Nineteenth Century Union Parish Economy

Written by Dr. Timothy D. Hudson

Villages routinely formed and dissolved as European settlement expanded across the continent, causing many county and parish seats to occasionally change locations. Farmerville’s crowning jewel that cemented her position as the permanent parish seat and evolution into the regional economic center lay in her geographical location, more specifically, the town’s proximity at the juncture of Bayous D’Arbonne and Corney. Col. Matthew Wood and other parish founders who selected Farmerville’s location recognized the bayous’ potential to allow steamboat service from the Ouachita River to Farmerville, and on further up the channels of both bayous. However, before steamboats could begin making regular trips to town, the channel of Bayou D’Arbonne required clearing of centuries of deadwood and debris, projectiles that could easily rip through the delicate hulls of the river steamboats. Louisiana’s State Engineer made initial attempts to clear the D’Arbonne in the summer of 1843, and the first advertised steamboat from New Orleans, the “Agnes,” arrived at the Farmerville Landing, about a mile southwest of the courthouse, the week of 20 January 1844. She made a second trip the next month, leaving the New Orleans wharf on February 23rd. These trips occurred during periods of exceptionally high water levels in the bayous, and remaining deadwood and debris prevented steamers from making routine trips to Farmerville over the next few years. It took Union Parish’s legislative delegation of Representative William C. Carr and Senator William W. Farmer to push the Legislature to appropriate funding for further clearing. Their efforts paid off, with the State appropriating $2500 to improve navigation on Bayou D’Arbonne on 28 April 1847. The Legislature appointed these Farmerville residents to oversee the appropriation, let out bids, and superintend the project: Daniel Payne, Thomas van Hook, Wilson C. Eubanks, William Ham, Judge John Taylor, Henry P. Anderson, and William B. Cooper. As this sum proved insufficient to complete the task, the Legislature allocated additional funding in 1848, allowing the State Engineer’s crew to remove enough snags and deadwood to allow light-draught steamboats regular access to Farmerville Landing.

The 1848 work to clear Bayous D’Arbonne and Corney for navigation inaugurated Farmerville’s Steamboat Era, with the village thereafter having regular steamboat service throughout the annual steamboating season, approximately December through June of each year. Regular steamboat service proved vital to the development of Union Parish and the surrounding region west of the Ouachita River, moving them from a handful of isolated farming communities into the modern age of the mid-nineteenth century commerce. Steamboats allowed the agrarian economy of Union Parish to thrive, as service up the D’Arbonne and Corney gave Union Parish farmers living away from the Ouachita River, as well as those of Lincoln, Claiborne, and northwestern Ouachita Parishes, and southern Union and Columbia Counties Arkansas, an easy means to get their baled cotton to market. In addition, steamers could now deliver freight directly from New Orleans to the merchants of Farmerville, dropping off freight for the Shiloh, Spearsville, Lisbon, and Summerfield merchants at Stein’s Bluff, where workers loaded it on keelboats for the trip up the Corney to the Shiloh and Spearsville Landings. Freight for Vienna and other areas in Jackson (later Lincoln) and Claiborne Parishes went up Bayou D’Arbonne by flatboat. The merchants then only had to haul their freight from the landings to their respective towns, significantly decreasing their costs of acquiring goods to stock their stores. Profits of the Farmerville merchants soared after the arrival of regular steam service, and in the postwar era, Farmerville boasted the largest mercantile establishment in the northern half of Louisiana outside Shreveport. Towards the latter 1800s, the earned capital of Farmerville’s businessmen paved the way for the development of a national bank, timber companies, and other firms headquartered in Farmerville. The advent of regular steamboat service truly revved up Farmerville’s economic engine into overdrive, allowing the little town to survive the devastation of the War and even thrive during the general economic depression of postwar nineteenth century Louisiana. Steamers also regularly transported passengers between Union Parish, Monroe, Baton Rouge, and New Orleans, remaining the most efficient means of travel to and from the parish until the arrival of the railroads in Farmerville in 1904.

