Cajun History

Along the Bayou Teche – Part 1

 

Along the Bayou Teche by Julian Ralph
Originally published November 1893 in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine

In this first installment of “Along the Bayou Teche”, the author writes about his travels along the Bayou Teche, to Lake Chico with stops along the way at Pattersonville and Calumet Plantation.

 

 

Mr. Horace Fletcher, of New Orleans, has an irresistible way, which perhaps he caught from the general irresistibleness of all New Orleans, though it is more likely that it was born with him in Massachusetts.  At all events when he said to Mr. Smedley the artist and myself that no one could pretend to have seen New Orleans until he had also seen the Teche or Acadian region, he said it in such a way that it was difficult to wait from Saturday until Tuesday for the steamboat—a steamboat, by-the-way, which has its name painted up in its cabin, with a stove-pipe in front of the letter “c,” so that its passengers cannot help but read the name “Te—he,” and feel sure that they are bound upon a very merry boat, and certain of a jolly time.  The Teche and her sister boats go in the Cajun (Acadian) country in the old way, the way of befo’ de wa’ and befo’ de railroads, taking a journey of hundreds of miles to fetch them where the cars go in less than a hundred; taking days where the cars take hours.

The course is by two loops whose sides are nearly parallel.  One is made by going up the Mississippi until the mouth of the Red River is reached, then down the Atchafalaya toward New Orleans again, and then up the Teche away from New Orleans and almost parallel with the route up the Father of Waters.  The three lines of waterway are so nearly beside one another that points upon them which are actually close together by wagon road are great distances apart by the boat journey; for instance, one place which is forty-four miles from another as the crow flies, is 376 miles from it by the boat route.

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Presently we saw our first Acadians—nowhere spoken of in their own country otherwise than as Cajuns.  The first one on the route keeps a low gin-mill, a resort for bad characters.  The next one we saw was a swarthy, stalwart man with a goatee à la Napoleon III., who was catching bait with a net.  Moss hangs from the cypress and oaks in great and sad profusion in this part of the route.  The wilderness is only occasionally broken by a clearing, and after each interruption it seems to snap shut again as if not even man could overcome the force of the rank growth of vegetation, except here and there, and for a mere geographical instant.  There was a fuzz of disappointingly small scrub palmettos on the ground, and wherever there was a cabin or a man there was also a dugout canoe or pirogue.  These boats were not such as men have made in almost every known part of the world by merely scooping out the heart of a log and fashioning its ends.  They were the lightest and prettiest boats of the kind I ever saw, mere shells or dishes, very skillfully and gracefully modeled, but so shallow as to be likened to nothing so closely as to half a pea-pod.  Bait-catching was the business carried on with them.  The men were after shrimp, but very often caught crawfish, those relentless allies of the Mississippi River which eat into the levees and let the river through behind them.  They are a tenth the size of lobsters, and look like lobsters “out of drawing,” as the artists would say—that is, they appear disproportioned, with their tails too small for their bodies.  They are red and greenish-red, but some are as rosy as one of the old masters is said to have painted lobsters in the sea after he had become acquainted with them on the dinner table.  They have blue lobster eyes and fierce claws.

In time we came to the mouth of a bayou which was closed during the war, but which, were it opened, would take us to Plaquemine, twenty-five miles across a country around which we had gone 190 miles to get where we were.  Farther on we came to the openings into two or three other bayous, and thus gradually were brought to realize that this region of the mouths of the Mississippi is a land that is nine-tenths covered with water.  Travellers by the cars do not comprehend the character of Louisiana, or see, with anything like the view of a steamboat passenger, with what profusion the surface of the earth is littered with bayous, branches, canals, ditches, lakes, and swamps.  Lake Chico was a notable incident of this second day’s progress.  It is merely a swelling of the Atchafalaya or Grand into a sheet of yellow water thirty miles long and twelve miles wide.  It is picturesquely littered with snags and floating logs and channel stakes.  The narrow entrance to it, where wooded promontories all but block the way, is much admired by persons afflicted with the fever for kodaking everything out of doors.  The Spanish-moss is so abundant there that if I were a sufferer from the epidemic I would have been tempted to photograph some of the trees that carried the greatest burdens of the weed, and looked as if they had been washing out their worn and faded winter garments and were hanging them up to dry.  But a far better picture would be one that showed how we felt our way into the lake, being so uncertain whether there was sufficient water that we wedded our steamboat to a great scow with ropes, gave our spouse the task of carrying a good part of our load of freight, and sent a mate ahead of us in a small boat to prod the mud with a pole.  Whatever the mate discovered he discreetly kept to himself; but we, not to be retarded by his reticence, posted a darky on the upper deck with a sounding-line to chant the musical lingo of the Southern pilots, in which we often heard the phrase “mark twain,” which gave the humorous Mr. Clemens his nom de plume.

