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.

Thursday, March 26, 2009


Someone has said that accidents are unpleasant things that happen suddenly. In this writing, accidents may or may not happen suddenly but they are always unpleasant. The nature of these things varies with the circumstances and the environment in which lives are lived. In the houseboats, it is easy to assume that many of the things that happened had a relationship to water and much of the time this assumption would be correct, but sometimes not. Drownings were not frequent, but even so were the foremost cause of accidental death in the houseboat communities, most other fatalities were related to diseases of some kind. You hear of no deaths due to snakebite, or alligator attack (unlikely in any event) or any other features of the natural environment that common expectations might predict.

It is a curious thing that people who spent their whole lives on or near the water did not put a high priority on learning to swim. While many will say that they could save themselves if suddenly placed in deep water, many will also admit that this is not the case. These are people who would get up in the morning and begin every day by approaching the water in some way. If on houseboats they would either get into a boat or walk a gangplank to the bank, if on land they would almost always begin the day with chores conducted in boats. It is also remarkable that so few boat-related accidents with serious consequences are known. If thrown from a boat, the difference between safety and a serious situation was how careful they were in retaining a connection to the boat. Ida Daigle was always a fisherwoman, and when young she experienced all that came with that. While running tightlines in the flooded swamp, she fell out of her pirogue on a cold day and tells it this way, including her husband’s reaction.

ID: Yeah. Tightlines. … But this here I had tied on a tree. And the tree broke. In the bayou I went headfirst.

JD: You couldn’t swim?

ID: No indeed. What happened - I held on [to] a lil bitty limb, way smaller than my finger. And uh, they had another one on the side, I reached over and I…I broke it and my boat…the wind was north, it was a cold day in July [figure of speech, it must have been in the winter], and my boat was goin away from me so I throwed that lil limb and it stayed caught…

JD: On your boat?

ID: Yeah, and I pulled the boat back to me and I got in it. But when I got in and I realized what could’a happened to me I got so weak…after I got in the boat, I wasn’t scared before. You know I was by myself in yuh, and I know they got 12 foot of water.
And I got back home, I was wet. Jesse started laughing at me, I say “If you’da been in my drawers, you woudn’ta laughed”. I say “Podna, I fell overboard in the…in the deep water”…I say “About 12 foot, maybe better” He went…he told me they didn’t have 12 foot, being that I had saved myself. I say “Oh yeah, they is”. He cut a…he cut a 15 foot pole and he went in there and they had…he barely touched the bottom with the pole he had. Well, he say “I believe you now”.

Life jackets do not feature in the early Myette Point story. Neg Sauce, who spent his entire life on the water as a fisherman, sums it up when asked if accidents occurred often and if they did, could the people swim?

Not really. Not really. Now and then you hear one of em fall overboard and drown, but not…not too many. Lot of people [couldn’t swim].

Many things could cause things to go from dry to wet if you were in a boat. If you were handling unfamiliar steering equipment there was a real potential for finding yourself overboard. Myon Bailey had broken the steering wheel in his bateau so he converted from a steering wheel to a stick that you pushed back and forth. Instead of turning a wheel to turn the motor, the stick controlled it. He pushed the stick the wrong way on a cold morning in the Basin during a deer hunt and nearly went overboard and then did it again and did go over after almost crashing into an oilfield platform. He could swim, but in his surprise he swam the wrong way, hip boots and all.

MB: I was fixing my boat. To rig the steerin. I didn’t have steering wheel, I fixed me a stick back there [forward and back instead of side to side]. I wasn’t used to that, no! I had three or four dogs in there and I had Elton - I had about three mens in my boat. And when I got in it I went in one of them pockets back there….right over the point [of land]

JD: The stick went the wrong way, or something, eh?

MB: Yeah, [pushed the stick the wrong way and turned the opposite of what he expected]. So, pushed it back overboard, went back there. So, Boy [Albert Jr.]….and, uh…put them boys out and they start taking their stands. I was gone leave there and go turn the dogs loose at the other [end?]. With that stick…and they had a oil well right in the middle of the pipeline [canal]. I had hip boots on and a big coat, it was cold! … And, when I turned like that, I push it like that [the wrong way] with that stick, and overboard I went! The boat went up on the bank, I had a brand new Evinrude on there. It went up on the bank and the motor was going prtprtprtprt. Boy yelled “You all right ?” I yelled at Boy, “Don’t worry about me, worry about my motor!!” [Laughter] [And on top of that] I was swimming back to the well. That’s stupid!

JD: Two times in one morning [laughs]

MB: I uh, I had to go put some warm clothes, it was cold!

JD: Well, did you learn to use the stick after that?

MB: Hunh, pulled it off!

