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.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Myette Point Boats and Motors

If you live on the water your total mode of transportation is going to be in a boat of some type. That said, there are three type of small boats that were used by the Myette Point people for daily chores. These were the pirogue, the simplest and most mobile, the skiff which was pointed at the bow, and third, the blunt-bowed bateau. Two of these, the pirogue and skiff could be powered by human energy; the bateau was designed to be propelled by an inboard engine. All of the early boats were made from cypress lumber, usually of high quality. Kept in the water, they could last more than a lifetime.

The Pirogue

The pirogue had no option for an engine and evolved from its earliest manufacture as the dugout canoe to the slim double-ended boats built of cypress planks. These latter pirogues were ubiquitous in the Atchafalaya Basin, used for everything from short commutes from houseboat to houseboat to longer trips into the flooded swamp to set or run bushlines and tightlines. They were often about 14 feet long with a rib structure defining the slope of the gunnels (sides) and their height, and uniting them with the bottom. Inside the boat there was a place to sit, usually a board, and one or two wellboxes defined by bulkheads creating box-like compartments that could be flooded with bayou water to keep fish alive.

The Skiff

The skiff is probably an older design than the bateau, having functions useful in earlier times by earlier peoples. The assumption is made here that the motorized bateau as we know it today had a purpose tied initially to netfishing, which demanded certain characteristics, and netfishing has been around a long time. The taped interviews make no mention of a beginning of netfishing and infer that its origin precedes living memory, as does the origin of linefishing, of course.

There is a beauty to the lines and shape of many of the push skiffs. It is as though there was a recognition of an opportunity to express grace and functionality at the same time. People who see them say that the form of the boats is pleasing to the eye (most eyes, anyway). Perhaps for this reason more than any other some of these push skiffs are still being built today by those few individuals who still command the skill to do it. Between the two, the skiff and the bateau, with its curves and graceful lines the skiff is the harder one to build. The lowly aluminum version of the skiff, today used for crawfishing mostly, is a poor thing compared to the beautiful wooden boats. And the aluminum versions, used as they sometimes are with big outboard engines, can be very dangerous.

To fishermen born in the latter quarter of the 1800s, other than the pirogue, there was no option for locomotion except the cypress push skiff. A 20-year old person in 1910 who wanted to travel to their lines out in Grand Lake, or go frogging all night with company, or go to Morgan City if they lived in Bayou Boutte, or had the need to carry more of a load than a pirogue could manage, did not have an option on their mode of travel. They had to use a push skiff. Sometimes a family was visited by disaster in the form of illness or accident to the primary provider. If this person was the husband, the wife would usually take over and continue to raise the family and become the main provider. In Ida Daigle’s family, her husband Jesse suffered a stroke when there were still small children to care for. A push skiff was all Ida had to work with to catch fish for the family. Her son Russell remembers this.

“Oh yeah. When Momma started fishing…when the old man had stroke, I was real young then…first stroke…and that’s how I was fishing, fish with her in a pulling skiff.
[….] We were living right at the mouth of where the lil canal comes out at Myette Point, there, right at the end. And uh, we’d go fish in the channel, and sometim
e we’d pull up to Bayou Grue…you know where Bayou Grue’s at? We’d pull up there to catch perch and stuff under the water lilies. That’s about as far as you’d go.” [Russell Daigle, 1996]

The Lockwood Ash Engine and the Bateau

A motorized option to using human power did not arrive on the market until 1904, and even then it took years, possibly until 1920, for the new thing, the Lockwood Ash inboard engine, to become widespread in the Atchafalaya Basin. Although there was popular acceptance of the early engines, there was resistance from the older members of the Myette Point families and some who were satisfied with the way they had always done it, continued to “push” the rest of their lives even when offered the use of motorized boats tied up right at their houseboats. Neg Sauce tells the story of his father-in-law C. Homer Daigle, who was born in 1882, before the advent of engines in small boats. A curious and interesting example of the use of the term “boat” is in the monologue below. Instead of meaning the broad use of the word, the term was used by several Myette Point people to only mean something motorized. Other examples of this exist in the interviews.

“Yeah, he didn’t hardly know how to run a…a motor, them old Lockwoods? He didn’t hardly know how to run that. All he did is push. Pushed all his life, never …never…I think he owned one boat in his life. He used to… he used to camp on the canal with us. Myon wanted him to use his lil boat [with a motor] all the time, he wouldn’t use Myon’s boat. He’d push instead. Push, push. [Neg Sauce, 1996]

The Lockwood Ash Engine

It is probably useful to talk about the “modern” bateau and the Lockwood Ash inboard engines at the same time. The engine was made available from its inception in 1904 by the Lockwood Ash Marine Motor Company in Jackson, Michigan. It was produced in several popular sizes, ranked by horsepower – 2 ½, 4, 6 and 8. The first two were one cylinder models and the others had two cylinders. One of these is pictured at left. They all produced the “poppoppoppop” sound so familiar to Basin people until the onset of the next big innovation, the outboard motor, in the 1950s.

