them (above right) and the limited range of these vessels, the need for some larger, more seaworthy, means of transporting fish and other goods around the Basin was mostly filled by the efforts of the fish docks that collected the Basin fish for processing and distribution. This amounted to the operation of one or more relatively large craft that could travel the distances necessary to procure a load of fish, ice it, and return to the home dock while the fish were still fresh. What this usually meant was the boat would leave a port like Morgan City and travel up the Atchafalaya Basin buying fish and selling supplies for the space of one day, spend the night at the end of that day, and return to Morgan City the next day non-stop, or nearly so. Given the size of the boats used at this time by fishermen for their daily transportation, it was very useful for the fishboat to come to the fisherman rather than him having to make the day-long trip to Morgan City. These smaller boats were dependable but desirable for long-distance travel only if necessary. So, the fishboat provided a natural solution to the problem of transportation of goods to and from the fishermen. Almost all the daily needs for food, ammunition, cloth, etc. were provided by the fishboat, including the PET milk that many babies were raised on.
The functional period for these boats ran from the early availability of automobile gasoline engines in 1908 (Ford Model T) to the time when people moved out of the Basin in the late 1940s. Two of the boats are pictured here: the Monarch, a gas-engine powered stern wheeler, and the more typical of the boats used, the Baby Dot. Some square-fronted bateaux were also made into fishboats. The late 1940s also coincides with the growing availability of outboard engines capable of powering small boats at high speeds to and from the places to sell fish and buy groceries.

The relationship between the families in the Basin and the fishboat operators could not help but be one of considerable intensity, either positively or otherwise. There was such a mutual dependence on each party to deliver his part of the arrangement that small traditions could easily arise and acquire significance. One operator who serviced the route ending each time in Keelboat Pass near Hog Island, on each trip would make some of his ice available to a family there, and some salt, to make hand-cranked ice cream. Everyone looked forward to this treat and that relationship still brings comments from the descendents of those families.

The existence of the fishboats lasted only so long as there were sufficient numbers of people living more or less permanently in the Basin and harvesting large amounts of fish. Once the levees were constructed in the 1930s and the people began to have to deal with higher and higher water in the spring of each year, more and more of them began to move to the edges of the Basin near the levees, or into the towns surrounding the swamp – towns like Morgan City, Charenton, Plaquemine, Bayou Sorrel and Pierre Part. The Myette Point people did not do this, at least not to a town. They moved to a place where they could still fish and deal with the fishboats for a little while longer, to the projection of land extending out into the western side of Grand Lake, called Myette Point. But once that happened the convenience and satisfaction derived from the fishboats gave way to more and more land-based amenities like electricity and roads and security from floods and such practical considerations drew them away from the old ways of houseboats and into houses on the bank. It became hard for the fishboats to service them and the services provided by them eventually died out, to be replaced by land-based communications and transportation. At first there were no roads along the levee where the houses were at Myette Point, and no electricity, but fish were still a valuable product and the docks in the area of Calumet and Charenton soon saw fit to connect with the fishermen by land and buy the fish, and now they could provide ice as well. Trucks would come when the weather allowed, picking up the fish and delivering the ice. Soon a middle man system arose similar to the fishboat system in that one of the people in the new community of Myette Point began to provide a place to buy fish and iceboxes to hold them until the trucks would arrive on a more or less predictable schedule. Like the fishboat operators, the local buyer would make a few cents per pound on the fish he in turn sold the dock. After this, the new commercial process took prominence and the fishboats were discontinued, but it had been a time of distinct significance to the fishermen of Grand Lake.
All of the pictures here are provided by Darlene Soule from her excellent collections. The text on them is added by me.

The river is at 9.5 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge today, rising to 10.2 feet in the next couple days. The Ohio and Mississippi are both falling now. More ups and downs it seems.

Rise and Shine, Jim


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