An Unlikely Paper Trail: Identifying the Sites and Inhabitants of the Tenant Quarters Community at Magnolia Plantation by Dustin Fuqua, Cane River Creole National Historical Park
Dustin Fuqua: To everyone, I appreciate the opportunity to talk with the NCPE group today. I have the privilege of telling you about a project that I’m working on, I’d like to call an unlikely paper trail identifying the sites and inhabitants of the tenant quarters community at Magnolia Plantation.
We’ll start off with the presentation with just an overview of the Magnolia Plantation site itself. We’re fortunate that we’re going to be able to go out there today as part of the tour and I have the privilege of bringing you around and telling you a little bit more about the site. This is just considered as an overview until we get out there.
The Magnolia Plantation unit of the park is, actually, only part of Magnolia Plantation. The park unit is, although, the entire side is a national historic landmark and is known as the Bicentennial Farm which means that it was formed by the same family for over 200 years. The same family owned and operated the site for over 200 years. There are 2 sites with the distinction of Bicentennial Farm, west of the Mississippi River and that’s Magnolia Plantation and Oakland Plantation, both which are part of Cane River Creole National Historical Park.
The Magnolia Plantation Unit of the park only includes the southwestern-most historic structures and historical landscape features. The majority of the lands are still owned by the same family, that’s owned, again, for over 200 years. In learning a little bit about the site and citing some information from some park-service generated documents, we know that the lands included in Magnolia Plantation had been owned and cultivated by the same family since the original French Land Grant of 1753.
The 18 acres within the park unit, only a very small portion of the historic plantation. In 1858, we know that the plantation encompassed over 2,750 acres and it grew even larger before 1930 when it was divided. Around 1860, another figures that Magnolia Plantation provides over 6,000 acres and had about 275 enslaved workers there. Flash forward all the way to 1960, the plantation still consisted of over 2,000 acres.
The time period that we’re going to be talking about in the presentation today is the park staff and all management refers to as the End of the Plantation era. This is the time period between 1945 and 1960, basically, post-World War 2. This is the era of mechanization. This is where originally you had this plantation system based on human labor. Human and animal labor and then right around World War 2, we know mechanization came around and all of a sudden tractors began to replace people in the fields and machines began to replace animals.
The time period that we interpret at both Oakland Plantation and Magnolia Plantation is the continuum of occupation all the way through the End of the Plantation era circa 1969, 1970. It’s quite a long continuum. The structures and all the restoration that we’ve done at the park units reflect that era, the post-reconstruction era. About the site itself, around 1972 is really the last major change that has happened at Magnolia Plantation. The last male plants for Mr. Matt Hertzog passed away in 1972 and following that, the lands were leased out so the lands became, more or less, a corporate farm.
A very similar situation happened at Oakland Plantation and you’ll learn about that today during our trip there. Based on the documentation that we have, the paper trail, if you will, the last tenants moved off the place, off of Magnolia Plantation around 1972. Today, flashing forward to the present, we’re talking about the privately owned portion of Magnolia Plantation. It still consists of the consolidated land holdings of the LeCombe-Hertzog family and today it still encompasses over 2,000 acres. The little portion that the park service owns, the 18 acres is only a fraction of what was there and what the family still owns.
We’ll talk about a few different perspectives at the place. The map images that you see here are a combination of aerial photos, mixed with LIDAR data and we have a few points that have been geo-referenced on top of these maps. The area that we’re looking at is what we call The Quarters so The Quarters, if you know anything about African-American heritage and about plantation life, quarters refers to the area that the enslaved and then the later tenants and share-croppers live in.
At Magnolia, when you go out there today, you’ll notice that we have 8 intact slave brick cabins which were originally built in 1850s for enslaved workers but people continue to live in those all the way through the 1970s. They were free people but they stayed on and worked as share croppers and tenant farmers and had different arrangements with the family to continue to live there.
It’s inaccurate to call them slave quarters. We call them slave/tenant quarters. Learning about the quarters, we know that electricity had been installed there in the 1940s as part of an REA program and that was about 10 years after the big house was electrified. The planter class lived in the main house or the big house at Magnolia. They got electricity sometime in the 1930s over at the quarters. That happened around the 1940s.
