Introduction to Delta Pieces: Northeast Louisiana Folklife

Map: Cultural Micro-Regions of the Delta, Northeast Louisiana

The Louisiana Delta: Land of Rivers

Musings on the Louisiana Delta from a Native Son – H.F. Pete Gregory as told to Dayna Lee
The Flood of 1927 and the Great Depression: Two Delta Disasters – Betty Jo Harris

Working in the Delta

Making Music in the Delta

Telling Stories in the Delta

Delta Archival Materials

The Flood of 1927 and the Great Depression:
Two Delta Disasters

By Betty Jo Harris


For residents living in the eleven parish area of the Louisiana Delta, a pair of historic events not only changed the landscape but also altered the lives of those individuals who called Northeast Louisiana home. The people living in this region of the state rode out the floodwaters of the 1927 Mississippi River Flood, the worst recorded inundation in the United States and rebuilt their lives only to find themselves faced with the worst economic calamity in our country's history. An overflow of this dimension has not reoccurred in the Lower Mississippi Valley since Congress passed the National Flood Control Act of 1928, thus making flood control of the Mississippi River a national priority.

The economic disaster which began with the crash of Wall Street in 1929 and gripped the country in the 1930s has also not been equaled. From March to June 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt, in an intense period of activity known as "The Hundred Days" urged Congress to pass 15 pieces of major legislation as part of his New Deal for America. These new laws provided the country with relief programs to ease the suffering of the needy, recovery programs to lay the foundation for economic growth, and reform programs to help prevent a future crisis. For the residents living in the parishes of East Carroll, West Carroll, Morehouse, Ouachita, Richland, Madison, Tensas, Franklin, Caldwell, Concordia, and Catahoula the Flood of 1927 would be the very event that would later provide many of them with the tools for survival during the dark days ahead. These two disasters not only influenced the survivors' lives but also trickled down to influence the contemporary history of future generations of Delta people. Life went on despite the uncertainty of what was to come. Many of these citizens shared their stories of adventure and survival which helps us better understand how they lived through both the Great Flood and the Great Depression. These are their stories, rich and full of inspiration. They are history.

The Flood of 1927

People living in the Louisiana Delta were accustomed to high water years and worked hard to keep the flood waters at bay each spring but, 1927 was a year that old timers called a "hundred year flood." Frederick Simpich described the inundation in the National Geographic Magazine as "a vast sheet of water as yellow as the China Sea at the mouth of the Yangtze . . . about 1,050 miles long and in places over 50 miles in width" (Simpich 1927). Northeast Louisiana was one section of the Lower Mississippi Valley where water extended in places for fifty miles or more. Ouachita Parish resident, Sitty McNeil, remembered what her husband shared, "You could get in a boat out here on Bayou DeSiard where the Edgewater Dam is . . . where the bayou comes close to DeSiard Road . . . you could go clear to Mounds, Louisiana, just pass Tallulah . . . except for Mason Ridge in Richland Parish" (McNeil 1993). Weather expert Isaac M. Cline also described the high water conditions, "The flood of 1927 in Louisiana exceeded any flood since the settlement of this section more than 200 years ago. The previous flood of reference was that of 1882 which was exceeded by that of 1927 by three feet at Jonesville" (Frankenfeld 1927). Jonesville, located in Catahoula Parish, suffered some of the worst water in the state. On 1 July, the Tensas Gazette reported, "The town of Jonesville, once the pride of Catahoula Parish and a thriving little metropolis has been stricken by the hand of the greatest river flood of all time in a manner that is truly unbelievable" (Tensas Gazette 1927b). The paper observed that the town was a veritable wreck due to the water which measured 15 feet in some areas.

The geography of Northeast Louisiana makes up a large part of the floodplain of the Mississippi River. Within the Lower Mississippi Basin there are a series of six smaller, irregular shaped interior flood basins formed by the bluffs and ridges located there and by the tributaries that flow into the Mississippi River. Two of the six smaller flood basins, the Upper and Lower Tensas Basins, are located in Northeast Louisiana. This area is affected by floodwaters entering these two basins as well as backwater in the Boeuf River Basin and the Ouachita lowlands. When the Mississippi River reaches flood stage, the Upper and Lower Tensas Basins receive water from the main channel and backwater from its tributaries. Despite the geographic break created by the Macon Ridge, the Tensas and Boeuf Basins are protected by the same levees and share common drainage problems.

The flat bottomlands of Northeast Louisiana are broken by three notable high areas, which rise above the floodplain. These areas served as refuge for many displaced people and animals in the spring of 1927. The highest area is Sicily Island located between Harrisonburg and the town of Sicily Island in Catahoula Parish, which is a hundred feet above the floodplain. The Macon Ridge Islands also rise above the floodplain upon the Macon Ridge which is approximately 100 miles in length and rises 20 to 40 feet above the surrounding area. Last are the Bastrop Hills in Morehouse Parish, which rise 70 feet above the floodplain, are 17 miles in length, and five miles wide at their widest part.

