Captain John Mercer Rabun

Dr. Timothy D. Hudson

John Mercer Rabun’s business skill and acumen significantly influenced Farmerville’s development as a leading center of north Louisiana commerce during the postwar era of the nineteenth century. In a variety of occupations, including his work as a farmer, newspaper publisher/editor, steamboat pilot and captain, steamboat landing operator, steamboat designer, transportation company executive, and politician, Capt. Rabun spent the bulk of his forty-year career in service to the denizens of Union Parish and the greater Ouachita Valley of northeastern Louisiana and southern Arkansas. In the process, he endeared himself to the populace through his gregarious and affable nature, remaining above the fray in the vicious political struggles of the 1870s and 1880s that polarized both Union Parish and the surrounding region. The consummate business professional and possessing a “kind and genial disposition,” Rabun exhibited rare interpersonal skills that allowed him to remain on friendly terms with everyone, even those with whom he politically disagreed.

Born in 1835 in Butler County Alabama to Thomas Rabun and Mary J. Brinkley, as a toddler John M. Rabun moved with his extended family to north Louisiana, settling a few miles north of what is now Farmerville. Over the next several years, Rabun’s father, grandfather, and uncles worked to help the new parish build its seat of government, construct roads, and establish ferries across the local bayous and rivers. Maintaining convenient access to transportation to the Port of New Orleans for both passengers and cargo formed the primary concern of the parish government in the early years. Until railroad service reached Farmerville in 1904, steamboats provided the only reasonable means of transportation, as travel along Louisiana roadways proved an arduous task in that era. Parish officials chose Farmerville’s location near the juncture of Bayous D’Arbonne and Corney specifically for this purpose; they recognized the potential for steamboats to navigate the channels of both bayous, once they had been cleared of centuries of dead trees, stumps, and sand bars. Until then, steamboats only made the treacherous journey from the Ouachita River up Bayou D’Arbonne to Farmerville during periods of exceptionally high water.

While they waited for the state to clear her bayous, the Union Parish Police Jury concentrated on keeping the road from Farmerville to Parker’s Landing on the Ouachita River especially well-maintained. John Parker had operated a ferry on the Ouachita River near the mouth of Bayou d’Loutre since the 1820s. As steamboat service on the river became routine, it became known as “Parker’s Landing,” with warehouses to store baled cotton headed to New Orleans as well as cargo destined for Farmerville and other inland villages such as Shiloh, Downsville, Spearsville, Vienna, Lisbon, and Summerfield and parts of southern Arkansas. After Parker’s death in 1843, Capt. Rabun’s father and grandfather, Thomas and John Rabun, moved from Farmerville to the Ouachita River, where the elder John Rabun operated Parker’s Landing for several years. As the primary Ouachita River steamboat landing in Union Parish, Parker’s Landing soon became known as “Port Union.” After John Rabun’s death in 1847, Thomas Rabun purchased Port Union Landing. In 1848, the state finally completed the initial clearing of the channels of Bayous D’Arbonne and Corney, allowing regular steamboat access to all D’Arbonne landings up to Farmerville, and up Corney to Stein’s Bluff (where the modern Bernice highway crosses the bayou). This led to incredible development in Farmerville, as the little town grew into a thriving center of commerce for the region. In the early 1850s, Thomas Rabun acquired joint ownership of the steamboat landing at the mouth of Bayou D’Arbonne a few miles north of Monroe, the area that developed into Trenton. Thomas Rabun helped to operate it until his death. Thus, Capt. John M. Rabun grew up intimately associated with the steamboat service industry, learning the skills of piloting the smaller bayou steamers along the nearby Ouachita tributaries of Bayous D’Arbonne, Corney, Bartholomew, and Saline as a teenager in the late 1840s and early 1850s.