Following the State’s clearing of the Union Parish bayous in 1848, a New Orleans steamboat company first advertised regular freight service for Bayou D’Arbonne in February 1849, with the large river steamer “Monroe” delivering goods to the bayou’s mouth at Trenton on the Ouachita River (north of modern West Monroe), with a smaller steamer carrying it up the D’Arbonne to Farmerville. The 1849–1850 season began in December, with the “Gant” making regular trips on the route from New Orleans to Farmerville and the Saline River in southern Arkansas between December 1849 and May 1850. One of the few side-wheel packets to ply Bayou D’Arbonne, the “Gant” was built in St. Landry Parish in 1847 and ran 98.7’ in length, 17.5’ in breadth, 4.5’ in depth, and had a capacity of 69 tons. The next season began late due to dry weather conditions that dropped water levels in the Ouachita River and bayous. On 4 February 1851, the brand-new “Haidee” steamed away from the New Orleans wharf headed up the Mississippi River to Farmerville. Running 138’ in length, 23’ in breadth, 5½’ in depth, she boasted two engines and the latest safety measures. A New Orleans newspaper crowed that “for speed, comfort and safety she is unsurpassed by any boat of her class.”

The tiny village carved out on a hilltop in the piney hills by Col. Wood, Dr. Carr, and James H. Seale between 1839 and 1841 experienced explosive growth during the 1840s with the influx of settlers from the east and beginnings of a cotton-based economy. By 1847, even before the establishment of regular steamboat service, Farmerville had grown to become the largest town in the interior of the Ouachita Valley, with DeBow’s Review writing that the village “…is increasing and bids fair becoming a town of some importance.” Farmerville’s location at the head of navigation on Bayous D’Arbonne and Corney made it a portal for the region’s agricultural products to reach the New Orleans markets, and as mercantile establishments thrived, they brought tremendous business to town. In 1850, Farmerville’s ongoing building boom provided work in town to two brick masons, Peter Dawson and John Cunningham, as well as ten carpenters, including American-born A. Bledso, James E. Lee, William A. McFarland, S. M. Murray, John Nicholas, William B. H. Poer (a future mayor of Farmerville), John Reed, and Nathaniel G. W. Stokes, as well as John Atwell, a native of England, and John D. Taylor, a native of Scotland. Enoch B. Whitson operated Farmerville’s tavern, as well as a hotel, and Daniel Payne operated a second hotel. Six physicians had hung their shingle in Farmerville, including Drs. William Culverhouse, Benjamin F. Dillard, James A. Dozier, C. Fitzpatrick, I. T. Henderson, and Ireland native Dr. William Dunlap. Attorneys Steven H. McGill and Francis M. Levison, together with Denmark native Henry Regenburg (another future mayor of Farmerville) operated law practices in Farmerville. Reuben Ellis maintained the parish records as Recorder. James D. Summerville operated a blacksmith shop, while Daniel H. Smith and Nathaniel Betterton worked as wagon makers, and Albert Neighbors as a cabinet maker. Farmerville also had two tailors, James King and Ireland native T. S. Agnew, as well as a baker, Charles H. Gibson, and three printers. In 1853, George Koehler opened a gunsmith shop in Farmerville, able to make or repair guns and pistols, boasting that his experience in Germany “enables him to do work superior to any to be found in the Southwest.”

The economic engine unleashed by the arrival of steamboat service to Farmerville made its mark within a year, for during the 1849 growing season, Union Parish farmers produced 5,213 bales of cotton, far more than any other Louisiana parish except for a few in the Mississippi Delta region. The bulk of this cotton crop passed through Farmerville’s mercantile establishments on its way to the New Orleans markets. Farmerville’s booming mercantile business employed more men than any other profession in 1850, with fully fifteen merchants working in the village, including Americans Eli L. Collins, Adam Bynum Cooper, William A. Darby, David Delk, William A. Glasson, Milton Ikard, Columbus B. Jones, and Silvanus Shepard, as well as Holland natives Abraham Levison and Abraham Strasser and Denmark native James C. S. Nygaard. Carson & Bayless and Brunner & Brother formed the largest and most successful mercantile firms of the period. Carson & Bayless, owned by partners James H. Carson and John A. Bayless, formed in Farmerville in the mid-1840s and operated until Bayless’ death on 8 October 1857. By the time they closed, the firm had accumulated assets in excess of $50,000, a veritable fortune for that era.