On the other hand, even the 2 ½ horsepower engines were commonly used to pull houseboats all over the Basin. Limited to just the bateau, on a well-made boat the four sizes of engine could produce speeds of 5, 10, 12 and 15 miles per hour. Most people owned the smaller engines for everyday use, and perhaps a six horse for bigger boats. In the 1920s, one of the selling points for the Lockwood Ash was that it could take many of the engine parts for the Ford Model T (produced originally in 1909), making these parts very widely available. The company was sold to a Mr. Evinrude in 1929 and the rights to produce the well-known inboard engine were sold to Nadler Foundry in Plaquemine, Louisiana, sometime around 1947.

The Bateau

The bateaux that were made for use with the Lockwood Ash engines were long, narrow, heavy things possibly derived from the basic form of the chaland, a double blunt-ended, all purpose hull. But there was some grace to them even so. The stern was angled inward to facilitate the placement of the rudder shaft.
The bow was pulled in and rose in a graceful curve, and narrowed to the front and the gunnels (sides) sharply angled down and inward from the top. The bottom might be only three feet wide. This overall shape and length (they could be from 20 to 24 feet long) pushed through the water rather than rising on top of it. The rear quarter of the boat was taken by the engine, and the operator sat just in front of that, usually on the side of the boat.
The Lockwood Ash engines had another feature that made them the unquestioned tool to have for net fishermen. They could be operated in reverse even though there was no gear system to change the direction of the propeller. They did this by actually causing the engine itself to change its direction of rotation from one way to the other, making the propeller either turn in such a way to move the boat forward or to the rear. A skilled person learned how to do this by changing the timing while the engine was running slowly.

The Air-cooled Engines

The next innovation, then, was the application of air-cooled technology to small inboard marine engines. Whereas the Lockwood Ash engine was water-cooled, the air-cooled engine did not require water for cooling. Such manufacturers as Briggs and Stratton and Wisconsin produced these engines and they were adopted by the Myette Point people over the Lockwood Ash toward the end of the 1940s. This new type of engine had one disadvantage in that it ran at higher rpms than the slower water-cooled ones and tended to break down more frequently – not too frequently to allow acceptance as a good tool, however. These Briggs and Stratton and Wisconsin engines functioned in the bateaux about the same as did the earlier engines, and there were some design changes in the hulls to accommodate the new engines. The boats were shorter and wider.

The Outboard Engines

The biggest upheaval in the boat propulsion arena came with the introduction of good outboard engines. Perhaps this was as big a change as had been the marine engine in the first place. Oddly, outboard engines had been available from the late 1920s from such manufacturers as Lockwood Ash, but do not seem to have caught on. By 1950, however, outboard motors were becoming the mode of propulsion sought by all fishermen, if not all, at least the younger ones. Here was something that would make your boat get up on top and “plane”, removing the drag produced by having the hull underwater for most of its considerable length. Suddenly, your boat could go 30 or 35 miles per hour instead of the five or ten, opening completely unprecedented opportunities to fish places never reachable before. Not only that, but you could deliver your fish to docks instead of waiting for the fishboat, therefore removing the requirement for keeping the fish alive. Much changed when the outboard motor became popular. Not everything, however, some fishermen found it difficult to adopt the new technology, just as some had refused to accept the marine engine itself many years before.
One of the families that had retained the safety and reliability of the push skiff was still using that form of movement when the outboards were out. Even though they used the outboards, they kept the oars in the boat just in case they needed them to get back home.

In summary then, the primary discussions in this topic of Myette Point boats and motors include information on three primary types of personal-use boats – the pirogue, the skiff, and the bateau. These were powered respectively by paddles, oars, and inboard marine engines, and then later by outboards. The water-cooled marine engines were first introduced by Lockwood Ash in 1904 but did not become widespread in the Atchafalaya Basin until around 1920 or so, followed by Wisconsin, and Briggs and Stratton, with their air-cooled versions introduced about 1945. Lastly, the outboard engine became popular with Myette Point families in an explosion of technology in 1950.

It should be noted that there is a considerable on-going interest in the old Lockwood Ash engines and the big bateaux and skiffs they powered. A loosely-linked fraternity of men maintain the old boats and engines and travel to display and run them. They are truly gracious experts in a bygone technology. My contact for Lockwood Ash engine information and the old boats still in use was Mr. J.B. Castagnos, himself a leading member of that group.

