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

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

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

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Beginning Life

Like people everywhere, the people of the Myette Point families were born, lived their lives, and died - that’s all. But perhaps there is a difference in that they did it while living on water most of the time and this provided some circumstances that people who lived on land did not have to deal with. Things like modes of travel and the distances between institutions like doctors and churches come to mind, and the isolation and smallness of the floating communities themselves was a factor too.

As in most other parts of this story, the span of time covered (about 100 years) dictates that circumstances changed over that long period. Opportunities came and went, technologies came and died out or were improved, and people adapted to the changes as necessary. The practical issue of safely giving birth was one of the things that changed over time, or perhaps it is better to say that the means of assistance at a birthing event changed.

There is a consensus among those interviewed that assistance at birth was always sought. From the earliest times people recognized that giving birth was a time filled with both great hope and at least moderate anxiety. Even though the great majority of births took place with no unforeseen negative consequences, there was enough potential for serious complications that the presence of someone with prior training was always engaged for the event. This person was the midwife of frequent mention in stories of the old days. Curiously, even though a medical doctor might have been within reach in Morgan City, he was not the first person to be called to assist at a birth. It was the midwife. From the early 1900s to the 1950s, and even beyond, people who lived on the water towed their houseboats and pregnant wives to Morgan City, a distance of about 15 miles. They tied up in a large excavated area adjacent to the Atchafalaya River called The Pit and a midwife was contacted to assist at the birth. The midwife would sometimes come to live with the family until the baby came. This process of towing to Morgan City continued for a long time, with some families having nine children born with this process, accounting for at least 18 years of continuous practice. Dot Bailey Couvillier, born in 1938, relates how and where her birth was brought about.

DC: Well, they had…just before I was born, they had moved to Morgan City from across the lake [at Blaise's Canal], you see? To wait, for my arrival. Yeah. And after I was born, they moved back. You see?

JD: Did they tow the houseboat down to Morgan City?

DC: Oh yeah. Towed everything.

JD: Now, what’s the reason why your momma would’ve wanted, you think, to move to Morgan City for you to be born? I mean, not all your brothers and sisters weren’t born in…in hospitals?

DC: No, most of em was born at home but they always towed…you know, towed to Morgan City. In case they need a doctor.

JD: So, oh, I see, all right…all right…all right. So they towed to Morgan City in case the doctor would be needed. But who delivered the children anyway, if the doctor wasn’t needed?

DC: Midwife.

JD: A midwife…black, white, old, young?

DC: No it was a white [woman]. I forgot what Momma used to call her, but uh, they’d go get her ahead of time, you know? She’d actually live with em until it was all over with.

The midwife’s name was Ms. Florence Duval. And Dot’s mother Agnes Sauce Bailey, was born in the same place under similar circumstances, but 26 years earlier. And her husband, Myon, adopted the practice from his father-in-law, towing his houseboat to Morgan City for his own children to be born. Dot, in the above quote, was one of his children.

Many of these midwives were older members of the Myette Point families, especially those who had taken up residence in Morgan City. It would seem that there was a large number of them, but maybe not. Midwives kept books on the births they administered, presumably for later recording in parish archives. One such document is in the possession of the Anslem family in Morgan City.

After 1950 the Myette Point families were mostly living on land, having hauled their houseboats up and over the levee to form a land-based community. This location was near enough to the town of Franklin for medical assistance to be within reach if called for. It came in the form of doctors who would come out to the families for a birth, or the families could come in to town and engage a doctor to help there. Joe Sauce was born in 1949 and he was delivered by a Dr. Horton who would come out to Myette Point to help when asked. Lena Mae Couvillier was one of the women who left Myette Point and went to nearby town of Franklin when birth was imminent. Sometimes the process didn’t quite turn out to be as smooth as it could be because the doctor mishandled the situation. She says this about the 1960 birth of her youngest son, Kevin:

LC: Kevin’s born…he come out, Dr. [. . .] dropped him in the garbage can. And I heard him. I say “You dropped my baby!”. “Ah no, no”. And he wouldn’t admit that for years and years and years. And not too long before he died, Kevin had got a kissing disease, or something, whatever…Yeah, I had to bring him to the doctor. “Ah” he say “Is that the one I dropped in the garbage can?” I say “You trash!” [laughs] I say “I knew you had dropped that baby”. [laughs] [Lena Mae Couvillier, 2005]

There were all the usual pregnancy-associated anomalies that you encounter in other populations. There were miscarriages and premature births, and stillborn babies too. Dot Couvillier, who carries the dark skin of her European Spanish blood, was one of the premature ones.

