Kittie Howard

Monday, March 1, 2010

Grandpa Takes a Trip (Louisiana Stories)

Some comments before today's story: I am delighted you enjoyed the Seven Remarkable People series and thank you for your generous comments and encouragement to publish the series. As I commented, I lack a clear path as to how to achieve this. But others have stepped forward with advice and help that may prove fruitful. And I've begun to research possible avenues. We'll see how this shakes out. I didn't start this blog with the intent of publishing. Whatever evolves will be one of life's smiley faces!

I want to thank my original Followers for sticking with me. You've allowed me to veer off course and wish Elvis a Happy Birthday, get out of the hot Louisiana sun, and otherwise indulge my blogging streaks.

And I want to extend a warm welcome to the new Followers and hope you find the Louisiana stories interesting. Today's story will continue with the aftermath of my great-great grandfather Stilly's unfortunate demise back in 1859. (I've provided enough info that you don't need the earlier blog.) But, wait, don't ho-hum click off. The story's got an unexpected twist.

And a big Thank You to the kind blogger at Adventures of the Cautionary Tale (see Followers, red hat in photo) for my Barnes & Nobel prize. The last time I won a prize was in first grade when the teacher pulled my name for the classroom Christmas tree. I was excited then and am excited now. Adventures of the Cautionary Tale is a beautiful blog, and I urge you to click on over. The blogger's daughter, Maddy, had a small accident but is now doing well. This makes me happy.

I also want to thank our godson's wife, Kathy, for figuring out how to install the counter widget you see to the right. My husband and I also enjoyed the delicious meal godson Rob prepared the other night. (Yep, the dude cooks!)

Now, about today's story. Since my family tree goes so far back in American history, I can't tell their stories without involving a sense of history. But I work to keep this history at a minimum. And I try very hard to keep historical events balanced and without narrative emotion. (Besides, you already know that I'm a loyal American with deep Louisiana roots.)

As such, today's story weaves through history. But I hope it is more a story of survival. I've received several e-mail requests for a Depression-era story. But I went with this story first. As bad as the economy is -- and like everyone else, my husband and I have made adjustments -- there can be worse, not exactly good news, but, in terms of survival, hard work, creativity, and a positive outlook can win the day!

Today's story . . .


No one in the family ever forgave Stilly for getting himself killed at that poker tournament deep in Louisiana's bayous. All Stilly had to do was stay alive one more day, win the next night's poker pot, and nobody in the family would ever have to lift a finger again. But, no. Not Stilly. He'd trusted too much and gone to sleep under that old oak tree without thinkin'. And somebody had shot him dead.

Of course, family members hadn't thought to caution Stilly about the evils of gamblin'. When a man's work brought in gold coins that bought land and kept the family in high style, lectures didn't seem quite right. According to my grandmother, everyone prayed for Stilly's soul. (But, according to my father, most prayed Stilly would keep up the winning streak.)

Because back in 1859, my great-great grandfather's gambling skills had made him a legend in Louisiana's treacherous bayous. However, back on firmer land, in Tangiphoa Parish, north of New Orleans, when word came of Stilly's death, relatives called Stilly's dying 'inconsiderate'.

The understated emotion bespoke about as close as a Southerner could get to disowning a relative without insulting the spirit. Stilly just shouldn't have strayed from Southeast Louisiana's more conservative morality and gotten involved with wanton Cajuns who didn't give a damn.

And knowing that Stilly had come close to winning what would turn out to be 75 miles of oil-rich marshes and bayous made his demise especially rude. The fact that Stilly's body had been thrown to alligators in the bayou hadn't raised an eyebrow. Gamblin' was a sin. Everybody knew that (except Cajuns and Protestants in Mississippi who cut the cards when the preacher wasn't lookin'.)

Nevermind. The deed was done. The aftermath would just have to be dealt with. There was no gettin' around the fact that Stilly's murder in 1859, at that poker tournament in the bayous, had thrown the family into economic turmoil.

But, to his credit and in spite of his gambling ways, Stilly had been a God-fearing man who had married a woman of strong character and good virtue. Lucy accepted her widowed fate with a Bible in one hand and a hoe in the other. She focused on saving the homestead and raising two adolescent sons who didn't gamble, drink, use tobacco or whore around.

But, above all, her sons had to fear God. Lucy worried Stilly's gamblin' blood would lure her adolescent boys off into the alligator-infested wilds that had gotten her husband killed. Without muscled arms to help work the farm, Lucy couldn't survive in a male-dominated, rural society. She'd have to move in with a relative and hope for a charitable lifestyle.