Looking at the quarters, we go out there today and it’s really easy to enjoy Magnolia Plantation. You can go out there; it’s now a national park. Park in the parking lot. Use the visitor facilities there, restrooms and water fountains. Tour around and see all the beautiful structures. There are over 25 historic structures at the park unit, but still, it’s only a fraction of what was there and it’s hard to represent the entire place. When you’re talking about the quarters, we know a little bit more about the quarters than we do about the rest of the tenant places.
For instance, one resident of the quarters was Mr. John Vercher and his family in the images here. Mr. John, he was one of those folks that, his parents were born there, his grandparents were born there and he continued to live there until his death in the late ’60s with his family and he inhabited one of the former slave cabins with his family. he was well adored by the planter class. They often hear them talking about stories, just always took this guy, he was very well revered by the planter class as well as his peers.
More of the folks that you hear about, when you’re talking about the quarters themselves, people that lived in the quarters, George Spillman and Beulah Blackman. Ms. Beulah was a cook and did a lot of the cooking for the family. George, as well, has a lot of planter class recollections about George and that he was a really good hamburger cook. The planter class and some of the other classes have a lot of oral history that we hear a lot about the different families.
Looking at all these buildings, and you’ll see what they look like today, it’s hard to pinpoint to say exactly who was there and what they were doing and the kind of things, the life that they lived but we do have some information. We have a 1940s article. I apologize for the quality of the image on the right but this is a newspaper article that was more or less advertising that electricity had been installed in the quarters in the 1940s.
You can read the caption there that says, “Sitting on the porch of the slave cabin, George Spillman says he was born in the cabin next door 67 years ago, also born in the place where Beulah Blackman and her son Gus. Newly added electricity is still a marvel. Note the oil lamp, contrasting sharply to the new radio, the pride of the family.” This must have been quite a sight to see. You’re living in these quarters that were originally slaves and in fact your parents and grandparents may have even lived there as slaves.
You’re a free person living, generations later and you have electricity come 1940s. Quite a contrast. In keeping with these perspectives as we move forward, we’re moving north from the southern-most part of the quarters, up the plantation. You come to the overseer’s house. In that vicinity, there’s a lot of cultural landscape features like there’s a roll of live oaks. There’s some other landscape features there as well and it’s a division of the property. You go from the tenant class and you’re working up to the overseer’s class.
There’s a nice, large overseer’s house that was, at one time, uses a slave hospital. At the End of the Plantation era, the person you hear most about is Mr. Henry Gallien. He lived there with his family, I think until the early 1960s. Now, let’s talk about the tenant houses themselves. The tenant houses, again, I’m talking about 2 different areas, the brick quarters and then the wooden tenant houses.
A 1921 soil survey recorded that there were about 31 tenant houses at Magnolia and then in 1937 there’s other personal communications from family members say that over 50 families of day laborers and shared tenants live there in 1937. We can look at a lot of the archives, a lot of which the national park service we have in our museum collection from Magnolia, original archives, you can find the names of about 30 individual share croppers and their families in a number of crop books and record books between 1936 and 1943.
The sad part about this is you’re talking about over 30 structures and this is probably over 2/3 of where the workforce lived. Probably 2/3 of the workforce lived in these wooden tenant cabins on the north side of the property and today, they’re not there anymore. They’re gone. When you go to Magnolia, you get to see all these awesome built environment, the quarters, you see the main house on the privately owned site but you don’t even know about this part. When you’re on your way out there today, I encourage to look around and try to see if you can even tell where these places were.
In talking about the tenant houses themselves, there are several different vicinities. We won’t really go into them too much but a lot of little names that are associated with these places that the descendants still call them, to this day, The River Road. That’s the present day, Highway 119, that’s the way that we’re going to go down to Magnolia today. They talk about the cut-off property and the junction property. When I mention Magnolia, Magnolia really was incorporated in 1835 but it started off as a number of land holdings of the LeCombe-Hertzog family that were consolidated.