The river is at around 14.5 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge, staying about steady for the next several days. The Mississippi and Ohio seem satisfied to just support that right now, no big changes are imminent.

Rise and Shine, Jim

Friday, April 17, 2009

Night Time

In our world, the setting of the sun means only that we switch from natural to artificial light. We carry on with our activities as though no real difference exists between night and day. It was similar in the houseboats even though there was no electricity to switch on and off. In the Basin, the only light for most people was the kerosene (coal oil) lamp. Even with only that light, however, life did continue past sunset.

“And you know you used to could see just as good with them uh, them lamplights [kerosene lamps]…[once] your eyes got adjusted to em...as a electric light. I know they was dim, but your eyes got adjusted to em, you could see just as good, you know?” [Putt Couvillier, 1974]

And there were other types of lanterns available if you could get them, and get the fuel. The type that burns white, high octane, gasoline was one of these. Today known almost generically as a “Coleman lamp”, these lamps burn with a mantle not a wick and they are very bright. Ida Daigle had some of these that they used for close work at night, and as warnings to steamboats that would come by at night in the bayous pulling long booms of cypress logs. To keep the booms of logs from sweeping by and damaging the houseboats, Ida and husband Jesse hung the lamps outside to make themselves known to the steamboats.

“And I was scared, me. I’d hang the light …believe me. Jesse say “I swear, if they hit me, they gone buy me another camp”. [Ida Daigle, 1996]

Most often there were things that needed to be done either in preparation for the next day or for maintenance of fishing equipment, etc. Yeast had to be made up to use the next day in making the bread that was so much a part of the daily meals.

But not all was work. One of the outstanding pleasures of life in those days was the drinking of fresh roasted and ground, and then hand-dripped coffee. The uncooked beans were brought, as was almost everything else, by the visits of the fishboats. Coffee was parched to be ready for grinding at night for making coffee the next morning. The parching, or roasting, was done in a skillet or black iron pot with a good lid. The raw, dried beans were heated and agitated until they would “pop” and change color from a light greenish beige to brown, the darker the brown the stronger the coffee flavor. The grinder Agnes speaks of would be a small appliance with a hopper, blades and a wheel or arm to turn the blades. Agnes and Myon Bailey are in the picture at left.

JD: Course you ground your own coffee all the time…

MB: Yeah.

AB: Aw yeah. Parch it and grind it.

MB: Had to parch it.

JD: Every day?

AB: No, you’d parch…my momma’d parch a big pot full, you know, and uh…

MB: You never did smell parched coffee?

JD: No, but I bet it smelled wonderful.

AB: Ooooh, you talk about! Haha.

MB: You can smell that half a mile, I believe. [laughter]

AB: Then at night we’d grind it.

JD: You’d grind it for the next morning?

AB: Our lil grinder, yeah.

The time was also used for knitting the webbing that was always in demand for a number of things like castnets, frognets, etc. A net-knitting needle, some line, and skill was combined to make a tool that could earn a living for a family.

But there were other things that were done that were more in the area of socializing, and this highlights the value of having the houseboats collected into small communities, even if these were always changing with people moving into and out of a place. People would eat the evening meal and then walk to someone else’s house for talking and drinking coffee. The floating cribs (rafts) that were often available between houseboats were a convenient way to get from one family to another. The kids would play while the adults talked of the events of the day, and news brought by the fishboats would be evaluated and compared with opinions offered in explanation. Mending of clothing was always around as a task to be combined with conversation. And sometimes people would just stay home and gather around the wood stove and talk.

“At night, we used to sit around the stove…at night, in the kitchen. And my daddy and my momma would talk about where they came from, and all that. How they got over here. My daddy’s family [Domingue], I think, was from the Canary Islands. And my momma, I think, was from around France.” [Liza Henry, 2007]

Some people purchased the early radios that could be operated with batteries. In the early days, the strongest radio stations available to receivers in the Atchafalaya Basin were the ones that were broadcasting country music from places like Shreveport, Louisiana, which hosted the Louisiana Hayride on Saturday nights. Many fishermen growing up in the 1940s in the Basin are practically experts in early country music because of this exposure. Hank Williams Sr. was their Beatles and Dylan all rolled into one. The batteries for the radio were hoarded carefully so that the radio would work when the Hayride was playing. It is interesting that because of this opportunity to hear what the Hayride was playing, you hear more about country music than you do about Cajun music from some of the older fishermen.

Once or twice a week the fishboats, particularly the one run by Allen Blanchard, would stop for the night at a location in Keelboat Pass. On these evenings people would gather to churn ice cream made possible with ice and salt from the fishboat. This was one of the big social events of the week.

