BY POLLY MORRIS
They were always waiting for him at their landing because they knew he was coming long before they could see him.
Henri always gave his distinctive whistle that carried clearly across the sparkling stillness of Lake Pontchartrain and even into the tangled wilderness that would latpr be named St. Tammany. He knew that they would abandon their work at his shrill summons, for he was an important man, him. He was a commercant. . .a caboteur. . .a boatman-peddler. The first of Louisiana's merchants on the move.
In the early days St. Tammany settlers were isolated in a way that seems incredible today. There were no roads, no bridges, no stores. The people depended upon the land for food, clothing and shelter, but there were few necessities that had to bought. The nearest place to trade was Neuville Orleans, and the long trip across the lake took too much time away from work, and from a man's family. It was not good to leave a woman and children alone in a hostile land of wild beasts and savages.
Henri and those like him were not lazy or shiftless, but isolation and hard work did not appeal to them. They had worked only long enough to save 8 few plasters which they invested in a small stock of goods , and a sturdy pirogue. Then they had only to paddle across the lake and back for an exciting and profitable life.
In the sinful city they were boisterous spendthrifts, but once across the lake they were businessmen in a boat.
They were shrewd traders, bartering sugar, coffee, tafia and cloth for bear grease, ashes, tar, and animal pelts. It was seldom that coins were exchanged for merchandise, and most trading was based "in kind." If Henri traded a 16 ell bolt of cloth for 15 piastres value "in kind," and accepted deer hides instead of coins, he would estimate how many hides he could sell in Neuville for the 16 piastres. He always liked to make a few sous extra, but he had too much competition to be too greedy. A low original investment made boat-peddling a popular occupation.
PAPER ON BACKS
There was another merchant on the move who had even less of an original investment than Henri. Julien the pack-peddler did not need a pirogue. His only means of transport were his two feet, and all of his stock in trade could be jammed into a backpack, or tied to it. His profit, like his investment, was smaller than Henri's, but he had fringe benefits not enjoyed by any of the other merchants on the move. He was given free room and board wherever he went, for it was an unwritten law that any lonely footsore stranger would be welcome at nightfall in the humblest dwelling.
Julien's bed was no problem. He stretched out on a bearskin or quilt layed out on the floor. His food was a small fee indeed for the favor of seeing a new face and hearing about the outside world. And he would gladly take a letter or a message to someone on his route.
Julien had to selective in his choice of merchandise. His wares would not be too bulky or too heavy, although he started on his journey with as large a load as he could carry.
His pack contained bolts of fabric, salves, seeds, cups and dippers, strings of beads and buckles, and boots and shoes. He followed the hunting trails to settlements or solitary houses and he did not have to whistle as be approached a clearing. His clanking tinware could be heard 2 country miles through the Tammany woods.
He too traded much of his merchandise, but he was limited to accepting smaller exchanges like hides, herbs, and handmade articles for the luxury market of Neuvelle Orleans. Julien might buy a horse or a mule to carry more merchandise, but the care of the animal was a bother scarcely worth the advantage.
The pirogue peddlers were not long in getting heavy competition. Rafts or barge-like boats were outfilled with sails, cabin and a partly covered deck. They resembled a crude sort of ferryboat, and were usually operated by a man and his wife. They rang a bell to announce their arrival and people came aboard to select from a stock that was a supermarket for those times. These grocery boats were sometimes called "chalons."
The shrill steam whistle still brought people to their landing, but a special something had been sacrificed to progress and prosperity. The swaggering Henri had an aura of romance about him. Julien had the appeal of a lonely and weary traveller, but the man-wife team were simply solid storekeepers who lived in the cabin, independently and without need of hospitality. It made a difference...
Roads made a difference too. The little pack-peddler disappeared. Julien could not compete with a man and a big wagon of merchandise pulled by a team of horses. The bed of the wagon was built up into a sort of cabin that was crowded with hats and shoes, long underwear and short knickers, and even small items like collar buttons, hat pins and hair receivers. On the outside, hanging from pegs were iron spiders, copper pots, washtubs, and washboards.
This merchant on the move did not wear dusty limbourg or tough buckskin. He dressed in a suit and cravat and felt hat. He was a super salesman with a gift of gab, and he accepted only folding money and silver and gold coins. Money was then available and trading "in kind" was on its way out.
Unlike Henri and Julien, this itinerant merchant was not called by his first name, for he
inspired respect instead of friendliness. Despite his glib talk and smooth personality, he was all business. He took orders for special merchandise, and was elevated far above the lowly pack-peddler and pirogue vendor.
He was prosperous and he looked it, yet he was more lonely than the pack-peddler. No one invited him to stay overnight unless they had a spare bedroom. He put up in small hotels and ate his dinner alone. On the road, he cared for his own horses, and often sat hours on the muddy road, the axle of his heavy-laden wagon sunk in the mire. A farmer who chanced by eyed the fancy clothes, and charged him for pulling the wagon out of the mud.
There were other merchants on the move too. There were the colorful gypsy wagons, the sewing machine man, and the patent medicine man. Often the latter attracted trade with entertainment they took along with them, a trick also used by the boatmen peddlers. In rural areas where entertainment was almost nil, a banjo-plucker was a sure-fire way to draw a crowd.
THEN CAME STORES
Merchants on the move met competition in various ways, but they were outdone by an assembly-line product, the Model-T Ford. People liked to come to town and trade and the hey-day of mobile merchants was over. They did not die, but they just faded away into the dim recesses of stores.
Dressed in white shirts with sleeve holders and stiff collars, they store merchants meekly waited behind their trim counters for the bell on the door to tinkle faintly. They sold penny candy and plowshares, and perhaps dreamed of a time when people waited for them. When their coming was excitement in a dull daily routine and they were walking newspapers, trusty couriers, and a friend to everyone on their route. They were merchants "on the move" to a better tomorrow.
Polly Morris joined the writing team at the Mandeville Banner in February of 1974.