Saturday, November 26, 2011

Grandpa Pierce's letter to the editor in 1897

This is the letter that (Grandpa) Howard A. Pierce wrote to the editor of the Sac City Democrat, published Feb. 12, 1897 and Feb 19, 1897. 
(This article is copied from the microfilm ordered from the Iowa State Archives and is cited at the end of this post.)

New Orleans and Vicinity
Scenes Around Lake Pontchartrain.
H.A. Pierce Writes Entertainingly of the People, Soil and Climate of Louisiana

New Orleans, Feb. 12, 1897. – Editor Democrat: --

 I am still in New Orleans having become thoroughly convinced that all that we have read concerning the dilatoriness of the Spanish Americans but feebly expresses the truth.  I reached here Monday evening, Feb. 1.  I had inquired of Mr. Sprague where I could get a good place to stop while here, and he recommended Fred’s House.  St. Charles Street, opposite the theater and near the Academy of Music.  On the train I again asked a man I had met at Jackson and he also said Fred’s House.  Accordingly I came in the evening to "Fred’s House.” And here I am stopping, while a band of music serenades my every evening at the St. Charles Theater across the way.  Street parades seem to thrive on this street and electric cars are rustling past constantly all day and inconstantly all night long.  They go like the wind and roar like a tornado.  Fred has been here since 1842 and has kept this house 21 years.  It is a favorite stopping place for the planters, from Kentucky to the gulf.  They often leave their money with Fred while sightseeing in the city.  He only furnishes rooms.  Meals are procured at restaurants all along the streets.  The beds and towels are kept perfectly clean and no drunken man is allowed to stop here.  The rooms cost 50 cts. a day, and meals cost 15 to 25 cents at restaurants.  I have adopted our girl’s plan and board myself mostly, at a cost of six to eight cents a meal.  I have been all over the city viewing the strange sights.  The weather has never been cold enough to freeze except a few nights, when it froze the tender palm leaves a little.  To-night is like a June evening at home.  It has rained all today and yesterday, but is warm.  This whole city is perfectly flat except a slight raise along the river levee, thrown up to keep the river out of the city.  “Niggers” of all shades, Chinamen, Creoles and Italians abound everywhere.  The whites look and appear like white folks, and I have not seen a drunken person here.  I got a Spanish book in Memphis and have become quite proficient in that tongue, only I forget it so very fast.  I study every evening and morning.  I found in the Howard Memorial library here a large volume of “Travels and Adventures in Honduras” and go there every day to read it.  It is a well written work and tells me much that I deserve to know.  I have also met several men who have resided there, and from them have learned much.  I am quite sure that country is near perfection in natural advantages, but is peopled by an indolent race, with one of the worst governments on earth or, more properly, no government except a lot of self-constituted despots bent on robbing the people more than they will always submit to.  I am told that many rich property owners have sent sons to foreign countries to gain naturalization in order to hold property from being confiscated by the ever warring factions, a foreign flag affording the protection denied by their own.  I looked for a vessel for Honduras the first day I was here and found that a mail steamer goes to Honduras every Thursday; but it does not land at Truxillo, but at Puerto Cortez, which is 200 miles too far west.  I talked with a Honduran at a store who was acquainted in Truxillo, and he gave much information.  He says the Honduras company, of Chicago, sold to settlers land they did not own, and after the poor fellows got to Patook and found they were swindled, most of them left in disgust as fast as they could get away.  He also says a white man cannot work in that climate and that the weeds and grass grow so fast in the fields as to require constant work to keep them from spoiling the crops, and that though the land is very rich and productive of big crops, yet there is no market, as there are no steamers to Patooka river.  He recommends the Truxillo country as being a better place to go to, and offers to give me letters to friends of his there, and to the American consul, whom he knows.