Prior to the 1927 inundation, citizens of the Delta banded together to protect themselves for the onslaught of waters by filling sandbags and patrolling the levees. In Tensas Parish a meeting was held in early April to recruit volunteers for a levee patrol. Volunteers, as well as paid levee guards, were organized into around-the-clock patrols, with volunteers patrolling about twelve hours per week. Seventeen-year-old Thompson Clark patrolled the levee from St. Joseph to Winter Quarters Plantation, where the levee would eventually break. He enjoyed his employment until the night he dismounted his horse to check on a sand boil, which was an area where the water crept under the base of the levee and began spouting up on the land side. To combat these boils, they would circle them with sandbags to prevent the water from spreading. While Clark inspected the sand boil, his horse spooked and Clark recollected, "The damn horse ran off, and I had to walk in mud to my ankles back to St. Joseph. If I had the gun with me, I would not have shot a person, I would have killed the horse! I swear I would have!" (Clark 1993). Josiah P. Scott, editor of the local newspaper, the Tensas Gazette, boosted of the fine job the levee guards were doing to protect the Tensas citizens. In an article from April 1927, he proudly stated:

Vigilance manifested by the people of the Fifth [Levee] District is only characteristic of them. Telephone lines and electric light lines are covering all remote and dangerous points. Guards are patrolling beats by foot and on horseback, no guard being beyond calling assistance of another. Alcoholics of any nature are barred from the levee and no man is permitted to go on the levee that shows evidence of drinking. (Tensas Gazette 1927a)

In Ouachita Parish makeshift levees were built to protect the levee-less city of Monroe from the rising Ouachita River as early as April 1927. In the northern section, protection was vitally important because the city's power and light plant was located there. The municipal salt water natatorium, in Forsythe Park, was engulfed by the river early in the fight (Monroe News-Star 1927e). In fact it has been written, "The demise of the natatorium came not from accidents or self-destruction, but, ironically, from water" (Bivens n.d.). The salt water swimming pool never re-opened after the Flood of 1927. Workers in the South Monroe area making sandbag levees faced a greater challenge due to the sharp turn in the Ouachita River near Lover's Lane. A high levee was constructed by city prisoners under the direction of city engineer W. L. Neel (Monroe News-Star 1927a). In some instances bystanders were nabbed on vagrancy charges by the local police or volunteer groups and pressed into levee work. Eddie Gregory and his wife were walking down DeSiard Street in downtown Monroe and witnessed civilians grabbing two African Americans and throwing them on to a truck to force them into sandbag duty (Gregory 1993). Maneous Williams described his uncle, Louis Davis, as a very unlucky person, because he was arrested as a vagrant on Sixth Street while visiting Monroe during the spring of 1927. His family was living near Sterlington in the northern part of the parish when Davis disappeared. They assumed he had run away to join the circus like his older brother had done a few years earlier. However, much to their surprise when he finally returned home, Davis had not performed at the circus but had been at the levee in Monroe repairing a gap that had crevassed. Davis told family members of working for three days while being locked in jail at night. Williams said, "After they turned him loose here in Monroe, he came home and just sat down and boo-hooed like a baby, said, those people had caught him down there and worked the devil out of him on the levee and he didn't think he'd ever come back to Monroe" (Williams 1993).

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Maneous Williams shares about his uncle

The local Louisiana National Guard unit patrolled the levee along the Ouachita River along South Grand Street in Monroe. Patrick Wright, who was a member of Company G, said his group was responsible for patrolling the levee on a twenty-four hour basis along South Grand Street near the Lovers Lane area. Among the duties assigned to these men were watching for boils along the heel of the levee and preventing curious civilians from walking on top of the embankment (Wright 1989).

In Madison Parish most of the landowners called upon their employees or tenant farmers to help fortify the levees. Additionally many sawmill owners asked their workers to help strengthen the weak levees. Hilliard Livingston an employee at the Chicago Mill and Lumber Yard in Tallulah recalled being one of twenty men put on a trailer truck and taken to a weak spot near Milliken's Bend. The two levee foremen were Mr. Gayle who owned the ice-cream company in Tallulah and Mr. Brown, the foreman from the Chicago Mill. The men were paid $1.25 to work the night shift. Livingston remembered, "Nobody told us nothing. We walked north with no light and no tools and the levee was shaking like jelly. The men told us not to stop and finally we ran into sacks and tools" (Livingston 1994). The team of men worked through the night filling sacks of dirt and putting them where the water was running over the top. Some men from a U. S. quarter boat, docked near the levee in Alastia in southern East Carroll Parish, brought them supper which Livingston described, "It was packed in forty-five pound lard cans, full of food and plenty of it" (Livingston 1994).

Higginbotham's This is It Garage, Waterproof, La. Photo: Courtesy of Betty Jo Harris.