The family, even to this day, and the local folks out there refer to these places as fairy plantation or the Chopin Place. They’re Magnolia today but they still remember that in their collective memory, that it was something prior to that, a different property. We’re talking about the tenant houses. We wonder, what do they look like? We know that we have these wonderful brick slave cabins. You’ll see them today. You’ll go up to them. You’ll go inside of them but we really don’t have any idea of what the wooden tenant houses look like. Some of them were probably built in antebellum period but the majority of them were probably post-reconstruction.
We don’t really have too many historic photos of the quarters. We have only 2 or 3 interior photos of the brick quarters. To my knowledge, we have no photos of the wooden tenant houses. The images on the slide are some unlabeled photos that I’ve came across in the Cammie G. Henry Research Center at Northwestern State and they may depict what the tenant houses looked like. I’m matching up some geographic land-forms and just speculating but I’m pretty sure that that’s what some of the tenant houses.
You note, some of them, they have bousilage or mud chimneys but a lot of them are just simple wood frame, board and bathing houses and they’re raised on sandstone blocks. You may want to keep referring to “The An Unlikely Paper Trail” and how do we begin to find out who are the people that lived here. Believe it or not, we found that out through electric, through the electrification of the place.
Between 1951 and 1953, the planter class decided to install electricity in a lot of these tenant cabins. Using our archives collection at the park, I was able to pull out all these records and lay it all out and you can see where a man named Mr. Charlie Longino who’s still alive today, wired a lot of these houses between 1951 and 1953. The greatest part about that is he said the person that was living there, so he named it. On the image on the left side, you see bill for Wiring 6 houses and it gives you the names of all these people, Macon Lacour, Nathaniel Coutee, Laurence Lacour, et cetera.
We were able to get the names of the people that lived there and that’s great because other than finding entries of them in the day books and the record ledgers, we would have no idea who lived there because the houses are no longer there and the people moved away a long time ago. Another interesting thing is, when you’re talking about rural electrification, a lot of places in the south, there was these REA programs and then you had a company that was a membership corporation.
In the Natchitoches Parish area, it was called Valley Electric Membership Corporation or VEMCO. VEMCO was around, from back here all the way up until just a few years ago that the company changed, just 4, 5 years ago. The interesting thing about VEMCO is when you got electricity in these places, you had to become a member of that corporation and they gave you an address and that’s what the little numbers that you see next to the folks’ names, the 84- series.
By looking at all these electrical records and later looking at some of the bills, those constitute an early address system, so you have route 1 box et cetera. This was the address, 84- whatever. That’s interesting because we can line up a lot of these maps and these aerial images that we have when the tenant houses were still there and by some of the family members saying, “The first house is where Andrew Rachal lived. The second house is where Cliff Lemill lived.”
We look at the numbers and we find the bills, these 1950s bills were saved. When they paid their bill, the planter class kept a stub copy and we’re able to line up, cross-reference the numbers with the names and that’s how we’re able to tell exactly who lived where. For purposes of the presentation, we’ll just talk about 5 of those cabins, what I’d like to label tenant houses A through E and that’s because, with the quarters, we have those numbers.
When you go to Magnolia today, we refer to them as Cabin 1 through 8 and this is just a different sequence of what I’m calling tenant houses A through E, but again, these aren’t there anymore, so, when you go out today, you won’t see these. You will only see a black maiden smear in the cultivated cotton fields and that’s all that’s left of these places but great people lived there and people that were legendary among the planter class and among the tenant class.
Folks like Andrew Pierce Rachal, who’s depicted in this photo, he is responsible for the race horses of Magnolia Plantation. Well revered by the family, a lot of good stories about him and then in cross referencing some of these documents, I found out that a man named William Brindle Gallien lived in that house prior to him. It’s a matter of taking all these electric bills and sorting through the and just figuring out who was living there, when.
In some instances, we find that multiple people lived in the same house within 1 year. There’s one instance wherein in 1 year, I believe it’s around 1958, at least 3 people, 3 families moved in and out of 1 house. Another person that you hear a lot about but you don’t often really see interpreted as much is a man named Cliff Lemell. Cliff Lemell was perhaps the most legendary among the planter class, well revered, well loved. He was a blacksmith as well as a preacher at the local church. That’s a role that is a cultural universal.
