The river communities of St. Martin Parish read like a litany of romantic names: Atchafalaya, Bayou Benoit, Bayou Chene, Butte la Rose, Catahoula, Henderson.
Some have gone by the wayside, their residents moving away because there was no longer a base for their economy, as with Atchafalaya when the train quit running through, or some, like Bayou Benoit, whose inhabitants had to leave because of new construction on the West Atchafalaya Protection Levee; and Bayou Chene.
Butte la Rose and Catahoula do not seem destined to suffer the same fate, but what about Henderson? Flood control measures seem to threaten the future of the town that catfish built.
In recalling the history of St. Martin Parish, it more than behooves us to remember those who came before us in those communities; the fishermen, the swampers and loggers, the railroad people, all who had business in the Atchafalaya Basin and made it their way of life.
Eighty-year-old Fred Kemp of Butte la Rose says of the Atchafalaya River now, "It's no good, with all that pollution; there's so much acid from the Ohio River that the water could never freeze.
"There are not as many trees now; there was lots of hardwood timber and you walked where you pleased. The floods of '27 and '45 silted and killed the trees. There's no tree 30 years old around here. I cut an oak the other day, it only had 22 rings.
"There were plenty of squirrels; deer and other animals would come into the yard. At night. I caught a fawn and my friend gave it to his son. It was a perfect life.
"No one would know the Basin now from what it was then. The river was swift, averaging about nine miles an hour. It was deeper, shorter and swifter. When they cut the channel, it took a lot of pressure. It started in 1932. Now the river is more narrow, in some places around 100 feet. Above 1-10, it is real shallow, the bay current is pushing silt."
The elderly man recalled that the river people were "good people, but the sheriffs wouldn't ever go on the river; they were afraid of the people."
He remembered the timber industry, and the big saw mill; and he also remembers the old fort, saying parts of it could still be seen in the 1940s.
Mr. Kemp recalled the day when a resident was walking along the river bank and the bank began caving in. Something suddenly caught his eye, and it was a pot with gold coins in it. It must have come from the fort, people concluded.
Be that as it may, another gold -- the gold of which memories are made -- is very precious to the people who once lived in the Basin. It ws a life like no other. (This introduction written by me for the Centennial issue of the St. Martinville Teche News is used with permission.)
The people who bounded the Atchafalaya River communities were hardy people who could not have survived had they not been able to live with the river and the lifestyle it imposed on them. Most of them were not Acadians, but they could have been if judged by their moral and work ethics.
"They came from all directions; mostly from far-off places, Gladys Calhoon Case wrote in her book, The Bayou Chene Story. "They reflected their individual heritages and customs and soon blended into a pleasing whole; by association and through marriage to each other,” she said.
Bayou Chene was located about 40 miles north of Morgan City. The bayou for which it was named, bayou Chene, Oak Bayou, was the main bayou of the Atchafalaya River, Case explained. The settlers there ran a church, a school, a merchandise store and the post office, which were all located on the bayou. In the 1920s it had approximately 500 residents, most of them having come to the St. Martin community about the same time that other groups were moving West.
The included the Fowlers from New Brunswick; the Case family from Rising Sun, Indiana; the Larsons, from Sweden by way of Salt Lake City, Utah; the Carlines from France and Italy; the Stockstills (Mississippi), Ashleys (New York), Currys (Maryland), Diamonds (New Hampshire), Crowson (Kentucky), Snellgrove (Frome, England), and the Texadas and Castilles from Spain by way of Natchez. The Allen family, she said, is said to have arrived at Bayou Chene by flatboat, carrying household goods and livestock, but where they came from no one knew. Case recalled that Acadians who came into the community included Theriots, Landrys, Daigles, Verrets, La Fontains, Broussards and Freyous.
They were swampers, lumberjacks, trappers, farmers, fishermen and moss pickers.
In the 1920s, oil drilling began in the area; it was 1930 before any profitable production was discovered and Texaco developed a field in the Lake Mongoulois region.
