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back to index A Brief Ethnography of Magnolia Plantation: Planning for Cane River Creole National Historical Park

Chapter 6: The Magnolia Community: More Than 19 Acres

The park is an incomplete segment of what once was a community of interacting, socially differentiated families. From the residents’ view, the landscape called the “Hertzogs’” extends to Magnolia’s boundaries. In addition to the quarters, overseer’s home, and farm complex in the park, the community included the Big House and the area around the bend with the sharecropper houses and the St. James AME Church. Until the 1960s, the plantation showed lingering evidence of its complex organization as a residential community as well as an agricultural enterprise. A rural “company town” in these respects and a form of “total institution” that met many lifelong needs (Gordon and Williams 1977), the right to live in this essentially private domain depended on the landholder’s continuing concurrence.


Mr. Matt gave the work orders, paid the workers, and sometimes personally counted the coins and bills he slapped into their hands. Mr. Matt told people where they could live on the plantation or at least approved of their choices. Mr. Matt gave the gifts, brought the band on festive occasions, and declared the holidays. Mr. Matt decided who would work. In the residents’ view, the primary responsibility for guiding Magnolia through its economic trials and successes and for major decision-making belonged to Mr. Matt. Overseers were responsible for implementing the owner’s decisions in the fields and in the quarters and tenant farms as well, but authority rested with Mr. Matt.

Typical of company towns, authority, influence, and power followed class lines, giving the landowner the right to be the general peacekeeper as well as rule-maker. Earlier in Magnolia’s history, real or alleged infractions would probably have been handled locally at the landowner’s discretion. Evidence of local solutions to problems comes from the antique leg irons and stocks people recalled seeing stored in the cellar of the former two-story house near the St. James AME. Perhaps this structure served as a jail in the past century. The Hertzogs noted that the rusted stocks were since moved to the main house for storage. In recent times and until the late 1960s, the landowners’ considerable weight with law enforcement agents might be used to the workers’ advantage or disadvantage. As interviewees said, plantation managers could use personal influence to intervene on a workers behalf to avoid their incarceration for some minor infraction or gain their early release from jail. As one former worker observed, “Mr. Matt used to have a say-so in who got arrested and who got out of jail, but that changed in the late 1960’s” when local officials began exercising greater authority.

Former residents usually remembered their roles as, in a sense, “tenuous guests” of the Hertzogs, living at Magnolia with Mr. Matt’s permission and fully dependent on his agreement for continued access to a house site. Laborers lived rent-free in the quarters even when work was occasionally unavailable. They paid for their own electricity, installed in the 1940s, about 10 years after the Big House was electrified. But tenure in the quarters and elsewhere at Magnolia was precarious, subject to the landowner’s discretion and the residents’ evident compliance with his norms. One story tells of the manager’s displeasure at learning that two young black men from two different families in the quarters had enjoyed themselves at a recently desegregated cafe in urban Natchitoches. Having broken the traditional social rules against inter-racial fraternizing in bars and elsewhere, management penalized the young men by evicting them and their families from the plantation. They found alternative residence at Melrose but were permitted to return several weeks later once tempers subsided.

Facilities and Services

Plantation facilities and services often met multiple purposes, serving both community and commercial plantation needs. For example, the blacksmith not only repaired axles, filed tools, and shoed the plantation horses. He also fixed broken hoes or plows for laborers and tenant farmers. He ran the grist mill located near the blacksmith shop and, in that capacity, ground corn for the community. Although some families had their own mills, others kept him especially busy on Fridays, recalled as being “cornbread days” when they prepared this special fare. Some corn came from their own small gardens, while some might be gleaned or “scrap picked” from the leftovers in harvested plantation fields that machines failed to pick. One resident recalled occasionally receiving gifts of corn from Mr. Matt from the plantation crop. Residents used the plantation pump to get water from the river to wash clothes and bathe. A cistern near the gin house was recalled as the source of cooking and drinking water at one time. Residents in the quarters also had cisterns in their yards and they as well as sharecropper families kept barrels near their cabins to catch rainwater for drinking and cooking purposes.

