Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Parish Archivist Bertha Neff

In 1983 Judy Bloom wrote a great article about one of Covington's most noteworthy characters, Mrs. Amos (Bertha) Neff, who was serving as archivist with the St. Tammany Parish Clerk of Court's Office. The article went into considerable details about Mrs. Neff's early life, her challenges, and her accomplishments. It is an inspiring, uplifting and at times entertaining story. 

Mrs. Amos (Bertha) Neff

The article was printed in the annual magazine of the Covington Chamber of Commerce. 

An Article About Bertha Neff, Parish Archivist

By Judy Bloom

Deep in the basement of the Courthouse in Covington, in a huge room lined with books, ledgers and files, can be found one of Covington's most fascinating citizens. Archivist for the parish since 1966, Mrs. Bertha Neff is a veritable storehouse of historical information not only about St. Tammany Parish, but other parishes throughout the state.

Mrs. Neff, a native of Covington, will be 91 years old this Spring. This remarkable lady, with her sharp mind and sparkling wit, not only works a full day five days a week, but also keeps up her own house and is actively engaged in helping preserve and disseminate information about the history of our region. She has assisted countless students in their quest for knowledge of our history, is the author of a book, and has done research for numerous authors writing about this area.

Just A Little Country Girl

Despite her keen intellect, Mrs. Neff describes herself as "just an ordinary, little country girl." Her father, Louis Andre Per-rand, was a first-generation American, his mother and father having come to the United States from France.

Mrs. Neff's grandfather settled in New Orleans before the War Between the States and had a shoe factory. He introduced machinery into the shoe trade, but because he wouldn't sign the Oath of Allegiance, the Union Army took over the shoe factory and left the family practically penniless. He moved to St. Tammany Parish and homesteaded land between Covington and Folsom. The home known as the "old Willie Core property" is on part of the land he homesteaded.

Mrs. Neff didn't start school until she was ten years old. Prior to that her father, a very learned and intelligent man, taught her at home. She entered the third grade at what is now the Middle School. Some of her classmates were Philip Burns, Monroe Simmons, Sidney Burns, and Sidney Frederick. On Sundays, she recalls going to church with all the other young people. "There were three Protestant churches - the Episcopal, the Presbyterian and the Methodist.

"My mother was a Baptist, but there was no Baptist Church; we went to the Methodist Church in the morning, and to the Presbyterian Church in the afternoon. After Sunday School there, they served dinner; then we hot-footed it down to the railroad station for the five o'clock excursion to Mandeville.

People Everywhere

"There were gangs of people there, everyone went. There were always lots of people who'd come across from New Orleans for the day. When we went to New Orleans we went on the New Camellia. During the lime the little trolly ran from here to Mandeville, we used to ride it and picnic on the lakefront there and go bathing in the lake."

Before Covington had electricity, people used kerosene lamps for lighting. Mrs. Neff's early morning job before school was to do the lamp globes at her home. "I can still hear my mother saying, 'Bertha, have you washed those globes yet? Have you filled the lamps? Then get ready for school.' "

She had two sisters, one older and one younger. "My older sister was the lady of the family. You know, every family has one...she was the eldest, so she got first choice on everything. My younger sister was the baby. I was the middle daughter, or the "sandwich filling."

"You see, middle children don't have the privileges, even today, that younger and older children have. So, I learned to do just about anything and everything."

First Female To Take Shop Classes

"Anything and everything" included doing something very daring and unusual for that day and age. Mrs. Neff was the first female to take "Shop" in school! She said, "Frank Boudousquie was offering Shop, and I said,'Daddy I'm going to take it. You're not here a lot of the time and when I need to hang a curtain rod or saw something up, 1 have to wait for you to come home, so 1 want to learn how to do it myself! I took Shop and learned to drive a nail and saw and everything else.

"The boys really laughed at me." When asked if she was a good student, Mrs. Neff said, "Yes, and you can't imagine how helpful it has been to me down through the years."

In the early 1900's Covington is described as being "a little beautiful, sleepy country town." It was very clean, and everyone had a white picket fence around their property to keep out the cows, pigs, and other animals from their gardens and flowers. Every day there was a specific task for the family...

Each Day Had A Chore

Monday was washday. Help was not as expensive as now, so nearly everyone had someone who came in to help with the wash. There was a big iron kettle in the backyard and on Mondays the clothes were boiled in it. Tuesday was ironing day, Wednesday was for cleaning, etc.

"My grandmother was marvelous at sewing and taught me to embroider, tat, knit, and crochet." On her wedding day, many a lucky young lady in Covington area in recent years   was   presented   with   a handmade bedspread made by Mrs. Neff.

After graduating from high school, Mrs. Neff went to the University of North Carolina on a scholarship to study Social Work. When her studies were completed she returned to St. Tammany. In the early days of social work, social workers did mostly field work. "We went out into the highways and byways and took care of people in need.