“ And the story they tell about Dot concerns why she’s so dark, in color. They say that she was born prematurely on a houseboat in the Atchafalaya Basin, and she was so small that she wasn’t able to keep her body temperature up, so what they did was they lit a fire in the wood stove…and in those days of course the wood stoves were the big ones they used to bake bread with, and everything else. So they wrapped her in towels, and put her inside the oven of the wood stove, and kept the oven warm to keep her warm. And they did this, apparently, for several weeks. And we always laughed that the reason she’d so dark is because they overcooked her…in the oven.” [Jim Delahoussaye, 1992]

Some examples of the size of some of the families would go like this. The family that Blaise Sauce was from had 14 children, Edward Couvillier had ten siblings and his sister Margaret had 11 children, Liza Henry had nine siblings. Edward sums it up with:

“All them people had a lot of kids, didn’t have no television.” [Edward Couvillier, 2007]

The pictures with people in them are courtesy of the Darlene Soule collection.

The river is at 18.8 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge, falling very slowly over the next several days. And then it should fall pretty rapidly because there isn’t any water pushing down from the Ohio and Mississippi. Both are falling. Make your living while you can, boys.

Rise and Shine, Jim

Friday, May 22, 2009

A Night in the Life

There is one big piece of the linefishing story that has not been brought out in the material previously presented. It is the practice of fishing the lines at night. It is a different experience and there is a different color to it. A night in the life of a linefisherman could go like this. First, it needn’t be a man. Many times the boats were “manned” by women. Sometimes the women would be with their husbands but in a separate boat, sometimes the woman would be out in the lake alone among the other boats out that night. Either way, they did the work like the men did. The boats in use were almost always 14-foot cypress bateaux with 20 or 25-horsepower motors. Most of the time the people fished five nights a week, Monday through Friday.

Beginning the cycle. Time to get up – about 3:00 pm. Eat Breakfast. Go outside and do whatever maintenance was necessary as a result of last night’s fishing. Make sure the battery to be used for the headlight is charged and extra bulbs are on the boat. Remember how to change a bulb at night when the light you need to do it is in your hand with a burned out bulb. Practice.

Hook the boat up to the truck at 4:30 pm. Drive five minutes to the Myette Point levee landing, get some ice in a small ice chest, and launch the boat. Start the motor and head out into the swamps around Grand Lake.

The night of work begins about 5:00 pm, although there is still three hours of light left in the day in midsummer. The three hours is devoted to getting enough bait to fish for the following seven or eight hours of darkness. Most of the bait obtained in the late afternoon is caught with a castnet. Certain places are known to have concentrations of shad, both large and small ones. Other places could be searched for mullet. Both of these cut baits are considered to be “hard” baits and can be relied on to stay on a hook longer than shrimp will. Getting 2000 or more shad, or pieces of larger shad and/or mullet, usually takes the full three hours prior to darkness. Shrimp bushes, if the fisherman has some set out, are not productive until after dark. If the cut bait runs out, the shrimp bushes can be run for additional bait.

Throwing a castnet for three hours is a lot of work in the late afternoon heat. Most of the commonly used nets are five feet long, giving them a ten foot spread when opened on the water in a good cast. Not all casts were perfect. Some nets used were seven footers. It took a good man to throw that net with good opening consistency. The big breakthrough in castnet ease of use came with the invention of monofilament, earlier ones all being nylon or, even earlier, cotton. This light, clear line made castnets easier to throw, primarily because they were so much lighter for their length when wet. Wet monofilament isn’t much heavier than dry, but the other filaments are a lot heavier wet.

So now it’s getting close to sundown, about 8:00 pm. Time to sit down, take off the bib overall rainsuit pants that were worn to repel some of the water from the castnet, change the dripping shirt, and eat the evening meal - usually sandwiches and/or leftovers of some meal based on rice and gravy and meat. Watching the sunset and eating good food is not a bad way to end/begin a day. Today the boat is tied to a tree overhanging the river on the right bank. The sun is setting directly over the river way, way up ahead. There is something the size of a seagull flying toward you directly ahead, coming down the river on your side, right at the water’s surface. It is a black skimmer, with its oversized lower beak cutting the water in a furrow as it flies along. Being partially hidden behind branches, it doesn’t see you and flies within three feet of the boat, zipping past. The most memorable thing is the sound that the bill cutting the water makes as it goes past. It goes sssssSSSSSsssss, and gone. What a wonder that was! But the sound of mosquitoes soon follows the bird and on goes the repellant.