            I have been talking with Fred’s lodgers about the country around here and learn that the shores of the Gulf of Mexico between here and Alabama on the Mississippi sound afford the most delightful locations that could be desired.  The whole shore of the sound is dotted with cottages and residences where are entertained wealthy pleasure seekers from the north and from this city, for both summer and winter resorts.  The beach is sandy with fine forests growing all along the coast, where all breezes are either from the fragrant pines or the refreshing tonic sea air; where fish, oysters, lobsters and clams from the sea on one hand, and game and fowl from the forest on the other, may be had for the taking.  I am going across Lake Pontchartrain, as soon as the weather clears, to look at the country there.  A man was here day before yesterday and told Fred he had 2000 acres of land there that he had to sell.  Fred says he has seen it and it lies on the north shore of the lake and that the most of it is nice land.  But some of it is dry, and there are 500 pecan trees on it yielding yearly a good crop of nuts quoted at 15 cents per pound, and it has lots of heavy timber and is a good place for raising hogs.  It is only about 20 miles from this city, and a canal comes from the lake right into the heart of the city, and a straight unites it (Lake Pontchartrain) with the gulf, and the Illinois Central railroad crosses another straight that connects Lake Pontchartrain with Lake Maurepas, so that with a small steamboat one could easily go most anywhere, do you see?  The owner offers to sell this whole 2,000 acres for $2,000 and, as I have plenty of time, I am going to see it, and, if I like it, purchase it and raise rice, hogs, pecan nuts and cypress logs, and do some fishing in, and sailing on, the lake; but not till Honduras has been thoroughly scrutinized.  Fred says the swamps around the lake are not malarious, because the lake is salt, being open to the sea tide.  These rice lands have to be cleared and leveed to keep out the salt water and hold the fresh water to overflow the rice when needed.  Pleasure parties are daily sailing on the lake, and pleasure resorts are plentiful on its sandy shores.  Garden stuff grows here the year around.  Oysters are all around for sale at ten cents per dozen and they are so large that six of them make a dose that remind you of Tennyson “swallowing a baby.”  Nearly all the trees here in the city parks are green all winter.  Palmettos, such as the fans and hats are made of, and several varieties of palm, ivy, numerous lichens, etc., beguile one to forget such things as winter’s snow, ice and sleigh rides.  So more it be. 
            It is too sad to think how the best part of the continent has so long been cursed by Spanish misrule.  I am thoroughly convinced that a large part of Honduras is as healthy as any country on earth and possesses a delightful climate the whole year through, with a soil unsurpassed for fertility and variety of products, with mines of gold, silver, copper, iron and lead on every hand, but all under a curse for want of proper management.  This situation does not discourage me at all.  Under better auspices all the undeveloped resources of so lovely a land would long ago have been developed and it would not now offer such opportunities as it does for men with moderate means to acquire a foot hold where they may display energy and ability in promoting the development of the country.  To go there now seems to me very much like pioneering in the far west in the days of Indians and buffaloes, and I know that many who pioneered American civilization attained an independence and competence hard to gain by later arrivals. 

