Saturday, April 12, 2014

Welcome to Bayou Teche Dispatches. . . .


Bayou Teche Dispatches is a collection of my writings about south Louisiana history and culture. Often it consists of material I could not use in my books for one reason or another, but which I nonetheless found fascinating. I hope you enjoy reading these articles as much as I enjoyed researching and writing them.

If you publish information from them, however, please remember to cite this blog as your source and, if applicable, to supply a return link. Please do not repost articles in their entireties, but short block quotations that fall within range of "fair usage" are acceptable.
~ Shane K. Bernard

Table of Contents

 Sur le Teche: Exploring the Bayou by Canoe, Stage 1
Port Barre to Arnaudville

❧ Sur le Teche: Exploring the Bayou by Canoe, Stage 2
Arnaudville to Parks

❧ Sur le Teche: Exploring the Bayou by Canoe, Stage 3
Parks to Loreauville

❧ Sur le Teche: Exploring the Bayou by Canoe, Stage 4
Loreauville to Jeanerette

❧ Sur Le Teche: Exploring the Bayou by Canoe, Stage 5
Jeanerette to Baldwin

❧ Sur Le Teche: Exploring the Bayou by Canoe, Stage 6
Baldwin to Franklin

❧ Rough Rider Redux: A Photo of Theodore Roosevelt in Downtown New Iberia?
A forgotten photo of Theodore Roosevelt in Cajun Country

❧ A Fiction Interlude: My Short Story "The Phrenologist"
A short story about racism set in antebellum New Orleans

❧ A Floating Dancehall on the Teche: The Club Sho Boat
A riverboat that became a nightclub and restaurant

❧ A Meteor over Cajun Louisiana: Window on Atomic-Age Anxieties
Confusing a meteor for an atomic bomb

❧ A Film Documents South Louisiana's Logging Industry, ca. 1925: Responsible Stewardship or Environmental Disaster?
Digitized film about cypress logging along the Teche

❧ A Glimpse from 1968: Historic Films Looked at Cajuns and Creoles in Epic Year
Digitized French films capture an important year in south Louisiana history

❧ Now Available: My Children's History of the Cajuns in English and French Editions
Buy my Cajun book for kids so I can pay off my credit card

❧ "Cajuns of the Teche": Bad History, Wartime Propaganda, or Both?
A 1942 film with excellent images, horrible script,

❧ A Snake, a Worm, and a Dead End: In Search of the Meaning of "Teche"
Searching for the meaning of the word "Teche"

❧ Galaxies, Bowling and Swamp Pop: Johnny Preston and The Cajuns in Escondido
Examining a Cajun reference in a chain e-mail about old gas stations

❧ Serendipity and Fort Tombecbe: Cooperation between Historians and Archaeologists
Accidentally finding a map of a fort coincidentally excavated by my friend

❧ Notes on Two Nineteenth-Century Engravings of South Louisiana Scenes
Vintage magazine images of Cajun and Creole women

❧ Finding History Right around the Corner: Heroism on the Cajun Home Front
A nearly forgotten World War II landmark a block from my residence

❧ My Father's Childhood Autograph Book on the History Channel?
When Dad met Hank Williams, Sr.

❧ My Oddball Collection of Cajun Warplane Photos
Cajun-themed combat aircraft

❧ Elodie's Gift: A Family Photographic Mystery
An old tin type image given to me by a great-aunt

❧ The Nike-Cajun Rocket: How It Got Its Name
A rocket named "the Cajun"?

❧ Middle Name or Clerical Error?: Joseph Broussard dit Beausoleil and "Gaurhept"
Perpetuation of a historical error

❧ Debunking the Alleged Origin of the Word "Coonass"
Finding a word by accident that wasn't yet supposed to exist

❧ More on That Word "Coonass": A Labor Dispute Trial Documents Its Use in 1940
The earliest known use of this controversial word

❧ "To Err Is Human": Errata from My Books
Everyone makes mistakes

❧ An Old Bull Durham Tobacco Ad in New Iberia, or Palimpsests on the Teche
This vintage advertisement has since been destroyed

❧ Remembering Polycarp: A Cajun TV Show Host for Children
Everyone loved Polycarp!