Time to get to work. It is dark now, and you turn on your headlight. It is connected by long wires to a 12-volt battery in the back of the boat. Unlike earlier fishermen who did this before batteries were invented, you just switch the light on. Sixty years ago you would have been using a carbide light and the light from a small acetylene flame would have been your companion all night. But the light tonight is brighter than that, and right away there is a fluttering around your head, increasing as an annoying group of insects is attracted to the light. These are mayflies and you will have to contend with them most of the night. It is not bad unless the one-inch long, yellow insects get behind your glasses and flutter there making seeing difficult. Even though they cannot hurt you, this behavior has been known to drive some people to vacate Grand Lake at night for good.

There are three crosslines set to run this evening. Each has about 350 hooks on it. It is midsummer and the water is dead low, allowing all three to be set in the deep water of the channel – from 40 to 80 feet deep. At no other time of year could this be done. Most of the larger fish are in the channel right now, and fewest of the smallest ones. All of this is going on in the open part of Grand Lake between Goat Island in the north to Cypress Island in the south. Other people have lines in the channel and because of this your lines have to be separated so that no one feels crowded. From the top line to the bottom one (downstream) is about five miles. It is best to run the lower line first, working upcurrent to the upper one. When first reached, the lower line has a few fish left on it from last night. Some bait does survive to fish during the early daylight – pieces of mullet particularly. These fish are removed and fresh bait applied to the whole line, and so on up the river to the end of the upper line. To be able to see floating “drift”, running in the main channel of the Atchafalaya River is always done without a light. Most of the boats on the river are powered by 25 horsepower engines and these are run about half speed in the river at night so that it is possible to “see” and avoid something floating before you hit it, usually. It takes about three hours to run and bait the 1000 or so hooks, provided there are no hang-ups to take your time. Ice the fish.

It is now about midnight, and time for lunch. One of the reasons the lines were run upstream is that now the boat can be allowed to drift free down the channel while lunch is eaten and the scenery enjoyed. Lying on your back at midnight in a small boat in the middle of the Atchafalaya Basin, drifting down the river makes a lot of lifetime memories, and there is scenery. The stars are all they can be in Louisiana on a clear night, not Arizona, but nice. And you look up long enough and for the first time perceive that there is 3-dimensionality to the sky – a clear depth that you never noticed before. And all the sounds are all being made for you, it seems. The owls from the far off forests and the bullfrogs too seem to be facing you as they speak.

Because the river is a shared experience, after all, other fishermen are finished with their first run and see you and run over to you to pass some time. They tie their boats to yours, making a raft of five or six boats just floating along at midnight. Out comes the coffee and the cigarettes and the sharing of the night’s experiences. Seeming tall tales are borne out by visible evidence of fish caught. Laughter spreads out on the river. It is a very good time to be alive with friends. There is talk about how the docks, the middlemen in this business, are taking advantage of the fishermen. How all the money is made by those who do the least work – but they own the facilities to process and ship and that makes them commanders in the fishing story. Talk starts about calling the fishermen together from all over the Basin and getting them to unite and build their own dock, eliminating the middleman altogether. Can it be done? Sure, some say. Never, others say, fishermen are too independent to unite. It takes many nights to plan this, but it is a beginning.

It is about 1:00 am now, and time to start the second run – actually the first one of the night on a full baiting. A little more coffee and goodbyes and start the run down to the end of the lines downriver. It’s not so far now, having drifted part of it. Notice that there is a rumble to the west, more or less in front of you, and a dim lightning glow in the clouds down low in the sky. It is best to anticipate the direction of the thunderstorm’s drift if you can because getting caught out here is not a good thing. It will be an hour or so before the situation could be a problem, and it might not ever be but best to be watchful. On the second run, you catch a good number of fish as you progress up the channel toward the upper line. Nice fish, as they often are in the channel, mostly blue cats. But when you get to the upper line and start running it from the left side you can tell there is a problem. The line is much tighter than it should be, indicating that it is not coming up from the bottom as it should. It is hung. Either the line slipped under a stump on the bottom or a large fish has wrapped it around something. Either way, it isn’t coming up, and fixing it would mean the end of fishing tonight, so you drop the line and go to the other – the right – side and pick up the line there. It is tight here too, but you can run about 100 hooks before it gets too tight (too dangerous) to run. Maybe there is 100 pounds of fish in the wellbox of the boat now, not bad. Ice them and head back downriver for the first line. The thunderstorm has been forgotten but did not come this way.

