Cajun History

Sugar and the Sugar Region of Louisiana – Part 2

 

Sugar and the Sugar Region of Louisiana by T. B. Thorpe
Originally published November 1853 in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine

 

In the second installment of “Sugar and the Sugar Region of Louisiana”, the author writes about life on a sugar plantation on the Cajun Coast.

 

 

PLANTATION LIFE ON THE COAST

Upon the banks of the Mississippi, which are termed by the inhabitants “the coast,” may be seen the appliances of plantation life in their perfection.  The stately residence rises out from among groves of lemon and orange-trees, of magnolias and live-oaks.  Approaching from the front, the walks are guarded by shrubbery of evergreen jessamines, and perpetually blooming flowers.  Grouped in the rear, in strange confusion, is a crowd of out-houses; useful as kitchens, store-rooms, baths, with a school-house, and perhaps a chapel.  A little farther on is the neat stable for the saddle and carriage-horses, around all of which is drawn the protecting fence, that shuts up “the residence” from the plantation.  Passing beyond this magic circle, you find yourself in the broad fields devoted to the cultivation of cane; and, in the distance, you see the village known as the “quarters,” formed of a number of one-story cottages, with the more pretending house of the overseer.  In the rear of each cottage, surrounded by a rude fence, you find a garden in more or less order, according to the industrious habits of the proprietor.  In all you notice that the “chicken-house” seems to be in excellent condition; its inhabitants are thrifty and well-conditioned.  Above these humble inclosures, rise many tall poles, with perforated gourds suspended from the top, in which the wren, the martin, and socially-disposed birds, make a home and gratify the kindly-disposed negro with their melody, their chattering, and their dependence upon him for protection.

The stables of a large plantation are among the last things visited; but they are none the less objects of curiosity to the tyro in Southern life.  Here are often seen stalls for fifty, and, sometimes, a hundred mules and horses, arranged with order and an eye to convenience.  The vast roof that covers these necessary appendages to a plantation, together with the granary, sheds, and a score or more of useful, but scarcely to be recollected structures, form, of themselves, a striking picture of prodigal abundance, and suggest the immense outlay of capital necessary to carry on a large sugar plantation with success.—But to the sugar-house:  the crop has just been gathered; and, by the thousand wings of commerce, it has been scattered over the world; the engines of the sugar-house, therefore, are lifeless; its kettles are cold, its store-rooms are empty; and the key that opens to its interior hangs up in the master’s house, where it will remain until the harvesting and manufacturing of the new crop.

PREPARATORY WORK—DITCHING, CLEARING

Immediately after the business of one year is closed, and the holidays are at an end, one of the first things attended to, as a commencement of the year’s labor, is the clearing out of the ditches, that have become choked up by vegetation in the course of the summer and fall months.  The ditches form one of the most important and expensive necessities of a sugar estate; for, with the exception of frost, standing water is the most destructive thing to cane.  Rains that fall in torrents in these latitudes, not only have to be guarded against, but also the more insidious and ever-encroaching “transpiration water.”  To form an idea of what is meant by this term, it must be remembered that the lands on the Mississippi River are protected from annual inundation by embankments known as “levees.”  In the spring of the year, the Mississippi, as the conductor to the ocean of more than half the running water of the North American continent, rises not only until its banks are full—but would, if left to itself, overflow for a season the whole lower country through which it passes.  To remedy this evil, from below New Orleans and up toward the north for hundreds of miles, the river is lined by an embankment, which, in times of flood, confines its waters within its usual channel.  These embankments vary from six to twelve feet in height.  When the river is full, it will be noticed that there is an inconceivable pressure made by this artificial column upon the water that lies under the soil of the plantations.  Consequently, there is a constant percolation up to the surface; and if this were not provided against by the most liberal and scientific method of ditching, although the sun might shine uninterruptedly for weeks, the cane crop would sicken and die, not as we have seen by the descending rains, but by the ascending flood that at these particular times literally boils and billows under the earth.

The highest lands upon the Mississippi River are those forming the banks; as you go inland, they gradually sink.  In draining a plantation, it is customary to cut parallel ditches about two hundred feet apart, from the front to the rear of the plantation, with cross ditches every six hundred feet.  This complication of artificial canals requires not only enormous outlay of capital and occupation of valuable land, but also taxes the scientific engineer to give them their proper levels.  In many instances, it is found impossible to accomplish this, and costly draining-machines have to be called into service.  The voyager on the Mississippi, at the time when the river is “up,” will often, in glancing over the fertile fields of the just budding cane, notice, far off in the dark moss-covered swamp, the constantly-puffing steam, that so eloquently speaks of the industry of man.  There is erected the steam-engine, that in every revolution tumbles the superabundant water that is running so merrily in the ditches over the back levee into the swamp; the waters of which have, by the unerring laws of nature, found a level with the mighty reservoir of the “Father of Waters.”  The plantations and improvements are now, by many feet, lower than the wall of water that is piled up in their front and rear, and should the frail protection of the levee break, should some intrusive wave, or mischievous eddy, crumble away the rich soil that forms the embankment, the mighty flood that undisturbed or unchecked flows so noiselessly and peacefully along obeying in its onward course so kindly the gentle checkings of human art—we say, let this flood throw one too many waves over the levee, or force one drop of water too much through its feeble walls, the barrier dissolves away, and the fountains of the great deep seem to be broken up, as they roll undisputed over the country, carrying terror and ruin, with the cry, “The crevasse!  The crevasse!”