❧ From Jet Fighters to Football: Origin of the Phrase "Ragin' Cajun"
Where this catchy term originated (as far as anyone knows)

❧ The Elusive André Massé, Pioneer of the Attakapas
An almost mythical explorer of the Teche region

❧ More on the Elusive Andre Massé, Early Settler of the Attakapas District
Revelations about him in a historical document

❧ La Chute: A Waterfall on Bayou Teche?
A waterfall in largely flat south Louisiana

❧ Gumbo in 1764?
The earliest known reference to gumbo in Louisiana

❧ On That Word "Gumbo": Okra, Sassafras, and Baudry's Reports from 1802-1803
More on the history of gumbo in Louisiana

❧ La Pointe de Repos — Early Acadian Settlement Site along the Teche
Colonial-era settlement near present-day Parks, Louisiana

❧ A 1795 Journey up the Teche: Fact, Fiction, or Literary Hoax?
It almost fooled me . . . almost

❧ All the Same Place: Isla Cuarin, Côte de Coiron, Île Petite Anse, Petite Anse Island & Avery Island
Evolution of a place name in the south Louisiana coastal marsh

❧ The Grevembergs, Early Cattle Ranchers of the Attakapas
When someone accidentally transposes two numerals

❧ Tracking the Decline of Cajun French
Research behind the language stats in my book The Cajuns

❧ The Secret CODOFIL Papers
I waited how long for the FBI to release these documents?

❧ Agnus Dei Artifact Found on Banks of Bayou Teche
A religious symbol turns up in the mud at Breaux Bridge

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Rough Rider Redux: A Photo of Theodore Roosevelt in Downtown New Iberia?

Two days ago an acquaintance sent me the below image from a cache of family photographs owned by his mother, a Broussard from Iberia Parish. (Incidentally, his mother turned ninety only yesterday.) No background information accompanied the photograph, except that it showed a parade in downtown New Iberia.


The photograph, showing downtown New Iberia, early twentieth century.
(Click to enlarge)

I confirmed for myself that the photograph was indeed taken in downtown New Iberia. The two surnames appearing on buildings in the photograph, Siebeck and Renoudet, are historical New Iberia surnames. "O. Renoudet" was a well-known merchant in the town, selling carriages, wagons, and hardware. Moreover, in the photograph's distant background I could discern the rounded cupola of the old U.S. Post Office. This building exists today, perfectly restored, as the Schwing Insurance Building.


Close up of the old post office, New Iberia,
now the Schwing Insurance Building.

I then noticed something peculiar about the parade: it included a sizable number of men on horseback wearing cowboy hats and neckerchiefs. 


The same building today.
(Source: Phone Home Project,
Catholic High, New Iberia)

They reminded me vaguely of the Rough Riders, the cavalry regiment raised by Theodore Roosevelt during the Spanish American War (1898). I am familiar with Rough Rider uniforms because as historian and curator to McIlhenny Company on Avery Island, Louisiana, I maintain the Rough Riders uniform of Tabasco sauce heir John Avery McIlhenny.

I then remembered reading somewhere that Roosevelt had visited New Iberia and that he had been greeted at the edge of town by mounted locals dressed like Rough Riders. It was a 2011 article by the late New Iberia journalist Morris Raphael, who, citing 1971 research by LSU history professor Richard H. Collin, wrote "In the year 1914, while Roosevelt was making a barnstorming political drive through South Louisiana, running for President* on the Progressive 'Bull Moose' ticket, he had New Iberia in mind as his destination."

But could the photograph my acquaintance sent me actually show Roosevelt on his visit to New Iberia?

I believe this person to be Roosevelt.

I now believe this to be the case, for a few reasons.

First, there is the presence of the ersatz Rough Riders. A contemporary newspaper article about Roosevelt's visit observed, "Two miles from New Iberia he left his automobile, mounted a horse, and led a large procession of horsemen into the town [New Iberia]." (Collin echoed this primary-source document, noting in his article, "The highlight of the trip [to the Teche country] . . . occurred at New Iberia where four hundred mounted 'Rough Riders,' each with a bandana around his neck, welcomed the Roosevelt entourage at the outskirts of the city. Mayor Alphe Fontelieu, leader of the group, greeted Roosevelt: 'Colonel, we have a horse for you and wish you to take command of our troop.' The colonel was of course delighted . . . [and] he led the happy troupe into town.")**


Newspaper article from September 1914
about Roosevelt's visit to New Iberia.
(Source: Chronicling America)

Second, Collin observed in his 1971 article, "To add even more tone to the ceremony three little girls in patriotic dress were put at the head of the line. . . ." One can actually see those three little girls in the photograph in question.


The "three little girls in patriotic dresses . . .
at the head of the line."
The person I believe to be Roosevelt is directly behind them.

Third, another acquaintance, Laura Hanchey Hall, viewed the above image (I had posted it to my south Louisiana history page on Facebook) and recalled that her grandmother took a photograph with Roosevelt during his New Iberia visit. I examined that photograph, and in it Roosevelt appears to be dressed much like the person in the parade that I think is Roosevelt.


Roosevelt posing with children in New Iberia, 1914.
Note he seems to have been given a neckerchief.