Farmerville’s first newspaper, the “Union Expositor,” debuted in 1848, the same year that regular steamboat service to Farmerville and other Bayou D’Arbonne landings began. Under new ownership the next year, it became the “Farmerville Enquirer” soon developed into the strongest proponent of the new American Party, also known as the Know-Nothing Party, in the northern half of the state. Between 1848 and 1857, the “Enquirer” enjoyed a large nationwide circulation, frequently quoted by many of the nation’s leading journals. As the Know-Nothings lost favor in Louisiana in 1857, the “Farmerville Enquirer” became defunct, leaving Union Parish without newspaper coverage for almost a year. In 1858, John M. Rabun founded the “Union Democrat,” Union Parish’s third successful newspaper, this one adhering to Rabun’s own political philosophy: that of the Democratic Party. Rabun probably bought the old printing equipment of the “Enquirer” for his new paper, and he operated the “Union Democrat” for the next few years. After Louisiana voted to secede from the United States in January 1861, the title of Rabun’s paper gave a politically uncomfortable connotation, so he changed the name to the “Farmerville South.” Publication continued until the fall of 1861, by which time most of the paper’s staff had left for service in the Confederate Army. Rabun shut down his paper that fall, leaving Farmerville and Union Parish without newspaper coverage for the duration of the war.

Like many married men with families, John M. Rabun remained at home during the first year of the war, engaged in his planting operation near Farmerville and the publication of his paper. However, his younger brother, Charles P. Rabun, joined the “Phoenix Rifles,” Company C, 17th Regiment Louisiana Infantry, in the summer of 1861 at the young age of sixteen. Charlie accompanied his unit to Camp Moore in September, and he suffered greatly from measles that fall; in fact, his illness became severe enough that Captain Jordan Gray Taylor sent him home to Union Parish for three weeks to recover. He survived, rejoined his unit, participating in the Battle of Shiloh and action around Corinth in 1862. After seventeen months military service, including combat, military officials finally realized that Charlie Rabun was a seventeen-year old orphan without a parent to give permission for his underage service, and so they ordered him discharged for being under age in December 1862, one month prior to his eighteenth birthday.

Meanwhile, John M. Rabun enlisted on 6 November 1862 in the “Sparrow Cadets,” later Company I, 31st Regiment Louisiana Infantry. He joined his unit as they moved to Jackson and Vicksburg Mississippi, participating in late December in the Battle of Chickasaw Bayou, where the Southern army soundly defeated General Sherman’s troops as they attempted to take Vicksburg from the north. On 9 February 1863, now aged eighteen, Charlie Rabun enlisted again in his former unit, but officials soon granted his transfer request, moving him into John’s unit. As Gen. Grant tightened his noose around the Confederate Army at Vicksburg, the Rabun brothers participated as their unit left Camp Ouachita near Vicksburg to greet Grant’s troops as they landed at Grand Gulf. The armies met on May 1st at Port Gibson, and as the Southerners advanced, the Federals released a cannon barrage, but the Yankee artillerymen had set their aim too high. The cannonballs sailed through the trees above their heads, one breaking off a large limb that fell to the ground, hitting Charlie on the thigh. As the injury caused a permanent large swelling of his thigh that severely impaired him later in life, he undoubtedly had to be helped away from the action, perhaps by John. Charlie recovered, and both he and John served throughout the Siege of Vicksburg and the remainder of the war.

John M. Rabun returned home from the war to Union Parish, a region that managed to escape the destruction and deprivations inflicted by invading enemy armies on many other areas of the South. Still, the war had obliterated the local economy that had thrived in the antebellum era. Cotton production had ceased after the 1861 harvest due to the embargo that prevented baled cotton from getting to market, and beginning in 1862, citizens cultivated only corn, sweet potatoes, and other garden vegetables, both for their own sustenance and to help sustain the armies in the field. The key to re-energizing the once-thriving agrarian economy of north Louisiana’s Ouachita Valley lay in rebuilding the region’s transportation infrastructure, and so Rabun returned to the life he had spent his boyhood observing at Parker’s Landing and the Farmerville Landing: steamboating. He became closely associated with Farmerville resident Daniel Stein, the leading merchant of north Louisiana during the postwar period. Stein had married the widow of Farmerville’s antebellum merchant, Lazarus Brunner, and taken over his firm, Brunner Brothers, previously operated by Lazarus and his younger brother, Emanuel Brunner. Stein began investing capital in steamboats specifically designed to operate in the shallow waters of the Union Parish bayous, boats that would ensure regular service to Union Parish, water levels permitting. In the latter 1860s, Rabun piloted Stein’s boats, quickly resuming service from the Shiloh, Spearsville, Farmerville, and other Union Parish landings to New Orleans.