A blacksmith person, usually, in this area, during the antebellum was an enslaved laborer and oftentimes the task of being a blacksmith was passed down to the next son, to the next older son to the next older son so Cliff’s father and grandfather were also blacksmiths and something that goes along with that is the blacksmith is often a very powerful person and often a religious leader and that was the same case with Cliff Lemell.
Cliff was the deacon at the St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church, so, there was a church located at Magnolia Plantation as well. Again, it’s not there anymore but coll thing in looking at these electric bills is the church had electricity as well right around the same time and the bill went to Mr. Cliff, to his place. Since he was the preacher, he paid the bill for that but the address data is still, the 84- numbers are still intact.
In looking at that and comparing that with some of the personal communications in the oral history that we have, we know that the church was moved. At one point, the church was further down the river and sometime around the early 1970s, they decided to move the church. Around 1974, a car went off the road and hit the church and knocked it off its blocks and it was just let to go away, to just fade into history. All we have left is the archaeological site of that church.
Another such character is Mr. Walter Blackman. He lived in tenant house C. He was the plantation foreman and the chauffer for Mr. Matt Hertzog who was the planter at the End of the Plantation area and we know that he lived in that house with his mother Victoria. Another such character is John Blue Rachal. A lot of these folks have little nicknames and sometimes the nicknames are even listed as their name in the electric bill. This guy, Mr. John Rachal, he worked as a gardener.
If you notice from the image I have here, this is a 1972 aerial photo and you can see where the things are labeled A, B, C, D and E. That’s the location of where the houses were. The close proximity just south of there, if you notice, you can see some landscape features, some oak alleys, that’s where the main house is.
These are the people that are the most trusted, the most loyal to the planter class and they lived the closest to the big house. Another couple folks in that area that you hear a lot about, but you don’t really see too much in the written record are Mr. Toney Moran and William Middleton. They both occupy the same house, Tenant House E over time over the time periods there. You hear a lot about, especially, with the wiring, Fred Roque. He was responsible for supervising the mules.
Magnolia Plantation was, of course a cotton plantation but over the years, it started to have, cattle farming was a big role. They also raised a lot of sheep and they raised a lot of mules. The mules were used in the World War 2 efforts. They were shipping mules from the Magnolia Plantation to Italy of all places and that had to do with the war effort.
More of these characters that we hear about. Mr. Jack Williams, Matthew Shine Johnson, all of these great people lived in these cabins and unfortunately, the cabins are not there anymore.
There was a number of reasons for that. One reason being, at the end of the plantation era, when mechanization occurred, there was no more work. I mean, “A tractor replaced your family, so, sorry, I mean, we got a tractor so you all got to move.” It came down to that. A lot of these folks just moved off and they let the houses that they used to live in just fall down. They just let them rot away because they don’t need them anymore or they wanted more achorage so they went ahead and tore the houses down in 1970 just to yield more crop achorage. That’s why we don’t have them.
Aside from the tenant houses, there were a number of other houses that we’re able to learn about from the electric bills, one being the home of Mr. Henry Hertzog. Henry was the planer of one of these consolidated land holdings I was talking about, planter class guy. Later, the house was inhabited by Mr. Atwood Moran who was a Cane River Creole of color and very interesting guy. Atwood Moran had 12 children that lived in that house and one of the stories that you’d hear about Mr. Atwood a lot is that he was always looking for work. He had a lot of mouth to feed.
It’s a lot of this kind of data that you can glean from these records that you really wouldn’t find otherwise. Another one of those vicinities we’re talking about was Ferry Plantation and that’s a little further going north up the river from Magnolia and on your way down today, see if you notice this house. This structure’s still there. It was relocated just, maybe, from a few hundreds of yards away from its original location but still pretty close to the original location. It represents one of the houses that was at Ferry Plantation.
There were a number of other houses and landscape features we won’t really go in too much for the sake of the time that we have today but these are all houses that we have electric bills for and the house is no longer there. Another vicinity was the Chopin House and just in my time in working for the Cane River Creole National Historical Park, I’ve seen at least 3 of the tenant houses at Magnolia Plantation in the vicinity demolished and this being one of them. This one was demolished in 2009. That was actually the last one on the southernmost side.