So, during a time when devout Christians viewed vanity as the devil's mastiff, Lucy adhered to old-fashioned sensibilities and accepted the reality of what needed to be done. Lucy believed hard work kept the mind from thinking about what might have been. And reading the Bible every night soothed the soul.

But hard work and prayer accomplished only so much. Fortunately, Stilly had had the good sense not to take all his money to the poker tournament. (For the murderer had also robbed Stilly's pockets, heavy with gold from the first night's win.) But gold coins left with Lucy enabled her to pay the yearly property taxes on the homestead and other properties Stilly had accumulated. Lucy and her sons substantially enlarged the house garden and bought several milk cows.

Profit from the sale of milk and produce in the nearby town of Ponchatoula both clothed and educated her sons. The money also enabled a cushion for the next cycle of taxes. The family lived frugally but retained its successful status.

However, demanding work took its toll. Three years after Stilly's death, Lucy no longer appeared a fair-complexioned young woman with dancing blue eyes and long chestnut hair beneath a sun bonnet. She now fulfilled the role of family matriarch, a mature woman with weathered skin and shrewd eyes who didn't shirk hard work and family responsibilities. Relatives sometimes helped.
But in an era when self absorbed into family, the conscientious mother earned respect for not leaning on others. Lucy was a determined Christian woman who believed in family, hard work, frugality, and prayer.

Of course, Lucy had suitors. Women routinely died in childbirth and left widowers with children to raise. But a married woman often lacked the decision-making freedom that came with Lucy's widowed status. The properties Lucy had protected could disappear to drink or worse in a new marriage that turned sour. Stilly's sons required a legacy in order to succeed in a South that valued land ownership. So, Lucy kept to her charted course. And the family prospered.

Until the drums of civil war reached Louisiana. On January 26, 1861, Louisiana seceded from the United States. Barely three months later, on April 12, 1861, canons at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, fired the opening volleys of what would become the Civil War or War Between the States. The Confederate States of America (CSA) formed. On April 25, 1862, Federal or Union troops captured the port city of New Orleans.

Even though Louisiana had one of the largest populations of freed slaves, significant numbers of whites didn't support slavery. So Louisiana got pulled into the Civil War's diametrically opposed directions in a manner that footnoted history. In order to appease anti-slavery supporters, for the duration of the Civil War, until General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union forces on April 9, 1865, Louisiana had two governors: One for designated Confederate areas; the other for designated Union areas. (This moral divide within Louisiana's multi-ethnic, multi-racial, and deeply religious population would contribute to Louisiana's emerging image as a 'foreign country', an image that lingers.)

Although both of Lucy's sons survived the Civil War, one fighting for the North, the other for the South, the proud matriarch, a Union supporter, lost her land and possessions either to taxes or the Carpetbaggers who followed in the War's wake. Wars cost money. Both sides had raised taxes to support the War's effort. But the South's 50% tax increase accomplished more than bullets and stripped average, non-slave-owning Southerners of their land.

By 1865, the Civil War had brought the South to its knees. Like a funeral dirge, doom permeated the land. The South's attempt at nationalism had failed miserably. Too idealistic to comprehend what war involved, everyone now faced the hard reality of what war had brought. A muted sun hung in a low sky over trees burned into eerie shadows and soil blackened with soot. Disillusioned soldiers, many on wooden crutches, barefoot, skin turned blackish-purple from frostbite, returned to a home that existed only in hell. Battle-hardened men with thousand-yard stares looked but didn't see, heard but didn't hear, felt but didn't feel and committed suicide. Women cried and pounded their fists, angry at their men for going, angrier at their God for not coming. And children with gaunt faces and hollow eyes and bloated stomaches sucked dirty thumbs and hid in corners.

Without a sense of place, tattered families roamed the desolate countryside in a desperate search of food, devouring anything with nutrients, even raw potatoes gleaned from a field. Raging inflation had spiraled basic commodities beyond reach. Few possessed the $100.00 needed for a barrel of flour. Gold, silver, and bronze coins used as pre-war currency had almost disappeared from commerce. Paper money issued by the CSA proved useless.

A barter system emerged: Work for food, perhaps a place to live. A one-room shanty with a dirt floor sheltered a once proud family. Union supporters hadn't fared much better, if any. The guns of war hadn't cared about who lived where. So, with the land scorched and ravaged and with little opportunity to provide for families, bitterness grew, especially when Washington, D.C. forbade Southerners to bury war dead with Christian headstones. Even Louisiana's Union supporters railed at the edict. Though officials eventually rescinded the order, the damage had been done. The North had won the war but lost the peace.

