Cajun History

Along the Bayou Teche – Part 2


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

In this second installment of “Along the Bayou Teche”, the author continues his story about his travels along Bayou Teche.  He watches Acadians gathering Spanish moss to be sold in New Orleans as stuffing for mattresses and stops for visits along the bayou to enjoy Southern hospitality.




Farther along, from the boat’s deck we saw Acadian men and women gathering Spanish-moss from the trees.  Our first sight of this peculiar Louisiana industry was of a Cajun man high up in an oak-tree, half hid in a mass of waving gray moss.  How he got into it we did not see, but now he was tearing his way out of it, cutting and ripping it, and tossing it down upon the river-bank, where it lay in soft, rounding mounds, as the clouds of the sky might do if they were treated in the same violent way.  This moss is sold in New Orleans, where it is so highly prized for stuffing mattresses that they say nothing in the bed line can equal one that is made of a moss mattress and a hair mattress on top of a wire-spring mattress.  Such a bed, I was told, would even satisfy the princess in Andersen’s tale who was bruised black and blue by the three pease the peasant woman put under the mattresses in order to discover whether she really was a princess.  The moss-gatherers of Louisiana heap the soft fibrous stuff upon the ground, pour water upon it, and leave nature the task of rotting it into a black dry mass.

This moss, which is found as far north as Asbury Park on the Atlantic coast, is a very peculiar growth.  It is said not to be a parasite and not to live upon anything it gets from the trees.  It is believed in most parts of the South that it rids the atmosphere of malarial poison, and where it grows the people boast that fevers and chills are as rare as in the mountains.  The weight of testimony favors this theory, but frankness compels me to add that in Florida the tourist will read in the circular of one hotel that the presence of Spanish-moss “attests the healthfulness of the climate,” while at another hotel he will be told that the peculiar merit of that locality lies in the fact that Spanish-moss does not grow there.  This moss, so green and littered with pinkish blossoms when in its prime, dies on a dead tree when the bark fails to hold it, and then it becomes the color of cigar ashes.  Patient study of a mass of it will, it is said, show no root, beginning or end to it, and any piece of it which is blown from one live-oak to another may take hold and breed a bedtick filling of it.

We entered the Bayou Teche on a glorious day, and thought it part of a drowsy, dreamy, gentle, semitropic scene.  It runs through the heart of a broad savanna.  Afar off, on either side, we saw the forests of the neglected South that has so long awaited the now approaching multitude from Europe, but the land beside the bayou was every acre cultivated or built upon.  We could not have found ourselves amid stranger scenes had we gone to the French part of Canada or to England or France.  Often there was an edging of reeds or a grove of oaks that would have resembled an old orchard of the North but for the abundance of the funereal moss that bearded every limb.  Then we passed villages with funny little Grecian-looking stores and banks and court-houses, all pillared and with pointed roofs.  Then there were splendid planters’ homes, white and neat, with rows of Corinthian columns in front and a brigade of whitewashed negro cabins in dependent nearness, as little chickens cluster near the mother-hen.  There were pretty white bridges here and there, as ornamental amid the greenery as statues on a lawn.  On these the “quality folks” always gathered to see the boat, apart from the colored folks, who huddled upon the shore in barbaric colors, every wench wearing something red, and chewing tobacco or snuff, and all giggling and skylarking like the children that they remain until they die.  Two sets of sugar-houses were the great monuments of the industry of the region, the old more or less ruined refineries of ante-bellum days, and the unpicturesque but practical factories of to-day.

When the boat stopped, as it did with the frequency of a milk-cart on a busy route, we were taken to a country club, sometimes, and the bar-tender was formally introduced as Mr. Belden or Mr. Labiche, whereupon everybody “passed the time of day” with him, as the Irish put it, before ordering the toddy.  In one town there had been a ripple of excitement that had not quieted when we landed there.  An insult had been offered to a prominent old citizen, “who was as brave as a lion,” by a young man whose courage was not questioned.  Seconds were appointed, and they found that the young man had made a mistake and ought to apologize.

“We have reached a stage of civilization where a duel would be impossible,” said a citizen who was discussing the affair.  Then he added, “This would have been peculiarly distressing, as there are at least ten friends of the old gentleman armed and awaiting the outcome of the deliberations, while the younger man has at least six friends who have their rifles in readiness.”