Sometimes it could happen that the whole houseboat would sink for some reason. This most often happened when the dwelling was being transported from one place to another and was caught out in the open area of Grand Lake, where waves could come up suddenly. These waves would come up against the side of the barge supporting the house and the water would splash into it between the top of the side of the barge and the floor of the house. There is a six-inch ventilation gap all around the barge in that location. When this happened you could try to bail it out but this worked only if you had enough people to bail faster than the water was coming in. And then it was worse if a houseboat was placed sideways to the direction of the waves, the whole thing would often sink quickly.

When I was a baby [~1940], the old man was livin over there around Willow Cove somewhere. And he kept wantin to move, [but] everyday there was a norwester break out. Every day, you know? In other words, the north wind would pick up and the lake would get too rough. One night he got up, and he was gone come around that night before the north wind picked up. [but we] get out in the middle of the lake, here come a crackin norwester, sunk the camp and everything went down. Other words, I was a lil baby, you know, and they told us that often, you know? How we all got in that pirogue, and we had to go light a old oak tree on fire to dry everybody’s clothes and everything. But, in the middle of the night he was gone come around there to get out of that north wind every day, and when he got in the middle of that lake, a norwester cracked out, and sunk everything he had out there. [Putt Couvillier, 1974]

Many people fell overboard, including children. With the latter, this occurred mostly on the houseboats since the children spent most of their lives either inside or on the narrow porches and walkways. Sometimes a mother would get exasperated and chase an errant boy around and around the outside of the houseboat, she with a frying pan and he with the fear of getting a lesson of some kind. But even though they did fall overboard, you rarely hear of a child drowning near their home. Presumably this rarity is at least partly due to the large number of other children in the families, so that there was always one nearby to pull the child from the water, or the water was shallow enough not to be dangerous. Joe Sauce remembers this happening when he was about four years old and lucky his sister was there. He fell off of a gangplank connecting his houseboat to the levee it was tied up to and she pulled him out.
And Liza Henry lends credence to the observation that the walkways around the houseboats were narrow and were often the cause of near accidents.

I done that twice [fell overboard]. The other time, I was about eight years old, maybe, sitting in a chair and I pushed my chair too far back, and one leg ran off and over I went. So my brother…one of my brothers and a friend of his were sitting down right there too, he caught me. I say, I don’t see how we didn’t fall overboard more than that. We had a board about that wide…around the boat [houseboat] …about 15 inches wide, maybe. And we didn’t fall off of there! We’d run on it! [Liza Henry, 2007]

In the early part of the 20th century, the boats were powered by means that did not allow them to run with speed. The earliest boats were usually push skiffs that only went as fast as a person could row, and the early gasoline engines were not that much faster. The latter could run headlong into something and the person inside the boat might be shaken up but rarely would they be thrown overboard with enough force to prevent them from keeping contact with the boat. Modern boats with outboard engines are another matter. Collisions at high speed can and do throw the occupants away from the boat, often with injuries that make the situation even more dire. The older days of slow boats and the relative safety they ensured might be one of the things of value we sacrifice for greater speed and efficiency on the water. Consequently, most people who lived in the Basin in the last half of the 20th century have a story of some relative or acquaintance who drowned during that time. Many of these stories involve the use of the aluminum, or crawfish, skiff. This style of boat is locally manufactured for use in the harvesting of wild crawfish from the Basin. It has a pointed bow for easy maneuvering between trees, a tough bottom that resists puncturing by cypress knees, and a stern that can support a powerful motor for shoving the boat over, around and through obstacles in the flooded swamp. It is when this boat is operated at high speed in open water that it has been known to suddenly plunge beneath the water, bow first, and throw the occupants out and away from the boat. Damage to the occupant(s) often occurs in these circumstances. When an accident of this kind happens with this style of boat, the boat and motor are sometimes never located because there is no flotation built into most of them. They simply sink, and if the accident happens in deep water, such as the main channel of the Atchafalaya River, there could be 80 feet of water covering the boat and motor. Even with the known dangerous nature of this boat, it is still widely used since nothing else compares favorably with it for use in the flooded swamp.

All of the structures used for dwellings in the Basin were made of wood, and all of the means for cooking and heating involved the use of fire. There are stories of things getting out of hand and serious fires causing occasional loss of material things, but not causing death. Liza Henry describes a scene that could have been disastrous. Her brother and father were across the bayou dipping nets in a large vat of fire-heated tar when they noticed a problem at the houseboat. The stove in question was probably a multiple-burner kerosene model.