"We didn't have good roads; mostly dirt. If you came to a creek and there was no bridge, you sat down on a log , took off your shoes and stockings and waded across. If a family you visited needed food or medicine or what have you, you went back to town and had it sent to them, or had a member of the family come pick it up."

Influenza Epidemic

Mrs. Neff worked for the American Red Cross, and during the war had wanted to go overseas, so had been trained in the care of the sick and wounded. However, she was not able to go and so was made head of the Relief Unit here in St. Tammany Parish during the terrible flu epidemic of 1918. "People were dying every hour. Soup kitchens were set up for those in need, so as to avoid contamination by the ill."

Mrs. Neff would go to the drugstore and pick up medicines ordered by the doctors and take it to the ill. She would then teach families how to make mustard plasters and flax seed poultices and how to change a bed with a patient in it. A flax seed poultice was made by mixing flax seed with hot water, putting it on a piece of cloth such as cheesecloth and putting it on the chest.

It was used to treat pneumonia and any kind of chest disease in those days. These were laid on the patient's chest. They had to be kept warm, so two were usually made at a time. One had to watch to be sure the patient wasn't burned, and to be sure to change them when they became cool.

The social worker had to teach people how to change a nightgown on the patients; pajamas weren't used very much, so you just spilt the gown up the back. There was no prevention for such an epidemic; no shots, vaccines, etc., and "when it came, it came with a whoosh. It was an entirely new thing."

Shipyard Workers Hit Hard

There were over 4000 men working in the shipyards of the Parish, especially around Madisonville, during the epidemic. "The men who were in the camps at Camp Beauregard, Claiborne and Alexandria died like flies. The bodies were packed into freight cars and shipped to the points nearest their former homes.

"The monument in the Courthouse yard is for men who died in service and those who died during the flu epidemic. It was a harsh time for people. The flu started in Europe - Spain, Portugal, and spread to all of us. Doctors were not immune; they got it too. I got it at the end and didn't walk for a year because of partial paralysis. I used crutches eventually, and when I got to the point where I could walk a block I thought it was marvelous."

When she was able, Mrs. Neff went back to work, this time assisting men who were returning from the Service and who were applying for rehabilitation training in the colleges and universities. She worked in Baton Rouge as a liaison for men who were taking training there. Mrs. Neff recalls seeing a lot of heartbreak during the twelve years she worked during the epidemic and after the war.

She left the Red Cross in 1930 and went to work for the State Department of Education. Many bonds had been issued and her job was to work with the coupons on the bonds. "You know, you can't cancel a bond Issue until every coupon is accounted for.

"They had ten years of coupons in boxes. These coupons were supposed to go to bond issues, and they wanted me to paste them onto the bonds. So, I did the bond issues and got bonds cancelled and all the other red tape involved.

"After that I helped the school lunch program people with their programs. Then I helped the state librarian with the books being sent to the school libraries all over the state, categorizing them according to the Dewey Decimal System."

Then came the months during which World War II was brewing. Mrs. Neff moved to the accounting section and headed it during the war. There were 26 trade and industry schools such as Delgado, Baton Rouge, etc., which came into being during this time, because it was known that the War would deplete the manpower and so women would have to be trained to do as many things as possible. Women in general were not working in industry as they are now.

"They either taught school, were stenographers, or worked as unpaid help in a home. We had to set up programs  which included  things women could do in shipyards and places like that. Some of the training was for jobs such as riveters, tin workers, etc."

Mrs. Neff had six auditors under her supervision. "You talk about sex discrimination," she said. "When being interviewed for the job, I sat before the Board and said, 'Gentlemen, as you know, I am head of my family. These six auditors are making as much as you're going to pay me, and I'm to supervise them? It will never work. I have to be placed on the basis of a supervisor.'

"They huffed and puffed and argued back and forth, but wound up paying me. I'm not a feminist or one who whoops and hollers, but there are some things that are right."

After a while, Mrs. Neff moved to New Orleans to supervise the classes being held at Delgado and the aircraft plant at Moisant Field. "I got up at 4:30 every morning to catch a cattle truck loaded with eighty people and stood up all the way out to Moisant, then held classes all day and repeated the trip home. You name it, I've done it."

During this time, Mrs. Neff married Mr. Amos Neff, who was also working with the trade schools.

Mrs. Neff remained in New Orleans until 1947, then returned to Baton Rouge and worked there again for a while, but the smoke and chemicals in Baton Rouge were bad for her health; so, on a doctor's recommendation, she left the environment there. During all the years she had been in Baton Rouge and New Orleans Mrs. Neff had maintained the family property in St. Tammany so returned here as a "retired" person.

Her father had died and her invalid mother was living with her. Mr. Neff died in 1965 and Mrs. Neff became "unretired" in 1966, when she assumed her present position in the Archives of the Courthouse.

What she found when she came to work were cartons and cartons of documents some of which dated back to the late 1700's. None were sorted and many of the very valuable old records were in very fragile condition. Friends told Mrs. Neff she would never get the records straight, but after years of her patient digging and sorting, we of St. Tammany Parish are very fortunate in that our archives are organized and available for research.