John M. Rabun soon developed a reputation as one of the most highly-skilled pilots of the smaller bayou steamers, those capable of gliding through a mere few inches of water. He worked extensively the Ouachita River’s tributary streams: Bayous D’Arbonne, Corney, and Bartholomew and the Saline River, as well as along the Ouachita, Black, Red, and Mississippi Rivers down to New Orleans. He was widely considered “one of the best and safest steamboatmen on the river” who “had no superior” as a steamboat pilot. Although steamboat boiler explosions killed, maimed, and disfigured thousands on the western waters during the steamboat era, through Capt. Rabun’s skilled, careful operation, none of his steamers experienced a boiler explosion.

The first postwar steamboats tended to be relics converted from military use during the war, and none lasted more than a season or two. One of Stein’s first boats to regularly ply the D’Arbonne and Corney while piloted by Rabun was the “Oddity,” providing service to the Farmerville, Shiloh, Spearsville and other Union Parish landings from 1870 to 1873. After harvest season each fall, she typically carried several hundred bales of cotton, stacked as high as her hurricane deck (roof). In mid-March 1873, Rabun pulled away from Farmerville Landing in the “Oddity,” fully loaded with 500 bales of cotton and headed downstream to the Ouachita. After descending the D’Arbonne to about eight miles above her mouth, as the boat passed through a large overflow, a spark from one of her boilers ignited a nearby cotton bale. The fire spread quickly, consuming the boat and cotton, but luckily, all passengers escaped. The wreck of the “Oddity” remained along the D’Arbonne bank for decades, a burnt relic from the past.

To replace the “Oddity,” Rabun went with Captain William Wentzell to Cincinnati to superintend the construction of the “Bertha Brunner,” a sternwheel steamboat specifically designed for use on Bayou D’Arbonne and the other tributaries. A native of Bavaria like Stein and the Brunners, Wentzell named the new boat for Emanuel Brunner’s young daughter, born in Farmerville in 1863. Between 1873 and 1879, the “Bertha Brunner” became a fixture on Bayous D’Arbonne and Corney, regularly hauling cotton and passengers from Union Parish landings to Trenton (near modern West Monroe) and Monroe, where she connected with larger steamers bound for New Orleans. The “Bertha Brunner” often hauled loads of 1000 cotton bales per trip out of Union Parish, as well as livestock and staves cut from Union Parish timber.

After only a few seasons, farmers and merchants from across Union, Lincoln, and Claiborne Parishes came to depend upon the regular service that “Bertha Brunner” and Capt. Rabun provided. To ensure its continuation, in the mid-1870s, Rabun entered into a business arrangement with young Lazarus Brunner, Jr., then only eighteen, a partnership that lasted the remainder of Rabun’s life. With funding from Brunner’s step-father, Daniel Stein, Rabun and Brunner began acquiring multiple light-draught steamboats capable of maneuvering in the tributary bayous. In late 1876, Rabun and Brunner purchased the “Bertha Brunner” from Capt. Wentzell, and thereafter, they used her exclusively to serve all Bayou D’Arbonne and Corney landings. When the water levels in the bayous became too low, they operated her up the Ouachita River to Camden and down to New Orleans. In late 1877, Capt. Rabun took the “Bertha Brunner” to New Orleans for a complete overhaul, after which she returned to service. The “Bertha Brunner” remains one of the best-known and most reliable steamboats to ever ply the Union Parish bayous.

In 1877, Captains Rabun and Brunner became leading shareholders of the Independent New Orleans and Ouachita Packet Line, a corporation formed in Monroe dedicated to providing reliable transportation services to New Orleans for merchants, planters, and residents of Louisiana’s upper Ouachita Valley. Their corporation became absorbed by the Ouachita River Consolidated Line in 1881, but Rabun and Brunner remained committed to and in control of their small fleet of light-draught steamers to handle the tributary trade, soon known as the “Rabun B Line.” In the latter 1870s, Capt. Rabun became extremely active in the Monroe Board of Trade, and in 1880, he assumed control of the Monroe Wharfboat and Elevator Company. As director, Rabun purchased a wharfboat to use for transferring cargo between arriving steamboats and warehouses at Monroe’s wharf, and he constructed a fireproof brick warehouse and elevator near the city’s steamboat landing. In 1888, Rabun and Brunner consolidated their business interests and formed the Monroe Transportation Company, of which Rabun served as director.

