Jim Bradshaw: Lowry's rice-growing dream got blown away
Drought, dried up prices, surly neighbors and a bundle of dynamite made for hard times in the early days of rice farming in parts of southwest Louisiana.
One of the biggest losers was Charles Lowry who in 1893 bought 7,000 acres on the Mermentau River around the “Green House,” the historic residence (still standing) said to be one of the oldest houses west of the Atchafalaya Basin.
The house was built about 1836 for Alexander and Clarisse Hebert. It and thousands of acres around it were inherited by their son, Desire. He sold everything to Lowry, who, stirred by dreams of building an empire in Louisiana, gave up a lucrative wholesale drug business in Indiana.
Lowry probably heard about the Hebert land from J.B. Watkins, who in the late 1880s, as agent for the North American Land Company, bought 1.2 million acres in Cameron and Calcasieu parishes and began an intensive advertising campaign to bring Midwestern farmers to south Louisiana.
In one of his brochures, he called the Hebert land “one of the many beautiful and prolific plantations to be found in southwest Louisiana.”
An 1891 newspaper ad placed by Desire Hebert offered 8,000 acres “In One Solid Body” and a 1,200-acre stand of cypress timber “in its native state.” Lowry paid $12,000 for all of it, about $335,000 in today’s money.
Lowry, his wife Emma and their four children built a new home in an oak grove just upriver from the Green House. Over the next five years, he dug two irrigation canals with a combined length of 20 miles and converted 7,000 acres of prairie into rice fields.
His first canal irrigated his own Live Oak Plantation. Its pumps could lift 1.5 million gallons an hour from the Mermentau. The second canal could irrigate another 9,000 acres of land farmed mostly by families Lowry recruited from the Midwest. (He created the village of Lowry, which included a post office, general store, and schoolhouse, to help lure them south.)
But Mother Nature did not share his dream.
At first there was too much of a good thing; record crops flooded the market and drove prices down. But then a string of especially dry years also played havoc with the harvest.
By 1898 Lowry was short of cash. He’d spent a lot on his canals and, with poor crops one year or poor prices the next, he had not made the profit he needed. He had to sell part of his rice and canal operations to pay his mortgage.
Still, hopes were high that year; it looked like there would finally be a crop that was both big and profitable. But heavy rains just as the harvest began ruined crops and hopes.
1901 and 1902 were two of the driest years ever in southwest Louisiana. Water in the Mermentau dropped so low that there was barely enough to irrigate the fields. The 1903 crop was good, but the prices were poor. A cold snap wiped out most of the 1904 crop; another hot, dry summer steamed away irrigation water.
Making matters worse, salt water from the Gulf crept up the river during the droughts, making the little water that was available unusable for crops.
The farmers created the Rice Irrigation and Improvement Association and were able to raise enough money to build a temporary dam to block the salt water near Grand Chenier. But they could not raise enough for something permanent.
The association went to the Legislature for help. It created the Mermentau Levee Board and gave it authority to levy a property tax to build something better. A permanent dam was finished in August 1905.
The rice growers liked that, but farmers around Grand Chenier grew corn, cotton and cattle.
They thought the dam would cause their land to flood during a rainy period. The test came almost immediately
The skies opened in September 1905. One heavy rain followed another.
The Mermentau flooded, and, as feared, so did the Grand Chenier corn and cotton farms. When their protests went unheeded, the chenier farmers took matters into their own hands.
One dark October night, dynamiters blew out 30 feet of the dam. The levee board rebuilt it. The next blast did a more thorough job. That was the end; the dam was never rebuilt.
Lowry sold everything to the company that became the Lacassane Company, which still owns the property. (The Jeff Davis Parish town is spelled Lacassine, the company is Lacassane.)
A big reward was offered for the conviction of the men who blew up the dam and Lowry’s dream. Nobody talked.
A collection of Jim Bradshaw’s columns, "Cajuns and Other Characters," is now available from Pelican Publishing. You can contact him at email@example.com or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.