February 19 --  Now I must begin where the foregoing left off, for I have much to write.  Last Saturday (the 13) I concluded to go to see the place on bayou La Combe of which Fred told me, as I wrote in the foregoing.  As the boat to Honduras did not sail until Wednesday I thought to pass the time by looking around.  Fred and the lodgers here have all the time insisted that Honduras could not compare with the country around here and have all along been advising me to look around here before I go.  This house is a good place to get posted about all the south, for a new lot of people from this and neighboring states are here every evening and there are drovers and planters here on business and seem very sociable and friendly when they see my name form Sac City, Iowa, on the register,.  They all seem to want northerners to come and settle among them and help start enterprises to build up this country.  They see that the stagnation, caused by the old slave system, yields its grip only when attacked by such energy as the north can supply.  As my letter goes on you will understand better what this implies.  There are two basins in the heart of this city where schooners, barges, steam tugs and small sailing craft can enter via two canals from Lake Pontchartrain which is from twelve to twenty-five miles wide and thirty miles long, the shores being five and seven miles from the respective basins.  This lake is connected by a strait with the Gulf of Mexico and is the nearest route by which to reach the city from the ocean.  It was through this lake that the Frenchman, Bienville, came with his soldiers in 1718 and landed his troops at Bayou St. John and sounded the city of New Orleans.  Across the lake in 1762 came the Spaniards, under Don de Ullos, to receive the keys to the city and take possession in the name of the King of Spain, and built the old Spanish Fort, the old wall of which I saw today at the lake end of the old basin canal.  A large fine hotel, standing within its filled up enclosure, and pleasure resorts, boat houses, club houses and a railroad pier running nearly a mile out over the beautiful lake, are pleasant features of the scenery.  It was here that General Jackson landed in 1814, when he arrived at New Orleans to take command and oppose the British invasion.  There are two railroads across the straits at the lower end of the lake and the Illinois Central railroad crosses the strait of Manchac which connects it with Lake Maurepas which is further inland.  Two or Three railroads run from the city to the lake shore, and one also comes from the north to Madisonville on the north shore.  Much of the shore is of the nicest, whitest sand imaginable; but behind this beach, which is a ridge of white sand, there is much of the way a marsh of a mile or two in width, beyond which lies an interminable forest of pine with occasional groves of hardwood, such as live oak, white oak, black jack, pecan, sweet gum, etc.  The marshes are covered with tall grass of various kinds and are favorite ranges for cattle and hogs, which, it is claimed, live and thrive there all winter without care or feeding.  It looks strange to me to see cattle all through the tall grass, up to their knees in the soft turf and water browsing leisurely at something they find and like among the tall dead grass, and to think it is the middle of winter.  But to get to my story.  I found a schooner in the old basin just starting for bayou Bon Forceau, and learning that it was only seven miles from bayou La Combe, took passage.  It was a Creole crew entirely, captain and all, and that generally means now the descendants of the old French settlers by their negro wives.  Those old time Frenchmen got large grants of land from the king of Spain, and having bought them wives in the slave market, their cast and valuable estates, after they died, became the property of these Mullatto Creole descendants.  Those old Frenchmen were energetic and improved their estates, owned and worked many slaves, raised sugar and rice, run canals, built levees, owned saw mills, brick yards, and sugar mills and bred oceans of cattle, horses, mules, sheep and hogs.  Their heirs, while inheriting vast estates abundantly supplied with slaves and stock, inherited also from their mothers the African indolence and incapacity to take thought for the morrow.  Hence, we find today many of the estates relapsed into the condition in which they were before French energy began to make them valuable.  The levees have washed into the ditches, the rice fields are like the swamps, except that they are smoother, and on them the abundant grass might be mowed if anyone cared for hay.  The corn and cane fields are covered with splendid groves, among which may be seen the ridges where once grew beautiful crops. 
           One instinct seemed to pervade the artless minds of these degenerate sons of worthy sires, and that was to hold their estates intact, and this policy they have tenaciously adhered to.  While their slaves have been freed, their cattle sold, their plantations neglected and their game, as a last resort, well nigh exterminated, they have constantly declined to sell their land to strangers.  As a result of this policy their land has lost its former value, and whenever it is wrested from them by the sheriff or sold to satisfy a mortgage, they find its market value is surprisingly little, and, ignorant as they are, they begin to appreciate their folly.  These were the sort of lads with whom I took passage to cross the lake on the “Louisiana State”, a schooner of 60 tons.  The wind got in the north, so we had to pole about half the way through the canal, and on reaching the lake it was near night and I was wet with sweat.  They seemed kind-hearted and honest, spoke very good English with no “nigger” tone or dialect, but talked French among themselves, and all had French names.  The cook got supper and the captain, who had no feature of “nigger” about him except an Indian color, asked me to sit up and eat, which I did, but they all held back.  So taking my plate and coffee I moved back and then they took hold.  I thought it a shame to be enjoying their hospitality and still holding myself too good to eat with them, so I soon came back and finished my meal with them.  These men do not seem a bit like “niggers”, and before I left Captain Narces Menences I forgot that he was not white skinned.  Being sweaty before the fresh northeast wind on the lake made me chilly, having left my overcoat at New Orleans.  He gave me his cabin, and himself spent the whole night on deck.  When I came out at daylight the wind was from dead ahead and all hands were polling up the Bon Forceau running near its west bank where they could reach the bottom.  They had on board a Creole and his wife, who had been shopping at New Orleans.  He was born near Bayou Lacombe and told me many things that interested me.  He found I was going to see John Davis’ place and said it was always considered the best estate in the country, that when old Jacques Mellone had it he raised lots of corn, cane, potatoes and yams; had a brickyard and kept hundreds of cattle and hogs, and when he died it was neglected, and at the length an old Creole bought it for $7,000 cash, for his two sons and then quarreled with them and would not let them have it and would neither sell it nor let anybody live there for many years.  Everything went to the dogs and the fields grew up to trees.  Three years ago John Davis got it for $2,100, but he did not know how to do any other business but lumbering and he took contracts and worked too hard and exposed himself in the water and got sick and lost his contract and nearly worried himself to death. 