4:00 am. Start the last run for tonight. Bait is getting short so you will have to get some more before finishing this last run. OK. No help for it, go for the shrimp bushes. This last run extends into daylight. Baiting the hooks and running the line has become so routine that it is a surprise when you realize you don’t have to have a headlight to see the hooks as you come to them. Switch the light off and continue the run. By 5:30 the birds are beginning to fly over the lake, mostly night herons going to roost somewhere to the east in the big swamp. They make that low whistling sound that so often signaled “get the shotgun” in past years. Around 7:00 am the last hook that can be baited is done and you see people coming up the channel and others coming down from upstream, all headed for the mouth of the little canal at Myette Point called Myon’s Canal. Most of them are those you had coffee with during the night. You ice the fish and prepare to make the twenty minute run to the landing too.

After loading the boat onto the trailer, around 7:30 am you reach the place, by truck, where Myon Bailey lives. He will buy your fish after weighing them. You have about 200 pounds for the night’s work. Not too bad. Most are catfish, but there is an extra 30 pounds or so of gaspergou. Myon won’t buy those. You will have to sell them in the quarters of Oaklawn Plantation if you want to take the time. You go into Myon’s house (a houseboat on land) and sit in his kitchen with several other fishermen who fished all night too, some of them drifted the channel with you. All drink coffee and tell stories about the night and Basin life. A tape recorder on that table would record wonderful things. Myon puts $50 in your hand, that’s 25 cents/pound for your catfish – the going rate in 1975.

Home about 8:30 am and eat supper. Sleep by 9:00 am, and then up again at 3:00 pm for another night of running lines.

The river is at 18.0 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge, rising to 18.6 feet in a few days. There is not a lot of rise up above on the Mississippi and Ohio so not much more rise than that is expected at this time. Should be plenty of water for the crawfishermen to use. It is lapping over our deck surface. Something of an inconvenience, that’s all.

Rise and Shine, Jim

Friday, May 15, 2009

Timber Work

The Myette Point families lived in a period of constantly increasing lumbering activity
in the Basin. It was always a part of everyday life, whether the individuals were actually working in the industry or just aware of it somewhere in the surrounding area. From the earliest members represented on the taped interviews (who were born around 1860), to the members of the fourth generation (born about 1930), there was always something to do relating to the forests of cypress in the Basin. The people witnessed the emerging technology for harvesting and processing cypress timber and each change in the technology made for more and more efficient removal of the trees. In keeping with this, there were lumber mills all around the Basin. From Plaquemine to Morgan City there were always places ready to convert timber to lumber.

Timber harvest in the Basin was an activity that utilized the skills the people already had – they were proficient with boats, knowledgeable about living in the swamp, and had considerable experience with the use of tools like axes and saws. All of this made them effective employees.
There is testimony that people who eventually settled Myette Point worked in timber from at least 1884 to 1943. Myon Bailey says this about his stepfather (Homer Daigle, born in 1882), who worked mostly on the machinery used to pull the logs out of the swamp much of his life.

“Oh yeah. …that old man, he worked a long time there. He worked hard, that old man. But he didn’t make much money. I mean, uh, him and her had to be careful, what they do. …..had a big family.” [Myon Bailey, 1989]

But the timber industry represented a seasonal, not a constant, livelihood to the families about whom this material is written, at least in the years prior to 1880. Trees could be felled, but then they could not be gathered and removed from the forest until high water came in the spring of the year. People who remember this older method of harvesting refer to the activity as “floating timber”.

There were two innovations that changed this reliance on high water to float logs – the skidder and the pullboat – both used cables and winches to pull logs out of the swamp over dry land. These two innovations, together with the use of railroads where possible, introduced both the beginning of the greatest harvest of cypress in the Basin, and the end of it. From the original introduction of the year-round harvesting, to the beginning of the end of the old-growth forests, was only 44 years – from 1883 to 1927, with a peak in about 1900. The industry continued to cut timber, but according to sources the harvesters coming across the Basin from the east met those coming across from the west in 1927, neither knowing the other was drawing near. When they met, most of the virgin forest had been cut. Work continued into the 1940s, but gradually dwindled to non-profitability.