In 1878, amid his success in north Louisiana’s transportation industry, Capt. Rabun returned to one of his prewar endeavors: journalism. After going without a newspaper during the war, in February 1866, Farmerville’s fourth successful weekly newspaper debuted: “The Union Record.” It served Union Parish throughout the vicious and tumultuous Reconstruction Era. Capt. Rabun had no known association with the “Record,” focusing instead upon his steamboat and transportation business during this period. In fact, Rabun had starkly differing political views than the editorial staff of “The Union Record,” even though he remained on cordial terms with them. The February 1877 end of Reconstruction in Louisiana and return to home rule polarized the state’s Democratic Party into factions, each with diverging political viewpoints. To counter the viewpoint espoused by “The Union Record,” in November 1878 Capt. Rabun and Judge William R. Roberts founded “The Gazette.” The statewide press welcomed Farmerville’s new paper, and for the next six months, Union Parish had two competing newspapers, a voice for each of the Democratic Party’s factions.

In the spring of 1879, fate visited two devastating events upon Rabun’s business interests, double tragedies that significantly affected the Union Parish citizens and those of the surrounding parishes that depended upon Bayou D’Arbonne transportation. The “Bertha Brunner” left Farmerville Landing on Wednesday, 9 April 1879, heading down the D’Arbonne, loaded with 775 bales of cotton destined for Trenton. She overnighted along the way, then on the morning of the 10th, she became stuck at the mouth of St. Francis Creek, about twenty-five miles downstream from Farmerville. While aground, at about 11:00 a.m. a stiff breeze blew embers from a boiler onto a bale of cotton, and within minutes the fire spread rapidly. Realizing the boat was lost, Rabun and Brunner attempted to dump some of the cotton into the bayou, where it could be salvaged, but after only getting 60 bales into the channel the raging inferno forced them to abandon the boat. The “Bertha Brunner” and her safe containing $600 cash proved a total loss.

In early 1879, an apparent arsonist seemed intent upon destroying Farmerville. Lingering overtones of Reconstruction-era grudges still festered among many residents, and he may have targeted the office of “The Union Record,” whose owner/publisher received threats to his life about that time. However, the incendiary’s precise motivation remains unclear, and he may have merely harbored a nefarious urge to cause mayhem and destruction, without any political agenda. He struck first during the wee hours of New Year’s Day, igniting a blaze in a vacant office belonging to William A. Darby. It soon spread to adjacent buildings, incinerating a general store, Farmerville’s telegraph office, and Judge James E. Trimble’s law office, destroying a portion of his valuable library. Luckily, the blaze was contained within that block and only destroyed four buildings.

Meanwhile, after only a few months of joint ownership of “The Gazette,” Judge Roberts sold his interest in the paper to Capt. Rabun, leaving him as the sole owner and editor. By early May, Rabun had expanded his printing operation and opened a second “Gazette” office to focus on contract printing. On Friday, May 9th, he signed a contract with Rev. Sterling C. Lee, agreeing to print Lee’s “Baptist Messenger,” a new religious periodical, and Rabun printed the first issue early the next week.

A few days later, the local incendiary struck again, this time using greater precision. The blaze he ignited just after midnight on Thursday, May 15th, caused a conflagration that incinerated Farmerville’s entire business district, destroying four general stores, all town saloons, livery stables, saddlery shops, barbershops, drug stores, hotels, warehouses, and the town’s only shoe and tin shops. Moreover, it destroyed the office of “The Union Record” and both of “The Gazette” offices. As dawn broke the next morning, only the courthouse and Stein’s brick storehouse remained unscathed, towering above the smoldering ashes of what had been downtown Farmerville. With its office and printing equipment destroyed, the “Record” ceased publication after serving the parish for the previous thirteen years.

