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 clean 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