For these reasons, I am convinced that the photograph in question shows former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt riding horseback down Main Street in New Iberia, Tuesday, September 8, 1914. As such, this may be a long forgotten image of the 26th President of the United States.



Article mentioning date of Roosevelt's visit to New Iberia.
But the day fell on a Tuesday, not a Monday.
Rice Belt Journal (Welsh, La.), 4 September 1914.
(Source: Chronicling America)


____________________

*Roosevelt was not running for President in 1914. He had run for President in 1912 and lost to Woodrow Wilson. He did not seek office during the next presidential election, in 1916.

**Richard H. Collin, "Theodore Roosevelt's Visit to New Orleans and the Progressive Campaign of 1914," Louisiana History XII (Winter 1971): 5-19.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

A Fiction Interlude: My Short Story "The Phrenologist"

Although I am a historian, and thus write non-fiction, I'm pleased to announce that one of my works of fiction, a short story titled "The Phrenologist," appears in the new anthology Southern Gothic: New Tales of the South (New Salon Press, available for Kindle and other digital formats from Amazon.com).

Nathan Mark Phillips provided
artwork for my story and
others in the anthology.
(Courtesy Mark Nathan Phillips)

I wrote this short story in 1987, when I was twenty, and I recently took it out, revised it, and submitted it for publication. I know the story may offhand sound racially offensive, but it is actually a condemnation of racism, as well as of anti-intellectualism in general (even more so when it parades as scholarship).

In the late 1980s this story won me a spot in the creative writing class of African-American author Ernest J. Gaines (The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, A Gathering of Old Men, and other works.)

I excerpt the story here:

The Phrenologist
by Shane K. Bernard 
I have noticed for a long time that those who deny the intellectual importance of the volume of the brain have, in general, small heads.” 
— M. de Jouvencel, “Discussion on the Brain,” Bulletin of the Paris Anthropological Society, 1861

Doctor Pierre Maturin, a son of France, hailed from a family that for generations had produced noted physicians. He earned his degrees from the Sorbonne and the fashionable university at Edinburgh. He subsequently returned to Paris to practice as a surgeon, but, finding the competition discouraging, sailed to New Orleans in the summer of 1850, where he established himself as a general practitioner. He set up his office on the corner of Chartres and Conti, in a small stucco building adjacent to the Slave Exchange. This proved a fortunate site for the young physician, for prospective buyers often sought his services as a medical examiner of slaves. One soon found the following advertisement in the local newspapers:
SLAVEHOLDERS! PROTECT YOUR INVESTMENTS! Owners or buyers wishing to insure the health of laborers will do well by contacting me at 444 Rue Chartres. — Dr. P. Maturin
Maturin shortly distinguished himself as a specialist in the examination and treatment of slaves, and his new-found affluence gave him much leisure time to occupy as he pleased. This he employed in furthering his knowledge of medicine and physiology, and through his reading and correspondence he developed an interest in the budding field of craniometry, especially in regard to its function in determining mental capacity. “I have begun to accrue a collection of skulls,” he informed a colleague in France, “and will soon commence research on the current question of brain size and its relation to intelligence . . . what has become the new science of ‘phrenology.’”


Phrenology was a pseudoscience popular
in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
(Source: Lexicolatry.com)

Maturin’s prime phrenological interests were of a racial nature, formulated through observations made during his months as a medical examiner of the black race. As he wrote to his colleague, “I have found it to be a peculiar characteristic of the craniofacial structure of the Negro, that the jaw is much larger than that of the average white man, and that the back of the cranium — that part we call the occiput — is much more extensive in the darker race. It is my supposition that such anatomical distinctions, especially that of the skull, have a direct correlation to the obviously inferior intelligence of the Negro.”

He started his phrenological inquiry by devising and calibrating a special pair of calipers, which he wielded to measure, record, and tabulate the sizes of the twenty-two skulls in his collection. He realized that so sparse a number of crania would hardly provide enough data for his research, so he began to include such measurements as part of every medical examination. This system worked well, because heads of the living were easier to borrow than those of the dead, and nearly as accurate to evaluate.


The science book that inspired
my short story.

Maturin soon possessed a voluminous index of the cranial measurements of all his recent patients. Unfortunately, he had neglected to gather similar measurements for whites, whom he intended to use as his criteria. Maturin now subjugated every white client and acquaintance to his silver calipers, that he might, as he told them, “record for posterity the size of their splendid crania” and simultaneously advance his vital scientific inquiry. After six months, he had indexed three hundred fifty white crania, nearly equal to the number of crania he had previously measured of the black race.