Rabun immediately went to work to deal with the tragedies, securing the “Timmie Baker” as a temporary replacement for the “Bertha Brunner” while he made plans for a permanent solution. In late June, he left for Cincinnati, Ohio to superintend the construction of a new boat specially designed for the D’Arbonne and Corney trade, the “Rosa B.”  Completed in October at a cost of $15,000, she had a maximum capacity of 1200 bales of cotton, boasted nine state-rooms (five for the gentlemen and four for the ladies) to accommodate 20 passengers, a spacious dining room, and could glide through a mere 20 inches of water. Rabun took his new sternwheel boat down the Mississippi, picking up a load of cotton at Natchez and arriving at the New Orleans wharf on November 1st, awaiting a rise in the Ouachita and bayous. When Rabun finally steamed up to the Monroe Landing on the evening of December 14th, observers raved over her, claiming the “Rosa B” was “one of the prettiest, neatest, and…the best Bayou D’Arbonne boat ever built.” She left Monroe for her debut on Bayou D’Arbonne on Tuesday morning, December 16th.

Before leaving for Cincinnati, Rabun acquired a new business partner and co-owner of “The Gazette,” James E. Trimble, a former teacher and headmaster of the Farmerville Female Institute, an engineer, lawyer, and former Farmerville postmaster, District Attorney, and District Judge. In Rabun’s absence, residents rebuilt Farmerville, with many brick buildings replacing the former wooden structures so susceptible to fires. Judge Trimble secured new printing presses and supplies, and by December, completed the replacement of both “Gazette” offices. A few weeks after Capt. Rabun arrived back in Farmerville with his new boat, they published the first issue of “The Gazette” since the fire. Their prompt return to print surprised the statewide press, leading one to remark that “The Gazette” had “risen, Phoenix-like, from the ashes.” The firm foundation Rabun had set allowed “The Gazette” to thrive following its return to publication after the fire, but the demands of the publishing business distracted him from his steamboating obligations. He sold his interest in the paper to Judge Trimble later in 1880. The success of “The Gazette” continued, with the paper still published each week in Farmerville to this day.

The “Rosa B” quickly earned a name for herself as one of the fastest on the Ouachita, regularly making the round trip of 150 miles from Monroe to Farmerville and Stein’s Bluff in a mere thirty-six hours. In May 1880, the “Rosa B” left Trenton for all D’Arbonne landings with the largest load of freight ever carried up the bayou on one boat. During the 1880–1881 season, Capt. Rabun helmed the “Rosa B” on nineteen trips up the Bartholomew, seventeen up the D’Arbonne and Corney, and three up the Saline River, hauling a total of 15,448 bales of cotton from the bayous to Monroe.

Disasters throughout the 1880s reveal the perilous nature of steamboating. In September 1880, Rabun purchased the “Fair Play,” a sternwheel packet who assisted the “Rosa B” in the tributary trade. After a trip up the Saline River in southern Arkansas, on the afternoon of 18 February 1881, Rabun steamed the “Fair Play,” carrying her maximum load of 1300 bales of cotton, up to Monroe’s wharf and docked beside the “Katie,” his wharfboat. He supervised the crew’s transfer of about 400 bales from the “Fair Play” to the “Katie” before retiring for the night. Rabun’s wife, Kate Dean Rabun, niece of former Union Parish Judge John Taylor, and a few of their children and a guest slept on board with him. About midnight, a fire originated in the engine room. With all on board asleep and the night watchman dozing, a passerby raised the alarm after the flames had progressed to the cotton remaining onboard, and utter confusion and chaos ensued. In a heavy slumber, had Rabun’s wife not roused him, he would have perished in the fire. In effecting the escape of his family, guests, and crew, Capt. Rabun and his clerk suffered severe burns. Trapped on the roof of the hurricane deck by the surrounding inferno, the cabin boy managed a leaping dive into the river and swam the 200 yards across to the other side. The conflagration consumed both the “Fair Play” and the “Katie,” killing one of Rabun’s guests and causing losses of $105,000.

As the water levels fell in the fall of 1881 and the bayou steamboating season ended, Rabun took the “Rosa B” to New Orleans for regular overhauling and the installation of “fancy chimneys.” During that time of the season, sandbars formed that prevented access from the Red River into the Mississippi, obstructing transfer of freight, passengers, and the U.S. mail. Capt. Rabun’s boat could maneuver across the “Mud Hole,” and so he took the “Rosa B” on daily trips over the sandbars until the water levels rose and the 1881–1882 season opened. She then returned to the Union Parish bayous and began transporting the 1881 cotton crop to market. On 30 December 1881, loaded with 800 bales of cotton on one of her first trips from Farmerville down Bayou D’Arbonne, when three miles above the bayou’s mouth, a disastrous fire destroyed the “Rosa B,” burning her to the water’s edge and claiming the life of the boat’s cook, who jumped overboard and drowned.