From observing the system Mrs. Neff has set up, it appears any document or piece of information contained in the archives can readily be found. Having so painstakingly arranged the documents, Mrs. Neff is also careful to ensure that they stay that way; so has devised a check-out system for persons wishing to borrow documents.

There are literally thousands of bits of interesting, sad, funny, touching parts of our history contained in the archives. Mrs. Neff tells the story of a slave who had run away from his master and had gone through a neighboring farmer's smokehouse, eating all the food he could. He then lay down by the shed and fell asleep, whereupon the authorities came and arrested him.

When questioned, the slave pleaded that he had stolen only because he was so hungry. This little bit of history is so different from many of the circumstances surrounding runaway slaves and helps us focus on a personal side of a common event.

The archives contain all the notarial records for the parish. Judge Thomas Cargill Warner was the first judge here and some of his records have been found and filed, as well as some extremely important records of Judges Jesse R. Jones, James Tate, E. N. Terrill and J. J. Morgan.

There are blueprints, house plans, and court minutes dating back to 1814. The chronology of marriages in the parish is very fascinating. There are books of "Marriage Stubs" which were used in the early years before applications and blood tests. If one wanted to get married he came in and signed a book, and on the stub was put the name, age, marital status, address, and the father's and mother's name of the bride and groom.

These stubs were found in a garbage can which was on its way to the city dump and were rescued by Mrs. Neff. The earliest of these was dated 1812. Along with the stubs are letters written to the judge, stating the couple's intention to marry. Parents wrote the judge if the couple was under-age. These letters are very old and delicate.

There is also a General Index to Marriages, which contains records of all marriages performed in the parish. Mrs. Neff and E. Ross Williams, Jr. wrote a book, Index to St. Tammany Marriages, 1812-1900 to help in researching marriages not recorded in the Index.

Laws for Louisiana marriages have varied greatly over the years; thus the number of pieces recorded for each marriage varied. The Index was written to help find old records and contains supplements of marriages never recorded, thus never indexed.

Many records were left out of the Courthouse index but there Is little doubt that most of the marriages did take place and Mrs. Neff's book helps researchers locale dates and other pertinent information. The marriage records were frequently used when Social Security payments came into being. There were no birth certificates so the marriage records were used as proof of age. Since the First World War, printed forms have been used as applications for marriages and these, too, are filed in the archives.

Also in the archives one will find copies of mortgages dating back to 1847. Some earlier ones are there, but are in French and have not been translated. There are also tax books dating back to 1880.

Books of crop lien mortgages are fascinating. If a farmer didn't have enough money to put in a crop, he borrowed money to plant, then paid back the loan when his crop was sold. One will also find Discharge Records of all St. Tammany Parish men who have been in the Service. Oath and Bond books.. .records showing the amount of time individuals have worked so they may be sure they receive correct Social Security payments. There were Will  books, Inquest records, Books of Conveyance containing records of land or other properties conveyed from one person to another and Judgments and Court Decisions also are available.

One interesting sidelight on our ancestors is that many of them settled here after having lived in the River Parishes. Mrs. Neff tells the story of a Mr. Burns who had become interested in his family and came to the courthouse for information. Mrs. Neff, because of her familiarity with the region, told him to start in either St. James or St. John Parish under the name of Borne and follow the family from there to St. Tammany. Mr. Burns said, "Well, it's not Borne, it's Burns." Mrs. Neff replied, "I know, but when they first came here as immigrants it was spelled 'Borne.' "

The gentleman came back later, very excited because he had spent a whole week finding information in the River Parishes. Said Mrs. Neff, "I made a disciple of him!"

Mrs. Neff is enjoying life in a very full and rich way and speaks with great fondness of her great-nephew whose picture Ls on one of the file cabinets in her office. He is in the Service, based in Gulfport, but presently stationed in Guam, and comes to visit her every chance he gets "to get some of my home-cooked food, and to help me around the garden. It makes for a very happy relationship."

This remarkable lady had this to say about the Covington of today: "It's a bright dawn for a growing community. There's a lot going on, I don't want to miss any of it."

Here are the images of the article quoted above. There are three pages, so just click on the images below to see a larger size version.

Page One

Page Two

Page Three

Bertha Neff and Steve Ellis
Judge Chris Barnette, left, speaks to Bertha Neff, center, at Clerk of Court Christmas Party on Dec. 19, 1976. In first frame is Clerk of Court Lucy Rausch at right. Judge Barnette was on loan to the 22nd Judicial District from Shreveport.

Donna Singletary and Mrs. Neff

Bertha Neff and John C. Chase, 1976

St. Tammany Historical Society Past Presidents
From left, Edward Boagni M.D., III; C. Howard Nichols; Steve Ellis, Bertha Neff
Friday, October 8, 1976, at annual historical society dinner at Tchefuncta Country Club


Bertha Neff and her husband Amos Neff