May is historically graduation time for high school seniors. Needless to say many of those ceremonies were put on hold in the Delta. In Madison Parish, William Ziegler was the Senior Class President at Tallulah High School and he and his classmates had already ordered their graduation invitations. On 2 May, the entire student body was called to the old auditorium where they were told school was dismissed due to the rising water. The Junior and Senior boys were asked to meet at Guenard-Lucas Drug Company the next morning to help in the fight to hold back the river. Ziegler remembered:

I volunteered to run a river skiff, a boat with a ten horse power Johnson motor. I had two big boxes of ham sandwiches and lots of coffee to feed the crews which were mainly black. The crews were about a mile apart and before we got to the second crew. . . . Negroes were running and throwing shovels down. We went to see what was happening and saw Mr. Lucas running. He said, 'Hell! The levee broke,' as he was running to his car. (Ziegler 1990)

Ziegler abandoned his boat and rode the 20 miles back to Tallulah on Mr. Lucas' spare tire and upon his arrival observed that pandemonium had broken loose (Ziegler 1990). In her diary entry for May 3rd, Minnie Murphy described her neighbors desperately preparing for their inundation even though it took a few days for the floodwaters to reach the city limits:

Automobiles tore through the streets; trucks thundered by piled high with trunks, furniture, chicken coops, band-boxes, pets, people . . . all headed for the railroad, where passenger coaches, box cars, cattle cars, flats, and locomotives had been stationed for weeks, steam up, ready to rush to a place of safety. (Murphy 1927)

Ziegler remembered seeing the last train out of Tallulah quickly filled, because everybody was frightened by the news of the levee breaking. He described one resident of Tallulah desperate to board that train. Oscar "Smooly" Croenburg, who ran a cafeé made it to the train too late to obtain a seat, so he pleaded with the conductor to allow him to ride. The conductor gave him the honor of riding on the cow catcher on the front of the locomotive. Ziegler said he would never forget Smooly waving good-bye to the citizens of Tallulah from the front of the train. Later in 1933, some residents noticed a rich-looking man in town. Smooly had returned to visit, and everyone saw how successful he had become as a cafeé; owner in the East Texas oil fields (Zieglar 1990).

This major crevasse, forever known as the Cabin Teele break, occurred around noon on 3 May 1927. It did not break naturally according to Glen Booth who was told what actually happened by the former sheriff of Madison Parish, Carneal "Blue" Woodyear. The levee had been purposely breached at Cabin Teele because if it had been allowed to break by the pressure of the river water, then a large portion of it would have been swept into the river like the earlier crevasse at Greenville, Mississippi. Woodyear, a member of the Fifth District Levee Board in 1927, claimed the other board members felt strongly that there was no way to stop the levee from breaking, so a deliberate breech would preserve much of the structure and help in reconstructing the levee system when the water receded (Booth 1994). Also, the land behind the Cabin Teele region was wooded so if the levee crevassed there, the trees would slow down the rate of travel of the floodwaters. The Vicksburg Evening Post reported, "Trees alongside the break, and the "buck shot" dirt are serving to retard the crumpling of the levees, thus holding narrow the outlet for the angry waters in that section (Vicksburg Evening Post 1927).

Downtown Oak Ridge during the 1927 Flood. Photo: Courtesy of Robert Barham.

The efforts to hold back the floodwaters and patrol the levees in Northeast Louisiana ended after the major break at Cabin Teele. Water entered the Upper and Lower Tensas Basins eventually through six direct breaks in the levee on the left bank of the Mississippi River. This major crevasse was a result of the Mound Landing crevasse which had broken the levee on the opposite [right] bank of the Mississippi River on April 21. After flooding the Yazoo Basin in Mississippi, the rushing water from the Mound Landing break reentered the river at Vicksburg, promptly causing the levee directly across the river in Louisiana to crumble. The other breaks in the main levee line occurred in Tensas Parish at St. Joseph on May 1 and Winter Quarters on May 4. In Concordia Parish breaks were reported on May 1 at Bougere and Glascock. These breaks were augmented by three breaks in the Arkansas River levee, which resulted in the total inundation of the Tensas Basin with the exception of the three notable high areas rising out of the floodplain. Mildred Nolan of Oak Ridge in Morehouse Parish remembered the Oak Ridge church bells sounding one night at 2:00 a.m. confirming reports that the water had entered the town. With light from kerosene lanterns, she watched the heroic effort made by the men of Oak Ridge to fill sacks of dirt and build up an embankment around the town in an attempt to hold back the rising water. They also sandbagged every culvert under the railroad tracks which prevented any water from entering the west side of town. The small levee constructed by local manpower withstood the water's pressure long enough to enable many residents to move out of their homes before it broke (Nolan 1981).

Wading in Oak Ridge, La. Photo: Courtesy of Robert Barham.