“But he always…everybody wanted ice. Ice, and that’s something you couldn’t hardly get. But he always managed to have enough ice to make ice cream when he got to the house. Oh, we make ice cream…when Allen’s comin, that was ice cream. Twice a week. [laughs]. Make a big ole gallon…” [Edward Couvillier, 1997]

After the houseboats were out of the water and over the levee at Myette Point they were near enough to sugarcane fields for the temptation to get sweets that way to be too much to ignore. After dark, some of the boys would leave and procure some of the cane to bring back and chew on into the evening. Putt talks about the “German slaves”, meaning the German prisoners of war that were kept in a camp near Franklin. Apparently they were used as field workers in the sugarcane fields, and were feared by the children. The fact that there had to have been guards with guns overseeing the prisoners would have been scary too.

PC: We used to have some days, Jim when we was living out here…you take a good clear night in the wintertime? My brothers, they’d have to wait till after dark and they’d slip out in the field. They’d steal us some [sugar] cane. We’d stay up sometime till midnight chewing cane.

JD: Why did you have to wait till after dark? There were people guarding that cane?

PC: Well, it was against the law, you see? In other words, nobody’s supposed to go in the fields. Back then I believe they had the German slaves, you know what I mean? Chopin the cane by hand, and everything. And by grab, they wouldn’t let…let anybody go get their cane. They’d [his brothers] steal us a armload of cane, you see, and come back and sometime we’d set up till midnight.

Once the awake part of the evening was over, sleeping arrangements had to be tended to. Since the boats were of varied size, from one to three rooms, the arrangements were often considerably crowded to relatively ample. The ones with one room were as crowded as might be imagined, particularly since as many as four or five might be sleeping there. The larger boats with two or three rooms would usually have the parents and girls sleeping in one room, while the boys slept in the other room. Sometimes there was an additional small houseboat that the older boys slept in.

Often there was a single bedframe for the parents, and mattresses on the floor for the children. The mattresses were filled with either black moss or corn shucks. The moss mattresses are most remembered for their thickness, usually 12 inches or so, and how warm this was in the cold wintertime. They are also remembered for the warmth of them in the summertime, when warmth was not so appreciated.

In the winter, however, keeping the cabin warm at night was the main issue. To do this you had to know how to operate a wood stove so that it would stay warm and heat the house all night. Often this was just not possible, and there would be ice inside on very cold nights. But other times you would still have coals in the stove in the morning and then you had to be careful not to build up the fire in the stove too fast. It could do odd things. Putt Couvillier describes this potentially dangerous situation.

JD: … And was there any effort at all to keep the houseboat warm at night in wintertime? Or did you just have to throw blankets on top of you.

PC: No, we had a old common wood stove there, you would get it heated up and make some coals and shut the damper on it. Kind of close the damper off a lil…it would keep warm pretty much, you know, at night? And then, early in the morning it’s cold though, boy! You get there and throw that kindling in there, and if you don’t watch it, it’ll blow the stack off!

JD: Why?

PC: The damper you put on it, the hotter it will get. It come up…bounce up off the floor! It ignites, you see, the smokestack goes straight up through the top of the camp, and it got such a…a pull…oxygen pull through that kindling, it go to viberatin. You got to keep the damper down on it. It burn that pipe…it get that pipe cherry red!

There was another kind of mattress that was commonly used in the Basin, and that was the one made out of corn shucks. It seems to be remembered as comfortable enough, but it made so much noise every time the person moved that it was avoided when possible. It was particularly irritating when the persons involved were newlyweds spending the night with the in-laws, and all sleeping in the same room. Lena Mae Couvillier and her husband Edward had that experience when young.

EC: Momma used to have a [corn] shuck mattress.

LC: I couldn’t stand them shuck mattress. I hated them things! [laughs]

JD: Talk about that, why yall didn’t like that?

LC: You go get married, go spend the night at your mother-in-law! And that will tell you a story! [laughs]

JD: Did that happen to you?

LC: It happened to me. I tell him [Edward] “Don’t move!” [laughs]

EC: You move very slowly!! [laughs]

LC: Don’t move. Uhuh. And all was sleeping in one room! All in one room!

JD: Aw yeah, but if they [the in-laws] had a shuck mattress, that would go for them too.

LC: Aw yeah, they had some on both beds.

Unless you had to work at night at earning a living on the water, sundown was a time to slow down from the day’s activity, and people would get together to talk, or listen to the radio, or make ice cream. These were the things that people found to do in the evenings, winter and summer in the Basin as people living in houseboats or newly out on land after 1950. The nights were long but not unpleasant, and the day started early.

Images are courtesy of the Darlene Soule collection.

The river is at 13.6 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge and holding there for the time being. Shirmp have started to run in the river and my traps are catching several hundred every night. Good to see that, the water is warming up a little. The Ohio and Mississippi are both holding for the time being.