Again, working our way north in the same area. The other tenant cabins, we have the home of the cook. They call it the Cook’s Cabin and in the End of the Plantation era, the most well-known cook was by the name of Ms. Rosa Rachal and the cook was a very important person on the plantation. They head the ear of the planter class. They went to the big house, they prepared the meals, they did all the cooking, they were privy to a lot of information that the other folks weren’t privy to. Ms. Rosa was a very important figure. The cook was a very important figure on the plantation.
On this house, you can see, that’s an extent electric meter in the image in the middle, probably the original meter that was out in in 1951. There are other vicinities of the plantation. For the purposes of time, we won’t go into them too much but the Hertzog Lake area, there’s really neat sites back there, at least 2 house sites and even a prohibition era steel site located behind Hertzog Lake and Mr. Cot Williams, this gentleman was one of the folks that lived there.
This is very much a project in process. We’ve accomplished a lot an we still have a lot to do. Accomplishments include that we utilize the archives to determine the resonance of a non-extent community. We’re talking about the community that is gone. There’s no houses left there. There’s no trace on the built environment of these people but we were able to use park museum collections and archives to figure out who lived there.
We were able to correlated the names of the tenants with the locations of their homes so we know who lived where, at what time. Since I started this project, ground truthed, if you will, the locations of at least 7 of these houses and that’s going to the site and taking GPS points of the site and then comparing it to a map.
Still a lot to do though. I really want to do a more comprehensive mapping project. Got some cooperation coming from the Northwest Louisiana Regional Archaeology Program, the regional archaeologist is going to be coming out later in the fall and helping us do some mapping. Got some tentative partnership from National Center over here. Their folks have tentatively agreed to help us out with some more of the mapping work.
There’s some more oral history work that we’d like to do. We funded this year for a major oral history project and some of the informants that we want to talk to are the descendants of the folks that either lived in these tenant houses or their children that may have grown up there. That’s something that we’re trying to do in this school year, 2014.
With all these, I’d like to be able to take this data after we synthesize it and make a good GIS map and synthesize it a little bit better. I’d like to propose some amendments to the National Historic Landmark Designation. That’s an extremely difficult process. I’ve already talked with the folks in our Washington office about it. It takes an act of congress more or less to do it. A lot of paper work but the current NHL designation doesn’t take into account the extreme size and all the other things that are happening at Magnolia Plantation.
A lot left to do but we’ve accomplished a lot. I have the references cited here, if anybody is interested, I’d be happy to tell you more about the documents that we pulled some of these records from. Otherwise, thank you for your attention, I appreciate it and I look forward to talking with you all at Magnolia later today.
Although mainstream tourism seldom interprets plantation life beyond the “Big House,” the collective memory of the enslaved workforce, tenant farmers, and sharecroppers is perpetually recanted at Cane River Creole National Historical Park. At the park’s Magnolia Plantation unit, an architectural collection of eight antebellum slave/tenant cabins, constructed of brick, stand as monuments to the perseverance of the Laborer Class. Yet these cabins and the extant architectural resources of the National Historic Landmark are but vestiges of the substantial community that once inhabited Magnolia Plantation.
Cognizant of its former scale, one may consider the Magnolia Plantation vicinity today a ghost town. In addition to the brick cabins at the plantation’s heart, rows of wooden cabins stretched like appendages north and south along Cane River. Research indicates that over 30 tenant houses were inhabited at Magnolia Plantation in the 20th century. Yet factors involving mechanization of agribusiness, the Civil Rights Movement, and urban sprawl have but erased these sites from existence. Today, little more than trees, seasonal flowers, and dark stains in the cultivated earth serve to delineate the archaeological location of such sites.
In an effort to determine the location of the Tenant Quarters sites and identify the families that resided therein, Dustin Fuqua utilized the park’s Archives collection and conducted ethnographic research. In doing so, much was learned with regard to geographic location of sites and the services made available to the Laborer Class. An unlikely paper trail involving historic store accounts, agribusiness invoices, and utilities’ receipts reveal the location and identity of the underrepresented demographic at “The End of the Plantation Era.” In this presentation, Dustin will discuss the cultural landscape of Magnolia Plantation while interpreting research that led to identifying the locations and inhabitants of the vanishing Tenant Quarters Community.