Our first notable stop occurred a little after dusk, at Pattersonville, where we went ashore for a cake of shaving-soap, and saw vaguely by the yellow light of a few scattered kerosene lamps that we were the only souls adrift in a long wide street, which boasted here and there a dwelling, and here and there a neglected shop.  We asked for the soap in one store, and the clerk treated us to a Southern expression that we had not yet heard upon its native soil.  “I’m sorry, sah,” said he, “but I’ve done run plumb out of it.”  We added that to our notes.  We had grown quite used to hearing size and distance expressed with the phrases, “A right smart of a plantation,” “a smart distance,” or “a right smart hotel”; also to hearing every one say, “Where is he at now?” and “I dun’ no’ where I left my hat at.”  When night fell, thick and black, our two powerful electric search-lights were utilized with weird and theatrical effect to throw great shafts of daylight at whichever bank we were searching for a landing.  Each light cut a well-defined path through the night, and when it picked out a grove of trees or a clutter of negro cabins or a landing, it created a veritable stage-picture.  These lamps bothered the pilots so much in steering their way through the water that they were only lighted for viewing the bank, and for helping the roustabouts to see while loading and unloading the cargo.  The pilots so quickly shut off the light when they had nothing to do but to pick out an uncertain course, through water and air that were equally black, that they seemed to me like water-cats that could see very well in their element, but were helpless upon land.

In the morning, after many hours spent in throwing spectacular landings on the blank wall of night, and then carrying freight out to them, and wiping them out of existence by turning off our lights, we awoke to find the Atchafalaya basking in the sun and in quite another country.  We had travelled from the swamps and cypress brakes of Louisiana to something like the Thames in England—to a pastoral country watered by a narrow, pretty river of clear water that loafed along between patches of greensward, rows of oaks, white manor-houses, cabins set among roses, magnolias, and jasmines, and with great clearings, and men at work ploughing on either side.  White bridges that invariably broke apart as the boat approached them, and that were often set upon pontoons, still further domesticated and civilized the scenery.  Every plantation had a bridge for itself, it seemed.  It was a little jarring to have a man come aboard with two rattlesnake-skins, each large enough to make into two pairs of Chicago slippers; five inches wide and a yard in length the skins were.  We had pointed out to us the Calumet Plantation, which is said to be the most orderly and completely appointed sugar farm in Louisiana.  The rows of whitewashed negro cabins were formed of houses better than the Cajun houses we had been seeing.

Daniel Thompson is the planter here, and his son, Mr. Wibrey Thompson, came aboard and talked very interestingly of the experiments he and his father are making in the analyses of many sorts of cane, the breeding of the best varieties, the perfecting of refining processes, and the broadcast publication of the results of the work in the laboratories, where as many as three chemists are sometimes at work together.  Such men are the representative of the new type of farmers who are numerous in the West and who are multiplying in the South.  They do not farm by prayer, or take land on shares with luck or nature, after the old plan.  Chemistry is their handmaiden, and she rules in the place of chance.  One whom I knew went to Germany and France to study the beet-sugar industry there before he bought his ranch in Kansas, and he mastered French and German so that he could read all that is known of the industry.  Others learn chemistry or employ chemists to analyze everything they deal with.  These new-school farmers publish all that they learn; they write reports for the government to publish, and they lecture to farmer audiences in the winter, in which season, by-the-way, they are generally as busy as the old-time luck farmers used to be idle.  They keep the most minute accounts of outlay and income, crediting the refuse they burn to the fuel account, the stuff cattle eat to the saving of fodder, offsetting their earnings with their fixed charges, wear and tear of machinery, interest on the principal invested, and, in short, tabulating everything.  These are mainly Eastern and Northern men, but the new generation of Southerners is not without representation in the scientific class.  We shall find, before we leave the Teche country, that there are great districts wherein every plantation is owned by Northern or Eastern men.  The cultivation of semitropical fruits has been a failure in Florida because the land there was taken haphazard by men who are trying to farm with Providence and dumb luck for partners.  Agriculture there was based on the theory that if an invalid who could not endure Northern winters had money to buy land he could grow oranges in white sand.  The new school of scientific, take-nothing-for-granted farming is already taking root there, and will in time make more money out of oranges than dumb luck has sunk in planting them where they did not belong.

Mr. Wibrey Thompson, while has was aboard the Teche, said that he was convinced that the future source of sugar will be sorghum.  It may not be in his time, he says, nor in five hundred years, but the fact that he has demonstrated that it is the most practicable product and economical cane, and that it yields most readily to the processes of selection, satisfied him that the world will in time turn to it for its sugar supply.  Sorghum in the rough yields twelve per cent of sugar, the same as sugar-cane, but in three years, by choosing the best cane and “breeding it,” he raised the yield to twenty and a half per cent.  He is certain he can plant it and get fourteen per cent off-hand from a whole crop, and in a short time can get sixteen per cent.  Potentially or technically, sorghum is now in the best position it has ever held yet; actually, it is bankrupt and dead.  This year only one concern in the country will make sorghum sugar.  The reason for this is that it has always been grown from poor seed.  It has not been bred or studied, and people have not known how to rid the juice of its impurities.  All this is overcome, and it is seen to be the best producer; but in the mean time the sorghum farmers have lost money, and, worse yet, have lost their faith in the cane.