Tuesday, September 7, 2021

A 1897 Visit To Lacombe

A hundred and twenty-three years ago in 1897 Howard A. Pierce wrote letters to his family in Iowa about his visits to New Orleans, the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and, in particular, the Lacombe area of St. Tammany Parish.   An article quoting his letter was published in the Northlake Sunday News on May 20, 1973. Here is the text from that article:

A Visit to Lacombe

On February 12, 1897, Howard A Pierce wrote a letter back to his home in Sac City, Iowa, and told in detail of the people and lifestyle of New Orleans and vicinity. He wrote two letters in all, and his friends at home thought them of such merit that the letters were printed in the local newspaper there.

Pierce marveled at the climate of southern Louisiana and told his friends up North about the "most delightful" locations on the Mississippi Sound between New Orleans and Gulfport. The majority of his letters, however, dealt with St. Tammany Parish, its land, its people and its beauty in 1897.

"I am going across Lake Pontchartrain, as soon as the weather clears, to look at the country there," he wrote. "A man was here day before yesterday and told Fred he had 2000 acres of land there he had to sell. Fred (a New Orleans acquaintance) says he has seen it and it lies on the north shore of the lake and that most of it is nice land. 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. It also has lots of heavy timber and is a good place for raising hogs.

Log rafting on Bayou Lacombe in the 1890's
(Photo Source: the Louisiana Digital Library)

The Location of St. Tammany Parish

"It is about 20 miles from this city, and a canal comes from the lake right into the heart of the city. A strait connects it (Lake Pontchartrain ) directly with the Gulf, and the Illinois Central railroad crosses another strait that connects Lake Pontchartrain with Lake Maurepas, so that with a small steamboat, one could go most anywhere, do you see?"

Pierce left little doubt that he was impressed with the layout of the land and waterways here. He must have been a businessman, for his description includes both scenic and commercial observations. His mention of the prices of the time indicate what a long time ago this was.

"The owner offers to sell this whole 2000 acres for $2,000. 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."

He even took geographical and ecological considerations into account. "Fred says that the swamps around the lake are not malarious, because the lake is salt, being open to the sea tides. 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.

Sailing Schooners and Oysters

"Pleasure parties are daily sailing on the lake," he goes on to say, "and pleasure resorts are plentiful on its sandy shores. Garden stuff grows here the year round. Oysters are all around for sale at ten cents per pound. They are so large that six of them make a dose that reminds you of Tennyson "swallowing a baby."

"Nearly all the trees here 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 mote it be."

Pierce did not really begin to write of St. Tammany Parish, however, until he got a chance to explore it more fully.

His Lacombe Visit

In his second letter dated February 19, 1897, he told of a visit to Bayou LaCombe.

"Most 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.

"I found a schooner in the old basin just starting for Bon Fouca, 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. These old time Frenchmen got large grants of land from the king of Spain, and having bought themselves wives, their vast and valuable estates, after they died, became the property of these Mulatto Creole descendants.

"These old Frenchmen were energetic and improved their estates, owned and worked many slaves, raised sugar and rice, ran canals, built levees, owned sawmills. brickyards and sugar mills and bred oceans of cattle, horses, mules, sheep and hogs. The corn and cane fields are covered with splendid groves, among which may be seen the ridges where once grew beautiful crops. Now neglected.

Landing at Bayou BonFouca

"When I came out at daylight I after spending the night aboard the passenger schooner) the wind was from dead ahead and all hands were poling up Bon Fouca running near its west bank where they could reach bottom. They had on board a Creole and his wife, who had been shopping in New Orleans. He was born near Bayou La Combe 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 yam. He had a brickyard and kept hundreds of cattle and hogs, and when he died it was neglected, and at length an old Creole bought it for $7,000 cash for his two sons.

"The old Creole 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 with 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."

Pierce stayed on a Bon Fouca estate for several days, talking with the residents there, then headed back to Bayou La Combe on horseback with a guide. On his way to Lacombe, he passed a house and found it so interesting that he described it in detail.

The House Described

"I found the house a one story structure, fifteen or eighteen feet wide and about 80 feet long, set up from the ground. It was boarded up and battered, with five pairs of doors on each side set opposite each other, with chimneys and fireplaces at the four partitions by which it is divided.

"The floor is nice, and all yellowpine 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 cookstove and a servant bakes every day in a brick oven, which stands five or six rods south of the house under a big live oak tree."

Fruit Trees Abound

Pierce was equally impressed with the abundance of fruit trees. He marveled at the many fine pear trees, apricots, various tame plums and the several kinds of fig trees. He told how a severe freeze had come in and destroyed the orange crop months earlier, but that some of the trees were coming back to life. He felt that if the crop could be protected from similar severe weather, orange trees would be a good industry for the area. He commended the oranges from Hammond, and also those grown "about 72 miles north of here," meaning probably Washington Parish.

He also noted the abundance and quality of the pecan trees. "Some of these trees yield two barrels of pecan nuts that sell for ten to fifteen cents a pound," he wrote. One of the trees he saw yielded $30 worth of pecans.

The natives in the parish were eager to attract settlers from the north to St. Tammany, Pierce stated, because they wanted them to come down and start businesses and create industry. More than once, he was offered a sizeable tract of land for a small sum in an effort to lure him to the parish. One such offer was a grant of land containing 1,327 acres for $2,000. This included a house, a boat landing. and a number of pecan trees.

Lumber Industry

The lumber industry was also actively cutting timber and shipping it via Lake Pontchartrain to New Orleans. Pine wood sold for $2 a cord then, he wrote, and the schooners took forty cords at a time to the Crescent City. He gave a breakdown of the expenses involved in marketing the wood, however, and it resulted in a profit of only 25 cents above expenses.

Lumber cost five to six dollars a thousand foot, Pierce wrote, and fuel is little needed and costs nothing.

"Fish are plentiful and for the taking. Alligators in the bayous are afraid of being caught and their hides are sought for leather. Rattlers are almost unknown. The moccasins are not much regarded and hogs destroy them. Vegetables are grown every month of the year. Fruit can be grown by carloads.

"Blackberries grow wild everywhere. Strawberries grow wonderfully and ripen in March. A flooding artesian well of pure soft water can be had anywhere for from $35 to $100."

Rice Crops Possible

The marshes bordering the lake were some of the finest rice lands to be found, Pierce was told, and it seemed to him that they were just the kind of lands that Cape Cod cranberries could grow on.

"Thousands of acres of these marshes can be bought from the state for 12.2 cents an acre. I am certain they will become very valuable before many years. They can be diked and pumped out with windmills as over half of Holland is," Pierce concluded.

"I came here at the hardest part of the year for stock and find stock looking very well on the range," he added, amazed.

Pierce was to go on from New Orleans to Honduras to check on the climate there, but his friends at home knew well the high regard with which he thought of the New Orleans area and St. Tammany Parish in particular, for he was to return later and father descendants that now live in this parish.

He was the father of Mandane A. Pierce, who married James Martin Barringer. Their children included Elanore de La Breton, William P. Barringer of Lacombe and Jimmy Barringer.

It is a typical story for St. Tammany Parish. Visitors come, like what they see, and decide to settle here. The story of Howard A. Pierce, however, is one of the better recorded ones, thanks to his detailed account of his stay here in the year 1897."

End of Northlake Sunday News article published in 1973. Below are images of the article as originally published.