As of May 6, no new crevasses were reported along the levee lines of Northeast Louisiana, but the battle to save the area from overflow had been lost. Once the area was flooded, the immediate concern of the citizens was no longer how to hold the levees but how to rescue and care for the thousands of flood victims left in peril. President Calvin Coolidge appointed the Mississippi Flood Committee to direct the relief effort in the Mississippi Valley. Secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover, was chosen by the President to head this group, and part of his job was to create and administer a flood relief army comprised of representatives from federal, state, and local government agencies. Hoover's main objective in establishing the hierarchy was to give cohesion and direction to an essentially local relief operation. The work of the organization was developed into four phases according to a report by Hoover: 1) rescuing those inhabitants who would have been otherwise drowned and transporting them to refugee camps, 2) sustenance work and safeguarding the victims health in the refugee camps by providing shelter, food, clothing, medical attention, public health, and police protection, 3) the first stage of reconstruction by resettling the people from refugee camps back to their farms and villages, and 4) the work of long-term reconstruction (New York Times 1927).

Heroic rescue efforts were performed throughout the Delta. In Rayville, the parish seat of Richland Parish, the Tommie Cook American Legion Post undertook the rescue effort. Several boats with outboard motors were used to fight the flood currents and transfer citizens from isolated rural sections of the parish to dry ground. The Richland Beacon-News compared the efforts of the American Legion to the similar acts of heroism performed by many of the same boys who had fought in the battles of the Argonne Forest and Belleau Woods during World War I, "that same spirit which saved men, women, and children and property from the wreck and ruin of the present disastrous flood" (Richland Beacon-News 1927b). Not only did the Legionnaires move people from roof tops, but they also established a mail service to the Red Cross camps. A Ford truck was purchased and converted into a railway vehicle by equipping it with flange wheels. With this mode of transportation, they not only brought mail to Rayville but also transported doctors, nurses, and supplies to the Red Cross camp at Delhi. Some 55 tons of tents and other equipment were moved by this method (Richland Beacon-News 1927b). Warren Fox was hired as an employee of the Red Cross in Ouachita Parish. He was involved in the rescue of a preacher and his family who lived near the Brown Paper Mill in West Monroe which was covered in 14inches of water. Fox rode in a 30 ton, steel barge owned by R. B. Henry, and due to the strength of the current, the boat ran into the power lines running along each side of the road near Trinity Baptist Church. This caused quite a scare for the young men, because each time they hit a power line, sparks would fly (Fox 1993). Paul Fink, a law student from Monroe, worked with a volunteer group that took food by boat to the people living near the Brown Mill. He recalled that two groups each worked nine hour shifts (Fink 1993).

Man in dugout boat, Waterproof, La. Photo: Courtesy of Betty Jo Harris.

The railroads also provided extra boxcars on sidings along the lines for displaced residents awaiting transportation to a Red Cross camp. In some instances, refugees moved into these boxcars permanently and set up housekeeping. They equipped their cars with stoves and pallets for sleeping. Food was sometimes provided to these boxcar residents from the gardens of nearby landowners (Richland Beacon-News 1927a). Edwin Myrick of Richland Parish remembered harvesting his ten acre truck garden early in order to have food for the families living on his place. Eighty bushels of Irish potatoes were dug as well as cabbage, carrots, and lettuce. Different people in Girard volunteered to cook the vegetables for the boxcar inhabitants (Myrick 1981).

An estimated 25,000 people from the 11parishes of Northeast Louisiana were housed in refugee camps. Although Red Cross camps were established on any high ground in the area, evacuees were concentrated at six larger camps. Displaced people along the levee north of St. Joseph were taken to Vicksburg and those south of that point went to Natchez. Some of the inland refugees were concentrated at Delhi located on the Macon Ridge in Richland Parish. Other inland flood victims were taken to camps established in Bastop in Morehouse Parish and West Monroe in Ouachita Parish. The largest camps in Northeast Louisiana were the camps at Delhi which cared for 8,000 people and Bastrop which had 6,000 people registered. Approximately 8,000 Louisiana residents were cared for at camps across the river in Mississippi. Monroe resident Alwine Mulhearn Ragland remembered visiting the Red Cross Camp in West Monroe. Her family operated Mulhearn Funeral Home and owned the only ambulance in the parish. Her brother Tom worked at the camp and slept in the ambulance at night. She rode with him to work one day eager to see the camp. She was 13 years old and no longer played with dolls so she took hers along to the camp and gave them away to the children temporarily living in West Monroe (Ragland 2004). Doris Schuchs, a native of Catahoula Parish, remembered the Red Cross tents on the high ground in Harrisonburg, the parish seat. She said her family received Red Cross rations weekly and thankfully her mother did not force her to eat the dried prunes in their allotment. Refugees like Schuchs were immunized by Red Cross nurses for typhoid, diphtheria, and small pox. She was given a smallpox vaccine while at the camp which frightened her and left an open sore on her arm (Schuchs 1990). Elmer Gibson wrote in his memoirs that the camp at Harrisonburg was fortunate to have little disease associated with the high water. In the only death reported, the individual died from smallpox (Gibson n.d.). The Monroe News-Star reported that the Red Cross in Bastrop issued meal tickets to every evacuee at the camp. Kitchen tents were established to prepare food to be served in segregated dining halls for white and black flood victims (Monroe News-Star 1927b). The Red Cross camp in East Carroll Parish was located on some high ground near the depot in Lake Providence. Virginia Hider was 19 years old and since she owned a typewriter, she was volunteered by the local Red Cross chairman Martin Hamley, to register each person upon their arrival at the camp (Hider 1991). Thelma Sturgeon recalled arriving at a camp in Franklin Parish on Berry Hill:

When we arrived at the Red Cross camp they treated us heavenly. We were given hot soup and other food. We were then carried to our tent which was to be our home for over two weeks. The tents were set up in rows, with each family given an individual one, with army cots and plenty of warm blankets. (Guice 1994)

The Red Cross camps were not immune to the problems created by having many people living together under strained circumstances. In addition to the levee patrols, the National Guardsmen manned the refugee camp in West Monroe. Warren McGee described these men as, "smiling guardian angels in khaki" (Monroe News-Star 1927c). However, not all of the civilians shared such positive opinions of these guardsmen. The Monroe News-Star reported that three shots were fired by unidentified assailants at national guardsmen patrolling the Missouri Pacific tracks levee:

Private McDonald was walking post No. 43 and Private Turner was patrolling post No. 44 along the Missouri Pacific tracks. Suddenly a flash of fire was seen from the direction of a Negro cabin nearby, and a bullet whizzed by Guardsman Turner. Private McDonald hastened to report to Corporal Patrick Henry Wright . . . While the private and corporal were conversing, two more shots rang out and whizzed by them. (Monroe News-Star 1927d)

Although a motive was never stated by city officials or the guardsmen, it was believed that some local residents wanted to cut the dyke to allow water into the west side of the levee to relieve flooded sections east of the track (Monroe News-Star 1927d ).

Many Delta residents had been nervously preparing for the overflow after hearing of the disastrous conditions reported by their neighbors in Arkansas and Mississippi. Large numbers of people took heed of the severity of the flood warnings and sought refuge outside of Northeast Louisiana prior to the inundation. Twenty-two year old Berta Miller, who had scheduled her wedding to take place in St. Joseph that summer decided to evacuate across the river to Lorman, Mississippi, with her sister. Floodwaters did not interfere with true love however. When her fianceé; persuaded her to marry in Mississippi, her family traveled to the ceremony by boat. She and Harrison Miller were married at the peak of the high water on 18 May 1927. The honeymoon in New Orleans was cut short, however, when, "we went to a restaurant and it was quite obvious that the people were real jittery" (Miller 1986). She later figured out that levee officials in New Orleans were about to dynamite the Poydras Street levee in order to save the city. When she and her husband decided to return home to Highland Plantation in the southern part of Tensas Parish, she was greeted by her two stepsons, JB who was seven and Little Harrison who was twelve. She remembered:

JB, Little Harrison, and I would put on our bathing suits and go out there [in the yard] and go swimming and Uncle Elliott Coleman who had a very large barge, it looked to me like a large barge, and he would park it out in the deep water, and then we would go by boat out to where it was and we would all sit around on the barge and go swimming, it was wonderful. (Miller 1986)

The home she lived in still stands on Texas Road outside of Waterproof and was built approximately four feet off the ground.

St. Joseph resident Miles Smith was in charge of taking his mother and sister to Vicksburg to escape from the high water. After the break in the levee in Arkansas, his father decided it was time for the ladies to leave. He drove them to Mississippi in the family's Model-T Ford, crossing on the ferry from Louisiana to Mississippi. En route, Smith learned that the levee had been breeched at Cabin Teele. He knew he would not be able to return to St. Joseph by the same route, because he felt sure that the rising water would beat him back to Louisiana. His father told him to leave the car with the women and take the train from Vicksburg to Natchez and cross the ferry at Vidalia in Concordia Parish. From Vidalia, he could hitchhike north to St. Joseph. Arriving in Vidalia, he discovered the city covered with about six inches of water and all traffic headed to Mississippi. Undaunted, Smith walked the levee from Vidalia to Ferriday, already covered with about six feet of water. He continued walking on the levee and the train tracks which were built higher than the roads. He finally reached dry land north of Waterproof where he was able to catch a ride into St. Joseph. He arrived back in his home town to witness a mule slipping out of view into the side of the levee, not a very reassuring site (Smith 1993).

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Miles Smith shares about his experience during the flood.
Kirk Hazlip and Laura Ehlert in boat, Waterproof, La. Photo: Courtesy of Betty Jo Harris.