Residents took several alternative approaches to health care. Although some problems occasioned trips to medical specialists in urban Natchitoches or Cloutierville, solutions were usually sought locally. Ms. Betty Hertzog recalls Public Health Service physicians periodically coming from Natchitoches or Cloutierville to set up temporary clinics on the back porch of the Big House. They treated community members there for general ailments and annually gave children their required typhoid shots and other basic inoculations. Temporary Public Health Service clinics might also be found dispersed in the countryside. Mothers-to-be in the quarters found the assistance needed during childbirth from a midwife who lived nearby, sharing the cook’s house at one time. Magnolia women also called on other local midwives from nearby towns such as Cypress. On a day-to-day basis, residents relied on their own folk knowledge and remedies, using herbs from their gardens and fruits or leaves from nearby trees and bushes to prepare healing teas, poultices, and salves.


Magnolia had no public school facilities. One former resident recalled classes being held at the quarters, taught perhaps by the wife of the second St. Andrew’s preacher. That would have been around 1922 (Baptiste n.d.), a decade or so before the construction of “colored” public schools. Classes were also occasionally held after services at St. James AME. It was not uncommon for churches to house public schools until separate buildings were constructed on donated church land or nearby. The Natchitoches Parish School Board records show that several churches and private landowners had cooperated with the Parish by donating or selling land at a nominal fee for public schools. For example, although Magnolia children might have first attended public school classes held in the church itself, the Parish School records show that the Parish purchased private holdings in 1941 to construct a public school for “the colored” in Derry near St. Andrew Missionary Baptist Church. The school would also be called St. Andrew. Children from the quarters attended it, crossing the Cane River by boat whenever possible, taking the footbridge, hiking up their trouser legs and wading across when the river was very low, or walking the long way around on Highway 119 and Highway 1. When the Parish sold the land in 1954 and the building was moved elsewhere, children transferred to St. Matthew School near Melrose, likewise established as a “colored” public school for blacks and Creoles of color.

St. Matthew public school had also started within the church building itself. Former teachers recalled the unique challenges teaching in church occasionally posed in the late 1930s, such as having to escort children from the building for a while whenever funerals were held. Later, in 1939, according to the Natchitoches Parish School Board Records, St. Matthew Baptist Church donated land so that the Parish could construct a public school, also known as St. Matthew Public School. The Natchitoches Parish School Board Records document its expansion in size and scope from a three-room schoolhouse in 1939 to a senior high school in 1947. Located near Melrose, the school came to draw Creoles of color as well as black students. By the time black children from Magnolia went there, it served all age groups. Children of Magnolia attended segregated public schools throughout their stay in the countryside. Only after the 1964 Civil Rights Act and subsequent court-ordered school integration in 1968 did schools in the parish very gradually integrate.

The educational system responded to phases of the agricultural cycle and labor as well as laborer needs. One result was an abbreviated school year and high absenteeism in the “colored” schools prompted by participation in the cotton harvest. To accommodate the landowners’ labor needs and family financial needs to have children work the plantation fields, colored schools used a “split session.” Classes were held for 3 months, closed for the cotton harvest season between September and October, and then resumed in November. Children’s earnings either supplemented family incomes and helped purchase household necessities or paid for school clothes, books, baseball uniforms or equipment, and school organizations. Teachers might pick cotton as well during this period when their wages were suspended. Sometimes, families pooled their money to pay the teachers to continue giving classes during the harvest. Children and teachers returned to school afterwards and stayed until summer, without leaving for the planting season in March or April.

Adults recalled that as children they worked hard at school, but they also played. Aside from marbles and other schoolyard games, children also duplicated adult activities in the form of games. In the kind of “dressing up” play that mimicked adult life and anticipated their own future, children often played during recess at baptizing and preaching. Although their parents might have disapproved, people recalled that “playing” baptism meant being held by other kids as they were bent backwards, “like they were dipping you in the river, and you had to shout loud.” Some youngsters, conceivably Catholic Creole children, did not always like that game and would sometimes excuse themselves by claiming illness.

