Written by Martha R. Field
Published under the pen name “Catharine Cole”
The New Orleans Picayune
November 6, 1892
I began this letter in a tiny, rather ramshackle hotel, a hundred miles of wilderness away from the parish of which I am to write. There is a big fire on a big hearth, put there for cheerfulness’ sake, but in the open window the purple stillness of an Indian summer morning puffs dreamily. It is not very agreeable to write letters for printing under these present conditions. Around me, grouped intimately in the shuck mattress couch that last night gave me the nightmare, are half a dozen neighborhood ladies, who seem to regard it as a sort of event that they can see a woman writing with her left hand.
This is the quietest of quiet places; no sound less rural than a woodman’s ax falls across its silences and the advent of a stranger is in the nature of a genuine excitement, in which the left-handed writing simply caps the climax.
They are quiet, friendly ladies in a subdued, somber way, these women sitting so close to me—like the people in Miss Wilkins’ impressing story of “Jane Field,” their world lies in their little cup of hills. Even the nearest village is like the poet’s Carcassonne to them—but one or two of them have, nevertheless, sounded the world as if it were a bell.
There is the kindly overworked, tremulous old lady who keeps this inn. She sits now over against the fireplace, having been persuaded that the world will not stop if she rests her tired hands and feet for half an hour. The old face and the old wrinkles, the dim eyes are like the west windows when the sun has gone down. She has, notwithstanding, the true expression of mingled patience and purity on her face that one so often sees on the faces of old people who have had always hard work to do—no luxuries, no recreations, no indulgences.
On the couch is a slim, sallow woman, who sits listless and idle in that mental inertia of a woman who has let go of herself. She looks like a woman shut off from her soul.
“I lost my only child last month,” she said to me sadly, “and the cooking and work at home just turned on me. I had to come away. I haven’t got anybody now.”
I thought of that tender, fearsome speech of Mrs. Browning’s when her only child was perilously ill: “Oh, it is a dreadful thing to have all your wealth in one coin.”
Sometimes when I write things about the independence and comfort of a farmer’s life, I am ashamed that I leave out the woman’s side of the question. The other night I stayed in a very cozy little backwoods home where my hostess was a gentle, delicate woman, the mother of four little children, the maid of all work and seamstress, washerwoman, cook and butter-maker for all her family, including two men.
No books or pictures brightened her home; everything was for use, as applied to making or saving money. In the South, nature is the farmer’s wife’s best friend, but there is not much independence for any woman who cooks, washes, milks, irons, mends and cleans for a husband and family, and takes her pay in board and lodging.
I said this to a farmer’s wife one day, but her husband reproved me, telling me it wasn’t right to be putting such ideas into his wife’s head—as if they hadn’t been there all the time.
In my little notebook I find a line that says Farmerville, and 199 miles. Farmerville is the parish seat of Union Parish, the central town of that parish, as Union Parish is the central one of the eight parishes that border on the state line of Arkansas.
Looking back on the days of driving over the rich and picturesque lands of this fine parish, I recall that much of it was through superb and unbroken forests, although Union has almost a larger acreage under cultivation than any other parish in north Louisiana.
To anyone who does not know better, the phrase “Louisiana forest” signifies a swamp—groves of stately funeral cypress trees draped sadly with mosses that wave stealthily in the wind, and where black shadows lurk on glassy pools of black and stagnant water.
By a careless use of the frightful word swamp—making it generally applicable to every one of our river bottoms, no matter what the nature of the growth—we do the state a harm, and really give it a bad name. Our area of swampland, exclusive of the sea marshes subject to tidal overflow and facing all our Gulf Coast, is only 4,300 square miles, which is not an appreciable item in a state whose total are is 48,720 square miles, or nearly 85,000,000 acres.
To the contrary, nothing in nature can be more charming, clean and wholesome than the forests of central and north Louisiana. The character of the trees attests to the richness of the soil, although almost anything fabulous may be exacted of a soil where the oleander and the myrtle blossom side by side with the holly and the dogwood, where the yucca flowers at the foot of the apple tree and the orange blossoms drift their sweet snows over pear and quince trees.
