Myette Point Boats and Motors
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 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 sometime 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 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 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