            It rained hard most three days and nights just before I left New Orleans and everything was flooded, so when I left the schooner to walk seven miles Capt. Narces said he would go with me up to the house of his aunt who owned all the country about where we landed, which was on the first high land as we came up the bayou all below for the two miles or more since entering the bayou being marsh on which cattle and hogs were feeding.  We accordingly spattered along to the house of his aunt who proved to be a very dark negro woman with a large family of grown-up boys, whose color ranged from yellow to jet black.  They talked awhile together in French when the captain told me that his cousin was going to ride part way to Bayou LaCombe and would saddle another horse for me to ride with him.  No I wasn’t going to ride.  “But you will ride,” said the boy, for the runs are too deep and wide for you to cross afoot.  We got along all right and rode through tall timber all the way with no underbrush, except along the runs and there Palmettos grow 5 or 6 feet high.  The ground all the distance was covered with a fair crop of dead grass resembling blue stem.  They call it broom sedge and say it makes good hay or pasture, but kills down when frost comes in January.  I think some of it grows on Iowa prairies.  We passed one little clearing in the seven or eight miles, and I have learned since that it is the home of a Creole who lately sold over 100 head of cattle off the lakeside marsh all raised without ever having had any feeding or care, and he got awfully beat by the buyer too.  The east line of the Jas. Mallone Spanish grant was close to the Creole’s cabin, so we were traveling on Davis’ land the rest of the road to Bayou Lacombe.  Narce’s cousin went all the way with me.  I found the house one story, about fifteen or eighteen feet wide and about eighty feet long, set up from the ground, boarded up and down and battened, with five pairs of doors on each side set opposite each other, with chimneys and fire places at the four partitions by which it is divided off.  The floor is nice, and all yellow pine flooring.  The rooms are high and all ceiled with matched ceiling, and a narrow roof projects out from the house about three feet the whole length of both sides like a narrow veranda; but it has no floor except the steps and the ground.  There is only one window and that is at the west end.  This Mr. Davis had put in a short time ago.  Some of the doors are kept open to admit light and a pine fire is usually kept in the fireplace.  They cook on a small cook stove, and a negro servant bakes every day in a brick oven, which stands five or six rods south of the house under a big live oak tree.  The house faces the south and a good yard two rods wide, fenced with pickets, is in front.  This yard has flower beds and fruit trees in it.  One of the peach trees was blossoming when I went there.   The trees were all young but looked very thrifty and will blossom full.  I never saw finer pear trees and am told that pears grow in abundance throughout the country.  Apricots, various tame plums, and several kinds of figs are also in the yard.  The fig trees are six inches through and bear full every year.  The orange trees all died down when the big freeze came in Florida a few years ago; but a few of them by the fence sprouted again from the old trunks and are growing rapidly.  There are twenty young orange trees growing, put out last fall among the stumps without plowing or cultivations.  I am sure this fruit could be raised here in plenty by a little care bestowed in protecting the trees when an unusually severe norther threatens to bring in a freeze, which is rarely.  Many oranges are raised at Hammond and other places 60 to 75 miles north of here.  There is a lot fenced in, reaching along the bayou landing and back twenty rods to the woods, and this lot contains fifty or sixty pecan trees a foot to two feet in diameter with broad spreading tops and a fine grass sod all over the lot where they grow.  Some of these trees yield two barrels of pecan nuts that sell for 10 to 15 cts. a pound at wholesale in New Orleans.  One of these trees yielded last year $30.00 worth of pecans.  