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III

THE LAND OF RICE AND SUGAR

IN the southern Mississippi valley, on the low levels behind the protecting upheaval of the levees, rice and sugar are the staple crops. You can travel for scores of miles and encounter little else than the broad sugar and rice fields, and a succession of populous farm villages.

I found the aspect of the country unusually interesting and attractive. The soil looked immensely fertile and well-tilled, the homes were suggestive of thrift and prosperity, and the wide, clear expanses under cultivation intermitted very prettily with the white villages snuggling among the tall trees. It is not to be inferred that white buildings were universal, but they were predominant, and while paint was beyond the means of the humbler folk, they could secure the prevailing tint cheaply by whitewashing. In fact, whitewash is quite an institution in the rice and sugar country. It is used very freely on barns and sheds, negro cabins, hen-coops, and fences. The man who is particular about appearances and wishes to keep his premises in ideal shape, whitewashes everything in sight once a year.

The fences are very substantial, and form such stout bulwarks about the houses, dooryards, and fields that they make the villages look almost feudal. Occasionally a fence is of wire, but posts and rails, or pickets, are more usual; and unless a fence is “horse-high, bull-strong, and pig-tight,” it does not meet with general approval.

The large houses sit well back from the road, and with the fine trees about them they convey a charming sense of placidity and hospitable ease. A great gate gives entrance to the grounds, and sometimes a stile climbs over the lofty fence beside the gate. The stile is especially for the children, who would have difficulty in handling the heavy gate.

The village of Nazaire, where I stopped for several days, was like most of the river hamlets    an odd mixture of fine residences, shed-like country stores, and negro cabins. The negroes lived mostly on the side lanes or behind the big houses, where their hovels were not conspicuous. Many of the cabins were double-tenement structures, consisting for each tenant of a room for general use, including sleeping, and a shed-room for a kitchen. Neither apartment was large enough to swing a cat in.

One cabin that particularly interested me had walls of “mud.” Such construction was formerly common. The wooden framework of the house was first put up and slats nailed to it. Then the space between the studding was filled in with a mixture of clay and Spanish moss. Where the walls were exposed to the weather they were boarded over; but under the gallery that ran across the front and in the rooms, the brown dried mud was in view. The people who lived in this cabin said it was warmer in winter and cooler in summer than a wooden house. They seemed satisfied, though the dwelling looked ready to go to pieces. Like many other negro cabins, the window openings were merely closed with board shutters. There was not a pane of glass in the building. Of course the rooms were dark as a pocket when the shutters and doors were closed, and I was curious to learn what the inmates did in cold weather.

“We has a fire den, sah,” said the turbaned old woman whom I questioned; “and we keeps a door or a window open on de side what de wind doan’t blow from. Oh, yas, sah.”

This house was built since the war; but across the road was an ante-bellum wooden cabin still farther gone in decay. Many of the old-time cabins had dirt floors in their kitchens, and that was the original state of the floor in this ancient wooden cabin; but latterly the dirt had been loosely overlaid with boards.

Rudeness and frailty were not confined to the dwellings of the negroes. The house where I lodged, for instance, while it was very neat and pleasant, was of the thinnest and cheapest construction. The floors teetered and made the furniture shake with every footstep. But there was evidence of an aspiration for the beautiful; else why was the interior woodwork painted that vivid green? and why were there those various pictures hung on the walls? Art was most lavished on the best room, where were a chromo painting in a heavy gilt frame, and a framed portrait of Jefferson Davis. Scarcely less prominent were two large colored prints, one advertising a Milwaukee beer, the second a brand of whiskey.

Nearly all the family were away every evening attending a series of meetings at a church seven miles distant. Practically all the churches of the whites in that portion of Louisiana were Catholic, and the services were in French, which was the common language of the people. With few exceptions they could speak English, too, though accent and manner were slightly foreign.

On the opposite side of the road from my lodging-place was a great sugar-cane field. I often lingered in this and the other fields of the region watching the workers. The cane had attained a height of about a foot, and grew in rows of straggling scrawny stalks, resembling corn, but not nearly as handsome. At frequent intervals there were grass-grown ditches for drainage. These did not, however, conduct the surplus water to the river as one would be apt to expect, but carried it to the low swamps and lakes in the other direction. Ditches were a feature of the entire country. They networked the cultivated fields, the grasslands, town-lots, and home premises, and there was a deep drainage ditch on each side of the highways.


A Cabin Window

The ditching was especially careful and elaborate in the rice fields, most of which were now flooded and getting green with the growing grain. The rice ditches had numerous dams; and slight ridges were thrown up here and there so that the earth was everywhere kept a little under water. This water came from the Mississippi, and during flood-time flowed in of itself; but later, when the river had fallen, it would be pumped in. There were big pipes arching over the levee and pumping engines at frequent intervals along the waterside.