Rise and Shine, Jim

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Houseboat

The mere presence of the houseboat, often called a campboat by the Myette Point families, as a prominent feature of living in the Atchafalaya Basin is testimony to its significance. It represents not just a place to live but also defines a whole way of life for people who chose it as a home place. It certainly was not the easiest way to acquire a roof, and yet there were things about it that were attractive to a family living in or near the swamp. What might have been the advantages of living on a houseboat rather than on the bank? First, and most obvious, mobility. You could always move it if you were in some way dissatisfied with a location. Perhaps the neighbors were loud, or otherwise intrusive. Perhaps there was a placement factor that was not favorable, i.e. too much south wind and high waves. Perhaps the fish were found to be biting somewhere up the lake – you could move and get to them. In the days when most of the small-boat movement was provided by manpower alone, it was necessary to take your house to the fish rather than push your skiff to them every day from varying distances. So, mobility was a big factor.

“By that time [~1910], uh, my momma and daddy had a campboat. They moved up the lake, and the fish was bitin in one place…they’d go there, if they’d quit bitin there and bitin in another place, they’d pick up and move, and…we lived all over in all them lil bayous and countries up there.” [Agnes Sauce Bailey, 1974]

And her husband, Myon Bailey, outlines how the situation was in the Basin. People would move to the fish. Here again the role of the fishboat is emphasized in that it was the medium of communication between the floating communities. This time it spreads the word about where the fish were biting. There was a built-in motive for this, of course, since the more fish caught the more they could buy. Myon and Agnes Bailey add their agreement.

MB: Right. Fish would go to bitin one place, like I be, let’s say I be tied up and I stop catchin fish, fishboat bring that news that them other fishermen [were catching fish somewhere else]…pretty soon you see a campboat, two or three campboats comin up, moving, to where the fish was bitin. And they’d fish. That’s the way it would go.

JD: Now, is it true that when one boat moved, most of the time most of the boats moved from one place? They all moved together?

AB: They all moved together.

JD: So, in other words, you might have one family, one group of families…let’s say five or six families, the Baileys the Couvilliers, this that and the other, that yall would kind of stay together like a group all the time?

AB: Yeah.

The fact that a houseboat occupied no land, and thus acquired no taxes was another big difference between land-living and houseboats. Many people either left land they owned on bayou banks and took to the water, subsequently losing their land to unpaid taxes, or sold their property to remove themselves from the yearly requirement to pay taxes. Either way, the “government” no longer had any interaction with most of the people on houseboats. To people to whom a government official was often not a good experience, this was a welcome relief. But there were other reasons to leave the land for the mobility of houseboats. The desire to be near family that had already “moved up the lake” was one of them. Agnes’ grandparents left a homesteaded place on land bordering Bayou Long to move to houseboats.

AB: … And uh, then when they children got all big enough, well they all left, so they left too. They got them a campboat and moved up the lake too. And that… that land, and everything, the oil people got it.

JD: Well, why do you suppose they left so pretty a place to go live in a campboat?

AB: Well, I guess, all they children was gone and uh, I guess they wanted to follow they kids. That’s the only thing I can see.

By definition the houseboats were small, at least small as compared to what you could build on the bank with enough lumber and a basic earth foundation. A houseboat’s foundation was the barge that it floated on. The houseboats could be a single room, or divided into two or three rooms. Many couples seem to have started married life in smaller houseboats, gradually upgrading the size as the family increased or income improved.

Almost all of the larger ones were three rooms, two being bedrooms and one the kitchen/living room/dining room. The floors were often bare and yellow from being scrubbed at least weekly.

Most often the kitchen was on the end. All construction known shows one story on the barge, never two. The roof was either rounded and covered with black tarpaper (it had a surface covered by rock chips), or it had a low ridge.

There were usually three windows on each side, at least on the larger boats, and a door on each end, and also two windows on each end on some of them. Some had an additional door on the side. Porches on each end were connected around the sides by narrow walkways about 14 inches wide.

There is almost no information about the barges the houseboats were built on, although the cabins of many of them can still be seen up on blocks on land - some are still occupied. There is one known exception. The most authentic set of measurements of larger houseboats comes from one that still exists in its original shape, and remarkably, still on the original barge. And still more remarkably, it has been placed on blocks on dry land rendering it accessible from all angles and levels. This structure now belongs to Dr. Chip Metz and his wife Patsy of Patterson, Louisiana, and it is to their credit that it has been preserved. It was originally built by a Mr. Anslem, who sold it to the Metzs. It was used as a bed and breakfast unit until recently. The skirt around it hides the barge from view. The barge is 33 feet long and 15 feet wide, and the dimensions of the cabin floor are the same. The ridge line of the roof is 42 feet due to the overhang over the porches on both ends. The barge gunnels are 30 inches high. To obtain these measurements, I was allowed to inspect and measure and photograph it inside and out. The gunnels (sides) are three inches thick. The cabin is 6 ½ feet high and above it there is a two-foot gable supporting a tin roof. Russell Daigle helped to build the barge under the houseboat described here at a time when mechanical equipment was not to be had in the middle of the swamp. When asked how the men handled a structure this big, taking into account that the barge had to be built upside down in order to nail the bottom planks on the frame, he gives some details.