Longevity and Residential Mobility Within the Community

Several families had maintained a presence at Magnolia for generations. With a history dating back to the 18th century, the Hertzogs might have had the greatest longevity. Although families of tenant laborers and sharecroppers might not have duplicated the Hertzogs’ residence history, Keel (NPS 1999a:20) notes that some freed laborers had remained at Magnolia following abolition, working as freed contract laborers. Conceivably, tenants who lived in the quarters or were sharecroppers could trace their ancestry to enslaved workers. Interviews taught us that members of several extended families, including Ms. Lizzie’s, which stayed at Magnolia until the 1960s, traced their maternal kin back to a grandmother who might have been born into slavery. Perhaps this grandmother lived at what is now the adjoining plantation, a part of the greater Hertzog holding until 1903 but now owned by the estate of Ms. Fanny Hertzog Chopin. Ms. Lizzie was born in 1900 (Figure 11). If her mother was born in the mid-1880s, it is possible that her grandmother had been born into slavery. Several women in this particularly long line of workers had husbands who married into the community from neighboring areas, for example from black Cloutierville families and black families working at the Cohen’s. Members of this same family and surviving spouses were also the last residents to leave Magnolia. Our limited data on Creole tenant farmers suggests that at least two generations of some families had lived and farmed at Magnolia.

(photo) Ms. Lizzie in front of her former home.
Figure 11. Ms. Lizzie, born and reared in Magnolia, in front of her former house in the quarters. Photo: M. Crespi.

Although families maintained a stable residence in Magnolia for generations, residence in the quarters and up the road was quite fluid between the 1930s-60s as residents shifted their domiciles between these two locales, and new residents moved in from other communities (see Table 1). One laborer listed in the plantation Work Book for 1957, for example, came to the quarters from Little River and another came with his family from Powhatan, a town located between Shreveport and urban Natchitoches. Black families might move to the quarters from the sharecropper area, evidence of declining fortunes and a sign that the risks of sharecropping did not always balance the returns at “settling-up” time. In these cases, families had the option of moving to the quarters and assuming the status of day laborers. Other black day hands listed in 1957 were members of sharecropper families, one of whom formerly had been day laborers living in the quarters. The reverse movement was unlikely to occur; that is, Creole sharecroppers rarely, if ever, moved to the quarters regardless of downward turns in their luck. On the other hand, Creole sharecroppers who worked “on the half” might become fourth-hands, or renters, if they acquired the important team and further ratcheted up their economic potential. Tenant farmers might also cycle through Magnolia and other Cane River plantations as sharecroppers before purchasing their own land or moving to urban Natchitoches and elsewhere.

Residence within the quarters also shifted in response to the available housing stock and social changes in the residents’ life and family cycles. Changing occupational and marital status and changes in family size with the birth of children and death or departure of adult children might precipitate relocation to another cabin. Small families were known to move from larger quarters to smaller ones if in-coming families needed additional space. Marriage, sometimes between individuals within the quarters, and establishment of a new family stimulated another series of moves. These several types of moves meant that, within a decade, an individual or a family might have occupied several different cabins in the quarters. A similar process involving the redistribution of individuals into new households and families into changing house sites was occurring in the sharecropper area.

An example of changing social identities and shifting house sites comes from one family history. Ms. Lizzie and her husband – he had come from Lakeview plantation – moved from the quarters to a sharecropper’s cabin while their adult daughter moved with her husband to Keithville, another Louisiana community. Ms. Lizzie’s daughter returned in 1944 to bear her own daughter in Ms. Lizzie’s house assisted by a midwife from Cypress, a rural settlement closer to Oakland. For a time, the three generations lived together. Ms. Lizzie’s daughter left again with her child but later returned for a while. The next time she left Magnolia, her daughter, Ms. Lizzie’s granddaughter, remained to keep Ms. Lizzie company, eventually sharing domestic and field tasks and attending St. Matthew’s public school. Later, in the mid-1960s, Ms. Lizzie’s granddaughter married a Magnolia man and moved to the quarters with him. Meanwhile, Ms. Lizzie’s daughter had returned again and moved into a cabin in the quarters with her subsequent husband, also a Magnolia man.

Table 1: Estimates of Magnolia Population


Approximately 7 families in the quarters (The Progress 1938). Approximately 30-40 sharecropper families, according to B. Hertzog and about 43 according to The Progress.

Hertzogs occupy the Big House.