The sugar-cane was getting its first hoeing, and every field had its straggling group of workers. Much of the time an overseer was among the workers, directing and urging. He rode on horseback, and during labor hours was rarely out of the saddle from morn till night. His sceptre of authority is a riding-whip or a stout stick. This is primarily for the horse, but it may be applied pretty freely to the negroes on occasion. “I don’t much believe in that,” said one overseer to me. “Of course, the niggers, they mo’ contrary sometimes than other times; but yo’ don’t often need to hit ‘em. They the best plantation help in the world, most willing and most easily managed. Yo’ find fault with a white man workin’ for yo’, and he get mad. You can order a nigger just as yo’ please, and even if yo’ beat him he stays by his work. But yo’ treat a white man like that, no matter if he know he in the wrong, he bound to quit.”

It was hard and sweaty work for the laborers cutting the weeds and stirring the ground with their great clumsy hoes; and from time to time a water cart made the rounds. The cart only attempted to follow the plantation roads, and thence some lad lugged the water in a pail down the field and went from one worker to another. The help included men, women, and boys. The men were paid seventy to seventy-five cents a day, the women fifty to sixty cents, and the boys thirty cents. These youngsters were put two on a row, and then were expected to keep up with the rest.

I explored all the neighborhood and visited several of the nearer villages. In clear weather it was too hot for comfort walking anywhere except on the levee. There one got the benefit of the cold air from the water, and of any breeze that happened to be blowing; and it was a delight to watch the cloud-shadows darkling across the broad and lonely stream, and to look over to the opposite bank, dim and blue in the distance, with its irregular tree-masses and its houses hidden by the levee, all but the roofs. The muddy current hurrying on its seaward journey always carried with it an endless procession of driftwood, the refuse and wreckage of thousands of miles of streams above. Most of it consisted of bruised and shattered forest trees washed out of the banks, roots and all. A good deal was driven in to the shore by the wind, and the river margin was much bestrewn.


Hoeing Sugar-cane

It is customary to graze cattle and horses on the levee and any land that may lie outside; but when the water begins to get dangerously high the grazing is stopped, lest the turf be injured and the waves seek out the weakness and make a crevasse. One evening, as I sat by the riverside on the grassy slope of the levee near the village, a colored woman climbed the embankment from the landward and stopped to look at the stream. “Am it a-raisin’?” she asked.

I said I thought it was; and after she had considered a moment she turned her eyes toward the clouds and remarked, “I reckon we gwine to git some rain, and I don’t want to be cotched in it. I done got nigh three mile to walk to whar I live. Yo’ ever seen these roads hyar when it been rainin’? Whoo-hoo! If it rain fifteen minutes they so muddy yo’ cain’t hardly git along, and if it rain a whole day yo’ almost up to yo’ knees in mud. Out North, whar I was raised in Kentucky, the country was mo’ sandy, and the rain might po’ down hard as it please, and in half an hour after it was over de groun’ would be dry.”

She went off muttering to herself as she hobbled along. Not far from where I sat a boat was moored, and a little darkey was pushing about in it with great hilarity. I was quite entertained by his antics, but pretty soon a sprinkle of rain sent us both in search of shelter. As we came away from the levee, we heard an uproar in a near cabin. There was an angry mother’s voice shouting: “Yo’ come when I call yo’!” (Slap! slap!) “Yo’ hear what I say!” (Slap! slap!) I’ll l’arn yo’ to min’ me if it take all de strenk I got!” (Slap! slap!)

Meanwhile a youngster was howling and begging for mercy and exclaiming at frequent intervals, “Oh, my Lord!”

My companion ran and peeked through the fence, and then jumped up and down and clapped his hands and seemed greatly rejoiced and edified.

A little farther on another disturbance was in progress. Some colored boys who had been playing marbles had gotten into a dispute, and had not succeeded in settling their differences without fighting; but a scarecrow of a young woman with a good stout slab swooped down on them, and they all scattered. Now and then she made a dash at this one or that and told the horrible things she would do to them. “I’ll larn yo’! I’ll knock yo’ daid!” she declared.

She was particularly sharp toward a boy who was her brother, and who hovered at a distance, alternately weeping and reviling. She would not relent, but shouted: “Yo’ come out hyar in de road to fight about marbles! What yo’ want wid mo’ marbles anyhow

Yo’ got de chimbley at home full on ‘em; an’ hyar yo’ is a-fightin’ about ‘em. I’ll take ‘em all an’ frow ‘em in de pond. Yes, I will.”

Nazaire had three schools. Two of them were for colored pupils, but one of these was a “pay school,” kept in the little Methodist church by the pastor, at ten cents for each child per week. The free negro school was in a rickety cabin, with a big chimney right in the middle of the one room. Here sixty scholars gathered, and they filled the backless benches full and left very little open floor space. The desks that accompanied the benches were long movable affairs, with a slant on either side, so that two rows of children could sit at each desk. Underneath the desk top was a narrow shelf which served chiefly as a convenient repository for hats and sunbonnets, though chance nails driven into the rough whitewashed walls were also more or less utilized for the same purpose. Desks, benches, and teacher’s table were of cheap boards hammered together by some local carpenter, and were battered and browned by long use, and much carved by youthful jack-knives. A dog lay stretched out asleep under one of the benches when I made the school a visit, and two or three of the smaller children were creeping about the floor. In the main, the pupils were quiet and orderly. Perhaps they were somewhat daunted by the stout strap which the middle-aged woman, who was their teacher, carried ready for action over her shoulder.

