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

Working in the Delta

Making Music in the Delta

Telling Stories in the Delta

Delta Archival Materials

Musings on the Louisiana Delta from a Native Son

Editor's note: This memoir is based on an interview of Pete Gregory,conducted on July 2, 2012 by Dayna Lee, who provides the introduction, and her transcription of the interview in Gregory's own words. Some editing has been done for clarification and flow.

H.F. Pete Gregory as told to Dayna Lee



For over 50 years, Pete Gregory has taught hundreds—more likely thousands—of students about Louisiana archaeology, ethnography, cultural geography, history, and folklife at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, Louisiana. He is also a gifted storyteller and memory keeper, born in Concordia Parish, bathed in river water, grown from floodplain soil. He is uniquely qualified to tell the story of the Louisiana Delta, its history, and its people. His is the story of Vidalia and Ferriday, Black River and Larto Lake—Catholic, Protestant—Anglo–Scots–Irish, American Indian—planter, sharecropper, yeoman farmer—hill folk, swamp dwellers, and people on the natural levee. Pete embodies the Delta experience of the last century and carries forward the memory of centuries past.

Ride across the Delta with Pete, and you'll learn about the Delta from ground up. Like a James Michener novel, his story begins with geology and hydrology, the forces that made the river and the land. The best stories, though, are about the people—those who forged this cultural landscape—his people, Delta people.

The Gregorys of Vidalia

The first plantation in what became Vidalia was called Carter and my grandfather [Hiram Ford Gregory] bought half of that plantation, Carter. The plantation became the town of Vidalia. There are various accounts of where he and his brother, Walter. They lived part of their young life in Illinois, but the family had been in Natchez as early as the 1850s. They were Scots–Irish. I don't know where they came from or where either one of them were born. My grandfather died—it wasn't the 1927 flood, but one after that, maybe 1928. He was hauling Red Cross supplies down to south of Vidalia on the railroad, and he went to sleep and fell off the train and got killed.

He married my grandmother, Catherine Miller. It originally was Muller, and they were part of that little German migration that came down from St. Genevieve and settled at Lorman north of Natchez. At one point, the little settlement was called German Town, and then it turned into Rodney. The old antebellum town was called Rodney, and the river left Rodney, just left it high and dry. When the river left, it had been populated by Germans and Italians. They'd all come from the north right after the Civil War in the 1870s. After the river left, they gradually migrated. Some of them went across the [Mississippi] river to Waterproof—the Italians went over there. The Germans mostly went down to Natchez. There were already Germans down there, and they were all German Catholics; so that side of the family was Catholic, on my paternal grandmother's side.

My dad and his sister and brother were born on the plantation south of Vidalia. My granddad managed two plantations there, one called Forrest named after Bedford Forrest. He managed Forrest Plantation, and they lived on the plantation, and he also managed one named Morrow, which was right next door. I don't know how big they were, but they were big. A couple hundred families of tenants lived on those two pieces of land. The situation was like it was here [Natchitoches Parish]. You have one white family that managed the plantation and everybody else was black. A little cypress mill [sprang] up down there. My great uncle came down there and ran the store at the mill and my grandmother's sister came down there and taught in the school, and so they lived down there south of Vidalia. There weren't any [other] white people for miles. They were just about, by my reckoning, the southernmost plantations on the river. There's very little left of any of that now.

Sometime before he died, my grandfather bought this place up in Vidalia and moved my grandmother to town. It may have been to get the kids in school in town. My uncle went to the brothers' school in Natchez—he boarded—and my daddy and my aunt went to school in Vidalia. [My grandfather] built her a house—a Sears and Roebuck house—and had it shipped to Vidalia. That was before 1937 because the town moved back; they moved Vidalia back from the river, moved it away from the river, and they called it the old town. They moved it around the 1930s, [1938–1939]. My grandmother already had the land then and my grandfather was already dead. My uncle went off to school in New Orleans, went to business school, and my aunt went off to school at the University of Alabama in education, so that side of the family all went to school except for my dad, and he stayed home to run the farm.