Approximately 6 families in the quarters and 20 sharecropper families (1958 Work Book and estimated by E.V and G. L).

Hertzogs occupy the Big House.


Approximately 7 families in the quarters.

2 sharecropper families (L.J., D.W.).

Hertzogs occupy the Big House.


Approximately 1 family in the quarters (E.V.).

Hertzogs occupy the Big House and, in the 1970s, Dr. Hertzog’s house.


1 trailer near the bend occupied by daughter of former cook.

Hertzogs occupy the Big House and Dr. Hertzog’s house.

Stratification and Residence

The two and one-half story Big House was reconstructed in the late 1890s using the foundation and brick walls and pillars remaining from the original house burned by retreating Union troops in 1864. One of the long-lived tales about the Union troops was their killing of the caretaker, whose ghost is said to linger under the staircase where he was killed. The more than 20 rooms, including a wide central hall on the main floor that runs the width of the structure, are elegantly furnished, primarily with antiques, many of them family heirlooms. Like its predecessor, the house has a front and back gallery. Part of the rear gallery once served as a sleeping porch (The Natchitoches Times 1978) and it still has the small Catholic Chapel built in 1910 for the family’s use. This was primarily the domain of the plantation owners, members of their extended family, friends, and business associates. Unless they were part of the domestic staff who maintained the family and ample house, black residents rarely entered the area. Work areas on the back porch and behind the house, as Vlach (1993) observes for most plantation mansions, were the domain of black specialists who did the laundry, sewing, slaughtering, and other chores. At Magnolia, it was also where tenants received medical attention from visiting doctors.

Beyond the tree-lined avenue that separated the Big House from the several outbuildings or farm structures and quarters is what is now called the overseer’s home. The mid-19th century use of this hip-roofed cottage was as a slave hospital. Painted white with dark trim, the house dominated the landscape in the farm operational center and nearby quarters. The white occupants represented the plantation management and added a local middle-class presence to the area. At least one overseer remained in the Magnolia community for decades, with his sons assuming various roles there, such as running the store. One eventually replaced his aging father as the overseer, following the pattern, not unusual around Cane River, of passing a position down to an offspring. Like the laborers, the overseer’s family maintained barnyard animals and cultivated a garden with the array of crops characteristic of the area.

Social life for members of the overseer’s family varied with a person’s age and gender. Young children might play with other children from the Big House and sometimes the quarters as well. Adult interactions were generally more restricted to social and ethnic peers unless work was the context. In doing their jobs, overseers maintained close communication with the Hertzogs, especially Mr. Matt, and with the day laborers and sharecroppers, conveying information or work orders down from management to workers and the quality of responses from workers up to management. In this sense, the overseer’s position was an intervening or brokering position between the two extremes of the occupational hierarchy. Overseers themselves might lunch with Mr. Matt to brief him on field conditions and discuss general operations. Overseers’ wives interacted in a work context with the women from the quarters who provided domestic help. At least one former overseer’s wife worked in the store where she had contact with workers and children, some of whom she helped with schoolwork. For the most part, however, with few, if any, social peers at Magnolia, the overseers’ social lives necessarily depended on kin, friends, and activities outside the plantation.


(photo) The interior of a cabin.
Figure 12. The interior of a cabin in the quarters showing the door through the wall that originally separated the home into two residences. Photo: M. Crespi.

The quarters were the domain of the day laborers, an almost exclusively black neighborhood or community within the larger community. With few exceptions, Creoles of color claim never to have gone there even to visit. Facilities such as the store were at hand and, unlike the sharecropped houses north of the Big House towards Melrose, immediate neighbors lived in cabins within earshot of each other. Sharing ideas, activities, and information was easier among people living in the adjacent red brick cabins. Built in the 19th century to harbor two enslaved families each, the eight intact cabins with central chimneys continued to house black families, now day laborers, well into the 20th century. They stand four in each row, the remains of a once larger set of about 24. Seven of the cabins have two rooms separated by a common or party wall with a central chimney and a fireplace in each room. Floors are of wood. Each room has its own entry door. The eighth structure is a half-cabin, said to have lost its other half during the 1939 tornado. The original wood shingle roofing on each cabin had been replaced by tin. Photographs dating from 1939, before the now-legendary tornado devastated the area, show front porches, picket fences, flowers in pots and in the garden (Cammie G. Henry Archives), and yards with hard-packed soil that people would sweep clean. Flowering bushes and trees once enlivened the quarters, former tenants recall.