Like other communities in the area, Bayu Chene suffered much during the civil War. Case related that lands were overrun, crops destroyed, and sugar mills burned. Slaves were said to have been encouraged to run away and join the Yankee troops. "The place was a shambles from which recovery was slow and painful she wrote. But the people would not be run off. Living in bayouland had become their way of life, so they made the bests of what they could salvage. It helped that there was abundant game and fish.
Case said the timber industry was b orn when men saw the vlaue of the large cypress trees. One could provide enough lumber to build a house, she said. The Cases, stockstills, Ashleys, Fowlers and Snellgrove families began timber operations
War and disease had not been able to run the people off, but when the U.S., Corps of Engineers decided to build a spillway to take some of the water from the Mississippi and reroute it to the Atchafalaya, the government agency told the people they would have to leave.
Some tried to convert to houseboats so reluctant were they to leave the Basin. Some dismantled their house, loaded the lumber on barges, and moved to Plaquemine, New Iberia and other towns brodering the Basin. For those who could not afford to do that, packing their personal belongings was their only option. Some settled on top of the levees being built to the east and west sides of the spillway. Soem moved beyond the levees. Those who owned their land were given $2.50 per acre for the spillway rights. there was also an oil bonus. Naturally, those who did not own land were not paid for a right-of-way or receive the oil bonus. A few hired out to cut rights-of-way or to the oil companies directly.
Bayou Chene is gone, its families scattered to the wind.
Another community which has disappeared is Atcahafalaya, a victim of a train that "stopped passing through." Atchafalaya, once a thriving community located where I-10 crosses the Atcafalaya River, is no more, its existence marked only by the supports of the long-gone railroad bridge. It had been a great day in 1908 when Southern Pacific Railroad Company began running the course, connecting Lafayette to Baton Rouge. The train ran from Lafayette to the Capital city in the morning and made a return trip in the afternoon. There were about 20 families living there and the train brought other workers and visitors
But when the line was discontinued, the town died.
Anatole Serrett of Hendrson recalled that when his family moved to Butte la Rose, another Basin community, there was nothing left of Atchafalaya, not even the railroad which was thought to have b een built around 1918.
Mr. and Mrs. Henry Guidry moved to Atchafalaya about 1910 or 1912, she said. Tom Bernard remembered moving there in 1914 and finding Tom Martin, Fernand Dupuis, Mr. and Mrs. Albert Huval and a “cousin of their’s” already there.
The first railroad agent there was George Westfall. His wife followed after he died. Then she moved to Krotz springs and a Mr. Richard was made agent. He left shortly, as well, and Tom Bernard was hired as agent, a position he held until 1959 when he left Atchafalaya.
Ice brought by the train ennabled fishermen to store and ship larger catches to the large northern and eastern markets, and those who earned their living fishing were quick to see the opportunity
Mr. and Mrs. Guidry buit a home and lived in for years, close to her mother-in-law, Mrs. Terrence Guidry. Albert Huval and a cousin were their neighbors, living in a small camp nearby. Henry was the bridge tender, opening and closing the bridge so boats could navigate the river. Tom Martin was a businessman who was already there when Tom Bernard arrived in 1914. Some of the others living there were the Coles, the Dupuis, and the Leblancs.
When he arrived, Tom Bernard bought an interest in the Martin Fish Company, but also formed the Bernard Fish company to buy fish at nearby Pelba. He also inaugurated a honeybee industry which his descendants still run in another location. A corporation known as Louisiana Oyster and Fish Company, located in Berwick, was interested in joining Bernard’s business. When there was fish in ‘Chafalaya, they would order, and “we would transfer an order to another fish business. Whenev er the fish was below,:” Bernard recounted, “I would send orders over there to have them filled. Each company owned boats which traveled up and down the river for up to 100 miles, picking up fish from the fishers, each of whom followed the cardinal rule of "everyone sticks to his own fishing ground".”