It was within the boundaries of Union Parish I came upon a typical and true Louisiana forest. The ground rolled north and south in long, swelling bellows; the forest loomed green and crimson and gray and yellow, like Arden or Epping in October. The yellow, rutty country road twisted through it in a rustic fashion, and by the roadside were the delicatest footnotes of bloom, feathery tufts of shameweed—a sort of ground acacia—all purple, pink and amber; blood-red spears of Indian head, wild daisies and prim brown-eyed Susans, with late goldenrod, oaks, blackjack and the all but priceless white oaks.
Here were beautiful beeches with their pale, mottled green and gray stems, flinging their airy foliage lightly in the wind, next to huge walnut and hickory trees, nut-laden, and now and again a dazzling holly or, prettier still, those graceful vestal virgins of the forest, the dogwoods, now all coraled over with seeds on their pale horizontal branches.
Here too, were fragrant bays filling the air with incense, and magnolias whose fine-grained, ivory-colored fabric is so beautiful for interior decoration. Red oaks, ash and maple I found also in this Union forest, but loveliest of all were the sweet gum trees. They rivaled any pine in height, tall, slim gothic columns of foliated color, crimson, cherry-red, golden yellow or bronze. I saw five in a row delicately tapering to the skies. They were next of kin to the most famous glass window in the world, “The Five Sisters” of York Minster.
We had threaded this forest, penetrated its opposite, a bit of swamp land—all cypress trees and red trees that look frost-bitten—which margin Bayou d’Arbonne as one travels from Ruston to Shiloh, in Union Parish. Beyond the reach of swamp was a long hill and fine farmlands, now lost in the common blur of a driving rain.
We had lost our way and wandered woefully, the ponies slipping and falling on the waxy hills, the old wind biting like the teeth of time or want. It was 9 o’clock before we found the front door of the Harris Hotel, and numbed with fatigue I automatically climbed down and went into a large room, where a great oak fire flashed on the hearth, the epitome of a royal welcome. A fine old farmer told me the other day that his idea of comfort was to travel all day in the cold rain on horseback, and come just at nightfall to a big country house, a roaring fire on the wide hearth and a hot supper by its side.
With the exception of small intersecting wooded districts, rich in hardwoods, almost the entire surface of Union Parish’s 910 square miles is already available for farming purposes. It has in general two sorts of soil, a sandy loam and a red soil in which is mixed some gravel. On these lands the average yield of cotton is three-quarters of a bale to the acre: of corn, 29 bushels; of potatoes, 300 bushels; of molasses, 150 gallons; of sugar, nearly a hogshead to the acre. Tobacco grows extremely well, and lazy people cultivate it rankly along the roadsides.
Almost every fruit cultivatable in the United States grows splendidly in this parish and one may see noble orchards filled with pear, peach, quince, apple and plum trees, with blackberry, strawberry and raspberry vines growing and yielding in tropic profusion. Cherries also grow well and fine grapes have been cultivated experimentally with profit.
There are in Union Parish 266,803 acres of uncultivated land, of cultivated, 71,455 acres. On this were grown crops as follows: In cotton, 33,458 acres, producing 15,108 bales; in corn, 24,276 acres, producing 293,460 bushels; in cane, 242 acres, producing 246 barrels of molasses; in potatoes, 1,026 acres, producing 35,887 bushels; in sorghum, 884 acres, producing 224 barrels; in oats, 2,293 acres, producing 11,075 bushels.
Value of lands, $538,628; value of lots in towns, $94,053; value of livestock, $277,864; value of vehicles, $37,474; value of merchandise, $76,275; money loaned, etc., $22,765; judgments, notes, etc., $97,845; other property, steam mills, etc., $50,673.
Total assessment of white people, $1,119,492; total assessment of Colored people, $76,085. Total, $1,195,577.
Parish tax is ten mills. Number of poll tax payers, 3,319. White school children, 3,665; Colored school children, 2,889; school funds on hand Oct. 8, 1892, $4,668; total parish population, nearly 16,000.
There are about 50,000 acres of government land in the parish, 60,000 acres of state land. Prices are from 75 cents to $1.24 an acre. Improved farms sell at from $3 to $10 an acre; unimproved lands from $1 to $3.
Three navigable streams cross the parish, the Ouachita River, Bayou Corney, and Bayou d’Arbonne. During the spring and winter, boats carrying a thousand bales of cotton frequently leave for New Orleans from Shiloh and Farmerville, both of which are almost a the head of navigation. The only railroad is the Vicksburg and Shreveport, crossing the state, but a new line will shortly penetrate the parish enroute from Little Rock to Alexandria.