The failure of reform movements in the early 1840s led to significant emigration of Jews from the Germanic states. Many of them settled across the American South, finding a welcoming environment among the predominately Protestant populace. They tended to have business backgrounds, frequently working as peddlers or merchants, and by 1850, most every town throughout the Mississippi River Valley had a few Jewish merchants. Two Jewish families emigrated from modern Germany in the 1840s and eventually formed the core nucleus of Farmerville’s small but tight-knit Jewish Community: the Brunners and Shlenkers. Born in Landau in der Pfalz, Rheinland-Pfalz, Germany, Emanuel Brunner arrived at the Port of New Orleans in June 1844 at the young age of fifteen years. His older brother, Lazarus, born in Brauweiler, Germany on 13 May 1821, sailed aboard the “Norman” from the Port of Havre and arrived in New Orleans on 16 October 1844. Lazarus left his wife and infant son behind in Germany. Seizing on the building boom occasioned by the arrival of regular steamboat service, the Brunner brothers soon settled in Farmerville, with the District Court approving them as naturalized United States citizens on 5 November 1850. Lazarus had worked as a baker in Bavaria prior to his emigration from Germany, but he formed a commercial business partnership in Farmerville with his brother during the latter 1840s, Brunner & Brother. On 18 October 1850, merchant Eli L. Collins sold Brunner & Brother two town lots and his existing storehouse located on the courthouse square on Bayou and Main Streets in Farmerville. Lazarus and Emanuel Brunner remodeled and expanded, operating two storehouses at that location during the 1850s that developed into a thriving mercantile business. Lazarus Brunner’s wife, Caroline Rowe, and son joined him in Farmerville in the early 1850s, but she died in 1853 after giving birth to their daughter, Ellen.

David Schlenker, a native of Westhofen, Germany, married in the early 1820s to Fannie Elsaesser, born in Gernsheim, Grob-Gerauer Landkreis, Hessen, Germany on 1 January 1800. David died there in November 1839, but in the 1840s, his four elder children Karolina, Alexander, Simon, and Isaac, sailed to America and settled in Trinity or Harrisonburg, on the Ouachita River south of Monroe. In 1850, Alex and Simon worked as merchants, with Isaac clerking in their store. The siblings Americanized their name to Shlenker, with Karolina also adopting the American form of her name, Caroline. In conjunction with their business operations and to visit Louisiana’s only synagogue at that time, the Brunner brothers routinely traveled along the Ouachita River between Farmerville and New Orleans. Stopping at Harrisonburg and Trinity along their journeys to New Orleans, the Brunners thereby became acquainted with the Shlenkers. Alex and Caroline moved to Farmerville in the 1850s, with Caroline marrying the recently-widowed Lazarus Brunner in Farmerville on 4 October 1855. Caroline’s eighteen-year-old younger brother, Jacob, arrived at the Port of New Orleans from Germany in 1853, and her widowed mother and younger sister, Fannie and Sophie Shlenker, arrived there in 1855. They all joined Lazarus and Caroline in Farmerville.

Lazarus Brunner’s premature death on 17 August 1858 at his home in Farmerville interrupted the business success of Brunner and Brother. Caroline took his body by steamboat to New Orleans and buried him in Louisiana’s only Jewish Cemetery at that time, the Gates of Mercy. Then located at the corner of Jackson and Saratoga Streets, she interred her husband’s body beside that of their son, David, who had died the previous year at the age of two months. Besides his mercantile success, Lazarus Brunner left a legacy that included the foundation of Farmerville’s small Jewish Community that thrived in the postwar era, as well as leaving a long line of descendants who worked as Farmerville businessmen and civic leaders, including his great-great grandson, Farmerville’s current mayor, Stein Baughman, Jr. After his brother’s death, Emanuel Brunner entered a business partnership with Caroline’s brother, Jacob Shlenker, and Brunner & Shlenker became Farmerville’s leading mercantile establishment until September 1861, when Jacob enlisted in the Confederate service. Due to his mercantile experience, he entered the service as quartermaster sergeant, responsible for his regiment’s food stores. Meanwhile, in late 1860 or 1861, Emanuel married the youngest Shlenker sibling, Sophia, further cementing the connections between the Brunner and Shlenker families.