The kind of hospitality that obtained along the bayou was simply astonishing to a Northern man.  We were begged to leave the boat and visit the homes of friends of five minutes, to stay a week or till the next boat; in one case, to take a month of fishing and hunting.  Often when we tore away from these kindly persons they followed us up with bundles of cigars and bottles of good cheer.  To have doubted their sincerity would have been like doubting the cause of daylight, and yet, like that phenomenon, it was almost past comprehension.  Ah!  But it was also a land of pathos and tragedy.  The wounds made by the war may almost be said to bleed yet.  The clerk of our boat never made a trip without stopping at the noble plantation that his father owned and lost; the mate on every voyage sees the great acres that his parents were obliged to surrender.   Everywhere one journeys in the South such are the sights; every time men talk (I had almost said), that is what one hears.  It is not true that the war spirit is alive anywhere except in the talk of politicians, and mainly of those in the North, but it is wonderful that it is not true; it is wonderful how the South has adjusted itself to its altered condition.

Through the broad and golden savanna we zigzagged all day, eating only three meals in the cabin, yet seeming to be forever at it.  At close intervals everything aboard ship moved forward with a lurch, and we knew that the vessel had grounded her nose at a landing.  Down went the great landing-stage that rides before her like an upraised claw, and that grabs the bank when she stops as a swimmer might hold himself up with one hand.  Whenever the claw went out to catch the bank a bunch of ragged negroes scrambled off, and fell into the reeds and bushes, weighted down with the boat’s hawser, and stumbling, slipping, and falling as they fought their way to the trees or the clear ground.  Hallooing, swearing, and crashing they made their way, working, as all negroes do (when they have to), harder than any other laborers in America.  The boat made fast, order was resumed, and took the shape of a rolling line of blacks, shouldering bags and packages, and shambling to and from the shore as softly as so many animated bundles of rags naturally would, for they were ragged from their tattered hats down to their gaping, spreading, padlike shoes.  The length of stay at each place was computed by the number of “packages” on the clerk’s list.  Fifty meant no time at all, 200 indicated a chance to stretch one’s legs on the bank, and 1000 or 2000 carried the opportunity to go to town and shake hands with the hearty folk in the law-offices, the court-houses, or the clubs.  When the last “package”—which might be a broom or a steam-engine—was put ashore, the scramble of the roustabouts was repeated.  The line was cast off, the claw began to rise by steam-power, and the darkies rushed down the bank, and hung on to it, and climbed up at the greatest possible risk of being left, and losing as many dollars or dollars and a half as they were days from the city.  No officer of the boat ever considered them at all.

These were incidents of a day’s travel along the Bayou Teche.  Towards bedtime we stopped at one place where the clerks’ list of packages assured us we might go ashore and visit a planter whose house was near the bayou.  The place proved a typical old manor-house, and yet what a change had befallen it!  Instead of the bustling household of before the war—the queenlike mattress, the young ladies with Parisian finish, the little children, the governess, the ever-numerous guests, the troop of servants, the bird and fox hounds, and the pleasure-loving Southern lord—only one room showed a light.  The rest of the house was dark.  We went in, and found a log fire blazing cheerily on an open hearth in a bachelor’s paradise, bare-floored, with magazines, pipes, cigar-boxes, and newspapers scattered all about, and a general tone of disorder and settled loneliness.  The planter said that his wife was in Chicago, where he also spent much of his time.

At daybreak we were awakened to find the boat at the plantation of Messrs. Oxnard and Sprague, new-found New Orleans friends who had invited us to visit them.  Although it was but daylight, the great colonnaded and galleried mansion, as fine as a lord’s country-seat in England, was the seat of a welcoming bustle.  Breakfast was spread in the great dining-room upon a snow-white cloth, before a blazing log fire.  Again the proprietors were Northerners and bachelors, and the floors and walls were bare, while literature, guns, and smoking implements made picturesque disorder.

I found next day that the plantations lay side by side up and down the bayou for miles, as farms do along a Jersey pike, or cottages neighbor each other on a village road.  Were they all maintained by Northern men and bachelors?  The inquiry brought the response that not one of the old Southern planters had managed to keep his acres, and that of the new Northern ones only one in that particular neighborhood had his wife with him.  Profitable as sugar-planting is, it can only be carried on after a great primal outlay.  A modern, well-equipped, economical sugar-house, with its machinery, costs at least $300,000, independent of the cost of the hundreds and perhaps thousands of acres of land bought at $40 each, at an average.  Men who have the means to venture upon such an outlay can afford to live where they will, and, as a rule, their homes are in New Orleans or other cities, and the old manor-houses which came with the acres are considered as mere conveniences or business headquarters.

