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.

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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.

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


Blogger Bryant said...

As usual, this was a very interesting article. My wife and I stayed at the Metz's B&B a few years ago and really enjoyed it. Sorry to hear they are no longer operating it. Thanks for the writings.

April 16, 2009 9:52 PM  
Blogger jim said...

Yes, you stayed in a piece of Basin history. Glad you got to do it. Jim

April 17, 2009 3:03 PM  
Blogger Kristi said...

Thanks for the pictures and information! What a fascinating way to live.

July 26, 2009 3:35 AM  
Blogger jim said...

Kristi, fascinating and not-so-simple as folks nowadays imagine. Those who talk about from personal experience remember it as a good life. Thanks for the comment. Jim

July 26, 2009 10:22 AM  

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