The cabins were the birthplace for some laborers and home to more. The two front doors to each cabin, leading to the two rooms with a fireplace in each, are present-day reminders that two families once lived in each house (Figures 12 and 13). The two-unit arrangement changed when the population, Ms. Lizzie noted, became “thinned,” earlier in the 20th century. As residents vacated the quarters for lack of work or to become sharecroppers and competition for housing was reduced, the interior housing space for each of the remaining families was enlarged. Mr. Matt allowed the conversion of the two-family houses into one-family units by breaking through the party wall originally separating the two rooms. Modifications were also made to the rear of several cabins where Mr. Matt allowed the construction of an additional room, called “plank rooms” by former residents. The room might serve a widowed mother or mother-in-law or an increasing number of children, or be used as a kitchen. Each cabin also had a small front yard, where firewood was stockpiled, and gardens. Outhouses were in the rear. Electricity had been installed in the 1940s as part of the rural electrification program, about 10 years after the Big House was electrified, as the Hertzogs recalled. Although almost bare of foliage now, former residents recall the flowering fruit trees and bushes that once shaded and lent color to the area. The general or common area in front of the cabins became an informal playground for the quarters’ children as well as for young white children visiting the main house, white children of overseer families, and black children who played together with their age-mates.

The quarters represented a space that landless black people could treat as theirs, albeit on a limited basis. Personalizing the cabin interiors by adding their own furnishings, arranging their gardens, and selecting food crops and flowering plants as they wished helped convert the two small rooms into their own place. Former residents recalled wallpapering the cabin’s interior with magazine pages. Using paste made by mixing flour and water, they covered the paper and stuck it to the walls, tacking the tops and bottoms where they would remain unless children pulled at them. Pride in their modest homes, along with Mr. Matt’s interest in making the plantation look more festive, led people to whitewash the exterior at Christmas when Mr. Matt provided the whitewash. Interiors might be whitewashed too, once the magazine wallpaper had been removed.

(photo) A cabin with a porch.
Figure 13. The only cabin in the Quarters with a porch. Photo: M. Crespi.

Residents were not only co-workers and neighbors; several families were kinsmen too. Marriage linked many neighbors. Some neighbors were siblings and, in other cases, several generations of the same maternal and paternal lines occupied adjacent cabins. The institution of god-parenthood might add another bond to the ties between children and adults, and between parents and godparents. Residents occasionally cooperated in childcare, exchanged surplus foods, and reciprocated small favors. They courted here, married, and raised families. They participated in the same church activities and celebrated the same holidays together. Weekend fun might find young and old playing “roll the barrels” in the area in front of the cabins, trying to remain upright on the barrels as they pushed them along with their feet. Snacks purchased at the nearby store quenched their thirst and hunger. Residents had common job and money problems, but driving poverty did not dominate peoples’ recollections, nor, it seemed, their lives. On a visit to the quarters, one woman reminisced that “we did not have as much as some other people, but we all had enough food and clothing. And everyone took care of everyone else. Everyone watched out for the children. You could chastise kids who were doing wrong things even if they weren’t yours.” Others expressed similar sentiments. As they saw it, the quarters was their neighborhood, a community defined both as a physical and socially meaningful place where residents had a sense of worth, created a rewarding life, and evolved a culture that reflected both complementary and shared interests and activities.

Laborer Accommodations to Scarce Cash

Day laborers earned barely enough to sustain themselves and their families, but they creatively combined additional activities in order to supplement their plantation wages with cash or incomes in kind. For the most part, these activities were labor intensive, using time, energy, and skill, but required little or no capital investments.