Whether you “floated” timber or used machinery to extract logs, the harvest relied upon a technique for bringing the trees down and removing them that had been in use for over a hundred years - that of ringing the trees to kill them and then waiting some length of time (from several months to a year) before cutting them down. The purpose of this was to make the trees buoyant enough to float by allowing the sap to decrease. A live cypress, full of sap, will sink, and most of those that sank were lost forever. Ida Daigle was part of the cycle of killing the trees and then cutting them down later.

ID: Floatin timber. Deadin…not floatin em…but deadin em. [. . .] That’s for all the sap to go down to when you throw em, they’ll float.

JD: Now, how did they…how did they do that?

ID: They’d go all the way around the tree, and chop.

JD: Cut around the tree?

ID: Yeah, cut around the tree. Then when the water would come up, and then they’d knock em down, see, and they’d float like biscuits on the water.

Once the trees were killed and felled, the logs could be brought out to a place where they could be gathered into floating “booms” and conveyed by steamboat to a lumber mill. To make these booms the logs were aligned side-by-side to some width and then linked with a device called a chain dog. Edward Couvillier and his wife Lena Mae describe how the booms were constructed. It was this step in the process that could either deliver logs safely to a mill or allow them to break up and scatter, some sinking forever.

JD: What’s a chain dog?

LC: That’s…they put in them logs to hold them together. [laughs at my ignorance]

JD: What’d it look like?

EC: You have a boom of timber, you know?

JD: A boom of timber is just a raft of timber?

EC: You cut you a willow pole, maybe 30 feet, and go c
lean across the boom of timber. Well, a chain dog, you had a chain, a regular chain…Just a regular link, about a inch, two inches. And the dog, to drive into the log…it was about a inch and a half wide, about 3/8 of an inch thick. [two six-inch iron pins connected by about 16 inches of chain]: Made of iron. About six inches long. It was pointed on the end. They had a hole in it, your chain went into that dog. And you drive it on this side, and you cross over that willow tree, and you drive it on the other side.

JD: Why did you cross over the willow tree?

EC: That what it takes to hold the log, you see? Like if you have one right here, it’d be just like you had a clamp, would go across, tighten it down. Now, if your chain dog was too long for your pole, you just wrap it. You just turn it till it get tight enough so when you drove it down, and you had about that much of the head of the chain dog stickin out, well, it would be tight. And that’s how you held them logs. Every log, when you go across that boom, and every log was chain dogged. Some of em, you’d put two. Some of em maybe three chain dogs on one log, if it was a big log. And you had an old ax, to knock em out? And you’d want to knock em out just like you was gonna chop that wood. You hit that chain dog…[the ax blade cuts into the iron]

JD: With the blade of the ax?

EC: With the blade of the ax. [that’s why it was an OLD ax] And that’s the way you’d knock em out the log. Now, the big pullboats, what they had…they didn’t use a ax, they had a…a…like a crowbar, with a fork in it. And just like you’d run up there and catch that chain dog…catch the chain where that chain come around, and they had a hook here, and you could just…

JD: You could lift it up. So it had a foot on the crowbar, you talking about?

EC: But it was a heavy thing, and just didn’t pack that around. We didn’t pack it around, we just use a ax. I seen us take a brand new one, buy a brand new ax, just to have a dog ax. Just to knock them chain dogs out. It’d be dull as all hell, man.

The mills were almost all situated on a waterbody so that the booms of timber could be received at the mill site. As circumstances would have it, not all the logs boomed together were equally floatable, and the heavier ones were supported on either side by timber that floated higher. When something happened, heavy weather or accident, causing the boom of timber to break up, the previously supported logs would sink – giving us the modern term “sinker cypress”. These are the logs that are sought after today. When they are raised, some after being in the water over 100 years, the lumber is as though the immersion had never happened.

Another very important relationship with the cypress industry was that it supplied, although inadvertently, a source of much of the building material used by early houseboat dwellers. This was in the form of what the fishermen called pieux (pronounced “pew”), meaning “pickets” in French. It had long been known that one of the many attractions to using cypress as a building material was that it would split for long lengths in a predictable manner. These pieux came about when it was discovered that some of the cast-off pieces of cypress trees could be split this way to yield high quality boards for building anything from fish boxes to whole houses.