One day my daddy was tarrin nets, him and my brother, across the big bayou. And uh, my sister wanted to light the stove…to cook supper, I guess it was. Cause it was in the evening. Anyhow, [laughs] she put a skillet of grease on, and it caught on fire. It got too hot and it caught on fire, and we didn’t know what to do. She threw water in it, made the flame go higher. It just had a lil oil in it, a lil grease in the bottom, but that’s all it take to make a fire. Then it caught the roof on fire. From across the bayou, I think it was my brother that seen it, and they hurried up and jumped in the boat and came and put the fire out. And they go back, [to the net tarring operation across the bayou] then [the] tar was on fire! ‘Cause they had…they had to leave the tar. They didn’t think of covering up, they didn’t have time, so they just left it. So it was on fire. Had to put it out! Yeah. [laughs]. …but it was easy catch them wooden shingles, dry like…like paper. Caught on fire right away. If…if my daddy wouldn’t of seen it from across the bayou, it would’ve burned down, [if] they wouldn’t of seen it. ‘Cause nobody passed while it was burning. And then, my brother’s camp was right next to ours, right up against it almost. So it would of burned up too. [Liza Henry, 2007]

In their daily lives, people in the Basin routinely used tools that were potentially dangerous – saws, knives, etc. In any gathering of Myette Point people, it is usual to find several with less than ten complete fingers. The use of hatchets, axes, and later, power saws, were responsible for most of the amputations. . In the days after 1950, cutting up deer with band saws caused much of this, but any power saw could be responsible. Edward Couvillier has a saying about table saws “They ain’t got no friends” he says, meaning that if you make the slightest mistake or become a little careless, they will do serious damage quickly with no regrets - good thing to remember if you work daily with wood, as he does.

But hatchets and axes are just as dangerous. And you hear a good bit about axes slipping, or hitting the wrong thing, even on the back swing.

I got the mark [scar] just back of my ear, here. My momma cut me with an ax…I was uh…went haul pieces of kindling, when I got back I guess I got too close, you know, when she swing the ax…When she did that [swung the ax back], well, she didn’t do on purpose. When she did that to chop the kindlin [she hit her in the head]. [Ida Daigle, 1996]

People cut themselves, often as a result of being without foot protection, as a preference. Deep cuts on the feet resulted in incapacitation due to infection until healing took place, as Lena Mae relates, pointing to a large scar across the instep of her foot. And accidents causing puncturing of feet by nails were not uncommon. The popular cure for this kind of thing was a mixture of whisky and roaches used as a disinfectant.

We had a creosote board back of the house, at Myette Pt. and the kids was little, and they had a spike, bent, stickin up. And I was goin there and my foot slip and I stuck that between my big toe and my other toe. And I didn’t think it was too bad at the time, but infection set in there. I seen me, to do my work and to do for my kids, crawl on my knees to get to the pot to stir the pot, and stuff, and do their clothes and whatever I had to do. And that roach and whiskey did it. Got all that infection out of there. My foot was that big, swole. [Lena Mae Couvillier, 1996]

The use of knives was so common to the lifestyles of the Myette Point families that accidents with them were not unusual. Small cuts were dealt with by simply pouring kerosene on the damaged spot to stop the bleeding and then the cuts healed themselves, but more serious things happened too. The son of Myon and Agnes Bailey tripped and fell onto a knife he was using and plunged it deep into his throat. He was transported many miles by boat to Morgan City where a doctor could attend to the wound, and did. Transfusions were not that common in 1942 but they were administered and the boy lived.

Fatal accidents caused by gunshots are not common in the Myette Point story, but they did happen. Liza Henry relates the situation that resulted in the tragic death of her two-year old brother as he stood on the porch of the family houseboat – one of several tied up on both sides of the bayou the community was occupying. The shot came from across the bayou and the shooter was never identified.

Several other incidents of death by gunshot are related in the Basin stories, but these are not accidental. People mention that sometimes a person would be found shot to death still in his boat. Because the shooter usually preferred to remain unknown, the nature of the shooting, accidental or otherwise, went unresolved. The years spanning 1915 to 1920 are mentioned in several of these cases.

So, situations that involve water, fire, sharp objects and firearms are identified by the Myette Point families as causes of accidents with serious consequences. That these things happened with low frequency with respect to the number of opportunities is testimony to the skill and care employed daily by the houseboat families. For each time when a notable accident occurred, there were many times that they could have but did not.

The houseboat picture is courtesy of the Darlene Soule collection.

The river is at 11.1 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge, rising slightly in the next few days. Local rain may put a few more inches into it, but the Ohio and Mississippi are kind of sedate where they are large bodies, more than sedate up near the Dakotas.

Rise and Shine, Jim

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Basin Religion

Possibly somewhat misleading, this title deals only with the families that became the Myette Point community in and around the year 1950, ending by order of the Corps of Engineers in 1974. The community didn’t exactly just end; it dispersed geographically and no longer formed the cohesive group that it was before 1974. The community was composed of people whose Basin origins, in the latter half of the 19th century, stretched from Hog Island/Keelboat Pass in the north to Fourmile Bayou/Morgan City in the south. From the north the families were the Couvilliers and Langes and from the south the Sauces, Baileys and Daigles. There was a total of 12 surnames in the community but the five mentioned here provided the bulk of the information leading to this respectfully intended summary of religious practices.