Kitchen Gardens and Barnyard Animals

Residents relied as much as possible on foods from their kitchen gardens and barnyard animals, rather than on any store or market. In fact, undoubtedly realizing that wages were below subsistence level, the plantation management expected residents to meet a considerable part of their food needs from their own gardens and animals, including dairy cows, pigs, and chickens. Considering perhaps the limited buying power of plantation wages and reluctant to extend more credit than could be repaid, Mr. Matt remarked that “as a matter of both tradition and sound economics, the tenants and day laborers are given not only their homes but a garden plot as well and are required to own a cow and a mule and to raise a crop of vegetables to supply their own tables” (The Progress 1938). Each tenant family might actually have had a cow and a mule in the 1940s, but the former residents were uncertain if the practice continued into the 1950s and 1960s.

Typically, residents managed the small areas in front of or alongside each cabin as spaces to manipulate almost as they wished, reaching their own decisions about whether or not to plant, and then, having decided to “make their crops,” as most did, determining what and how much to plant. Most tenants raised diverse vegetables and ornamental flowers and expected to share and exchange their produce with neighbors who likewise gardened but not always with identical crops or equal success. Reciprocity was the community norm although perhaps practiced most often among related families. Other tenants who might have joined the community too late in the year to put in a reasonable crop, whose gardens failed through no fault of their own, or who were short-term residents with no interest in gardening might expect some neighborly assistance.

The varied inventory of crops residents planted mirrors the kitchen gardens cultivated elsewhere in the Cane River area and includes:

  • beans, including snap beans, later canned;
  • corn, including popcorn;
  • cucumbers, later pickled;
  • ornamental flowers;
  • garlic, dried and strung for storage;
  • greens, including mustard greens;
  • Irish potatoes (thrived better than sweet potatoes), piled into a bank and covered for storage;
  • okra, conserved in jars;
  • sweet peas, later canned;
  • onions;
  • peanuts;
  • pumpkins, later jarred;
  • red peppers, later dried and strung, or dried, pounded and bottled;
  • sweet potatoes;
  • tomatoes, later canned;
  • turnips, later canned;
  • peaches, from nearby trees, picked and jarred, and made into jellies and wine; and,
  • pears, from nearby trees, picked and jarred, and made into jellies and wine.

Some families also raised sugar cane, and people recalled their delight at munching on a piece of sweet young cane. But the better part of the crop was brought to one of the mills run by Magnolia sharecroppers to be ground and made into cane syrup.

Tenants might adopt and adapt successful plantation agricultural practices for use in their own gardens. One widespread plantation practice was the use of Paris Green, a poisonous powder that combined sodium arsenite with copper sulphate and acetic acid. Used to kill caterpillars and boll weevils well into the 1950s, people recall loading the mixture into buckets or bags that horses carried on a yoke suspended across their shoulders and then tipping the buckets to spread the mixture over Magnolia’s cotton fields. Aware of its toxicity and trying to avoid having people and animals inhale it, workers covered their faces with handkerchiefs and their horses’ snouts with socks. In a form of internal “technology transfer,” workers also applied Paris Green to their gardens, diluting the compound by mixing it with flour. DDT later replaced it.

Barnyard animals, such as chickens, geese, ducks, and hogs, represented important food sources and exchange commodities too. One family, Ms. Lizzie’s, recalls having an enormous sow with remarkable reproductive powers. “People would bring their hogs there, and everyone (who owned a hog) that sow fooled with would get one of the litter.” Other piglets might be sold. To protect this mobile animal “bank account,” which paid interest in piglets, lard, and food, the hog pens were kept close by the house. Christmas was a time for families to butcher and barbecue a hog. Ms. Lizzie recalled killing an enormous hog that filled as many as 20-gallon cans of lard. They would make cracklings and smoke the meat in the smokehouse, grind the meat and make sausages, and fry the backbone meat and jar it. Families, such as Ms. Lizzie’s, raised their own feed corn and stored it in the crib behind the house. Chickens had the run of the yard most of the year but were brought indoors in the winter to be kept warm by a lamp. Goats, horses, and milk cows were tethered in nearby pastures.