Public roads are very good and bridges are in excellent repair. One of the thriftiest, neatest and most enterprising little towns in North Louisiana is Shiloh. If all our small towns and villages were as neat and plucky and as ambitious, no one in the state need then complain. When the branch of the Iron Mountain Road, now building to the south, passes through Shiloh, its cotton shipments, now 5,500 bales, will increase to 20,000 bales.
Shiloh has a population of 400, a Baptist and a Methodist church, the Baptist membership being 350 persons. At the excellent academy, Professor Hendricks has charge of 109 pupils.
About 1,200 bales of cotton are ginned at the town gin. The stores carry handsome and varied stocks of goods. The oldest merchant is Mr. J. R. Fuller. Other firms are J. W. Heard & Bros., S. J. Harris & Co., Brooks & Robinson, and Hamilton & Brooks. Mr. Jesse Boatwright keeps a confection shop, and Messrs. Davis and Smith conduct a plucky furniture factory, making good, substantial and handsome furniture of oak, walnut, poplar and sweet gum.
Among other articles, this factory makes and sells 1,000 chairs a year. This furniture is all finely finished and extremely substantial. Without any sensation, this little factory industry is giving the whole state an object lesson in profits and prosperity.
Twelve miles east of Shiloh is the very handsome town of Farmerville, the parish seat, the home of a cultivated and progressive people, distinguished for its handsome private residences, its thriving business community, its healthfulness and its lovely situation.
The town is on the top of a long hill that slopes down with heavy forests to the waters of the bayous. Its suburbs are charming rural homes—aesthetic cottages or substantial residences, with porticoes and gables such as one may see in an old sedate Virginia town.
Among these elegant residences may be mentioned the artistic homes of Mrs. Ellen Levi, Mrs. B. M. Trimble, Mr. L. E. Thomas, Mr. J. M. Smith and Mr. B. L. Pleasant. These are charmingly bowered in roses, and notably the home of Mrs. Trimble—whose handsome young sons admirably conduct the Farmerville Gazette.
The courthouse square, in an old continental fashion, is in the middle of the town. Nearby is a fine, new jail and about this quadrangle are the big business houses, the row of lawyers’ offices, the post office and the Gazette.
There are two hotels, the largest and one of the best in this section of the state being the Hartmann House. The annual trade of the town is about $300,000. The societies and organizations in prosperous condition are: Knights of Pythias, Knights of Honor, Legions of Honor, Masonic I. O. B. B., Ladies’ Aid Society of the Baptist Church, Willing Workers of the Methodist Church, and Woman’s Temperance Union, to which nearly all the young ladies and most of the young men in the town belong.
The Farmerville Male and Female Institute has eighty-one pupils. The principal is Prof. J. O. McMinn, first assistant Miss Alice Honeycutt. This school has beautiful grounds and a spacious building. One of the handsomest halls in north Louisiana is the Knights of Pythias lodge, just being completed.
The genial old postmaster of the town, Mr. Stusher, has held that office for twenty years, and has read the Picayune steadily, he boasts, for forty-five years, scarcely missing an issue. Through the Farmerville post office more mail of a literary nature is carried than is usual in towns so far removed from literary centers.
Both Farmerville and Shiloh are excellent “drummer” towns.
A stranger seeking a home amongst refined and hospitable people, where many of the luxuries of life are so easily procurable as to be classed among the necessities, who can raise with his own hands a truly marvelous list of crops, of fruits, vegetables and cereals, could not do better than settle in Union Parish. It has but one lack—sufficient railroad facilities—but the farthest point from any road is only twenty-five miles.
Before the war Union was literally a self-supporting parish. Each plantation had its own loom and made its own shoes, hats and cloth. It was the proud boast of its people that in order to live they had only to import tea and coffee. What phase of life existed then is more easily possible now.
One sweet Sunday afternoon as I sat lonesomely in my room, the beautiful girls of Farmerville, with gallant young beaux, all came in a body to visit me. They filled the dull room and gallery like white rosebuds in a vase. The perfume of their presence seemed everywhere; their sweet innocence and grace was itself a charm better than perfume. Surely, the loveliest flower of the South, whiter than blossom of hay or dogwood, is the southern girl. In grace, refinement, culture and brains she is the peer of any woman in the land.