These are the earnest and the scholarly latter-day planters of whom I have spoken—self-instructed plodders or favored college graduates who have learned that the laboratory of to-day, and the scientific reports and periodicals of the age, are better from a business point of view than the wine-cellars and French novels of the departed era.  These new-comers will make Louisiana rich, and America royal over princely nations of Christendom.   But to find these people and this new condition actually within the walls of the feudal palaces of slavery days sent a sentimental chill to my very marrow.  In Mr. Sprague’s great house, over and above all the kindness and hospitality he showered around him, and stronger than the kindliness of his very atmosphere, was the sadness of having the dead, assassinated past so persistently thrust into the mind.  He will not mind my using his house to point the tale of the revolution in the South, for he knows that it is a thing apart from the merry time he made for me, and from the friendships that were engendered by his kindness.  He must himself have felt that it was strange to walk about the great wide halls and through the immense high rooms of the house, with doors and windows a dozen feet high, and with fireplaces framed in marble, and to think what such a mansion was intended for, of the departed state and pride of which such a house is the emptied cage, the violated tomb.  Between rows of moss-curtained oaks and great pecans was the avenue where the horses and carriages brought the gentry to the broad galleries and broader halls, where they disported an aristocracy that was not out of place in their days.

If the lower Atchafalaya suggested England, the Teche country was like Holland, with its extended flat vistas, far along which the sky met the plough-tracked water-riddled land.  But on high were the Southern buzzards, noisome to the sight and to another sense, but ever-beautiful when on the wing.  Apparently no Southern view omits them.  I could almost say I never looked up in the day-time without seeing them soaring, with the grace of better birds, eternally.  The mules, the buzzards, and the negroes broke the Hollandish similitude.  Near the Oxnard-Sprague house was a street of negro cabins in a double row, from which came the varied sounds of jews-harps, laughter, and quarrelling.  The cabins were of one sort—the single type all over the South—one-storied, often one-roomed, and with a rude brick chimney outside and a gaping fireplace within.  Nearly all the white folks who trudged along the highway were Acadians, all but hallowed by the magic of Longfellow, and it was strange indeed to hear that we must not call them Cajuns to their faces lest they be offended, that the term is taken as one of reproach, and that the negro farm hands taken care of on the white men’s places look down upon these people who have to take care of themselves, as the darkies elsewhere look down upon “poor whites.”  Among the Acadians along the Bayou Teche are very many who are ignorant, untidy, and unambitious, though nearly all are saving of what they get.  Some perform odd jobs, as work is offered to them, and some work the land for those planters who have more than they can mange, and who guarantee a certain sum which leaves a margin of profit for the crops they are able to raise.  We saw some rather pretty Acadian girls, dark-skinned, and just missing beauty because of the heaviness of their faces, and we asked them where we could find a certain group of Choctaw Indians’ houses where we might buy Indian basket-work.  They did not understand us at all until I be-thought me that Indians were sauvages to the French mind.  I tried the girls with that word, and they brightened up and led us to the Indian cabins, which were in no wise different, exteriorly, from the near-by homes of the girls themselves.

The last of the Acadians to reach this new home of theirs came only a little more than a century ago, yet they were only a thousand strong then, while now they number forty thousand.  Whether any of their “Evangelines” wedded Choctaw bucks I do not know, but a sufficient number of the French Nova-Scotians married Indian squaws to lend the Acadian faces of to-day a strong trace of kinship with the people they call savages.  Yet I never, outside of British Columbia, saw Indians so uncouth as were many of the swarthy yet kindly and simple exiles from Grand Pré, who here have found a drowsy, luxuriant, flowery, and sunny land just suited to their natures.

I spent twenty-four hours on the plantation, and every wakeful hour brought a new delight, found sometimes in the great bare house, sometimes in the fields, and sometimes in the near-by village.  There was no unfriendliness toward the new-comers that I could see; indeed, in the village there were only a few cottages half buried amid flowers along a bowery perfumed road, a somnolent shop or two, a lazyman’s hotel, and two restful-looking churches.  To turn from that slow-going, placid settlement, moss-grown like its trees, to the huge pulsating refineries of the invaders was to be reminded of a sudden change in a disordered dream.

Yet just such companions as these two forces are found throughout the region.  Thus the new South works side by side with the old one, the one vigorous and promising, the other placid, picturesque, and doomed.