Conserving Food

Residents lacked electricity and refrigeration during most of their stay in the quarters although a few had purchased ice boxes. In any case, no one could afford to have food spoil. Fifty-pound blocks of ice were purchased to keep produce fresh, especially milk. In the summers, people wrapped the ice block in a burlap and cotton sack for storage in the back of the fireplace. Fresh cow’s milk could be put in a jar and kept with the ice. For the two or three days the ice lasted, it kept the milk cool. Sometimes a wrapped ice block was put in a bucket along with a jar of milk and lowered down a cistern where it remained usable for days. In addition, residents provided for their future needs by processing the garden yields in various ways, by canning or pickling some crops, and by drying or pounding others into powders. Peaches, plums, berries, and figs were picked and preserved. Wine might be made from fruits and berries, and pralines from pecans.


Fishing the Cane River and the plantation pond behind the Big House were not only recreational, they also enriched the diet with protein. Men were especially busy at the river when fried fish was on the menu for family and community celebrations. The Hertzog pond yielded crawfish and the lake offered catfish, gar, buffalo, and grinner, among others. Trout might be found near the Hertzogs’ camp. Men as well as women and children fished, sometimes fashioning poles from the wild cane growing along the riverbank near the quarters. Bait might consist of small crawfish or a piece of chicken fat, liver, or salt meat attached to the line. “Barrel fishing” was a seining technique some used when the waters were low. Fishermen would attach a wire net or burlap sack, a “grass sack,” to a barrel hoop or even a deep open can and drag it through the water. As Dunn reported (1940), the technique was used to catch shrimp, crawfish, and minnows. One former resident also recalled how delighted she and her young friends were to find and collect crawfish even in the gardens after a prolonged heavy rain, which not only filled their water barrels but soaked their gardens and created small ponds that made it look as if “it just rained crawfish.”

Supplemental Cash Income

Limited resources might be stretched by seizing opportunities for cash work that occasionally came along within as well as outside the plantation. Men might work part-time in Cloutierville, as one man did in the evenings at a black club. Women in the quarters could take wage work if they found employment nearby, in Derry, for example, and work the plantation fields when childcare was available. One elderly former resident recalled being able to manage children and a job because she worked as a cook in the overseer’s house in the early 1930s. In addition to earning cash, she learned to make some special foods, such as preserves. She also could observe the lifestyles of other families and, what proved most advantageous, could keep her children nearby. Several women recalled working in the Big House, enjoying the status of trusted domestic help. One recalled with pleasure apprenticing with her mother in the kitchen, learning to cook when she was just 9 years old, and becoming so adept at baking coconut lemon pies that Mr. Matt would tease her about keeping the tasty pies coming each week. Work in fields at some distance from the quarters was less compatible with childcare, but made easier by helpful neighbors and kin who cared for children so that adults were released for uninterrupted field work.

Men, women, and children looked forward to earning Christmas cash at nearby Melrose and other local plantations during the pecan season when they picked, actually picked-up, the commercial pecan crop that was shaken loose from the heavily laden trees. Pecan picking at Magnolia was an unimportant source of income for the tenants and the plantation as well because, unlike the grafted trees at Melrose, Magnolia’s native pecan trees yielded small-sized nuts. Not interested in exploiting the crop, Mr. Matt let residents collect the nuts for themselves. Occasionally he might purchase small quantities from them for use in the Big House, but otherwise he let them harvest the pecans for their own domestic use.

In-Kind Supplements

Sometimes gleaning rights were extended to laborers who were allowed to pick the remaining crops inadvertently left standing after harvesting the corn fields in September. This was a useful way to augment corn for their pigs and perhaps their own food supply as well. Plantation sugar cane and sweet potato fields might be “scrap picked” or gleaned, too. “Scrapping” might also provide new varieties of seed for later planting in one’s own garden or fields. Suspecting that workers might occasionally employ the strategy of deliberately leaving substantial scraps behind for later collection, causing some crop losses for the plantation, overseers and mounted supervisors maintained surveillance over the hoe-hands to ensure all the cotton was chopped and picked. In the 1950s, one overseer recalled, vigorous protests from field hands about being treated like slaves resulted in halting the practice.

