So I was just aimlessly googling the name "Creel," which was my great grandmother's maiden name, and struck open a site that had the Creel family crest (still working on a picture), a little history (name first appeared in England after the Norman Conquest), and the family motto: Nil Morer Ictus." Translated (are you sitting down?) that means: I do not care for blows. Hell, me neither!
The longleaf pine used to be the dominant tree over 60 million acres of the Southeast. And they were the dominant tree in western Louisiana, for a time. Lawrence Earley, author of Looking for Long Leaf, describes the tree’s demise this way:
“Long leaf’s decline has been attributed to a great many things but is most easily explained in three words—need, greed, and mismanagement. People cut the forest, burned it to farm and make spaces to live, exploited its resources, and changed the natural processes that had evolved and maintained it.”
Among the culprits were farmers, industrial turpentiners, lumber companies, paper companies, foresters and others. “All of them in some way made their livings from the forest and tried to shape it for their own ends.”
(This picture is of a now defunct steam engine at the Southern Forest Heritage Museum in Alexandria, Louisiana)
I’ve been reading a book called Looking for Longleaf, by Lawrence Earley.
Why write a book about one type of pine tree? Because it used to cover most of the eastern United States, before the lumbermen took them all. And by accident. Early started out researching a book on the history of turpentining. “But I soon realized that this history would be told most effectively in the context of a book on the longleaf pine ecosystem.”
I’m interested because it’s this pine tree that drew the lumber companies to my family’s part of Louisiana, and that actually built DeRidder. DeRidder was almost entirely a company town.
One of my favorite spots in the book is where Earley visits The Southern Forest Heritage Museum near Alexandria, Louisiana, which Paul and I also visited a few years back. The “museum” is a group of buildings on a 56 acre parcel of land that includes the remnants of the Crowell Long Leaf Lumber Company, established in 1892.
What you see when you go there is a nice visitors center, with a lot of information on the trees of the region (which I now wished I’d paid more attention to), along with the skeleton of a steam-powered sawmill (that must be how my great-grandfather got scalded), planer mill, dry kiln, steam skidder, tracks and a steam-powered logging locomotive.
When we went, we took the tour with three REALLY old guys, wearing overalls, who’d made the drive over from Texas. They’d actually worked in the mill as young men, and filled in the tour with their memories of the place. Among the tidbits they contributed: they used to offer to work ten minutes extra for a chunk of ice thrown in the water bucket, and that near the saws, they used to use hand signs to communicate, because the roar of the saw was so deafening.
On Earley’s visit, he interviewed the director of the museum, Don Powell. Here are some of Powell’s comments:
“You know, people don’t understand the South. They think of plantations but less than two percent of the people participated in that. I’m doing some genealogy for my family and everybody—and I mean everybody—was a farmer. They grew cotton but their land got its fertility depleted—there ain’t nothin’ that eat up land like cotton; it sucked the nutrients out of it. Now the sawmill people come in. Some of them are pretty tough business people, but they were willing to risk their capital and that says a lot. ‘I’m willing to put my capital out here, build this mill, and believe that I can hire people and buy enough timber to make it and sell it at a profit.’ And by doing so they provided the means by which southerners had their first real opportunity to participate in the Industrial Revolution. There was no industry down here, a little textile in the Carolinas, and there was a splash of it in Mississippi, but not much. You can’t really say a cotton gin was the Industrial Revolution because it only operates two months out of the year and it didn’t take that many people to do it—ten people could run it easy—wheras it took 250 to run a sawmill and logging operation."
“So here we are in just this area right here, ten mills just a few miles away from each other. That’s 2,500 jobs. The people came from all over, from all these worn-out farms. They were leaving a house where they were feeding the chickens through the cracks in the floor almost, coming to a warmer house, a tighter house, a nicer house, in a community.”
My family didn’t start out as lumbermen. They started out as farmers. But once the lumbermen brought the railroads and the lumber mills to western Louisiana, there was no question what constituted the better career choice.
DeRidder and nearby town Merryville are collecting old Christmas trees to help combat erosion in Calcisieu Parish. "The trees will be collected after the holidays and will then be placed in fences built along Calcasieu parish coastlines to help rebuild and salvage the wetlands as well," according to this article in The Beauregard Daily New. It's so refreshing and surprising when government actually does smart things....
I’m trying to figure out what Louisiana means to me.
It’s the place my mother was born, in a town called DeRidder, in the western part of the state. It is the place my grandmother, Aurelia, who was Scarlet O’Hara’s bleach blond twin, was raised, too. And her mother, Anne—my great-grandmother. There’s a tiny cemetery, the Creel Family Cemetery, in Reeves, a tiny town not too far from DeRidder, where the Creel family farm used to be. Anne was a Creel. She moved to DeRidder—a metropolis compared to Reeves, but tiny by most standards--with the insurance money from her first husband’s death. She ran a rooming house, in which she raised Aurelia and Aurelia’s brother, LaRue. And, for a time, she raised my mother, as well.
But I digress already. The point is, this family is, or was, so rooted, so of a place. In that tiny cemetery are generations of extended family. And along those back roads, you can find other family cemeteries, too. How often do you see that? My mother ended up moving north when she was 16. She went to college in Virginia and married a northerner and settled in the north. Or the relative north. I grew up in Bethesda, Maryland. And I grew up with a sick brother, which meant we couldn’t travel often. And my southern relatives weren’t, for the most part, the traveling type. So I grew up not knowing them, or Louisiana, well. And because of that, I think there’s a part of my mother, and grandmother, and myself, that eludes me, too.
Here’s what I think: I think this is a story about identity, and the identity we get from place. We inherit that identity from our parents and where they, and their family of origin, are from. So what happens, what does it mean, when so many of us get geographically further and further away from those places or origin? In my case, it’s also a story about north and south…because, though these people in the south are my family, though this place is part of my heritage, I’m not sure I can know it, by virtue of the northern latitude where I grew up. Can a northerner truly understand a southerner—even if they are members of the same family?
This was brought home to me recently, as I talked with my mother about LaRue, who she, and thus I, called Brother. I was telling her that, when we were down for Aurelia’s funeral, I kept trying to get Brother to tell me stories about Aurelia, growing up. I really just wanted to know more about her, and why she was the way she was. (I’ll get to the way she was in a future post.) But he was evasive. Just kept wiggling the toothpick in the corner of his mouth, looking straight ahead as he drove us down the back roads of Louisiana, en route to see one relative or another. “I don’t know Shug,” he’d drawl. (Shug was short for sugar.) My mother said, “Well, it’s kind of a southern way with outsiders.” Touché. And ouch.
Because I wasn’t an outsider. But then again, I was. I am. So where does that leave me?