The wood was available because the lumber company would fell trees that sometimes had a hollow base. If the upper part of the tree could be salvaged, the hollow bottom ten or 20 feet might be cut off and discarded. The remaining cylindrical material could be four or eight feet in diameter, but with only the outside ten to 12 inches being solid wood. These cylinders could be sectioned with a saw and then split down the grain to yield boards as long as was desired and ½ to one inch thick, and eight to ten inches wide. The boards were rough but could be smoothed with a draw knife if desired.

So, in summary, then, there are a few things to wrap up in this piece of text about the relationship between the Myette Point families and the timber industry. First, the logging industry was always around them. There was not a time between 1850 and 1943 when there was not some form of logging going on in the Basin near enough to the families for them to be aware of it. Second, employment by the companies was valued, much as the emerging industry, oil, was to be. Third, fishing and the related activities was always there as a fallback. People took advantage of the money available in timber work, but they always returned to harvesting from the water when they needed to, and the culture they developed and practiced was always shaped by water.

The picture of the pieux fence is courtesy of the Darlene Soule collection.

The River is at 16.3 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge, a healthy rise, growing to 17.1 feet in the next four days. The Ohio and Mississippi are both falling way up above so this rise will stall for at least a little while.

Rise and Shine, Jim

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Basin Steamboats

In an age that many who read this cannot remember, there were steamboats in the Atchafalaya Basin. The smoke pouring from the smokestacks could be seen from long distances down Grand Lake, signaling yet another load of cypress logs being towed to a place where conversion to usable lumber was a final destination.

“Booms” was what they were called, these long rafts of cypress logs. Their transmutation from living tree to building material is part of another story, but the steamboat is the vehicle first associated with that journey. Since the logging industry offered employment to people who knew how to function in the swamp environment, those people knew and were familiar with steamboats as the “heavy haulers” of the Basin. People cut the trees, “floated timber” out of the swamp to bayous, and then formed up the logs into the booms. The booms were hooked up to the rear of steamboats and the boats pulled the rafts to a sawmill located on the edge of the Basin. Myon Bailey and his son-in-law Edward Couvillier were eye witnesses to the time when employment by the logging operations was very appreciated. However, it is worthwhile to remember that all the people interviewed here were fishermen first and last.

MB: When I first was livin at Williams Canal across there, them steamboat, Albert Anslem [Hanson?], them lumber company, big steamboats, goin cut timber across there. All the way down. Albert Anslem [steamboat] parked many times in the end of that canal where I was livin.

EC: I remember when that sucker [boat] used to go up to Catfish [bayou], hook on to that timber, and that steamboat would pass, then you could just see that timber goin for miles.

MB: Miles and miles. Oh yeah.

JD: Really? Those floats, those rafts would be that big?

EC: Miles and miles of that stuff.

That was how it was done. But the memories of the Myette Point families can be even more personal than that. They do remember steamboats for the work they offered, if indirectly, but also for the times the boats brought presents in the form of sweet things to eat or holiday presents for the children along the bayous. You also sense a feeling of wonder in their voices as they talk about the giant boats (on a relative scale) and the power they exhibited in doing the work they did. Neg Sauce was born in 1924 and was there for the last of the steamboat/logging operation. As fishermen, they sometimes got pieces of iron from the boats for trotline weights, and they could watch in rough weather to see the big log booms break up, many logs sinking never to be recovered.

NS: Yeah, a kid, I was a kid. I was little. Sometime we’d get some from them, you know? They had to have them big old boilers settin on the steamboat, to run the steamboat with. Steam engine.

JD: Umhm. So they had to have wood that they would throw in the boiler to boil…

NS: Yeah. They’d use wood. And they’d pile up wood on that boat. Throw a big old piece of wood in there, and they ready to take off, boy! That’s some powerful boats, them… yeah! Oh yeah! Pull seven, eight booms of logs like nothin.

JD: Is that right? They would pull em, too, they wouldn’t push em, eh?

NS: Uhuh. They’d pull em.

JD: Those booms never did get away from those boats sometimes?

NS: Oh yeah! They lost a lot of em. Big, bad weather would come up, you know, like we still get. And get so rough, it would break em up. Yeah, a lot of em was lost like that.

The memories belong to the early years of the Myette Point interviews. Those who remember the steamboats best were born before 1950, when the last boat to affect the families was seen. The recollections of Myon Bailey who was born in 1905 and worked in support of the steamboats are perhaps the richest. Myon was one of those who cut the trees and processed them for the booms. He speaks here with his son-in-law Putt Couvillier.

PC: But goin back to the olden days, what’s the name of that steamboat? That was the Albert Hanson, and the Captain, uh…

MB: Captain Clifton.