There are plantations on which within a square mile can be found from twenty to thirty miles of ditching.  Often the “bayous” of the country are cleared out, and form an important natural adjunct in carrying off the surplus water, but to the labor of man is to be ascribed the making of the most formidable channels; for on some plantations can be seen a regular system of deep and carefully-constructed canals.  It may be with truth said, that the industry and capital expended in Louisiana alone, to preserve the State from inundation, have erected works of internal improvement which, united, far surpass in extent, and if concentrated within the vision of a single eye, would be superior in magnificence to the renowned pyramids of Egypt.

This extensive ditching has required the labor of years to accomplish.  At first very little was needed, for only the highest lands of the river were cultivated.  As plantation after plantation was opened, and the levees increased, this ditching became more important—in fact, the value of the plantation for productiveness depended upon their construction.  Where the “plantation force” is large, the negroes do most of this important work, and generally are able to keep all clean when once they are made.  But the same hardy and improvident son of Erin that levels mountains at the North, or tunnels through their rocky hearts, that flourishing cities may be built, and railways be constructed, finds his way to the distant South; and with spade and wheelbarrow, is ever ready to move about the rich soil with an energy and ease that finds no rival except in the labors of an earthquake.  Dig and delve may the Emeralder among the rocks of the everlasting hills of the North, and the monuments of his industry every where meet the eye; but it is not until the true-hearted Irishman puts his spade into the stoneless soil of lower Louisiana that digging becomes, as it were, ideal, and reaches its perfection.  Here the sod and earth come up in the shapes cut by the spade; no envious and resisting pebble, even as large as the imperfect pearl that homes in the oyster, checks its way; all is smooth and glib, as if the digging were in a vast Berkshire cheese.

Never shall we forget our friend Finigan, who, upon first striking his spade into the rich alluvium, did absolutely, in the course of a few hours, dig himself out of sight, in the very exuberance of his enthusiasm.  Finigan is a flourishing man now, and has raised up mementoes of his enterprise that will be as enduring as our State:  he has become a “boss contractor” to ditch and levee; and I never see him now without, in spite of his new dignity, thinking of those terrible animals described by geologists, that had their head and feet shaped expressly to burrow in the ground, enabling them to turn up the tap-roots of the mighty oaks and cedars for food, with all the ease that a gardener would a radish.  It was but recently that we met Finigan; he was contemplating a just completed “draining canal” upon one of our largest plantations.  This canal was more than a mile long, ten feet deep, and fifteen wide, and could have been no more perfect in its square sides, even if it had been the product of crystallization.  While admiring this stupendous work, Finigan asked us what we thought was the most beautiful thing in nature.  While hesitating to reply, he answered his own question, by saying he thought a “straight ditch was;” and we could add, if a straight ditch was not the handsomest thing in nature, it is to the planter, at least, one of the most useful things in Louisiana.

While the labor of cleaning out the ditches is going on, which is performed by the most robust of the negroes, another “gang” has been preparing the fields for the plow.  When the cane of the “last year’s crop” was being cut for the mill, it was stripped of its abundant leaves, and those joints not ripe were cut off.  These leaves and cane-tops really form a large proportion of the gross vegetation of the annual product of the soil, and spread out upon the ground, cover it with a thick mat of slowly-decaying vegetation.  This “trash” has answered one purpose—it has protected the “stubble,” or roots, from the inclement weather of the winter months, but now the spring has come, the danger of frost has passed away, the ground must be prepared for a new crop, and the withering and drying “trash” must be removed from the surface of the soil.  Some few planters, distinguished for their success in their pursuits, plant their cane rows ten feet apart, and plow the “trash” under the earth in the centre of the rows, where it is left to decay into a rich compost, to be used at a following spring, but generally it is set on fire as the least troublesome process of getting it out of the way.  Of the improvidence of this method of “cleaning up” a cane-field, much has been said; but so long as the present system of cultivation is kept up and the soil shows no immediate injury, so long, we fear, will it be continued.

Of all the preparations that usher in the planting of a new crop, these fires from the burning trash form one of the most picturesque features.  Generally lighted at night, the horizon will frequently be illuminated for miles; and as the steamers ply upon the Mississippi, the traveler is struck with the novelty, and with the splendor that every where meets his view.  The rolling clouds and the ascending moon are tinged with red, the low landscape assumes mysterious forms, and at every bend in the river some unthought-of novelty strikes the eye.