Plantation Stories

Wild horses


It was 1944 and the summer rain fell in South Louisiana with such regularity about noon that one could set their clock by it. The way of life in the Bayou Country of Terrebonne Parish went on as it had for generations. People were occupied with trying to just provide their families with the very basics of life: food, clothing and shelter. Everyone worked, from the young to the old; it was a stigma to be lazy, a trait frowned upon by all. The work was hard from sun up to sun down 6 days a week. Farming, fishing and trapping was the mainstay of the people and all required a tremendous physical effort and determination. Farm workers would get a dollar or two a day and would have to live off the land much as pioneers had done. They hunted and fished, grew gardens, raised cattle, pigs and chickens to feed their families, and went to the store for very few food items, mainly rice, flower and dried beans. With an abundance of wildlife and the rich fertile soil of the Mississippi delta people ate well and families prospered.

The nights and days were hot an humid. No air conditioners, and for most not even electric fans, and mosquitoes were ever present. Most of the houses had screen windows, but we had the saying that the mosquitoes were so thick that they would push each other through the little holes in the screens. Many nights there was no wind, nothing moved except mosquitoes and the temperatures soared. But we were accustomed to the conditions; we were tough and thought nothing of it. Today I think back of just how tough people were. In the summer today if the air conditioner breaks for a few minutes people panic.

Most people were bilingual, with Cajun French being the primary language and English being used in a more formal manner; many people could only speak Cajun French. At one time all the public records in Terrebonne Parish were kept in French and schools educated in French, but there was an effort being made by the state to suppress the Cajun French language. The schools and all public records are now only English.

Cypress wood (lumber) was the main construction material for just about everything because it was the only wood to last in the humid conditions of South Louisiana. All the homes were made of cypress on piers of brick. The whole house sometimes even the roofs were made of cypress wood. All the houses had cypress cisterns that held rain water collected from the roofs for cooking and drinking, and in the rainy periods for washing and bathing. In the dry spells bayou water was used for washing and bathing and the precious rain water for cooking and drinking.

On the plantation everyone worked six or seven twelve-hour days a week. They had to or starve; there was no free ride, with most of the plantation work done manually. An hour before daylight the plantation bell would ring so that the workers could be on the job by daylight getting the mules and horses harnessed and ready for the day's work. Mules and horses were still being used for many task but the initial tilling of the land on the larger farms and plantations was being done more and more by tractors. It would be almost dark when the men would return to the fields and savor a few moments sitting on the front porch smoking or drinking a glass of wine as the sun slowly disappeared over the tree tops. Those were precious moments of the day with the children playing around them; so simple were the pleasures yet so precious when compared to the selfish self gratification addiction to all consuming quest for pleasure that we have today.

Working together, surviving together, a family together, we had little but yet we had more than all the riches of the world. We had pride: there was nothing given, everything earned. The women of the plantation worked just as hard cooking and cleaning all day, washing cloths by hand, cleaning house and tending to the chickens, picking vegetables from the garden, putting up the surplus vegetables in fruit jars, milking the cows. The only way to keep food fresh was the ice box; a homemade wooden box made of thick wood covered with layers of tar paper with two compartments: the upper for food, and the lower for block ice which could be bought every other day for 5 cents from an ice truck that made its rounds throughout the parish. There were no deep freezers and vegetables had to be put in jars and steamed to get rid of the bacteria and preserve them.

Growing up on a plantation in Terrebonne Parish was the best thing that could happen to a Cajun boy. We had the best of two worlds, the land and the sea. Life was full of adventure. Everyday was an opportunity to explore the fields, woods, marshes and bayous of the plantation. A house was only a place to sleep and eat and we left early in the morning to find adventure and explore the fields and woods of the plantation. It was an age before television and video games; children had to entertain themselves the best they could with whatever was available. We had few toys.

After the mid day rains the sun would come out; the earth would actually steam, at which time the men would return to the fields to work until almost dark. In the late evening we would find them. We would ride back on the mules and wagons hoping that they would have time to play a few minutes of baseball with us. One of our favorite things was to ride the slide, a wooden plank about 8 feet long and 14 inches wide used to transport the plow to and from the field. The plank had a chain loop at one end where the point of the plow slid into, which kept the plow from digging into the ground. The mules were still rigged up to the plow, and it was like riding a ski. As it was pulled the men had to have great balance. We held on to it, sometimes two or three boys riding the slide coming in from the fields.

The heavy rains and flat lands of Terrebonne Parish required that the corn and sugarcane be planted on long mounds of soil, called rows. The low area between these mounds was called the ''middles''. Today the men were ''running drains'', laying a drain at right angles across the rows to drain the ''middles''. A mule-pulled plow loosened the soil and then the soil was manually shovelled out to form a drain. The varieties of corn and cane grew much taller than the one used today. They were taller than a man, and the men had to work with long sleeve shirts because the leafs would irritate the bare skin and in the dense corn and cane there was no wind, and their shirts would be drenched with sweat. Pookie, Meatie and I, all boys on the plantation, ran to meet our fathers in the field; we ran down the wagon tracks on the road, the only place that had no tall grass where the ground was bare. The corn and sugarcane on the sides of the roads was so tall it seemed to touch the sky; the summer rains had come and gone and the humidity was so high that it seemed to take our breath away.

Like wild horses we ran,
our bare feet beating a constant rhythm on the damp ground.
Sweat glistened on our naked shoulders, the vigor of youth abound.

Wilson J. Gaidry III
All children on the farm wore no shoes except in very cold weather, because there was no money except for one pair of shoes a year and we preferred in most cases not wear shoes. We had gotten use to not having them, the skin on the bottom of our feet was so thick that only very sharp objects could penetrate them. We could run on rocks and shells and not feel anything. In the summer on the farm we wore nothing but a cut off pair of pants and an old straw hat.

The fields were laid out in rectangles about 200' wide and 600' long, called squares with roads at each end called headland; on the side of each square were drainage ditches usually full of water with snakes and frogs with which we could entertain ourselves. Running down the headlands was like being in a giant 500 acre maze where sometimes you ended up where you started; but with luck we found the men. In the evening all the farm equipment would be brought home and we would ride on the wagons and mules and tractors and especially the traineau, which was a wooden slide about 12 inches wide which the plow rode on, and that was pulled by a mule. It required balance, almost like riding a surf board. The ride back was the highlight of the day and though we tried to do it every day, we never tired of it. After we got home we begged the men to play ball with us. We only played hardball, we didn't know any other kind.

Hardball was indeed the only game in town. Each little town had a team: Houma, Morgan City, Montiguet, Thibodeaux, Bourg, Napoleonville are some of the few I remember. Every one played baseball, from the very young to the very old. My father played baseball for the Houma Braves and was a very popular pitcher that won many games for them. Sometimes he would play baseball with us and we were afraid to catch for him, his pitch was so fast that it would sting our hands through the baseball glove. The young children from each neighborhood and farm had a ball team and on Sundays would come to the plantation to play ball in the cow pastures. The cow pastures were fairly flat and the grass was short, making and ideal ball field if one could avoid steeping in cow dung or being chased by a bull. I remember the team from Pitre St. was the roughest and the team from Mechanic Ville was the only team of black boys.


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