PC: Captain Clifton. And uh, Oscar Lange, what’s the one Oscar Lange had?

MB: He had uh, let’s see…

PC: Edmond Hughes, I believe, Edmond Hughes, or something like that. They had three steamboats. They had the Captain Clifton, the Albert Hanson and the other one…

MB: Suwanee. The Suwanee. Williams boat. The Suwanee, yeah, that was Williams, S.B. Williams boat. Yah. That’s the fastest steamboat they had around.

PC: We used to eat biscuits…they’d pull up in the channel there…

MB: That…that was the Captain Clifton …[or, remembering better] that was the Albert Hanson, they call it. The boat.

And he adds that he was stranded once, not quite a stowaway.

“Right out here in the lake. They’d get timber by the big old booms, you see. They were steamboats…the Albert Hanson, Cap’n…uh, I think it’s the Cap’t Ace. But uh, he used to come down with large tows of timber out of that lake…pass way out back of the island [Goat Island] out there, all that was lake. And go on down with his timber. And when he come back up, we used to live along there in them campboats, and they’d blow their horn. And they’d tie up in the Cut, there, and give us all some biscuits and treats, you know, something to eat. And then they’d blow the horn and we’d get off the boat, and they’d take off and go on up. Comin up light, you see, they’d pass through that Cut, there. [. . . ] We’d go on that boat, but one time they pushed off with me on there. They had to come back to the bank and let me off. You know, they blowed the whistle, had to get off. ” [Putt Couvillier, 1974]

Edward Couvillier, born in 1928 toward the end of the timber operations, was still able to work “floating timber” and then booming up the logs. And Putt Couvillier and his wife Dot, both born in 1938, were, as children, in on the final phase of steamboats in the Basin.

JD: Now, is that…at that time, was that the only big traffic there was on the rivers, was those steamboats?

PC: Well, you didn’t see too many tugboats or nothing. Most…mostly steamboats.

JD: Ok, when was the last time you can remember steamboats makin any use of that, uh, that water at all? When…?

PC: Well, that’s been many a year ago, I mean. That’s right after I was…I was just old enough to walk and get around and follow the gang, you see? When they used to pass. I was born in ’38, so that wasn’t… I believe early ‘40s. Somewhere around there, I wasn’t very old.

These timber-industry steamboats were not the truly giant floating palaces that moved commerce up and down the big rivers. Those giants carried people and tremendous volumes of goods on their decks. Most of the Basin stern-wheeled boats were much smaller than that because they had to be able to negotiate the twists and turns of the swamp bayous pulling the very long, multiple-segmented booms. And because the places they went were usually shallow, the boats were designed to work in shallow water. The Carrie B. Schwing shown here was first built as a larger boat that was probably confined to the larger bayous and lakes in the Basin. After the original burned down, the second version was shorter and could probably maneuver in smaller waterways. Information on these two boats is taken from a self-published (2006) book by James Hymel, entitled “A Human Interest Look at the Carrie B.” The model by Billy Pontiff is also of one of the shorter boats.

The period when steamboats traveled the Basin coincided with the existence of the big cypress forests. There was some employment for them in the newly emerging oil industry but the busy season was over, so to speak. When the cypress was finally logged out in the late 1930s, the steamboats began to appear less and less, so that in a few years there would be only a reduced number for the young Putt Couvillier to remember. As though to prolong a sense lingering usefulness, the final page in the story of some of the steamboats was written in a way that commemorates their structural features rather than their nautical functions. Some ended as fishdocks in Calumet.

PC: Yep. Oscar Lange bought one of em for a fish dock.

JD: Is that what Oscar Lange’s building is? An old riverboat?

PC: Old uh, old uh, steamboat. Used to haul timber.

Others were finally rested in places like New Iberia and served as floating casinos or dancehalls. The one there was called the Showboat. Still others had their top decks removed and rebuilt as residences in the Basin, such as was done to house Myrtle Burns Bigler and her husband Harold, along the Atchafalaya River.

With the close of the timber industry and the beginning of diesel engines as a preferred propulsion system, and the deepening of channels in the Basin, the steamboats faded away. They are commemorated today only in pictures, some housed in the archives of the timber industry and others in museums etc.

The River is at 14.3 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge, rising to 16.3 by May 12 five days hence. At good rise. The Mississippi and Ohio are supporting significantly more water. We’ll see.