RD: Yeah, well I build…I’ve helped build, uh, one for sure. I helped Burney Anslem build the last campboat he built…we built the barge.

JD: How did yall build a barge that big and work on…here’s my problem that I don’t understand…yall used those…those gunnels all one piece, if you could get em. Big tall 24 inch to 30 inch gunnels, and one piece all the way down each side. But you had to use planking for the bottom, didn’t you? How did you work on the bottom of that big old thing? Did you have it turned upside down?

RD: Upside down.

JD: Well, tell me how yall built the thing. I’m curious about how yall handled it to turn it over once the bottom was…was on it.

RD: Block and tackle and a big tree. It’s no big deal. Set it off from the side of a tree…you got a big tree, get your block and tackle and catch, like a bridle, you just pick up one side until she breaks over. And then you take a block and tackle and you pull the…

JD: You pull the bottom out the other way?

RD: Yeah. You hold it with this block so it don’t fall too fast, and you pull it with the other one.

JD: Ok, so you purposely build it next to a big tree where you can use the block and tackle to get on it?

RD: Yeah. That’s the way they turned em over.

The limit to a houseboat’s size seems to have been the size of the barge that could be built with the technology in use in the last part of the 19th century and the early 20th. And what set the upper limit to the size of the barge was probably the way the gunnels were made (the sides of the barge). Oddly, this limitation was caused by the presence of large cypress trees in the Basin. These trees enabled builders to make the gunnels from a single board. These were either sawn by a sawmill from a large log, or they were sometimes hewn by hand in a very long process, sometimes taking years. On one hand this was a good thing in that the single board was never going to leak, but on the other you could only get a board of limited maximum size even given the huge trees available to cut it from. Also, there was the concern of handling pieces of wood this size. The use of multiple boards to construct the sides of the barges never seems to have evolved as a building technique. However, if the gunnel pieces were tall enough and thick enough, but were too short, they could be spliced by adding a backing board nailed to both of the pieces.

Many of the houseboat families added another unit to the houseboat situation. There were times when the water would rise high enough, even back before 1940, to threaten livestock that normally was free to roam the bank and surrounding swamp floor. At times like these, the stock was rounded up and placed upon a floating raft called a crib. Children would use the crib as a playground during times like these as well. The crib was usually made of at least three large cottonwood logs strapped together and provided with a floor of some kind, either planks found floating in the river during high water, or pieux split out of hollow cypress stumps. The usual dimensions were at least 12 feet wide by 30 feet long, often bigger. In a real way, this structure provided a “backyard” to the houseboat in times of high water. Additionally, the crib was used to suspend the boxes (fishcars) that held fish alive until they could be sold. All in all, the crib was a very useful structure. Edward and Lena Mae Couvillier relate how a crib could be used for storage of livestock during high water.

LC: See, we had a big old dock built with logs.

JD: A floating dock?

LC: Yeah. And we always had grandmaw’s camp on one end and ours on the other. Well, when we’d move, we moved the whole thing.

JD: Dock and everything?

LC: Yeah.

EC: You didn’t move fast [laughs].

LC: One time we move to Lil Bayou Long, and uh, we pulled the two camps and the dock with us. Grandma had chickens and all on there. We stayed there a long time with no bank at all [due to high water].

JD: Where? Lil Bayou Long? The chickens, pigs and everything lived on the, lived on the dock?

EC: …had a log crib. Logs made…back in them days you could go, man you could go anywhere…find them big old cottonwood trees…suckers float half out the water, man, make you a big…

JD: Down? They were already down? Or you cut em down?

EC: They’d be down. Driftin down.

LC: Yeah, you look in the lake sometimes you see a big old cottonwood comin down…

EC: Umhm. Oh yeah, they had plenty of them for logs [to make cribs out of, rafts]…

During the years the Myette Point families spent in the Basin, there were many houseboats other than theirs in the bayous and canals. How many is hard to tell, but the number does not appear to be huge. There are estimates from the fishermen as well as the fishboat operators of from 40 to 50 houseboats located at the ten places known for congregation, and houseboats were there from the earliest memories of people born around 1900, which would be at least to 1880.