Most of the town [Vidalia] now, on the south side, was part of Carter plantation; and where our part of Carter stopped, the other part of Carter started. That was the land my grandmother owned. It was always just called the Gregory land—it didn't have a name when I was growing up. When I was a little kid, I guess there were about six black families that still lived on the place. They farmed it; it was all cotton. They had a few cows somewhere. I remember dipping the cows in the dipping vat, but I don't know where they kept the cows—maybe on the levee—but they had a few cows and a couple of horses and she had an overseer. He pretty much ran the place and my dad kind of helped him look after it. My dad worked for an engineer as a surveyor. He went to LSU [Louisiana State University] for a year or a half a year, but came home and went to work. He had a bunch of different kind of jobs when I was growing up. He was Hiram Ford, too, and he was called Pete. The black people on the place gave him his nickname because he liked to play with pistols, so they named him "Pistol Pete." He was "Pete" to everybody except my grandmother, and I am still to some people over there "Little Pete."

My mother [said] that when I was baptized, it was by an old German priest named Father Kronemeyer in Vidalia. Father Kronemeyer and my grandmother kind of had détente, but they didn't get along too well. She hated for people to call my daddy Pete, she didn't like it; but when he christened me, I didn't have any saint's name, so he christened me Hiram Ford Peter, so he kind of formalized the nickname. My mother used to smile about it, but I'm not sure my grandmother ever did! I never knew her very well. I remember her just a little bit.

The Hamptons of the Hills and Black River

My mother and daddy lived in the family house, the big house, until I was born. After I was born, we moved back to Ferriday and lived with my mother's people, so I spent most of my life in Ferriday. Mama was a Hampton. Her dad's name was William Wade Hampton, but he was always Billy. Billy Hampton the hunter, was my cousin. They came from Richland and Franklin parish and moved down to Concordia in the Depression, sometime in the late 1920s or early '30s. My grandfather moved his family first and they moved to Black River. They moved down to sharecrop on a place below Wildsville, and so they were farming down there-starving to death, but they were farming. My grandfather got to where he couldn't farm—he was kind of older and couldn't see very well, so he got to where he couldn't work. My grandmother and grandfather raised a boy, my grandmother's nephew [from the Phillips family]. [This nephew] Uncle Bud got kind of tangled up in a feud, so he left and went to California. My mother went to town. She was just beginning high school, and she went to town and got a job with an Irish family that ran a restaurant and started to work in town. The Irish guy told her she could stay there and work, but she had to go to school, so he moved her in with his daughter. She stayed there with them in town and went to school, but she didn't finish high school—she quit. She was named Clara Bell—in the early records it was a family name. The Bells were cousins of my grandfather. Mama spelled it Claribel.

It [Macon Ridge] was a very complicated place. My mother's people were the ones connected to Indian people. My grandfather's grandfather was full–blood, and they never were quite sure what the tribe was. They grew up in Franklin and Richland parish, up on Bayou Macon, on Boeuf River really. Probably Choctaw—Hampton is still a Choctaw name. On the other hand, they remembered coming from Tennessee, so they could have come from anywhere—they didn't know. Franklin and Richland parishes had strange histories. Winnsboro was always considered a northern town. My maternal grandmother's people came from Missouri, straight from Missouri, down there—they were all Scots–Irish, the Phillips. I have no pictures of my grandfather's father. His mother married twice. She married the Indian guy, or the half–Indian guy, my great–grandfather, and he died and she married a Scots–Irish guy named Burns. So my great–grandfather had a bunch of half–brothers, but she had all these Hampton children, too. My grandfather had a twin sister, and then she had my Uncle Charlie and my Aunt Rilla. She had four children when she married the Burns guy. They were Anglo–Protestant people up there. They're just plain old hill people. They're like Catahoula Lake people in Central Louisiana and the Black River white folks—they're more hill people than they really are swamp people. My grandfather grew up on Boeuf River—the Hamptons and the Bells, the Lewises and the Gilleys all came from western Franklin and Richland Parishes.