When all the recorded sizes had been averaged, Maturin discovered to his disbelief no apparent difference between the sizes of black and white crania. He informed an acquaintance, “My method of measurement must be at fault, else the figures should have reflected what is plainly the truth. I have decided to abandon the caliper method and, instead, to employ a more direct means of determining the size of the brain once held — I write ‘once held,’ mind you, because my new method of direct measurement demands that I return to the use of skulls.”

To the same acquaintance he described this “new method of direct measurement”: “I have found a more accurate and simpler method, which I call ‘internal evaluation,’ the only fault of which lies in the need for a multitude of skulls. This method consists of filling each individual cranium through the hole at the base of the occiput — this hole we call the foramen magnum — with a medium, which is then emptied into a calibrated vessel. This reveals the volume of the cranium and, therefore, the exact size of the brain it once contained.

He added, “I have experimented of late with a variety of media, these ranging from water to molasses to mustard seed. But I have found the most reliable medium to be lead shot, particularly of the size called ‘BB,’ which is one-eighth-inch in diameter. Using this medium during trial measurements, the results never varied greater than one-one hundredths of a cubic inch no matter how many times I repeated the experiment. I might add that lead shot does not leak through small fractures as water is apt to do, is not so thick as to remain inside the cranium as molasses, and does not flatten like mustard seed. It is in my opinion the ideal medium.” . . . 

Again, you can purchase the entire short story, and those of other contributors, at Amazon.com

Saturday, September 21, 2013

A Floating Dancehall on the Teche: The Club Sho Boat

While researching Bayou Teche I learned about a riverboat on the bayou that had been converted into a floating nightclub, dancehall, and restaurant. Christened the Club Sho Boat, it sat on the Teche at New Iberia from the late 1930s to the mid-1950s. (I hesitate to call the vessel a “steamboat,” even though it looked like one, because diesel engines often powered later riverboats. Thus they were not true steamboats.)

The Club Sho Boat on Bayou Teche (ca. 1940).
(Courtesy Angelle-Leigh Breaux)

I did not know, however, exactly where along the Teche the riverboat had been moored.

While driving in New Iberia about a month ago I saw a battered old sign along Main Street. It obviously had been there for decades, even generations, and yet I never before noticed it. The sign stood over the entrance to a grassy lot along the Teche, and its faded letters on a white field read “Showboat Apartments.”

“Showboat?” I thought — might not that be an oblique reference to the Club Sho Boat?

"Showboat Apartments" sign,
1915 E. Main Street, New Iberia, La.
(Photo by author, September 2013)

A short time later I examined a photograph of the Club Sho Boat in the book Looking Back: Historic Images of Iberia Parish. The book credited ownership of the photo to a present-day local photographer. Tracking her down through the Internet, I learned that the Club Sho Boat had belonged to her great-grandfather, a New Iberia entrepreneur named George Angelle. Despite his illiteracy, Angelle had excelled as a businessman, operating not only the Club Sho Boat, but an establishment on Lake Dauterive called George’s Place and another in Hot Wells, Louisiana, named Angelle’s Cafe. He also let rooms there to tourists who came to bathe in the hot springs.

Moreover, I learned that the Club Sho Boat had indeed sat on the Teche at the site of the Showboat Apartments. (Originally used as barracks at Fort Polk, the apartments opened after the Club Show Boat began operation; they are not the same apartments that stand on the property today.)

Former site of the Club Sho Boat.
The gravel at center marks the spot of the boat's slip.
(Photo by author)

Angelle’s great-granddaughter referred me to her mother, who shared with me much of the Club Sho Boat's history. She informed me, for example, that prior to its purchase by her grandfather the vessel had served as a crew boat on Lake Dauterive, perhaps for workers building levees in the Atchafalaya swamp. I also learned that Angelle first moored the vessel in the bayou (as seen in the above image) behind the present-day site of Darby Motors in New Iberia (1305 E. Main Street), then moved it a little downstream into a slip running perpendicular to the bayou (1915 E. Main Street). In addition, Angelle owned a taxi, its door bearing an image of the vessel, that conveyed club goers to and from his establishment.

Among the musicians who performed at the Club Sho Boat (the vessel’s original name is unknown) were “Cajun swing” artists Happy Fats LeBlanc, Doc Guidry, and their band — known commonly as Happy, Doc, and the Boys, a playful reference to the Seven Dwarfs in the 1937 Disney movie Snow White.

The small building at right served
as the Club Sho Boat's "fish house,"
where fish were stored and prepared for dining.
(Photo by author)

Sadly, Angelle was murdered in 1953 by a Hot Wells landowner with whom he quarreled about cattle trespassing on his property.