Rise and Shine, Jim

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Basin Recreation

No matter how hard the work is, once sufficient means are found to support a family with adequate food, clothing and shelter, there is a time for relaxation. How this time is filled differs with each culture and individual personality but there are some things that seem to draw people as a means of gaining excitement and/or relaxation. The Myette Point families are no different in this regard. They sought the things that helped to make the days of hard work seem just a part of the day, not the totality of it. Simple things like the games of children are noted and the pastimes of adults like hunting and coffee-visits all fit into the life on the houseboats, and on land after that. Dancing and music attracted all ages. Sometimes the music was provided by “outside” talent, as when the families had opportunities to visit some dancehall on the edges of the swamp. Often it was up to family members who had instruments like fiddles and guitars and could play them. The gathering places for these small dances were small houses on the bank, in Little Bayou Pigeon for instance, or on board someone’s houseboat. Weddings sometimes had music for the reception. Dot Couvillier looks back on her life on houseboats in the Basin and finds memories of peacefulness in the midst of a rigorous life of self-sufficiency.

“Oh yeah, because, you know, we didn’t know what a movie house was. We didn’t know what school was until we moved across here and went to school. Just didn’t know. We thought that everybody lived that way. And, I look back now and remember those things, and that was the most peaceful time of my life. And we thought everything was fine. Now, of course, Daddy was out there bustin his butt to feed us, and clothe us.” [Dot Couvillier, 1995]

Charenton, St. Mary Parish, Louisiana, is a place that figures prominently in the Myette Point story with respect to music. Charenton Beach, as the facility on the west side of Grand Lake was known, was a highly successful combination dancehall, restaurant, swimming pavilion and tourist cottage venture. For more than 20 years the dancehall featured many well-known bands – bands like Fats Domino and others of similar national reputation and style, as well as country western and French (Cajun) bands. It was the misfortune of the facility that it was located such that it did not fall within the protected land when the flood protection levee was built by the Corps of Engineers in the 1930s. Consequently, it suffered the same fate that the swamp community of Bayou Chene did, yearly flooding and eventually destruction of the quality of life there. The dancehall, etc., comes into the Myette Point story because people from all over Grand Lake knew it was there and would come across the lake in open boats to dance, swim and mix with other people. Putt Couvillier’s father would load up the bateau with wife and children and come all the way across Grand Lake from Bayou Pigeon or Blaise’s Canal to Charenton Beach. Like a beacon inviting respite for hard-working people, you could see the lights at Charenton Beach from miles and miles away across the water.

“They used to have walks, Jim, way out in the lake. They used to have walks, you know, the Old Man and them used to come dance out there. They could see the lights [at Charenton] blinking on the other side of the lake. They had wharfs way out there for you to tie your big boats. And the Old Man would take that old bateau and come across. We’d all come, dance and go to the beach, and uh, you could see em good at night. Get time to go back, come back across the lake.” [Putt Couvillier, 1974]

Charenton Beach returns to the story long after most of that whole commercial thing was closed. The water would come up every year and sometimes it would flood the elevated buildings, but most often it would not. Because the structures were built of cypress they had considerable resistance to deterioration. Consequently, when the Myette Point families were established on land in the early to mid 1950s, the buildings were still there even though most of them weren’t being used for commercial purposes anymore. But the big dancehall with its great floor was still open and was the last of the buildings to offer patrons a place to come together. Living only four miles south of Charenton along the newly built flood protection levee, the Myette Point community took full advantage of this opportunity to dance almost every weekend when weather allowed them to make the trip over the dirt road atop the levee. Having gone to considerable trouble to get there, should the music fail for some reason, someone would drive a car onto the dance floor, open the doors and turn on the radio, and keep dancing to Grand Ole Opry or Louisiana Hayride.

So, there was recreation in the swamp for people on houseboats and on land at Myette Point. Hard work was not the only thing that kept a family together, they played together too. There was social interaction in many different ways, often facilitated by the mobility of the houseboats and the bateaux with Lockwood Ash engines to move people around. People would travel miles by water to hear bands in Charenton or at The Canal in Lake Verret, or let it be known that a dance was to be had, and everyone came to a place on the bayou. They would walk from crib to crib and gather for an evening’s talk or radio entertainment, or they would gather around the wood stove on winter evenings and just pass the time within the family. There are many good memories of these things.

The river is at 14.1 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge, staying steady for at least a week. No big changes in the Mississippi or Ohio are noted.

Rise and Shine, Jim