Some of the boats could carry 10 tons of fish, and also carried mail, groceries and other household items. They also took orders from the families for goods to be brought in on the next run. At that time, Guidry had another store on a barge, stationed about 60 miles from Atchafalaya. Food and provisions were sent to the fishermen at that store. People who lived too far from the store could have their fish collected at the price of one cent less than what was paid to those who delivered their own catches. One boar made a daily run bringing food to those who could not reach the store. Two boats made the run every two or three days. Mail was handled free of charge, and the store with which they were dealing made their money orders if they could not write. Many ordered from Sears Roebuck or Montgomery Ward and when their orders came in, they were delivered free of charge.
Tom Bernard, Mr. Dupuis and Mr. Westhall each had a store, and they all served those along the river where people had settled for miles and miles. The boats would go up to Alexandria and the Red River to collect fish.
Tom Bernard was the original postmaster, follow3ed by Tom Bernards. In 1912, the Postal Service discontinued service to Atchalafaya so the mail was thereafter brought in by boat.
The train brought ice from Lafayette until the 1920s when Mr. Dupuis built an ice plant and was able to furnish enough ice to fishermen and fishing companies, inclluding his own. Beween 1914 and 1926, the fishing industry was bringing in as much as $250,000 per year.
But terrible times were to come.
The Great Atchafalaya Raft broke around 1861, allowing more water to come into the Atchafalaya River from the Mississippi to such an extent that it widened the stream and caused floding in the Basin. It also later undermined the railroad on which the foundation of the community had been laid.
The "Big Flood" of 1927 weakened the railroad bridge so much more that Southern Bacific was forced to dismantle it. The company continued the line for a few more years, ferry passengers, freigh and fish across the river and then loadedd it back onto the train on the other side. However, heavy silting forced the company to lift its rails in 1932. This was the beginning of the end for Atchafalaya.
When the railroad left, the town died.
A few people remained, but by 1950, most of the families had left the levee-enclosed spillway. They moved to Breaux Bridge, Cecillia or Henderson. The latter owes its growth to the influx of people from Atchafalaya. Henry Guidry left the water settlem,ent and opened a restaurant in Old Henderson, originally the old Lenora railroad stop. He later moved to a spot nearer the river.
One can imagine the consternation of the people as they watched the dismantling of the bridge that had been their lifeline to the other world. The railroad company drove spikes about 1000 feet from the river, on the side of tohe railroad. Then they brought in four 100x30-foot barges, sinking them with water to a depth which would place them underneath the bride. Once underneath, they were attached to the bridge and the water was siphoned out. As they took the water from the barges, the bridge was lifted and taken away, leaving only the supports. it took about six months to dismantle the bridge, piece by piece, loading it on a barge and bringing it to Atchafalaya. The pieces were then loaded on cars and sent to Houston where they were putting up a bridge."
The remaining supports can still be seen from I-10, an anchor for those who remember 'Chaf.
Unlike Bayou Chene and Atchafalaya, which were killed by the spillway and the department of the train, Butte-a-la-Rose, has survived, thanks in part to the arrival of Interstate 10. Their people are much alike, so it wasnít anything lacking in the residents that caused two to die and one to live.
When 1-10 was built with an exit to Butte la Rose, the little community became assured of continued access to the outside world and vice versa. Many people have built camps in Butte la Rose, making it a sort of Mecca for those who like the idea of at least an occasional communion with nature.
ďButte-a-la-RoseĒ conjures up numerous images -- a high point, a rose garden on that point, an Atchafalaya Basin girl named Rose, an old Indian, the rose symbol of the French royalists who fled France following the overthrow of King Louis.
Why the community of Butte-a-la-Rose was named is unknown. The question Certainly the community is located on a high point where the Atchafalaya River makes a sharp bend and divides into the Little Atchafalaya River to the South and the Upper Grand River to the North.
Some have said that an old Indian, Celestin Rose, who resided at one time in Grand Bois, said that the butte was named after one of his ancestors, who was "a famous Chitamacha Indian."
Another version is that following the French Revolution, some royalists made the butte their home and named it Rose in memory of the flower which was the symbol of their fallen society.