Article about Angelle's murder.
(Source: Lubbock [Tex.] Morning Avalanche, 23 May 1953)

After his death Angelle’s family tore down the vessel, razing it to the waterline before filling up the slip with pieces of concrete, dirt, and other debris. According to the family, the hull remains buried in the slip — perhaps awaiting excavation by a future archaeology crew.

The Club Sho Boat from the east bank of Bayou Teche,
by noted Louisiana photographer Fonville Winans.
Winans is the fisherman at left.
(Courtesy www.fonvillewinans.com)

Coincidentally, a friend of mine, eighty-nine-year-old Clarence Barrilleaux (pronounced BEAR-REE-OH in the Cajun French manner) of Avery Island, alerted me to a surviving artifact from the Club Sho Boat. Barrilleaux told me that around 1955 his former employer, Walter S. McIlhenny — president of McIlhenny Company, maker of Tabasco brand products since 1868 — sent him to the Club Sho Boat to pick up its ship’s bell. The riverboat was being torn down at the time, recalled Barrilleaux, and McIlhenny had purchased the salvaged bell as a decoration.

Ship's bell from the Club Sho Boat
as it appears today.
(Photo by author)

Barrilleaux directed me to the bell’s current location on the Island: atop a small wooden tower in a private yard. With permission from the lease holder, I hauled an extension ladder to the bell tower, climbed to the top, and photographed the artifact. The bell is stamped:

CAST.BY.
A.FULTON.
PITTSBURGH

Casting imprint on the ship's bell.
(Photo by author)

According to aficionados of vintage cast bells (there are indeed such persons), bells with this imprint date to 1865 or earlier, subsequent imprints reading “A. Fulton's Son & Co.”* If this is correct, the bell evidently predated the riverboat by many decades, for such vessels had extremely short lifespans because of snags, collisions, boiler explosions, and the like. It seems probable, therefore, that the bell had been recycled any number of times before winding up on the riverboat that ended its life as the Club Sho Boat.

Could one of these features be the ship's bell
as captured by photographer Fonville?
(Courtesy www.fonvillewinans.com)

____________________


*“The foundry went under the name Andrew Fulton from 1827 to 1865. . . . At this time they put 'A. Fulton' on their smaller, undated bells. From 1866 to 1889 they went first under the name 'A. Fulton's Son & Co.,' then under 'A. Fulton's Sons & Co.' . . ..” Source: Neil Goeppinger, posting on Americanbell.org, 1 March 2007, http://www.americanbell.org/forum/viewtopic.php?f=4&t=408, accessed 22 September 2013. While I do not know the source of Goeppinger's information, his claims do correspond to data provided by other bell enthusiasts. (I have corrected Goeppinger's punctuation slightly.)

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Sur Le Teche: Exploring the Bayou by Canoe, Stage 6

Continued from Part V:

We made the sixth leg of our Teche journey on June 3, 2012. The day was clear and bright, but miserably hot, reaching 92 °F. High humidity, peaking at 90 percent, compounded our discomfort. Such conditions are common in summer for semitropical south Louisiana.

We put in at 10:30 a.m. where we previously left off, namely, the public boat ramp at Baldwin [29.833164, -91.542654]. Our terminus would be a tract of private land on the far side of Franklin. Keith and I paddled one canoe, while Keith's son Ben paddled a second by himself — a strategy that turned out to be a bad idea.


Aerial photograph of stage 6,
Baldwin to far side of Franklin.
(Click to enlarge)
(Source: Google Maps)

As we began that day's stage, Keith, Ben, and I noted tugboats and barges moored to the banks at Baldwin. Living in New Iberia only a few blocks from the bayou, I often hear tugboats blasting their baritone horns at the city bridgekeepers. 


Tugs and barges on the Teche at Baldwin.
(Photo by author)

I think of these tugs and barges whenever I find it hard to imagine steamboats plying the bayou in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Modern barges are roughly the same length and width as long-extinct river steamboats.


Historic image showing how little clearance
steamboats enjoyed on the Teche.
(Author's collection)

Shortly after departing Baldwin, Keith, Ben and I became confused about which direction to steer our canoes. Our uncertainty stemmed from a split in the bayou — which route should we follow? Should we go right, following a clear, wide path leading toward the Baldwin Canal [29.824757, -91.538485] (which runs to West Côte Blanche Bay and the Gulf of Mexico); or should we go straight, entering a silted-up, marshy channel not much wider than our canoes (apparently the remnant of an earlier course of the Teche)?

We chose to avoid the silted-up channel, which seemed almost impassible, and instead we headed toward the Baldwin Canal. But now what? Always gregarious, Keith hailed some motor boaters to ask for directions. They told us if we paddled into the Baldwin Canal, we would find a channel to the left running back to the Teche proper. Taking their advice, we continued into the Baldwin Canal. An opening gradually appeared in the dense tree line to our left — a "detour" back to the true course of the Teche.