Religion as experienced by the Myette Point families in the Atchafalaya Basin was guided primarily by Catholic and Baptist influences. When neither of these was available in the guise of formal leadership, some religious practices were carried forward, presumably from earlier formal situations. The older influence seems to have been Catholic. The Bailey, Sauce and Daigle families would have had Catholic churches within reasonable travel from their centers of origin, i.e. Fourmile Bayou and Stephensville, and the Couvilliers and Langes would have known about a facility 12 miles north at Bayou Chene. The Catholic church on the road (now Louisiana highway 401) known as “the Canal” leading from Napoleonville to Attakapas Landing on Lake Verret was the site of church attendance as well as burial observances. This is true particularly for the Bailey and Sauce families. Once these families moved permanently to houseboats and distributed themselves northward into the Basin, these Catholic facilities were no longer reachable and religious practices became limited to what could be continued by the leadership within the family.

When asked if the Bible was a significant feature of the houseboats among what would become the Myette Point families, the relationship between the isolation of the Basin and formal education becomes apparent. Myon Bailey says “No, nobody had no Bible. I believe we had a Bible, but we couldn’t read it, you know, then.” But there was observance whether there was literacy or a church to go to. His wife, Agnes, adds “Just like, we didn’t go to church, but my momma and my daddy always teach us that they had a God. We always knew, we all knew they had a God.” And her daughter, Dorothy Couvillier adds this “ But we were raised very religious. Every Sunday morning after we had breakfast, and all, we went and knelt down. We were Catholic, and said prayer beads. I mean, that was a ritual. That’s something we knew we had to do. The whole family did that. And many times, Uncle Jesse knew how to say the prayer beads in French, Jesse Daigle, and he’d come and he’d say it in French.”

At some point during the time that the family headed by Myon Bailey was located on the eastern side of Grand Lake in Williams Canal (Blaise’s Canal), he discovered that a priest lived across Grand Lake in Charenton and upon enquiry learned that this priest was agreeable to working out in the Basin as well as in the land-based Charenton location. This resulted in an arrangement whereby Myon Bailey would come across the width of Grand Lake from Blaise’s Canal to Charenton Beach (about 10 miles) in order to transport the priest (R.J.Gobeil) back to the houseboat community on Blaise’s Canal.

A mass (and other sacraments) would be offered for those gathered in one of the houseboats and the priest would be brought back to Charenton. Eventually the priest acquired a boat and the skills to roam the Basin on his own. The priest and Myon Bailey developed a friendly relationship that extended over a period of years within the span of 1938 to 1946. Father Gobeil conducted Catholic training among the houseboat communities, including administering Catechism and First Communion to the children.

Since this priest was oriented toward outdoor activities, his personality would have placed him in agreement with the overall lifestyle of the Basin families. He liked to fish and hunt, and eat, and he apparently could build his own boats – having apparently designed one of the first airboats for use in the Basin. This latter type of transport was necessary to traverse the Basin in low-water conditions. Myon Bailey continues:

“Every three weeks, he’d come. He used to say Mass right in my house. I was Catholic then, you see. And he’d leave my place, he’d go to Keelboat [Pass], go to Hog Island, Catfish [Bayou], he’d go, and… We used to call him Father Gobeil. …he was a outdoor man though! He liketed boats. He build boats, he tried to build boats. Oh yeah, he’d run across there…he had a boat, I don’t know if he hadn’t build that boat hisself. Or bought it. But he hooked it up [rigged it] hisself. And he come at the house, well he’d get there and go to the stove, see what the old lady cookin, and…. He was just a comical man… you could see!”

Other than this extension of a land-based Catholic church, there is no mention, by the Myette Point families, of attempts to originate either schools or permanent religious facilities away from Charenton. As the people in the Basin moved out during the 1940s due to the water and silting conditions, this Catholic missionary work came to an end. Like all the rest of the Basin population, the Myette Point families gathered at the edge of the Basin and then migrated over the levee to live permanently on the land for the first time in three generations. Catholic influence in the form of land-based churches was not within easy reach in these new circumstances.

During this same period, active Baptist missionary work was directed toward settlers within the Basin. This was headed by a missionary named Ira Marks. It came when the Catholic influence was waning and no conflict between the ideologies is noted. The zeal and practicality of this activity resulted in the Baptists making many conversions among the Basin people. The work spearheaded by Marks resulted in a school/church facility being erected first on Hog Island and then later at Myette Point. In both cases this was the first opportunity for children in these communities to attend formal schooling, a process reminiscent of the Catholic Jesuit missionary work in other parts of the world. During the week, school was conducted in the buildings and on the weekends church services were held. Hog Island was strongly populated by both houseboats and bank residences but when the Baptists first tried to set up a place to hold services they had a problem with the people they were trying to serve. It seems some of them didn’t get along and if one house was picked as a place for services, other people would not go to that house. Eventually this was solved by Ira Marks and his associates putting up a non-residential structure that could be used as both a school and a church.