Some of them did not bear many and the nuts on others were small and sold for 8 cts. A pound.  I am told that the trees can be made to bear full by covering the surface of the surface of the ground with much under them.  Mr. Davis says there are over 500 pecan trees on his place.  The ground where the house stands is nine feet higher than the water in the bayou and lake.  The lake is salty of course, being part of the sea, but during rains the bayou is fresh and is only somewhat brackish at any time.  The bar at the mouth of the bayou has 5 or 6 feet of water now.  The ordinary tide is about six inches in the lake but a long hard wind from the southeast will sometimes raise it two feet.  There is a good landing just above the house where schooners unload supplies and load on wood and lumber for the city eighteen miles away.  The grant contains 1,327 acres, and its owner offers to sell it to me for even $2,000.  He says he cannot keep it because if the hard luck he had last year.  He keeps logging teams, ten yoke of oxen, and has high log wheels, and always follows logging and does not know how to farm.  There is timber enough on the place to pay for three or four such places.  Pine wood, three feet long, 1s low like all things else.  It sells for $2 a cord now in New Orleans.  The schooners take forty cords a load, paying $1 a cord for the wood at the landing.  The “niggers” charge 50 cents for chopping and splitting but are mostly paid in goods and provisions at a profit.  So it really costs 40 or 50 cents to get it cut.  Then it needs to be hauled to the landing.  So you see the profit is not more than 25 cents a cord above expenses.  Last year it sold for $1.25 at the landing and it may do so again when confidence is restored. 
            I have only seen four white families in all this part and they all say it is a very healthy place.  But I ask if the cypress swamps do not breed malaria and they tell me that the water in the swamp being salty from the tide are not malarious and that the air from the lake or the pine woods is always sweet and pure.  They all tell me that cattle and hogs grow fat enough for beef or pork entirely in the marsh and timber.  I came here at the hardest part of the year for stock and find stock looking very well on the range.  They might have hay just for the cutting, but I have seen none even for work cattle and milk cows, but they feed them a little bran or cotton seed meal sometimes.  I do not think there is any hog cholera here though some have complained of losing some young pigs this winter by their getting stiff and dragging their hind parts.  Lumber costs 5 or 6 dollars a thousand feet.  Fuel is little needed and costs nothing.  Fish are plentiful for the taking.  Alligators in the bayous are afraid of being caught and their hides are sought for leather.  The moccasins are not much regarded and hogs destroy them.  Vegetables are grown every month.  Fruit can be grown by carloads.  Blackberries grow wild everywhere.  Strawberries grow wonderfully and ripen in March.  Roads are dry and little need be done to them.  A flowing artesian well of pure soft water can be had anywhere for from $35 to $100.  I am told that the marshes bordering the lake make the finest of rice land by leveeing out the tide water and flowing the rice from the artesian wells, and it seems to me they are just the kinds of lands that Cape Cod cranberries grow on.  Thousands of acres of these marshes can be bought from the state for 12 ½ cents an acre and I am certain they will become very valuable before many years.  They can be diked and pumped out with the wind mills as over half of Holland is.  It is true this land only lies a few feet above the sea level, but it is not the least swampy except the marshes bordering the lake.  The soil is a clayey loam, light brown in color, and is under laid with a stiff light clay.  Where the roads run over a slight rise the rain washes the white sand along the surface and makes the paths look white. 

H.A. Pierce                                                           
 Sac City Democrat, Microfilm – Roll –L;Dec. 13-1895 - Dec. 3-1897

Iowa State Archives / State Historical Society of Iowa
600 East Locust
Des Moines, Iowa.  50319

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