Heading into the Baldwin Canal; a detour leading
back to the Teche hides in the treeline at left.
(Photo by author)

Although we could not discern it at the time, we were in fact navigating around a wooded triangular island: the silted-up channel, the man-made Baldwin Canal, and the detour leading back to the Teche made up its three sides.



Detour around the wooded triangular island.
(Click to enlarge)
(Source: Google Maps)

Steering into the detour's inlet, Keith and I noticed Ben falling far behind. Paddling his long aluminum canoe by himself, he wasn't able to keep up with us.


Steering into the previously hidden detour
that leads back to the original Teche channel.
(Photo by author)

So we stopped and tied Ben's canoe to ours, thinking we could tow him while he paddled just rapidly enough to ease the drag on our canoe. I don't think we understood the physics of the problem, because this plan worked poorly. After 45 minutes of struggling we untied the canoes so that Keith and Ben could switch places — Keith having more experience as a solo paddler. He also understood the nuances of the other canoe, whose keel was twisted slightly out of alignment and required a deft hand to keep the boat from veering off to one side. The two canoes now clipped along at about three miles per hour, still dealing as we were with the reversal of the bayou's current (mentioned in my last journal entry).


Keith bailing out his canoe,
which suffered a slow leak.
(Photo by author)

Around this time we heard gunshots and about a 150 yards ahead of us saw the impact of bullets on the water. Keith shouted "Yo!" to let the unseen shooters know of our approach. Merely some kids having fun shooting a rifle. But there is something about being midstream in a canoe to make one feel like the proverbial "sitting duck." It was not the first time that day we'd encountered shooters. Less than an hour earlier we'd paddled up on two or three shooters on the banks. In that instance, however, they were shooting at targets on shore, not at the bayou itself. (We ourselves never carried weapons, except for Keith's Bowie knife and Ben's utility ax, the latter of which ended up at the bottom of the Teche — more on that later.)

Quad map of the Irish Bend oxbow.
Note plantation names in bold type
(including one named "Irish Bend").
(Source: US Army Corps of Engineers)

We soon entered the head of the sizable oxbow known as Irish Bend [29.823072, -91.478546], so named because three early sugar planters who settled on the bend claimed Irish ancestry. During the American Civil War, Union and Confederate forces clashed here at the Battle of Irish Bend (April 1863). Hoping to trap Confederates already engaged with Union troops farther down the bayou at Fort Bisland (present-day Calumet [29.698789, -91.373146]), U.S. General Cuvier Grover landed over 5,000 soldiers by steamboat on the western edge of the Atchafalaya. From there he marched them to the Teche, which they crossed via a bridge that straddled the Irish Bend oxbow.


Cover of Winters' authoritative history.

Waiting on the oxbow were a little more than 1,000 Confederates under General Richard Taylor, veteran of Stonewall Jackson's Shenandoah Valley campaign and son of U.S. President Zachary Taylor. As historian John D. Winters wrote in his authoritative The Civil War in Louisiana:

In Nerson's Woods (Irish Bend) in front of McKerall's plantation, facing east, Taylor formed his line of battle and awaited Grover's attack. On the bank of the Teche, and slightly to the front, Taylor posted Clack's battalion [of infantry] and two guns from Cornay's artillery. Clack's men were to act as skirmishers. Next was Riley, and on the extreme left, resting on the impassible swamp, was Vincent and the remaining two guns belonging to Cornay. . . . The Confederates had every advantage of concealment, whereas the Federal position had little to offer. The muddy sugar-cane field traversed by drainage ditches made a forward movement very difficult. On the Federal left was the Teche; on the right was the swamp; and in front was Nerson's Woods, where the Confederates were posted.

An early charge by Taylor's men drove back the Union troops. "Screaming Confederates," penned Winters, "rushed out of the woods across the drainage ditches . . . [and] poured a murderous fire into . . . the most forward [Union] regiment."


Battle of Irish Bend.
(Source: Rossiter Johnson, Campfire & Battlefield: 
An Illustrated History . . . [1894],
per Google Books)


"general rout" ensued, but the Union troops recovered, reformed their lines, and pushed the Confederates back to Nerson's Woods. Meanwhile, the captured Union gunboat Diana, now captained by Confederate artillery officer Oliver J. Semmes, fired into Grover's line from the Teche. Summarizing the battle, Winters observed:

General Grover, after Taylor's early morning charge, became so fainthearted in his movements that he did not discover the withdrawal of Taylor's men until 2 p.m. . . . The painful truth then dawned. Grover realized that he, with over 5,000 troops and a vastly superior artillery, had been held at bay by barely a thousand men, while Taylor's main force [withdrawing from Fort Bisland] had escaped. His overcaution had even allowed the rear guard to withdraw. . . . The battle of Irish Bend, or Nerson's Woods, was over. Grover had suffered 353 casualties. . . . Taylor never made a casualty report, but 21 officers and men . . . were left dead on the field of battle. Thirty-five Confederate wounded were captured by Grover.