Stilly's family never returned to the cohesive unit that had existed prior to the War. Lucy eventually found work in a mercantile store. She lived out her days in a room rented from a family that also struggled. Her sons married and lived wherever work existed, usually as day laborers. That is, when they found work.

Reconstruction followed the Civil War, the period from 1865 to 1877, when Washington, D.C. dictated how the South restructured itself. Federal officials governed the South with an iron fist, with coveted work going to an old-boy network that controlled every aspect of daily life. Carpetbaggers or opportunists descended upon the region. Corruption grew. Mayhem prevailed.

However, Stilly's descendants avoided the sharecropper system that developed after the Civil War. (The sharecropper system, where workers lived on a farm and worked off living in a shack, would pull both blacks and whites into an economic slavery that wouldn't end until the Civil Rights Act of 1964.)

Corrupt Federal officials and Carpetbaggers now owned many of the surrounding farms and plantations. These noveau riche Northerners didn't hire Southerners. Not for money. But these new landowners eagerly accepted sharecroppers. An inability to work off inflated rent for miserable shacks ensured a generational system of practically free labor.

In a time when having nothing meant exactly that, my forebears remained God-fearing people. They didn't steal, turn to prostitution or beg. Family stories abound of how forebears lived in tents or lean-to's and scraped together a meagre existence. Angry armies had destroyed crops, fruit trees, and forests. Available sources of meat, like deer, had fled or been devoured by hungry soldiers. Rotting corpses polluted streams. Most of my ancestors suffered from rickets and malnutrition. The very young and the elderly and lame died. Children ate mud pies. But my forebears survived. And, in the South, this meant the family name survived with honor.

For there was no shame in being poor. Only admiration for honest values and hard work.

And, since hard times eventually fade into what was and the resilient human soul recovers, my scattered family put down roots in Southeast Louisiana and began to prosper. Until the Panic of 1873 and the Long Depression that lasted until 1879. Once again, everyone lost everything. Economic survival meant living on the edge. Just existing. The lack of money in circulation forced a return to the barter system. But the winds of change had re-defined basic survival.

The discovery of oil in Pennsylvania in 1869, the expanded railway system, and the impact of the Industrial Revolution demanded a more educated worker. But just as new jobs emerged, the Industrial Revolution also erased jobs. The efficiency of Eli Whitney's cotton gin reduced the availability of work, even allowed landowners to shrink the sharecropper system. At the height of the Long Depression, thousands of uneducated, unskilled workers and their families lived in unspeakable poverty in Louisiana (and throughout the United States).

Fortunately, Stilly and Lucy had instilled the importance of education in their sons. This legacy enabled their heirs to find decent work in a rapidly changing world. But, still, without a major sum of cash to buy a respectable piece of property, the family faced a limited future.

Until 1912.

Stilly's grandson, my grandfather, got married on Friday. On Saturday, he left for the Panama Canal.

For a full year, like thousands of others who saw opportunity, Pa worked to build the 53-mile canal that connected the Gulf of Mexico with the Pacific Ocean.

He ate the food provided, slept on a bunk bed in a rough barrack, and saved every pay check. Pa worked dawn to dusk beneath a scorching sun, endured the thick humidity, and avoided malaria.

At the end of the year, my grandfather returned to South Louisiana with enough money to pay cash for 600 acres of good, solid land.

His wife, my grandmother, who had remained with her family in Gonzales, Louisiana, quickly got pregnant but suffered a miscarriage. But, according to Ma, there wasn't time for tears. Work needed to be done.

Pa had retained enough cash to build a house on land that first required clearing. But he had to do most of the work himself to remain within budget.

He lived in a tent on the property. Once a month, he rode his horse the 30 miles to Gonzales to see his wife.

And Ma got pregnant again.

A year later the small family moved into their spacious, three-bedroom home with its wrap-around porch.

My grandfather carried his true love over the threshold. Into the parlor, the wedding gift my grandmother had so wanted.

And my father grew into manhood on the farm, graduated from Louisiana State University, served in WWII, met my mother, became an attorney, and here I am, on the liberal side of Stilly's war-torn family.

And once a year, for the past three years, I went over to West Virginia, pulled out the $100.00 bill I'd pinched together and played the slots.

Last year I hit a $2500.00 jackpot and headed home. Don't plan on returning.

Gotta know when to fold 'em.

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