At the end of the War, the key to re-energizing the once-thriving agrarian economy of north Louisiana’s Ouachita Valley lay in rebuilding the region’s transportation infrastructure, namely, re-establishing regular, reliable steamboat service to New Orleans, but this required an investment of capital. Three Farmerville residents, and along with two silent partners, had the combined means to implement and maintain reliable transportation during the postwar era, initially jump-starting the Union Parish economy and then enabling it to surpass its pre-war peak: Col. Daniel Stein, Captains John Mercer Rabun and Lazarus Brunner, Jr., together with Emanuel Brunner and Jacob Shlenker. Five Stein siblings from Asselheim Rheinspfalz, Germany immigrated to Mobile, Alabama in 1855, with three of them eventually moving to Farmerville: Daniel, Simon, and Helena Stein. Perhaps attracted by Farmerville’s Jewish community or by existing personal connections, Daniel Stein made his way to Farmerville by 1862. He enlisted on 17 October 1862 as a private in the Confederate Army, immediately detailed as his regiment’s sutler. After Stein’s capture and parole at Vicksburg in July 1863, he returned to Farmerville, and that fall, he married Caroline Shlenker Brunner, the widow of Lazarus Brunner. Stein returned to service with his unit in 1864–1865, while Emanuel Brunner and Jacob Shlenker moved to occupied Vicksburg. After the war, Brunner went into business in New Orleans, while Shlenker established his mercantile business in Vicksburg. Stein obtained the prime location of the Brunners’ former storehouses on the courthouse square and formed what soon became an incredibly lucrative and successful firm, “D. Stein & Co.,” a partnership between himself and his brothers-in-law, Emanuel Brunner and Jacob Shlenker.

With his marriage, Daniel Stein acquired the remaining inventory of Brunner & Brother that had survived the raging fire that destroyed Farmerville’s business district in 1864 or 1865. He built a new storehouse, and his business acumen and strong work ethic led his firm to thrive over the next two decades, making Stein the wealthiest and most successful businessman in Farmerville, and one of the most respected and admired in north Louisiana. Like most Southern mercantile firms of that era, Stein’s stores provided food, farming tools and supplies, clothes, etc. to farmers of Union Parish and the surrounding region on credit, with the balance to be paid in baled cotton immediately after the harvest. Stein stored the cotton in his warehouses located at Farmerville Landing until he could ship them to the New Orleans markets each fall to sell and recoup his money. Whereas the major cities in the lower Mississippi Valley began to depend on the railroads for transportation of passengers, goods, and farm produce after the war, the smaller towns such as Farmerville continued to rely on steamboats until after the turn of the century. As his business depended upon reliable transportation between Farmerville and New Orleans, Stein invested heavily in steamboats, originally co-owning several steamers but later, he owned stock in several transportation companies that operated steamers on the smaller rivers and bayous across the Ouachita Valley.

Col. Stein’s gregarious and charitable nature, and fairness and generous credit practices he allowed farmers quickly endeared him to the denizens of Farmerville, Union Parish, and the surrounding region, propelling him to become the leading merchant in Louisiana outside of New Orleans. Stein soon expanded his business operation, opening another store at Stein’s Bluff, located on Bayou Corney about a mile upstream from its mouth on Bayou D’Arbonne (where the Bernice highway crosses the Corney today) for easier access to the citizens of Shiloh and Spearsville, and his customers in Jackson, Claiborne, and Lincoln Parishes. Within a few years, D. Stein & Co. had grown to the largest mercantile operation in north Louisiana outside Shreveport. On his regular business trips to New York, Stein often saw demonstrations of new innovations and then brought them back to Farmerville. He constructed the first telegraph lines in Union Parish, paying to have the lines run to his store in Farmerville. Stein also installed the first telephone lines in the parish, running a telephone line between his stores in Farmerville and at Stein’s Bluff by 1881.

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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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