One of the notable things the Baptists did was to literally put their message on the water. Much like the Catholics, the Baptists realized they had to go where the people were, and those places were reachable only by boat. So Ira Marks and others built a two-story building on a motorized barge and called it The Little Brown Church. With this very mobile facility they conducted services and revivals in all over the southern Basin. Since the barge had engines it also had a generator to provide electricity, resulting in the church being so brightly lit at night that it is still remembered for that by the Basin residents who attended it.

“It was self propelled; he had two V-8 motors in it. … He would go from place to place, and have revivals. On the lake. Yeah, it was real funny. Now, we didn’t have no lectricity, you see? When they’d come with that church…park it, and they had…they had a generator on it, and boy you’d go on there, boy that thing be lit up…! It was weird to us because everything [on the church] was so bright at night, you know? And we used to live by them coal oil lights. There was nuttin bright by that. And that Little Brown Church be lit up, boy, you could see that sucker for miles.” [Edward Couvillier, 1995]

As people moved out of the Basin and onto the levees or into nearby towns, the Hog Island school was abandoned. A new activity was begun at the newly formed community of Myette Point about that time, involving the Baptist Ira Marks working to set up a school there. The titular head of the community, Myon Bailey, was Catholic by tradition and a fisherman by lifelong occupation, but he knew that the future of the children now living on land was education, so he agreed to work with the Baptists to build the church/school.

After the building was built and the teacher was hired (Miss Claudia Hazen) the school/church functioned as the first formal education available to all of the school-age children belonging to the more than 20 families that lived in the community. Myon had good memories of this. “She used to give them boys here, them bigger boys, a nice school. For a while.” He eventually became a regular participant in the Baptist services held there. The church/school functioned for three years (or maybe four). After a time the roads became shelled and passable enough for the children to be transported to school in Franklin via buses, and the building’s function became solely a Baptist mission church, originally serviced by Ira Marks and later inherited by Bobby Hodnett who served as minister in that facility for many years, often doing full-immersion baptism, with the bayous being a ready source of water. Although officially retired, he continues to work with a congregation of people in the Myette Point/Charenton area. Today the church is served by another ordained minister, Joe Sauce, who grew up in the community and still practices his skills as a commercial fisherman as well as spiritual leader.

So, religion has long been a part of the Myette Point story. It has had a mixture of formal practice and informal observance over the decades of life in and around the Basin. It remains a part of the psychological landscape to this day in the form of the Myette Point Missionary Baptist Church at Oxford and the Little Pass Baptist Church in Charenton. A Catholic church has also long been a feature of religious activity in Charenton.

All pictures except the sunrise are courtesy of the Darlene Soule collection.

The Atchafalaya River is at 8.3 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge, falling to 7.6 feet in a few days. A moderate rise is on the way from the Ohio. Ups and downs.

Rise and Shine, Jim

Friday, March 06, 2009

Basin Medicine

For people who lived in the Atchafalaya Basin, medicine was delivered in one of two methods, either the issue was immediately life-threatening and some means to get to a doctor was employed, no matter how long it took, or the situation was thought to be treatable using local techniques. Health-related issues that required a long trip to a doctor were things like appendicitis, persistent toothache, bone felon, stroke and typhoid fever. In the early part of the 1900s, this involved long boat rides to Morgan City. After 1950, the Myette Point community was settled and doctors in Franklin were accessible over land. Many things did not seem to be strictly life threatening. These things that did not seem to be considered a trip-to-town emergency were sunstroke, pneumonia, boils, colds, fevers, tetanus, infections, bad cuts including near amputations, nail punctures, unknown serious bites, snakebites, and croup. Two of these, pneumonia and tetanus, will be discussed below.

Pneumonia, or what was considered pneumonia, was treated at home. The treatment is described this way by Agnes Bailey and her daughter Dorothy Couvillier. They talk about how Myon Bailey, Dorothy’s father, would treat his children for pneumonia symptoms.

DC: But you see, then, you couldn’t jump in the car and go to a doctor. You had to go to Morgan City. [when] We caught pneumonia and stuff, Momma used to keep what they call flannels. Yeah, and I remember them things.

JD: What was it like Dot?

AB: A piece of material.

DC: Yeah, and it used camphor.

JD: About a foot by a foot? Piece of material? Like a piece of carpet square?

AB: Yeah, you could buy it by the yard in them times. You can’t…you don’t see it no more, now.

DC: And they’d soak that in camphor. That’s what it was, eh Mom, camphor?

AB: Umhm. And turpentine.

DC: And they’d treat pneumonia with that.

JD: How?

DC: Put it…put it in that hot stuff…turpentine and camphor…

AB: Myon would put it in a skillet, and he’d put all his stuff in there. And he’d, Jim, I seen him get his hands so burnt, that he couldn’t hardly do nuttin with em, they were so burnt. Messin with those kids.