Two young women who were expected to deliver babies in May also left their respective homes early for high ground. One mother was from Mississippi and one was from Louisiana and their babies would become cousins as a result of the 1927 Flood. May 20, 1927, seventeen days after the Cabin Teele break, a baby boy was born at the King's Daughters Hospital in Natchez, Mississippi. The mother, Lily Benson, a 17 year-old from Ruhlville, a small town deep in the Mississippi Delta was living at the King's Daughters Home for Unwed Mothers adjacent to the hospital. Benson was sent to Natchez by her parents not only to hide her unfortunate circumstances but also to flee the rising waters of the Mississippi River before an expected levee break on the Mississippi side of the levee at Greenville. If the predicted flood did occur, travel would be dangerous, especially for a girl with a baby due to arrive in the middle of possibly one of the worst natural disasters in the history of the Lower Mississippi River Valley. The twelve pound baby boy survived but the mother died ten days later from complications following the birth. Meanwhile across the river in Louisiana, Willie Hazlip from Waterproof in Tensas Parish wanted to visit her sister-in-law who had recently given birth to a baby girl at the same hospital in Natchez.

Waterproof Drug Company during the 1927 Flood, Waterproof, LA. Photo: Courtesy of Betty Jo Harris.

The young mother from Louisiana, Elise Hazlip, had also gone to The King's Daughters Hospital to escape the dangerous floodwaters which were expected to cover Northeast Louisiana after the levee broke. Despite being unable to swim, Willie persuaded her brother-in-law, Marable Harper, into ferrying her across the treacherous water in his motor launch so she could visit her newborn niece. While viewing the baby girl in the hospital nursery, she noticed and remarked on the size of the large baby boy in a nearby bassinet. A nurse overheard her comment and shared that the infant's mother was dying, and he would be sent to an orphanage in Natchez. Mrs. Hazlip contacted her husband, a pharmacist who owned the Waterproof Drug Company to ask if they could adopt the baby.

He agreed and Joe Hazlip became the only child of Willie and Kirk Hazlip. Looking back on his adoption, Joe Hazlip stated, "I guess I was about the luckiest little child that ever was in this world. I had the best mama and daddy that anybody could have had" (Hazlip 2005). Not only was he adopted into a loving home but after reflecting on his life, he recognized how much more difficult it could have been because of what soon followed, the collapse of the United States economy.

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Joe Hazlip shares about being adopted during the Depression.

The Depression

The crash of the stock market on Wall Street in October 1929 marked the beginning of a decade of poverty, high unemployment rates, plunging farm prices, and an overall lack of opportunity for Americans trying to better themselves. Joe Hazlip's adoptive family, like the majority of Americans, would not escape the effects of the bad economy during the 1930s. However, unbeknownst to the Hazlip family and many of their neighbors living in the Louisiana Delta, it would be the flood disaster of 1927, and the legislation which followed that gave many of them a way to provide for their families during the dark days of the 1930s.

On 15 May 1928, President Calvin Coolidge signed the Jones-Reid Bill which established the first comprehensive federal flood control program for the Lower Mississippi Valley. Based on the recommendations of Major General Edwin Jadwin of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, major points of the plan provided for the raising and strengthening of levees between Cape Girardeau, Missouri, and the Head of Passes below New Orleans, revetment for caving banks, improved navigation channels for river traffic, and the construction of several floodways which would divert excessive Mississippi River waters through direct outlets into the Gulf of Mexico. The legislation stated that the federal government would provide $325,000,000 for the project over a ten year period (Moore 1972).

During the peak of the Depression the unemployment rate hovered around 25%. The federal money allocated to rebuild the levees and the laborers needed to complete this task would influence the lives of a number of Delta residents. Jack Keahey moved to Newellton in Tensas Parish in October 1931, after obtaining a job with the W. E. Callahan Construction Company. Keahey recalled that three different companies, the Callahan Company, Trinity Farm Construction Company, and Valley Construction Company had contract work in Tensas Parish to rebuild and raise the levees. The W. E. Callahan Company had recently finished its contract working on the levees near Cape Girardeau, Missouri, and moved their equipment by barges down the river to Hard Times Landing in Tensas Parish, where they repaired and upgraded the levees between Yucatan and Waterproof. Keahey wrote that millions of cubic yards of dirt went into widening the levee base, repairing breaks and sides and adding several feet to the height of the levee. Keahey worked with a 15 man crew on a levee near the southern end of Lake St. Joseph outside Newellton. Keahey's crew worked to repair the damage caused by the Winter Quarters break. Locals still refer to the deep hole caused by the levee break as the "Blue Hole." While he was working in Tensas Parish he boarded in someone's home, because there were no hotels in the parish. He met his future wife Rayma. They married on 16 December 1933. The Keahey family spent the rest of their married life in Tensas Parish where they reared two sons. Presently their descendents still live near St. Joseph (Keahey 1994).

