ST. GABRIEL TO CONVENT/LUTCHER (ST. JAMES PARISH)
We left St. Gabriel, Louisiana on bike.
It’s forty miles to Convent, Louisiana and it’s all along the River Road which follows the levee downriver. Normally we like to leave a town and enter a town on foot, but today we needed to cover some miles and there’s not really a “town” of Convent. Wikipedia does describes it as a census-designated place, though.
After arriving in Convent, we drove on to Lutcher, Louisiana to meet with some locals from St. James Parish. The format was across-the-table interviews. We were set up at an old home on Main Street and guests arrived for a conversation.
Our first visitor was Stephen Keller of Creole Sugarland. Stephen was born and raised in “Back Vacherie,” which is different from “Front Vacherie,” and he explained this to us as he sipped on a Sprite. He was a football athlete who could have gone with a full scholarship to any school, but it wasn’t for him. By 7th grade he was running all the equipment on the farm, and he just wanted to farm sugarcane. So that’s what he did.
Stephen’s got a mix of ancestry on both sides of his family, European, Indian, African. He now runs Creole Sugarland Tours which is a tour company that intends to share the creole culture and history to travelers coming through the area. He does tours on his 19 acres in Back Vacherie, puts on campfires, and provides cabins for accommodations. He also continues with a small, experimental farming operation.
Having grown up in such a rural, farming community, Stephen wanted us to know that he didn’t experience the stereotypical racism so many people talk about in these areas with plantations. As a child in Back Vacherie, things were good in his community, although he did say that when he got to high school he saw animosity between black and white—but this was racism on both sides, he said. He explained that in Front Vacherie there was a history of enslaved black people whereas in Back Vacherie the blacks had a more creole, and independent history. These experiences led to different relationships with the white population he said.
Stephen was an advocate for our current presidential administration. He’s a proud republican and asked what our current president has done to hurt black people. He feels that it is nothing. He doesn’t feel discriminated against because of his race. He offered as an example getting financed for a Ford F-150 when he was young. Not only wasn’t he denied the loan, but the payment was only $150/month. He feels that it was because of the good standing of his family and himself.
As a businessman and a farmer, Stephen has done well for himself, as have his other siblings who have all gone to college and gone into successful careers. Stephen’s had three children, a daughter and two sons. One of his sons is 24 and working at the local petrochemical plant making six figures, he says. They have lots of “toys”—boats, four wheelers, racing cars. They are very into drag racing, which Stephen says is a white sport, but again he and his boys have never felt discriminated there.
According to Stephen, New Orleans and Baton Rouge are nearby if you want a big city, but he and his family wouldn’t want to live there. Crime around here is “next to nothing.” The East Bank is different than the West Bank, he says. Stephen feels kids raised in the projects are different—they become dependent on assistance. “It’s hard to break that cycle,” he says. “Those that don’t work will never work.” This influences who he hires in his fields. He does have laborers from all backgrounds, but a lot of who he hires are Mexicans. Stephen says, everybody gets along and sometimes nobody gets along among his workers.
Next up was Raymond Poche. And no, he’s not related to the other Poches we heard about upriver from Mary Ann Sternberg, but he does live next door to them. Small world. Raymond did two years of college in Hammond, then worked in Baton Rouge and New Orleans and couldn’t wait to get out. He grew up in St. James Parish and he was ready to get back. His father worked for Dupont Chemical in Reserve, and eventually Raymond got a job as an instrument technician in a chemical plant as well. He started out at 28 years old, which is a bit older than normal, but plants weren’t hiring when he was coming up due to demographics of their workforce, he said. Today it’s easier to get hired in a plant, easy to make $100,000 a year in a plant.
Raymond used to fish a lot, mostly in the Atchafalaya spillway. He could catch bass, perch, catfish, sakalay and more, but fishing is not his passion. What Raymond is really into is the local tradition of levee bonfires. Not only does his family have a tradition of building a massive 20 foot bonfire on the levee across the River Road from their home, he also has a side business where he builds small, medium, and large bonfire models that operate as lamps.
He brought in one of the models to show us and assembled it almost like “lincoln logs.” He also brought the larger, sculpture-sized model that has a fan blower with LED lights inside making it looking truly ablaze!
The bonfire tradition has been going on as long as Raymond remembers. Permits are granted for every 150 feet or so, and the levee is open for bonfire building around Thanksgiving week. Homeowners along the levee get the first right of refusal for the plot in front of their home. Fires are lit on Christmas Eve, and there are over 100 fires around 15 to 20 feet high. The height of the fires is a contentious subject because of safety concerns. They used to be much higher, and authorities keep lowering the height each year it seems. The community also holds a Festival of the Bonfires in the middle of December where a few of the bonfires are lit. This brings in a lot of tourists to enjoy the community’s tradition.
Finally we met with Grant Martin, a perique tobacco farmer. He’s 69 years old with three daughters and seven grandchildren. According to Grant he lives in Grand Point, “up the river somewhere.” His work in perique is unique because Paulina and Grand Point are the only places in the world that this strongest of tobacco crops is grown. It’s a family oriented crop and very, very labor intensive. The seeds are very small, and they are initiated in a hot bed in January. Grant says you “treat the hotbed like raising a baby.” They used to cut palmettos to cover the hotbed, and then the seeds would pop up and you transport them to the field in March or April. More processing, more labor, and then finally a June harvest that involves another round of rigorous work.
Grant is not just a perique farmer. He was also a banker for 44 years. His son-in-laws want to hunt and fish on their time off. They are not interested in helping out on the farm. He doesn’t see much of a future for his own perique farming days. Ray Martin is currently the biggest perique farmer, so as long as he keeps going, perique will keep going. But who knows how long that will be.
We are staying the night in LaPlace, this night and the next several nights through St. James, St. John the Baptist, and St. Charles Parishes. We like to leave a place and arrive in the next place, so we really get to know the place, but sometimes that’s not possible. The accommodations are really nice and we can be assured of a breakfast for three days in a row! Listening and learning where we can.