“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…
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!
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