The effects of the depression had drastically altered the lives of Willie and Kirk Hazlip in Waterproof. Soon after adopting the baby from the orphanage, they lost the Waterproof Drug Company which led to Kirk's hospitalization at the state mental hospital in Pineville and left Willie to provide for her family. She was a graduate of the University of Tennessee and prior to her marriage had taught school, but the times demanded that once a woman married she could no longer teach. These positions were reserved for unmarried women. Despite her social standing, Willie Hazlip took in boarders. At one time they had so many men living in their home that she and her son Joe slept on a cot in the bathroom. She worked hard to make ends meet by waking early in order to make sack lunches for the men to take along with them to work on the levee. Joe Hazlip remembered standing on a stool in the corner of the kitchen drinking coffee milk while watching his mother prepare those lunches. His mother, who had never had a weight problem actually gained weight during the depression because she ate all the scraps and leftovers for fear that there would be no food available later (Hazlip 2005).

Edgar Lancaster's family moved from Blackhawk Plantation in Concordia Parish to Madison Parish after the 1927 Flood. He recalled, "I can see my mother now sitting on the floor crying. There was mud everywhere, snakes in the closets. She said, 'Get me out of Concordia Parish'" (Lancaster 2009). Soon afterwards his father bought a farm near Tallulah and the family moved when he was 10 years old. His family raised a garden, and he did not suffer any real hardships during the depression. He did remember many who were not so fortunate. He said what stood out during those years were:

The freight trains coming through with the hobos. If there was a boxcar with an open door, you could see a bunch of hobos riding. They could also ride underneath the passenger trains. They called that riding the rails . . . I can remember people coming to our door asking for food as they bummed their way through the country. (Lancaster 2009)

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Edgar Lancaster shares his memories about hobos.

After serving in World War II, Lancaster finished Louisiana State University Law School under the GI Bill and returned to Tallulah with his wife Beverly. Lessons learned from the depression such as discipline, fairness, and honesty served him well. The residents of Madison Parish agreed and elected him to serve as their representative in the Louisiana State Legislature under Governor Bob Kennon in 1952.

In a more rural area of Madison Parish known as the Omega Plantation, Carrie Albert Scott worked hard during the Great Depression to help her father provide for his family. Mitchell Albert worked at the Belmont Grocery during the day but at night hunted and trapped to supplement his family's income. She helped her father stretch the hides of the [ra]coons, rabbits, and possums:

My job when I got off from school in the afternoon was to gather cocklebur sticks . . . to have the cocklebur sticks ready when he got off in the evening . . . would take two or three sticks . . . you put one end of the stick in the right ear and the other end in the left foot [one in the] left ear and right foot, that's two and then you put one across for the front feet and that's the way you would stretch'em. Now, he always brought something home at night. If sometimes he didn't find anything, sometimes his traps were robbed, but he would pick up persimmons [and] pecans. That was another one of my jobs. We had a barrel on the back porch, and we stored the pecans in the barrel. We were allowed to eat pecans but not waste them. At Christmas he would sell the pecans and sell the hides. We all had Christmas. (Scott 2009)

The hard work that Carrie Scott became accustomed to during the depression paid off later in life. In 1939, her father paid her out-of-state college tuition of $72 at Alcorn State University. She served the children of Madison Parish as an educator from 1958 to 1983.

Morehouse Parish resident Alma DeBlieux Honeycutt had 13 brothers and sisters and remembers sleeping three to a bed during the Depression. Her father moved the family there in 1936 where he farmed to provide for his large family. As a 13-year-old she remembered her parent's discussions:

I can remember my father saying how difficult times were but he was not in the category to have had stock in any of those things . . . but as we know when the stock market fell it had a domino effect on everything and so we became more and more destitute as the time went on . . . income was down, it was difficult to buy things on the limited income, credit was difficult to come by. (Honeycutt 2009)

Doug Higginbotham was a lifelong resident of Morehouse Parish. His father earned $225 a month as the Chief of Police in Bastrop. Tragically Chief Higginbotham died in 1933 after suffering injuries from a car wreck when Doug was fifteen years old. He remembered:

Daddy was so well liked and that's when you take the body home. . . . Anyhow all those black people congregated on the outside. I'll never forget it . . . and they was over there across the street, must have been 30, 40, 50, maybe more and mother went out and said, 'Would y'all like to come and review the body?' They said they would so, they walked on in the house just as orderly as you can be. (Higginbotham 2009)

Higginbotham was appreciative of the respect the African American community showed his family upon his father's death despite the fact that his father had been an active member of the Ku Klux Klan in Morehouse Parish. This was a membership that was not openly discussed in his home. He recalled:

"Daddy was a Ku Klux Klanner and I didn't know it . . . [The Baptist Church] had a tent revival there one week. We went to it. . . . Mother took us. We were sitting on the bench and I was sitting right next to the aisle and the Ku Klux Klan come in there and made a contribution to the plate . . . about 6 or 7 of them or so . . . Well, as they were going on out this fellow looked over at us and I thought I recognized the eyes and so I asked mother about it. She denied it but I was a curiosity cat and got to looking around the house, in the closet there, I found the cloak. So, I knew it was Daddy." (Higginbottom 2009).