JD: Tell me about how he would treat with that, though…

AB: He’d put his, uh, cloth in the skillet, and he had two. He’d put one [on their backs] and he’d take one hot, hot, hot and then he’d stick it on em. It’d get cold, he’d come back and get that one, and put the other one.

JD: For pneumonia. That’s all he treated was pneumonia, not….

DC: Well, and bad cold, and things like that. Milton had pneumonia one time, and uh, we was, uh, at Blue Point. And he treated him all night. We kept that. We kept that medicine all the time. And, uh, next morning he told his daddy, “Daddy? What you did with those dirty rags you had?” He say, “Well, don’t worry about them dirty rags”. [chuckles] We saved those dirty rags.

JD: Why did you remember em so badly [strong memory].

DC: Because I had pneumonia several times, and they treated me like that.

JD: It wasn’t pleasant?

DC: It was hot! And it stink to high heaven. I can remember em treating me with that.

JD: Did it bring you any relief that you could tell, when they were doin it?

DC: Oh yeah! The next morning…if you…they could tell we had pneumonia by pressin…I could tell now if I have pneumonia now… by pressin on the back and the breathing. And they’d start that, all night maybe, and all day. But in a couple days you was up and around.

JD: Is that right? Well, did you have fever with that too?

AB: Sure.

Something else that would be of serious concern was tetanus. People doing fishing for a living will always stick things into themselves – hooks, fish fins, nails of various kinds, etc. A remedy for tetanus and other infections that was heavily used in the Bailey family was something called whiskey roaches. It was used as an antiseptic as well as taken internally for tetanus-like conditions like red streaks on the limbs extending from the infected site, and sometimes the clamped-jaw symptom defining the name “lockjaw” for the disease. In the memories of all the interviewees, no one could recall anyone dying of tetanus, but they could recall some who had the symptoms and were treated with whiskey roaches and got well. The preparation of the mixture is very simple. Just catch some of the large, outdoor mostly, roaches and drown them in a bottle of whiskey. Ten roaches in a pint of whiskey was typical. As they drown you can see a clear, viscous substance releasing from their bodies and dissolving into the alcohol. Whether there was some factor in the roaches that was an antimicrobial agent is unknown, but the treatment has strong advocates. Certainly the alcohol in the mixture would have been somewhat antiseptic. Sometimes a poultice of lard and roaches was prepared with whiskey and this was applied to infections to “draw the head”. It is also said to have been very effective on boils. The origin of this roaches and whiskey preparation is uncertain but it is known by the Canary Islanders in St. Bernard Parish. Myon Bailey was the first member of his family group to begin using it and urging others to do so. He may have learned of it from the Chitimacha Indians at Charenton, though this is speculation. Although no one would be advised to use this remedy in today’s world where tetanus prevention is just an injection away, his surviving children still maintain the preparation to be used as an antiseptic. His daughter Lena Mae and her husband Edward Couvillier give this information about treating tetanus-like symptoms, and other infections, with whiskey roaches.

LC: That roach and whiskey, that’s something we never run out of. And I still use it.

JD: But, for what?

EC: Infection.

LC: You infection yourself, or something…get blood poison…you can see the red streak comin up, you know, on your arm or anywheres You start rubbin with that roach and whiskey.

JD: …you don’t drink it?

LC: If it don’t stop you drink it too. Yeah, and uh, [Milton had an infection and] he couldn’t get a doctor, you know, so they had to go to Medric’s [Medric Martin’s store], call a doctor and wait for him there to come to the Point [Myette Pt.]. … Milton did, I guarantee you he had lockjaw. So Daddy went and got the roaches and whiskey… says “Son, I hate to make you take this”. He couldn’t open his mouth. So Daddy kind of pried his [jaw open] a lil bit…enough…and dropped two teaspoon [of the medicine in his mouth]. [by the] time the doctor got home, he didn’t have no more lockjaw. [the doctor] he say “I don’t know what yall done”.

JD: How long did it take the doctor to get there, after that, you think?

LC: I guess about an hour and a half, two hours.

JD: It would work that fast, eh?

LC: And uh, when he got home he say “He ain’t got no more lockjaw, what yall did?” And we told him what we did, he say “Well, yall did the right thing cause he don’t have no more lockjaw”.

JD: And you still make whiskey roaches for a disinfectant, like? Is that what you’re talking about, for a disinfectant? You get a cut or something, you spread…put in on there? [she nods]

LC: You take tallow, you get one of them roaches out of there? You want to put it on a wound, or something, you know? And you take that tallow and mix it good with that roach and keep dropping a lil whiskey as you mix it And make you a poult [a poultice?] with that, put that on a rag, put that on there. Next day you get up you ain’t got no more red streak, you ain’t got nothing.

EC: Honey is good too.#. Aw yeah. Good for a lot of things. #.