They were all small farmers, yeoman farmers, [who] raised cattle, farmed. About 1900, cotton failed and they lost a lot of land, so they wound up sharecropping for the ones that kept the land. My grandfather sharecropped for the Bells, and they weren't doing well up there, so he decided to take off south and took his family to Black River. I never did decide why he wanted to do that. Of course, he'd rather fish than farm. He didn't like to farm anyway—he did not like sharecropping at all. He sharecropped for the Bells, and the story the Bells tell is that Billy disappeared. They blew the horn at noon when they'd feed everybody. Mr. Bell said [he] blew the horn for Billy and blew the horn for Billy, and Billy didn't come up. He was way down in the edge of the woods plowing. [Mr. Bell] decided that maybe something happened to him so I got on the horse and went down to the edge of the woods and there was the mule tethered in the shade and [my] grandpa was gone, boy, and he never farmed another day in his life! He went to the swamp!

He [my grandfather Billy] cut cross ties-—they had these little migratory camps of cross tie cutters all the way up into Arkansas and back—and he stayed in the swamp. He fished a lot. He didn't fish much commercial, but he'd guide people when I was a kid. He was old when I was born—he was in his 60s I guess. He was 90 when he died, and he outlived all the rest of the family. He stayed basically in the woods. The cousin they raised had a boy who was basically an Indian kid. He was the last Indian in the family. He died a couple of years ago; but he married on the river, he stayed on Black River. On the Burns side, from the half–brothers' side, two cousins would come every year and go fish in the woods, go back to the woods. That was a great storytelling time because they'd come home, and they'd ask my grandfather about stories that they'd heard and they'd talk. The Burns from over there called my granddaddy Jump–up Billy. Maybe it was because he jumped up and left. All of the Burns side eventually left and went to Texas. Most everybody left Macon Ridge. It beat them up bad.

The Hamptons and the Lewises

My grandfather's sister Arilla married a Lewis, Jerry Lee's grandfather, so that connects the Lewises with the Hamptons through my Aunt Rilla, Jerry Lee's grandmother. Aunt Rilla had some daughters and two of the daughters married Gilley brothers, so our connections to the Lewises and the Gilleys are all through Aunt Rilla. Her son Elmo was Jerry Lee's father. Another Lewis daughter was married to Jimmy Swaggart's grandfather. That connected my mother to all those families. All came to Concordia Parish as farmers except for the Gilleys, who started businesses in Ferriday. We all wound up sort of in and out of the town.

All those people over there were connected back to Black River. We lived on the west side of Ferriday. We moved to the old house in Ferriday in 1945, where I grew up, and everybody there was from Black River—that's the Black River side of town. It used to be called the Calhoun Quarters because everybody there either bought land from Mr. Lee Calhoun or rented from Mr. Lee Calhoun, and he came from the river, so that was the Black River side of Ferriday. And just about everybody there was kin some kind of way to somebody on the river, so we had our own little nest of people there. We all had some kind of connection to Black River. When we first moved back to Ferriday, we lived on a street right across from the post office. That was Third Street, and most of the families on Third Street came from Franklin and Richland parish. There was one family there named McGlothin that came from the hills somewhere around the southern end of [Natchitoches] parish. The McGlothins and the Carters and the Gilleys and Hamptons all lived on that street. We lived in these old double shotgun houses that we rented. For a while, Mickey's family split the house with my grandfather and my grandmother, but when we moved home, I guess they moved out.

My mother's mother was always really sick. She had osteomyelitis. She had broken a leg—she eventually lost a leg—and my mother and dad moved back mainly to take care of her folks so we always lived with them. I never lived in a single generation household the whole time I grew up. I always lived with one side or the other. We lived on Third Street a long time. We stayed there a good while. My grandmother had a less favorable name for it. My Scots–Irish grandmother–she was a crusty old lady! She was so glad to get away. She didn't like the neighborhood. She moved with us in 1945. We always were together.

I had no brothers and sisters by my mother and father. After my dad died, my mother remarried, so then I had a step–brother and step–sister. For a long time I was an only child, but I never lived like an only child. The McGlothins had 13 kids and the other Gilley family had a girl that was my age, and her sister had a daughter we called "Daughter" whose son is the mayor of Vidalia now. Daughter had two daughters, both about my age, and we lived all jammed up in there on Third Street together, so there was never any time that there weren't kids. When we moved down to the Calhoun Quarters, we were scattered out so I was more isolated; but for a while, I guess, I was an only child when I was really small.