The houseboats were not just scattered randomly, but were concentrated in locations that provided protection from the weather as well as sufficient room to tie at least several barges near each other. Beginning in the south, there were collections at Morgan City in a long borrow pit called The Pit. People could come and tie up there and have access to the amenities offered by the town for periods of time. Families would come there so that women could give birth with assistance from midwives in Morgan City, and they would return to the swamp after the birth. Continuing northward, the next collection was in Bayou Boutte, a large body of water with plenty of width and a deep channel. From Bayou Boutte, the next site was Williams Canal (called Blaise’s Canal by the families), Myon’s Canal, and then Big Bayou Pigeon, Little Bayou Pigeon, Bayou Smith, Catfish Bayou and Keelboat and Hog Island Passes. Counting Morgan City, then, there were ten separate places where people congregated into mobile and ever changing communities. These were the places the fishboats stopped to collect the fish and sell their products, and they were the places visited by the Baptist and Catholic missionaries. The well-known village of Bayou Chene was about ten miles north of Hog Island and Keelboat Pass and the Myette Point families would visit but do not seem to have ever lived there.

So, in and around Grand Lake a total of about 50 houseboats were constantly occupied from Morgan City in the south to Hog Island in the north. The necessity for being in a house that could function independently of the level of waters around it was probably the reason why the number may have increased in the decades of the 1940s and 1950s. During that time the annual spring high water rose more each year and land-based housing became less and less secure, eventually resulting in the abandonment of the land community Bayou Chene, and the houses scattered along the bayou banks around Grand Lake as well.

As they fanned out to the perimeters on the swamp, now determined by a 30-foot high continuous levee, the people of the Basin established land-based communities, or joined existing ones. The families in question here formed the Myette Point community on the west side of Grand Lake. Between 1947 and 1952, all of the twenty or so houseboats associated with the Myette Point families had been pulled out of the water and over the levee and had begun the transition from a nomadic existence in floating houses to cars and towns and electricity.

The black and white pictures of houseboats are courtesy of the Darlene Soule collection.

The river is at 13.4 on the Butte La Rose gauge right now, rising slowly to 13.7 in the next few days, and continuing a slow rise thereafter for at least a week or so. The Mississippi and Ohio are slowing rising pretty much all the way up.

Rise and Shine, Jim

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Basin Food

It does seem to be a common thing among humans that food satisfies more than a physical need. In some people food is mostly something that delays hunger for a while, in others it is appreciated for its quality of flavor, or texture. And in still others food is part of a larger ritual that encompasses the enjoyment of chewing and swallowing and feeling full. But there is a larger grouping that can be described that includes all of these, perhaps, and most people. These are people who combine all of these features of eating into the larger ritual of the meal, and all that that implies. For those who experience meals like this, the ritual of eating can be an exercise that sets up the environment for sharing ideas, emotions, the warmth of closeness with others and even with the natural world we live in. The fact that everyone in a family could contribute to the providing of a meal, from the small (with expected reluctance) to the oldest, was a significant feature in the eventual closeness of the gathering around food. Some would say there can be an areligious spiritual component to this also. Today we barely adhere to this practice during holidays like Christmas and Thanksgiving, but the observance still has meaning even when taking place so infrequently.

This bonding with other people and the natural environment while sharing food and space at the table (even when there isn’t one) is one of the prominent characteristics of the Myette Point community as it lived its time in the Atchafalaya Basin. No doubt this was partly due to the necessity of combining chores as much as possible. No mother wanted to string out feeding kids over half the day when there were so many other things that had claim on her time, so eating together had practical as well as other less tangible advantages. One of the best examples of this might come from an actual experience during the interviews that were done to collect information from the Myette Point families. I was sitting down in their kitchen with Agnes and Myon Bailey. They lived in a three-room houseboat that had been pulled over the top of the levee from the Basin to where it then resided outside of the levee. The rooms were small, about 10 feet by 10, with the kitchen in one of the end rooms. The kitchen table sat in the middle, surrounded by the other furniture – a stove, sink, refrigerator and several chairs. Overall it was a warm-feeling place - Myon and Agnes had been married at that time almost 50 years. We were starting to have a meal to which I had been invited. The presence of the food brings about easy conversation, and I had a tape recorder and was talking to them about why I wanted to tape our conversations. This was 1989. Just the three of us, sitting at the table, passing food around, eating and talking - it went like this.

JD: ….. the main reason I want to do that is there’s a lot of stuff that yall know that nobody knows anymore. Nobody is trying to remember anymore. And one of these days, if I ever get to it, I would like to be able to put all that down in one place.

AB: You gone write a book?