JD: Well, I’ve told the whiskey roaches to some people and nobody’s ever heard of that. That’s something that…

LC: Never heard of it? Who was it not too very long ago that…not too very long ago. And I told em about that, he didn’t believe me. I went and got the bottle… I say…Fanny [that’s who it was], she had a thing come up on her knuckle. It was red, and hard, hard, hard. And uh, she come here with that and boy one day it was bad. She had a red streak coming up her hand. “I got to get to the hospital” she says. I say “Wait”. I got my bottle of roaches and whiskey…we settin on the swing, in fact…I poured some on there…I say “Rub it in”. Started rubbin it in. A little while later I went and put her some more, she rubbed it some more. She got ready, she went home, I say “Here, take the bottle with you”. And I say “Do like we doin here” She took it with her, she did. And next morning she come, and she told Bonita [LC daughter], she say “Look at it”. Bonita looked at it, she tooked a needle, and she just touched it, and all that pus come out of there, got better, she ain’t had no more problems with it. I don’t know what it is about it, but something pullin infection out.

JD: …you always known about…about whiskey roaches? I mean, your momma did it, your daddy did it…

LC: Oh, Daddy believe in that! Ho man, he believed in that!

As to whether it was a widespread remedy, it appears that maybe it was not. People in the Blue Point/Myette Point area of Grand Lake seem to have used it but people like Edward Couvillier’s family from farther north in the Hog Island area did not.

In our time, when the treatment of a minor skin irritation requires the attention of someone with ten years of specific training, it is good to have a reminder of what we may do if left to our own inventiveness. Home remedies for serious things did have good results and the continued use of them resulted from beneficial outcomes most of the time. No doubt there were some disappointments too. Russell Daigle spent much of life, and all of his childhood, in the Basin on a houseboat, and he had these words to share with us.

“I guess, uh…aw hell, Jim, there ain’t nobody really got sick them days. When, uh, right now they get a cold, run to the doctor, or they get to feel bad they go to the doctor. Them days you just set and waited it out, let the body heal itself. That’s what we used to do. I caught the flu one time, uh, remember that time we brought that lumber, to that mill to have sawed to build that barge? I caught the flu right there. And I stayed in bed for about 10 days. And I didn’t go to no doctor. And uh, we didn’t run to the doctor for every lil thing that would…now they tell you eat this, don’t eat that, that ain’t no good for you! People lived just as long then, as they do now, if not longer. And now they tell you what you can eat, what’s good for you and what ain’t no good. They tell you you got high cholesterol, everybody got high cholesterol these days. They never had no such a thing like that them days! [laughs] I guess they had a few deaths that could have been avoided, but most people lived to be a ripe old age.” [Russell Daigle, 1996]


The pictures here are all native plants that had some use in home therapies.

The river is at 9.2 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge, staying there for a week or so. The Mississippi and Ohio are kind of morose.

Rise and Shine, Jim

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Commerce – Moss and the Rest

When you talk to the Myette Point people, both those born in the early 20th century and those born in the middle of that century, they always emphasize that fishing was the primary means of earning a living. In the constant effort to feed themselves and the always-growing number of children, the most frequent and reliable source of income was fish. But the fish didn’t always cooperate no matter how skilled and dedicated the fisherman was. Sometimes they just didn’t bite, and other harvestable products had to either supplement fish or completely substitute temporarily for them. These other things, in order of their economic impact on the lives of the people, were Spanish moss, fur, frogs, alligators, ducks, crabs and lastly and minimally, crawfish. Some of these had a greater importance in the early part of the century – mainly moss and fur and alligators. Others, like crabs, assumed significance in mid-century. Alligators were more readily available in the early 1900s, having been reduced to near-extinction by 1950. And oddly, wild crawfish were not considered commercially viable at all until after the 1960s. The oldest members of the Myette Point community available for interview in 1974 were Myon Bailey and his wife Agnes. They talked about how diversified their parents had to be to survive in the Basin in the early 1900s, and before.

MB: You know, Jack of all trades, just like we are. We don’t make it fishing, we do something else.

AB: Fish. We [her father’s family] fished, they picked moss, hunt frogs, alligators… Trap. Everything that, you know, that make a living. [laughs]

MB: …you didn’t make something at one thing, he’d go after the other one, you see? That’s the way it was. [if the] fish didn’t bite, well, he go hunt frogs, or [if they] didn’t have no frogs, he’d go…he’d trap sometime, a lil bit. It’s not all the time the fish would bite. It’s just like now, you see, at times you couldn’t catch no fish.

AB: In the wintertime he’d trap every winter. Boy, he’d make money then! Make good money.

MB: Lot of people, you tell em you hunt frogs, you fish, you do the things you done… doing that [each of those things] every day, but you don’t, you see?