Capt. Rabun next purchased the “Lind Grove” to handle the D’Arbonne and Corney routes. Smaller than Rabun’s prized “Rosa B,” the “Lind Grove” had only six state rooms and an extremely narrow cabin, but her ability to trim through a mere sixteen inches of water made her an excellent bayou steamer. She proved swift, making the trip from Trenton to Stein’s Bluff and back in thirty-three hours. The “Lind Grove” also succumbed to fire, this one originating in her engine room on 26 September 1884 while docked at the Monroe wharf. The following month, Rabun purchased “Poplar Bluff,” another small steamer capable of navigating the bayous and with a maximum capacity of 800 bales. After only one season on the D’Arbonne and Corney, Rabun and Brunner had her overhauled and remodeled at the Monroe wharf.  At 3:00 p.m. on 15 November 1885, on her first trip of the 1885–1886 season, loaded with 475 bales of cotton and one barrel of peanuts, Rabun piloted while Brunner commanded the “Poplar Bluff” down the Black River, destined for New Orleans. Rabun discovered a fire in several cotton bales near the pilot house, and he and Brunner furiously attempted to throw the enflamed cotton bales overboard to save their boat. After ten minutes, the flames became a conflagration, forcing them to jump in skiffs and abandon the “Poplar Bluff.” A large river steamboat hove into sight at that moment, rescuing Rabun, Brunner and the crew from their skiffs, and they watched the “Poplar Bluff” burn to the water’s edge from the deck of that boat.

Rabun purchased the “Sterling White,” a Shreveport ferryboat, as a replacement in early 1886, remodeling her as a cotton packet. Between 1886 and the early 1890s, she made numerous runs up Bayous D’Arbonne and Corney, handling much of the Union Parish trade and managing to escape the fires that doomed so many of her counterparts. In the summer of 1888, Rabun left for Friendly, West Virginia, to supervise the construction of a new boat, named the “Friendly.” Another sternwheel packet, she ran 120’ in length, perfectly suited for operation on the Union Parish bayous. She began making trips to the Farmerville and Shiloh Landings that fall. In early January 1889, after Rabun had a crew clear the Bayou D’Arbonne channel beyond the Corney’s mouth into Lincoln Parish, the “Friendly” made her first trip up the D’Arbonne as far as Colvin’s Landing at Unionville (modern Dubach). Low water prevented her from turning around, so Rabun had to back her all the way back to the Corney. He also took the “Friendly” up to Killgore’s and Cobb’s Landings on Bayou Corney.

Although he developed strong business ties to Monroe and Trenton, Capt. John M. Rabun remained a resident of Farmerville for the duration of his adult life. In addition to his steamboating and newspaper endeavors, he performed numerous local civic duties, including service as Justice of the Peace at the young age of twenty-five, a Farmerville alderman in 1870, Union Parish Coroner, and one term as Farmerville mayor in 1885–1887. Beginning in the mid-1880s, Rabun began suffering repeated bouts of illness from what was then termed “Bright’s Disease,” now known as chronic nephritis or diabetic nephropathy. He rebounded from each episode, continuing with his relentless work schedule. On Wednesday, 6 February 1889, Rabun brought the “Sterling White” from a trip up Bayou Bartholomew back to Monroe, loaded with 300 bales of cotton, but on arrival he was taken to a friend’s residence. Apparently realizing the end had arrived, on Friday he sold his interest in his new wharfboat, the “Fannie Tatum,” after which he lapsed into a coma. Surrounded by his wife and children, Capt. John M. Rabun died in Monroe on February 14th. In a tribute to his memory, the flags of steamboats throughout the Mississippi River Valley flew at half-mast for the week after his death.

 

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Dr. Timothy D. Hudson is the mathematics department head at Southeastern Louisiana University and an avid historian on Union Parish. Dr. Hudson is a Union Parish native and graduate of Farmerville High School.

 

 

 

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