JD: Well, it may be. It m
ay be. But I figure I come over here and we talk, and I forget half of what I hear. So I figured while I’m here, why not just get it on tape, just while we’re talking, and uh, if I can use it, good, if I don’t, well, I don’t, but at least that way I won’t forget it all.

JD: You want some hot sauce Myon?

MB: Yeah, I guess so Jim.

JD: White beans, boy that’s nice.

AB: Good ole white beans Jim. Myon and his onions, him.

JD: You like raw onions Myon?

MB: Mmmhm. They go with beans. … squirrels.

JD: Boy, that’s special. I didn’t expect squirrel!

AB: They might have one in there kind of tough.

[more sounds of passing food around and utensils on plates]

JD: So, Frank doesn’t hunt squirrels anymore, eh? Or he’s not bringing….

MB: Yeah, he hunts.

AB: He hunts all day, he’s been g
ivin em away.

JD: Where’s he been getting the squirrels?

AB: Across the bayou there, Pearly told me.

MB: He ain’t been bring me none, but that don’t matter though. When he bring me some I give him shells. I buy him some shells.

JD: He hunt with a shotgun?

MB: Umhm.

JD: Twelve gauge?

MB: I believe he got a 20 gauge that Putt lend him. He had a 12 gauge pump, sold it to Putt last year. [after that] He didn’t have no gun, I believe Putt let him have his 20 gauge, this year.

JD: Boy, that squirrel is good Agnes!

AB: Yeah, it’s good. Been cookin it a long time to get it tender.

JD: You got some ice in the freezer?

AB: Yeah, umhm.

MB: Overloaded my plate today. You don’t like milk?

JD: Uh?

MB: You don’t like milk?

JD: Yeah I do, I like ice in it though.

MB: Yeah? Edward too, got to have ice.

JD: Yall don’t want some ice?

MB: Not me.

AB: I like water just as good, me.

JD: Well, I’ll tell you what I would like to do, if yall don’t mind, is, I would really like to hear the story about your family. We could start with one of you, and, if you could start as far back as you can remember in your family. And I imagine that’s your grandparents, you both remember your grandparents?

And the tape recorder kept rolling and they began to talk about their lives, and their parents and grandparents lives too. It is this feeling of closeness and trust, with or without blood ties, that makes sharing food so important.

There is a thought that food derived from close to its source is somehow not “pure” enough. That it hasn’t been through the sanitation procedures that FDA would require and therefore it isn’t quite trustworthy or clean enough. Some would say the meal above, featuring squirrel, would be such food. Hmph.

There is a story told by a friend (deceased) about a thing that happened in his childhood that deals with the idea of country food versus city food. The boy in the story is the son of one of the fishboat operators. He was born and raised in the Basin near Bayou Chene, where he went to the school there, but then his family moved to Morgan City (the big city) and he was put in school. His mother prepared his lunches as she had for a long time in the Basin, and as he ate with the city kids he noticed the difference between his lunch sandwiches and theirs. The city kid's name was Virgil Santos. My friend told it like this.

But anyways, we came to Morgan City and I went to Klingsville (school?), I was in the second grade. And, they had a Santos, lived on the corner and his dad owned a couple shrimp boats. And when he came to school, he always had a couple bologna sandwiches. You had to carry your own lunch... Well, I had catfish fried sandwich, I had duck breast sandwiches, I had chicken sandwiches, I had oyster sandwiches, but I always wanted a bologna sandwich.

So, Dad got to doin' pretty good, mother always made her bread, so when we got to doin' pretty good I said, "Mom?" I said, "Do you think we could get a loaf of store bought bread and maybe, uh, four, five slices of bologna?" She said, "Oh yeah son, we can do that." And so she went to the store and bought that -- next morning she made me two sandwiches. And I was so proud of them two sandwiches.

I got to school -- I couldn't hardly wait for the lunch time. We'd go out and sit on the side the school on a bench, we eat, and ol' Virgil -- he'd come up there, sit down, and you know what I said? "I don't want your sandwiches, I got my own!" I took two bites of that sandwich and throwed 'em both away and I haven't eaten bologna since! (big laugh) Yeah-- I hadn't eaten any more bologna -- that stuff is terrible!

JD: You went back to the trash like duck breast, and uh, squirrel and stuff like that....

Oh yeah. Oyster poboys, you know, shrimp poboys, homemade bread Yea I said no, no I don't need more of that bologna.

And that pretty well sums up the quality of the homemade foods that people were forced to eat on houseboats in the Basin. Even today, people will be attracted to more sophisticated foods and try them. After a while, most of them come back to the basic beans and rice, and squirrel, if they can.

The river is at 12.7 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge, rising to 14.3 in a few days. Nice rise for the crawfishermen. The Ohio and Mississippi are rising a good bit too.

Rise and Shine, Jim