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Doug Higginbotham shares about his father.

During the 1930s membership in the Ku Klux Klan's increased over the entire United States. As misfortune and poverty grew in the 1930s so did membership in the secret organization. Higginbotham remembered another frightening sign of their activity in Morehouse Parish. He described a night around the town square in Bastrop, "I remember when they hung that black fellow up on the square in Bastrop. I was in the Rose Theater when that happened. They hollered and I went down and saw them break into the jail and bring him up the street . . . he had raped a woman" (Higginbottom 2009).

Higginbotham said the experiences he had during the depression helped him to be a good Christian. After serving in World War II, he returned to Bastrop and worked as a Senior Cost Analyst at International Paper until his retirement in 1983 (Higginbottom 2009).

John Coor from St. Joseph was 17 years old when the stock market crashed and his father lost everything. He recalled:

I worked like a dog, had to. . . . I lacked a half a credit from graduating from high school [in 1929] . . . I had to help my mother and father feed the younger children. I worked at the ice plant. I paid $16 for a Ford pickup truck and delivered ice all through the country" (Coor 2009).

Coor shared part of his earnings with his mother while he worked at the ice plant, "I made $15.75 a week. I was the richest young boy in St. Joseph" (Coor 2009). He gave his mother $10 of that amount to help the family. In 1933 he began work for the CCC, the Civilian Conservation Corps, which was established under President Roosevelt's New Deal. When asked how he met his wife, Coor responded, "I was working over there [Olla in LaSalle Parish] with the 3 C's. I was a foreman in the 3 C's . . . in charge of the forestry work, putting in telephones. I was grown then, 19, 20, or 21 years old" (Coor 2009). He married Mildred Riley Reeves on 14 October 1933, by a Justice of the Peace, "I wore a suit, stripes down . . . she wore her mother's dress. Honey we were 'poor as Job's turkey.'" (Coor 2009). His wife of 73 years was the most influential person in his life:

I felt sorry for Mildred. Two different times, I went in and I was all sweaty from working in the fields. Mildred was crying. He said, 'What's the matter honey?' Mildred replied, 'Look at you, if it weren't for me, you are working hard to give me things,' Coor replied, 'I'm working for you.' I wouldn't let her go in the fields to work. It was my responsibility to feed her. The hard times made me appreciate things a lot more, made me appreciate people. Mildred was the answer. (Coor 2009)

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John Coor shares about his wife.

West Carroll Parish residents saw hard times starting around 1930. Mack Thomas described his community near Oak Grove, "1930, 1931, that's when the depression was really bad and the banks closed for two weeks. People got bad disturbed, [be] cause didn't nobody have a bunch of money but had a little bit of money what they had in the bank" (Thomas 2009). Thomas received good advice from his father, "Mack if you can't make a dollar, take fifty cents" (Thomas 2009). He was paid $2 a day working at, "a little old groundhog sawmill . . . we went sun to sun."

Martha Epting, also from West Carroll Parish recalled, "the ice man would run on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday and you would get 25 or 50 or 100 pounds of ice and pay 13 cents for 25 pounds. The good old hard prickly ice, it made the ice tea and everything so cold" (Epting 2009).

The people of the Louisiana Delta survived their hardships with work and determination. The stories they shared are full of the wisdom learned from the catastrophic events and were told with much candor. The decisions made and lessons learned in the late 1920s and 1930s did indeed influence their futures. Some historians even called these young adults our "Greatest Generation" with their maturation in the 1940s. Alma DeBlieux Honeycutt agreed:

We had maturity and I want to say this. This is the reason the fellows in World War II made such wonderful soldiers in such a short time. They were the ones who had come up through the depression. They knew how to make do. They knew how to handle a situation. They developed maturity and they really saved this country. (Honeycutt 2009)

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Alma Honeycutt shares about her memories of the Depression.

Most of the survivors grew up optimistically looking ahead to better times. Their vocations were as varied as the individuals. They become farmers, teachers, soldiers, public officials, an Episcopal Priest, and even a U. S. Postmistress. Retired farmer and carpenter, Mack Thomas shared some advice, "I don't want to think of nobody need to go back to that . . . But I do think this, if some of the younger folks had to go through some of that, then they would have a different life now. Most young people now are come easy, go easy, come easy, go easy. It was come hard and stay hard when I was a kid" (Thomas 2009).

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Mack Thomas shares his thoughts about having lived through the Depression.





Works Cited

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Betty Jo Harris has served as a history teacher at River Oaks School in Monroe since 2008. She received her M.A. from the University of Louisiana at Monroe in 1994, with a thesis on "The 1927 Flood in Northeast Louisiana." She conducted field interviews for the La. Regional Folklife Program at Louisiana Tech University and for the Delta Folklife Project. This article was written for the Delta Folklife Project and the 2012 Delta Pieces: Northeast Louisiana Folklife.