Spanish moss was the great item of salvation to most of the Basin people during most of the first half of the 1900s. Whenever the fish didn’t bite, people picked moss. The older members of the Myette Point community all talk about collecting moss as a supplementary, or sometimes critically essential, means making enough money to buy food and supplies. And there was another more administrative reason for fish not being economically supportive. It comes as strange to most of us at this point in time to hear that there was a closed season on some fishing during the early 1900s, lasting several years. This was brought about by the powers that existed at that time to prevent alleged overfishing catfish and buffalo in the Basin. The period of prohibited fishing was during the months of May, June and July during which the water was perceived to be so warm that too many fish would die in the fish cars of the fishermen, in the opinions of the lawmakers. People remember their parents talking about this, and some had personal experiences with it, Myon and Agnes Bailey:

AB: …They had a closed season on fish. When I was small [born 1912].

MB: Aw yeah, you had two months closed season. Three months! That’s in May, when the fish would spawn. Catfish would spawn.

AB: Well, when he couldn’t fish, he’d pick moss. Pick moss, uh, almost all day, then at night he’d go hunt frogs. And he’d kill alligators and hunt frogs at, you know, at the same time.

The passing of this regulation was catastrophic to anyone making a living for a big family by selling fish, and some people found ways to circumvent it, but those and others looked for alternatives too. One such alternative was found in the harvesting of Spanish moss, as Agnes says above. Early in the 1900s, the Basin was still largely covered by forests of cypress trees, big trees. These trees harbored long, thick blankets of the gray/green epiphyte which apparently found existence suspended above the water and high in the air to be good for rapid growth.

But nothing is worth much monetarily unless there is a use for it and a buyer, and that use for moss was found to be stuffing for furniture and automobile seats. The buyers were either the fishboats that regularly visited the fishermen (like the Monarch) or sometimes a special effort was taken to collect the purchased moss in barges with cabins built over them to keep the moss dry.

“I remember they had…they had an old boy used come buy moss, and he had…it was like a campboat, that’s he’d tow…and bring, to put the moss in. ‘Cause once you dried it, that black moss, you couldn’t let it get wet no more. Because you would have to redry it, you had that stuff bailed. He’d bring that campboat. He’d put it in that campboat. And he’d weigh it and put it in there and he’d…he’d tow that back with him. “ [Edward Couvillier, 1997]

Two means of harvesting the moss existed. The most prevalent one was to go out into the forest with a boat and a long pole with a hook on the end. The pole would be extended up into the blankets of green moss and masses of it would be pulled down into the boat, or barge if one was used for greater capacity. People did build platforms or derricks in the barges sometimes to allow a higher reach with the poles. Once the capacity was reached, the moss would be returned to the household site where there was some bank exposed. Occasionally it was worthwhile to pick the moss from land and haul it to the boat. In order to be sold, the moss had to be treated in such a way to remove the living, outer growth, leaving only the black/brown inert inner core of the plant. The “green” moss was transformed by this process into “black” moss, which was of value to the furniture manufacturers. To do this it is necessary to kill the outer living plant material by submerging it in water, or thoroughly soaking it after piling it up on the bank. This begins the composting process, building up heat in the interior of the pile and killing, rotting, the live material. After turning the pile with a pitchfork for a period of time, all that is left is the sought-for inner black core. The black moss is then strung out on lines, or fences, to thoroughly dry. Once dry and ready for sale, the dry moss is forced into a wooden frame designed to allow the packing of the moss into a bale that is tied together with baling wire, or some other cordage. In their own words Edward and Lena Mae Couvillier describe it this way.

JD: Yeah, yeah. Did yall used to pick it and cure it too?

LC: I guess so!

EC: Yeah. Put it in the water and leave it soak in the water about a week or two. It soak in that water and it start turning…

LC: I got a scar on my knee where I can show where I stuck the pitch fork in it.

EC: ….turnin brown. You put it on the bank and it [?] dead. And then that sun get to it and get…talk about get hot! Every now and then you got to turn it over, you know, turn it over and keep, keep that moisture down in it. [Then] Hang it on a line. We had moss lines…just run a line out, just hang it on it and let it dry. Once it’s dry you pick it up and bail it. Had a box made that was 12, 14 inches wide…it might a been three foot long, maybe three foot deep. You put you wire…you had a wire, go down, like over here, one over here, all the way around. And you put one thisaway. And we used to put that moss in there and get in there and jump on it. Just jump on it.

JD: Jump on it, pack it down.

The result was a bale of black moss varying in weight from 30 to 70 pounds depending on the size of the frame used to bale it and how much was put in. This bale would sell for between one cent and three cents a pound. If times were really hard, sometimes the buyer would just exchange the moss for food items without the intervening need for money.

The river is at 10.2 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge, falling to 9.2 feet by mid-week. The Mississippi and Ohio are rising some way up north so we could hold about 9 or 10 feet for the next couple weeks.

Rise and Shine, Jim