Mobility: Becoming Sharecroppers

Birth in the quarters did not always mean spending a lifetime there as a day laborer. Movement into other occupational statuses and to other Magnolia areas was possible, if not frequent. For example, Ms. Lizzie and her two brothers grew up in the Magnolia quarters, but she left briefly at 12 or 13 years old to attend school in Natchitoches. For about a year she lived with her mother’s sister, who worked in the city, but then returned to Magnolia and began contributing to the family income by chopping cotton and picking corn. Soon after, at 16, she met and married her husband, best known by his nickname, Shine; nicknames were so important, they were often the only ones by which people were known. Born on the neighboring Cohen’s plantation, Lakeview, where his father worked, Shine was 12 years when his father died and he assumed his father’s tasks. Later, around 1916, after his marriage to Ms. Lizzie, he moved to Magnolia. His mother eventually moved there too.

(photo) Ms. Lizzie in front of her former home.
Figure 14. Ms. Bertha, Ms. Lizzie's daughter, born and reared in Magnolia, in front of her former house in the quarters. Photo: M. Crespi.

The couple stayed in the quarters for just over two decades. During that time Ms. Lizzie bore two children, a son in 1916 and a daughter in 1919 (Figure 14), with help in the birthing process by the Magnolia midwife. She found domestic work in the overseer’s house and sometimes in the Big House too. Meanwhile, Shine worked in the plantation fields. He also helped train Mr. Matt’s horses, a task that required considerable skill to avoid being struck and hurt by unruly horses. Shine was not totally averse to helping at home too and would brush and sweep the yard and feed their hogs and chickens. With their own mill and smokehouse in the rear of their cabin, the couple could process their own foods. They also earned additional cash by selling gumbo and other foods during baseball games at Magnolia. Eventually, the couple became sharecroppers on a small lot near the AME Church. They continued living in the quarters for several years, however, working their shared plot and doing day labor on the plantation fields too. A neighbor often cared for Ms. Lizzie’s young children while she cultivated their shared field. But the walk to the shared field was long, perhaps a mile or so. When it rained, as it frequently did in the spring, Ms. Lizzie said, “you just was in it. I came from the field a heap of days wet.”

They were able to buy a used car soon after they started sharecropping, first a Dodge, then a Ford, and then a Chevrolet, her daughter recalled. This acquisition suggests that, in addition to frugal living and small-scale entrepreneurship, the family occasionally met with some financial success after they “settled up.” That is, in good years, they might have a small surplus after receiving their fifty percent of the sale of the harvest and paying off their accumulated debts for seed, insecticide, fertilizer, the use of the mule team and other agricultural inputs, and for any provisions purchased at the store.
Even better than the car, in Ms. Lizzie’s view, was their move to the sharecropper area near the shared fields. They had to move after the 1939 tornado tore the roof off their cabin and destroyed several others in the quarters. About the same time, a sharecropper vacated his cabin near the AME Church, and Mr. Matt made it available to the couple. Their daughter, who had started her own family by then, remained in her own cabin in the quarters for a while but then relocated with her first husband to work in Keithville, a distant Louisiana town.

(photo) The interior of a cabin.
Figure 15. Dorothy, Ms. Lizzie's granddaughter and the third generation of Magnolia women, near the site of the sharecropper home where she was born. Photo: M. Crespi.

The sharecropper location proved more efficient in terms of the demands made on Ms. Lizzie’s time. Like other sharecropper wives, she cultivated the shared crops as well as their own kitchen garden. Sometimes she worked as a day hand in the plantation fields too. At the same time, her husband Shine earned cash or credit towards it by working as a day laborer for Magnolia, cultivating plantation fields as well as caring for the prized plantation horses, especially Light-Gray. Shine’s work days were very long during critical periods of field preparation, planting, and harvesting because he, like other sharecroppers, rose early to plow and seed their own fields before leaving for day work on plantation fields. During the harvest season, men, along with women and children, brought in their own crop as well as worked for Magnolia as day laborers. Under these circumstances, having several children and access to members of the extended family gave sharecroppers the benefit of a larger labor pool.

Moving to the sharecropper area did not necessarily mean establishing new and close ties to their Creole neighbors or abandoning their ties to the quarters. Although not necessarily communicating daily with their former neighbors, Shine and sometimes Ms. Lizzie would meet them while working the plantation fields to supplement their income. Family ties to the quarters remained close, reflecting work relationships, continued participation in special events there, participation in Church activities, and their daughter’s and granddaughter’s (Figure 15) eventual move back there.

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