Agriculture had been the dominant means of livelihood prior to the breaking up of the Atchafalaya Raft in 1861. However, after that time, agriculture became virtually nonexistent. Flooding periodically inundated the area, removing the livelihood of the people, but with nature's two-edged blade, enhancing the fishing and providing the people with a new way of making a living.
Fishermen caught catfish, carp, gaspergou and buffalo, and sold their catches to companies in Morgan City in the beginning. Later, however, when fish companies established at Atchafalaya, the fishermen were able to sell their catches closer to home; in fact, boats plied the waters regularly buying fish up and down the river. When the fishing was slow, the fishermen turned into loggers, gatherers of moss, and hunters.
Despite that the community was located on the high point, the people were not totally immune to flooding. For inventive minds and industrious natures, however, this proved to be very little obstacle. They built their homes on piers, or lived in houseboats, riding the tides of the floods. Many lived in those houseboats year round.
The late Anatole Serrette of Henderson, in 1975, recalled leaving Henderson when he was about 12, moving to Butte la Rose when his mother died. He said there were about 25 to 30 families, mostly making their living by fishing and lumbering. Mr. Serrette was 21 when he married and he and his wife remained at the Butte.
He recalled Ben Martin's grocery, which was the first one in the little settlement. Rice and sugar and other foodstuffs made up the stock which was implemented when Mr. and Mrs. Martin went to Plaquemine by boat to buy. Mr. Serrette also remembered that there were no roads and travel was strictly by skiffs, although there were sternwheelers as well. He explained that it was six or seven miles from Butte la Rose to Henderson in those days, and although he was too young at the time, he was later told that there was an oil line, too, at Butte la Rose and "They'd come by crude oil barge and travel to Baton Rouge. There wasn't oil at la Butte itself, but there was some possibly near Anse la Butte. Somewhere near there. Theres where they'd fill the barges by pipeline. They didn't get the oil from there; my father showed me the waterways where the boats traveled from Plaquemine."
There was no church in the community and Mr. Serrette recalled being taken by his mother to Breaux Bridge to make his first communion. Mrs. Henry Guidry, now deceased, recalled in 1975 that ďpeople went to mass at Butte la Rose, although there was no church. Father Borel would go to a house, he and the people arriving there by boat."
It wasn't until 1927, when Msgr. Paul Borel, pastor of St. Bernard's Church in Breaux Bridge, noted on a visit to the home of Sebastian Benoit, that there was a large group of people without anyone to minister to their spiritual needs.
He asked Bishop Jules Jeanmard, a native of Breaux Bridge, to establish a mission church at the little community. Mr. Benoit donated the land and a small building, 28' by 18', which had been previously used as a dance hall. Following the death of a son, however, the Benoits had never held another dance there. They were glad to turn it into a mission church and Msgr. Borel visited there twice a month until 1937, when the Rev. Gobeil, the pastor at Charenton, was assigned the missions of the Lower Atchafalaya Basin.
By 1913 the school board had established a one-room school in the community. From 1937 until the school closed after the 1948-49 session, two teachers taught the pupils. A boat-bus was used to bring the students to and from the surrounding area. Pictures are still extant of the bus plying the waters of the basin. After the school was discontinued, the school house became the church. A new church was later built and it is served by the pastor at Our Lady of Mercy in Henderson.
Butte la Rose is really the only Basin settlement which continues to exist as a community since the building of the protection levees along the Atchafalaya Basin. Many former residents of the settlement moved away, to Henderson and to other communities on the outermost edges of the spillway, but there are more than 20 families who continue to live in la Butte on a permanent basis. They continue to make their living by fishing, now including crawfish which was not fished in earlier times.
The names of the Serrette, Hotard, Benoit, Patin, Boudreaux, Brasseaux, Amy, Steward and Dupuis families live in the history of Butte-a-la-Rose, and the way it received its name is not really important; it is just another name -- like their own.
In modern times, however, many people are building retirement homes at Butte la Rose, infusing the community with new blood and new money. Who knows what the future holds for the little community?