The chimney had a fireplace on two sides, but the cabin walls were so thin and leaky the building could hardly have been warmed effectively. Beside the chimney, on the floor, was a bucket of water and a tin can to drink from. The teacher said the water came from a near well, and that it did not taste good and was liable to make a person sick. But I noticed the children drank often and copiously. The teacher herself and some of the girls brought water from home in bottles. Nearly all the children were barefoot. In most instances they had their dinners with them, and some walked daily from a distance of three and a half miles. Their books were shabby and few, and not many of the pupils would attain more than the bare ability to read and write and do simple sums in arithmetic. They seldom studied geography, for their parents argue    “What de use for dem to know about foreign parts? Dey ain’ gwine travel.”

School begins each year in March and continues without a break for seven months. The teacher said the children were not very regular attendants, and that in the five months’ vacation they forgot nearly all they learned. At home they hear only “Creole French,” and that makes the task of studying their English school books doubly hard.

In the middle of the morning and afternoon sessions the little ones were allowed to go out and play, but the rest were kept steadily to their tasks. This seemed a pretty severe requirement — three hours at a stretch in that crowded room and on those backless benches, which were so high that none save the oldest pupils could touch their feet to the floor.


The Students

While I was at Nazaire the state election occurred, and the schools were closed, and the white’s schoolhouse was used for a polling-place. A good many of the voters made an all-day picnic of the occasion and hovered around the schoolhouse pretty constantly. Only about thirty votes were cast in all, and the assemblage was never large. Behind one long desk sat the three commissioners and the clerk; but their duties did not necessitate continuous attention, and they sometimes went, one or two at a time, to other parts of the room or out on the gallery. Carriages and saddle-horses were hitched along the near fences, and the voters made themselves very much at home. They even sat on top of the school desks, and some, from force of long-gone boyhood habit, got out their jack-knives and whittled off a few slivers.

At the back of the room was an array of pails and bottles and a sugar bowl. Whenever an election official got thirsty or felt the need of being braced for his duties, he retired and took a drink of whiskey or claret. Also, each person as soon as he voted was conducted thither for a reviving glass; and some imbibed from time to time afterward until they could not walk straight and their speech became thick and stammering. Every man had a pouch of fine-cut tobacco in his pocket, and at frequent intervals rolled and smoked a cigarette. If tobacco or wine or whiskey ran low, some little negro boy was called from the road and sent off in haste to the nearest store with money in his hand to buy more.

The conclave joked and gossiped and told stories and talked crops endlessly. Their manner was characteristically French, and they put much intensity of voice and gesture into all they said. One of them gave a dramatic recitation, and marched up and down the floor and entered with as much spirit into the performance as if he had been acting on the stage. Sometimes there were heated disputes over questions of politics and the methods of voting. Men shouted and shook fists and stamped in and out of the door and grew red in the face and told certain ones exactly what they thought of them. There were even those who were accused of the atrocious crime of being partial to the “niggers.” “Where were you in ‘96?” demanded one man of another. “Ha! you never lifted a finger then to put the niggers down. You would not risk your life as I did and eleven others with me.”

I inquired what this upheaval of ‘96 was, and I learned that in the year mentioned the county had a colored sheriff. He was capable enough, and did his duty; but he was black, and it was terribly galling to see a “nigger” in the court-house handling white men’s money. So the whites determined to put a stop to such a state of affairs, and twelve men with guns went to the polls where four hundred negroes were gathered. That was a critical moment; but the blacks did not offer resistance and hastened to get away. The men with guns were at hand all day, and saw to it that the election went as they wanted it to go. Since then a black man rarely or never comes near the polls, and the twelve men are proud of their record, and consider themselves patriots and liberators worthy of special distinction.

The proceedings of election day at the schoolhouse culminated in a dinner supposed to be served at two in the afternoon; but it did not materialize until an hour later, when an old colored mammy, with a basket on her arm, made several journeys to the polling-place from a villa among the trees across the road. She came in at the rear door and spread forth a most ample and appetizing feast of roast chicken, beef steak, potatoes, rice, shrimps, cakes, and coffee. I was present as a guest; and though the room was barn-like, the tableware scanty, and the slant-topped desks not very well suited to hold one’s plate, yet the affable hospitality of the Louisiana sugar and rice planters made this dinner one of the pleasantest incidents of my stay in that fertile region.

NOTE.Tourists who wish to see the sugar and rice country can, with advantage, make New Orleans their hotel residence. Go from there by train to some characteristic village, and then hire a team and drive about. Accommodations are poor in the rustic hamlets, yet not distressingly so, and many persons would perhaps enjoy for a short time the plain fare and rude quarters. The life on the big plantations is decidedly interesting, and in many ways unique.


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