Canoeing around the edge of the battlefield — privately owned farmland that still sprouts sugarcane — we noticed a grassy mound rising from the west bank. A woman stood nearby on a pier; I called out to her and asked if the knoll were an Indian mound. No, she replied, pointing to a crescent-shaped cut in the bank of the bayou, "It's the spoil from this old plantation slip." We had, she explained, reached Camperdown plantation [29.838285, -91.495225], and its sugarhouse once stood beside the slip, opposite the mound of spoil. The slip, I inferred, had been used by vessels engaged in the sugar trade, presumably steamboats taking finished sugar from Camperdown's mill to market at New Orleans or beyond. Several of these crescent-shaped cuts appear along the Teche starting around St. Martinville, the bayou's upper limit for large steamboats. Don Arceneaux surmised that steamboats used them as turnarounds, because the long, unwieldy vessels could not otherwise change direction on the bayou.


Approaching water hyacinths that afternoon.
(Photo by author)

Rounding the oxbow, we spotted a few sizeable rafts of water hyacinths. Indigenous to the Amazon River basin, these invasive aquatic plants were supposedly introduced to Louisiana during the 1884 World's Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition in New Orleans. As the story goes, exposition visitors returned home with specimens of the plant, which they placed in fountains, pools, and local waterways for ornamentation — unaware that the species would spread uncontrollably.


A closer image of water hyacinths,
one of which is in bloom.
(Photo by author)

Keith had heard stories about Teche canoers having to debark and drag their boats by rope through the tangled, floating mats of hyacinths. Based on aerial photographs, we expected to run into nearly impenetrable hyacinths on this particular stretch of the Teche. Indeed, the aerial photos made it appear that hyacinths clogged the bayou from bank to bank for several miles. For weeks he and I discussed having a motor boater escort us through these dense patches. Ultimately, we decided to risk it without an escort. As it turned out, we had worried ourselves needlessly: what we saw in the aerial photographs were not enormous masses of water hyacinths, but merely greenish reflections on the water's surface. When actually on the bayou we did observe some isolated rafts of water hyacinths, but nothing capable of blocking our progress.


A hyacinth bloom.
(Photo by author)

About 1 p.m. Keith, Ben, and I reached the northeasternmost extreme of the Irish Bend oxbow and there on the west bank saw the antebellum plantation home Oaklawn Manor (29.849652, -91.466709). Built around 1840 by sugar planter Alexander Porter, the Greek Revival structure appeared in the 1975 movie The Drowning Pool, starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. Former Louisiana governor Murphy "Mike" Foster, Jr., now resides in Oaklawn Manor.

Keith and I previously noted how few boaters used the Teche for recreation. Whether because of time of year or some other reason, this now changed: that day we saw thirteen pleasure boats on the bayou, one pulling kids on an inner tube, two others towing kids on wakeboards. We also saw someone tooling around on a personal water craft, or PWC (or more commonly, "Jet Ski," though this is a trademark for a particular PWC).


The rusting gears of some forgotten machine
peek from the woods along the Teche.
(Photo by author)

Despite these recreational boaters, the Teche between Baldwin and Franklin impressed me as the most natural, most beautiful stretch of the bayou. As I recorded in my notes that day, "Very quiet when we aren't talking or splashing the oars. Birds whistling and chirping, crickets. . . Sugarcane fields to left or right sometimes, peaking through the tree line following the Teche." (Yes, I wrote "splashing the oars," even though technically we used paddles. Oars are attached to boats, paddles, unattached. Notice I never refer to us "rowing" the bayou. As a friend who is a competitive rower once pointed out to me, rowing and paddling are not the same thing. Rowers sit facing the stern of their boats and use oars for propulsion; paddlers sit facing the bow and use, well, paddles.)


Presumably a conveyor belt for loading barges.
(Photo by author)

At about 1:15 p.m. we spotted our first alligator since departing Port Barre back in November: it was dead. We saw one more alligator, on a subsequent stage — a large one, which slid from its perch of grounded driftwood and glided rapidly in our direction. I had not expected such a show of aggression. I held my breath, waiting for the alligator's spiked back to rub against our keel as it passed underneath the canoe. But I heard and felt nothing.

