When Cypress was King
Bayou Teche and the Atchafalaya River were once alive with steamboats towing red cypress logs from virgin timberlands to sawmills.
Screaming saws and the smell of freshly cut cypress characterized logging towns that stood along the banks of the Teche and the Atchafalaya and other South Louisiana waterways.
A multimillion-dollar cypress industry boomed in the Louisiana swamplands from the 1870s to the 1920s.
The industry got off to a slow start in the 1870s but mushroomed in the 1880s when Frank B. Williams, who became known as “king of the cypress industry,” perfected old methods of refining, retrieving and milling this soft, durable wood. He sparked the explosion of the industry, thus directly and indirectly creating jobs for thousands of folks from South Louisiana.
When the industry was well off the ground, cypress sold for $30 per 1,000 board-feet. (A board-foot is 1 square foot, 1 inch thick.) When the industry closed, the price was $700 per 1,000 board-feet. Today, red cypress cannot be bought on the open market.
Banks of the Bayou
F.B. Williams Cypress Co., located in Patterson, was the largest cypress mill in the world, and it has never been surpassed. Williams’ example was followed by scores of other men who built smaller mills that spotted the banks of the bayous.
Business at Williams’ mill began in 1881 and grew rapidly. The company’s profits averaged $1 million a year for the first 30 years of operation. The mill turned out 75,000 board-feet per day.
A typical day at the mill held such scenes as giant saws spitting sawdust on men operating nearby machinery. The millers’ overalls and leather boots, soaked with perspiration, would be covered with sawdust. In a small room in the corner of the mill, an old man would sit, sharpening the teeth of a spare saw. Beside him would be a boy of 9 or 10 listening attentively to the old timer’s tale of swamp ghosts.
Hardworking millers retired to their small cypress houses at day’s end. All too soon workers would be summoned back to their tasks by the blast of the mill whistle at 6 in the morning. When they arrived at the mill, timber was afloat in the bayou and waiting to be cut. The furnaces were already steamed up by laborers who reported an hour earlier and worked furiously feeding the furnaces.
Pioneers in the cypress industry were confronted with scores of problems, not the least of which was finding a practical method of retrieving logs from the swamps. This problem was partially solved by cutting a network of small canals in the swamplands. The problem was further alleviated when oxen and mules replaced men in pulling logs from the swamps to the tiny canals.
Back in the swamps, men were dressed in overalls, hip boots and straw hats, and they were sawing on cypress trees that reached heights of up to 100 feet. A crew cut 35 to 40 trees daily while a pullboat dragged 125 to 150 logs from the swamps each day.
Chains and Spikes
Logs were floated down the tiny man-made canals to the bayous, where they were bound together by chains and spikes and hauled away by steamboats and sometimes schooners.
Months before this operation could begin, men went into the swamps and cut rings of bark from the bottoms of the cypress trees to kill them. When the time came for cutting, the trees were more buoyant and therefore easier to pull from the obstacle-laden swamp.
Some swampers lived in skidder towns that consisted of a schoolhouse, an ice house, a trading post and several hastily constructed living quarters. These towns were located on the banks of bayous or lakes near swamp areas. Skidder towns were set up so job sites would be close to home sites, minimizing travel time.
After men had cut all the timber in the surrounding area, they loaded some of the town’s buildings on barges and floated them to another location.
Swampers who did not live in those moving towns often stayed in the swamps for 13 days and nights at a time before returning to civilization. Many men had no reason to go to town, so they brought a houseboat (family and all) to their work sites. Men living neither in houseboats nor skidder towns slept in quarter boats or on the bank near the waterway.
Swampers – the men who spent their time cutting cypress in the swamps – worked from dawn until dusk and could often be seen after nightfall, trudging through the swamps toward their quarters. They were paid $1.50 for a 10-hour day.
Mill owners did not discriminate against any segment of the population in those days, according to a 1971 interview with Roland Laws, a Franklin resident who owned and operated R.B. Laws Cypress Mill.
Men, women and children of different races were hired. People of all ages “from 12 years old all the way up to when they couldn’t walk” were given a chance at employment, Laws said.
During the winters, men of the skidder towns sat around big potbellied stoves keeping warm, exchanging stories, playing cards, whittling and chewing tobacco. They drank blackberry wine; muscadine wine; and home brew, a type of beer.
Swampers were plagued in their work by alligators, snakes, extreme temperatures, mosquitoes, bears, hurricanes, floods and low water. They had to wait for the water to rise before they could float the logs from the swamps. They fled the floods and hurricanes. They killed the bears, snakes and alligators, or they were killed by them. They swatted and cursed the mosquitoes. And they managed to live with the extremes in temperature.
Mother Nature dealt the logging industry a series of harsh back-to-back blows. In 1924 a severe drought dried the water in the swamps. Then the hurricane of 1926 ripped through the cypressland, leaving fallen trees blocking the canals used for floating trees from the swamps. And in 1927 came a devastating flood, the same flood that prompted Congress to pass the Flood Control Bill.
“What else could go wrong?” thought the workers as they fought to restore the industry to its former production level.
Only three months after the industry was back on its feet, swampers and millers got word of a catastrophe they couldn’t adjust to. It was a problem they couldn’t conquer: The red cypress supply was depleted, and the mills would have to be closed.
Nothing could have prevented it. Reforestation would have been futile because it takes cypress 600 to 700 years to grow to maturity.
For half a century men had chopped the trees, until there were no more to take. It seemed hard to believe at first; few ever stopped to imagine that one day that vast supply of cypress timber would be depleted.
Workers were laid off. Logs no longer jammed the streams. Screaming saws were hushed. Scores of mills closed their doors.
“The swamp got too small to handle the big mills and all those people,” said Laws, explaining the death of the cypress industry.
Men and women alike, who had spent the better parts of their adult lives working in some phase of the cypress industry, were depressed to learn they would have to look elsewhere for work.
Youngsters took it pretty hard, too. Before the bad news came, they would entertain themselves by lounging on the banks of the bayous, watching steamboats and dreaming of the day when they would be old enough to work in the mills or in the swamps. That was the thing in those days; that’s what a boy dreamed of doing when he got big.
Slump towns – the penultimate step before towns become ghost towns – began taking shape along the bayous as the mills continued closing. Some towns had depended solely on the cypress industry for support. Others claimed the industry as their main source of revenue.
The people began moving away, putting their three-bedroom cypress houses up for sale for as little as $50. They searched for other work but only found the cold stare of depression wherever they went. The Great Depression of 1927 struck the country at the same time that the mills closed – an unhappy coincidence. The two disasters occurred simultaneously but were independent of each other.
Bayou Teche still creeps quietly past a dozen dilapidated, deserted sawmills and quietly past a new generation of cypress knees that may supply enough red cypress for another boom period. But that period is perhaps six centuries in the offing.
(Adapted from the March/April 1971 edition of Acadiana Profile, Vol. 2, No. 6)