Grounded and partly sunken boat on the banks of the Teche.
(Photo by author)

We canoed on and on that afternoon, and shortly before 4 p.m. Keith, Ben, and I stopped to speak with a local standing on her pier. She and Keith discussed Calumet Cut [29.700877, -91.372618], also known less poetically as the Wax Lake Outlet, a man-made channel we'd have to cross on our next stage. Keith had mentioned the Cut to me previously and from what I gathered it was not to be taken lightly by canoers. His conversation with the woman confirmed my understanding: the current would be fast and treacherous. I did not like the sound of that. Calumet Cut would concern me until we crossed it. I was eager to get it over with.


Sterling Sugars refinery, near Franklin.
(Photo by author)

About 4:05 p.m. we reached Sterling's Bridge [29.80242, -91.490204] at Sterling Plantation. Here, on the outskirts of Franklin, we found the modern Sterling Sugars refinery, owned by the Patout sugar-growing family of Patoutville. Ben noticed a makeshift soccer field behind the refinery and conjectured it must provide sporting relief for seasonal Latin American workers. I later contacted Sterling Sugars and it confirmed Ben's theory. This touches on an ongoing, vibrant cultural change taking place in rural and small-town south Louisiana, including along the Teche corridor: an increasingly large Hispanic population residing in this traditionally French-speaking, now mainly English-speaking, Cajun and Creole region.

One of only two known contemporary images of the Diana.
(Colorized by author;
source: Young-Sanders Center)

We reached Franklin at 4:17 p.m. It was here, on the Teche just as one reaches town, that Confederate captain Semmes scuttled the damaged gunboat Diana [29.798971, -91.496792after the battles of Fort Bisland and Irish Bend. Set afire by her rebel crew, the battle-weary vessel sank in the bayou about a half-mile upstream from downtown Franklin. 

In spring 1871 the Army Corps of Engineers removed the Diana's wreckage from the Teche, leaving no visible trace of the gunboat. As the corp's supervisor noted, "I find she was heavily ironed with plate on her sides, to protect her boilers and machinery." He added, "We have taken this day the . . . [second] shaft, portions of the guards, one of the engines and a large shield of timber covered with 23 plates of wrought iron. . . ." In all, the engineers removed nearly 10 tons of the Diana from the bayou, much of it with the aid of explosives. "We made eight blasts," recorded the supervisor at the end of the operation, "consuming 465 lbs. powder."


Approaching Franklin,
with its courthouse rising over the Teche.
(Photo by author)

Keith, Ben, and I stopped at Franklin [29.791951, -91.499078just beside the postmodern St. Mary Parish courthouse. With its menacing façade of tiny windows obscured by horizontal louvers, the structure seemed to belong in a Soviet industrial complex or a futuristic sci-fi dystopia — not a small southern town known for its venerable old houses. Leaving our canoes on the bank, we cut through the courthouse parking lot (glancing at its Confederate memorial, a high-pedestaled statue of a southern infantryman salvaged from an earlier courthouse's lawn), crossed Main Street (lined with pleasantly archaic globed streetlamps), and stuffed ourselves with junk food from a corner gas station.

We then embarked again and paddled for another mile down the Teche until we reached our stopping point, several acres of land on the bayou owned by my in-laws. Intriguingly, the property sits adjacent to the Greek Revival antebellum home called Arlington [29.779823, -91.493144]; and if a mid-nineteenth-century engraving of Arlington is accurate, then it appears Arlington's sugarhouse and slave quarters sat on my in-laws' property. I have walked the tract of land at length, but found only a fragment or two of nineteenth-century pearlware ceramics. I've seen no sign of substantial architectural remains. But my wife's grandfather, now in his eighties, states that a significant amount of fill had at one time been spread over the property. As a result, any remains may be buried under a few feet of soil.


Arlington Plantation on Bayou Teche.
The columned "big house" is at right,
the slave quarters and sugar house, at center left.
(Colorized by author; source: Center for Louisiana Studies,
University of Louisiana at Lafayette)

My in-laws' property lies on the line of withdrawal used by Taylor's troops when they raced from Fort Bisland to avoid entrapment. My wife's grandmother has a Civil War-era bullet, telling me that it and others were found on the property.


Spent paddlers at end of day: from left to right,
Ben Guidry, Keith Guidry, the author.

We debarked at 5:45 p.m. in exhaustion: the 90+ °F temperature and smothering humidity had depleted us. (On top of this I suffered sunburns that would bother me for another week.) This was, after all, summer in south Louisiana. And while I still regard that day's stretch of the Teche as my favorite, I also found it the most grueling — if only because we unwisely tackled it in June. That was a mistake. Keith, Ben and I vowed to wait until fall to undertake the next stage of the Teche. Despite the adverse conditions, however, we nonetheless covered 13.6 miles that day in 8.25 hours.