I must have been in about the fifth grade when my dad died. It was a couple of years before Mama remarried. I was just starting into the seventh grade. She married Buddy Burford, Virgil Hoyt Burford. He was a salesman for the Lipton Tea Company. My father [had] built a store down there in the Calhoun Quarters. He came back after World War II. He got sick in the Navy and got discharged, and he came home and he never did quite get well. But he always wanted a store, and he wanted to build a store out in the country. He started to build a store on Black River but decided we couldn't, and so he decided to build a store in Ferriday. We were running the grocery when he died and Mama ran the grocery after he died, and eventually she leased it out but she ran it anyway and that's where she met Buddy. He came to sell tea and went courtin'.

I went to high school in Ferriday. In 1945, I went a year in Vidalia when the flood came over; Vidalia didn't flood and Ferriday did so Daddy made me go to school over there. All my buddies got to stay out. When I got home, they were all mad at me because they were all in school in August and I was out. That old house we have in Ferriday, the water went two feet deep in it. All my other education (except for that second grade) was in Ferriday.

Growing an Anthropologist

About age four, I got an arrowhead. My grandmother (my mother's mother) had an arrowhead that she picked up chopping cotton. She gave me this spear point and I asked her what it was and she said, "Indians made them." So I said, "What's an Indian?" and I'll never forget, my grandpa was there building a boat, and she said, "Go out there and ask him. He's one." So I went out there and said, "Granddaddy, what's an Indian?" and he looked down at me and he said, "Well, that's what we are. That's all you need to know." So that's my first interview with an Indian!

I got interested in that arrowhead and my dad knew I liked that arrowhead; I carried it around with me, so he bought me three more. I had his three and mine—my grandmother's. I just got the idea I could find some more. The DePrator site was about two miles from the house, and I could get there on my bike. Mr. DePrator had it all in corn, so I'd sneak in there and find arrowheads and pick up pottery, and that's the first site I ever saw. I'd ride down there in the afternoon, and I'd pick them up along the road because he'd let me stay along the roads but wouldn't let me in the gardens; but when I thought he was gone, I'd go up there in the garden and pick up potsherds and I found a few arrowheads. Then I'd go over to Natchez and everything was about the Natchez Indians, and we'd go over there and prowl around, go out to Mezique, go to those sites out there, so I kind of grew up around archaeologists.

Louis Wiley and Pete Gregory on Larto Lake in 1964. Photo: Duncan Burford.

I got interested in archaeology really young, so my mother and I heard about this place out in the country, Ballina Plantation out in the country, and we went out there looking for arrowheads and picking up potsherds. I got into picking up potsherds, so I was out there picking up potsherds and Mr. and Mrs. U.B. Evans came along because Haphazard Plantation [their home] was on the same road. They stopped and they started talking to us about archaeology. They had a couple of places that they collected in the 1930s and they said, "Oh, you really should go to Catahoula Lake; you really should go to Larto Lake." And I was about 12, so Mama and I took off to Larto Lake and Catahoula Lake., and that's how I got tangled up with the Wileys and the Sansons [lake families]. It was just kind of by adoption. The only connectors we had was my mother; one of her cousins married [someone] on Black River, so they lived on Black River.

Miss Jo (Evans) from Haphazard Plantation in Concordia Parish. Photo: Don Sepalvado.

Miss Jo [Mrs. U.B. Evans] hooked me up with books. They had a lot of books. By the time I got out of high school, I'd read all of [archeologist] C.B. Moore's stuff, I started on Thomas' stuff. They had a wonderful library. Miss Jo encouraged me to read and then she took me to LSU She said, "Where are you going to go to school?" I was about in the eighth grade and said I didn't know, and she said, "You've got to go to LSU because they've got archaeology." So she took me down there and introduced me to [Professor] Fred Kniffen, and then he and I'd write once in a while. I went back when my step–dad took me down, I must have been a senior, and [Professor] Bill Haag was down there. My step–dad was never convinced I could make a living at it, but he liked the woods, and he liked to prowl, so he thought it was okay. My brother went to med school, so he never dis–encouraged me and I don't think he really ever questioned that I could make some kind of living at it. He wasn't a collector or anything. He just liked to fish and he liked to hunt, so he was fishing and hunting while I was looking for sites out there.

My mother was always interested. She had a lot of connections to people. She was kind of more interested in people than she was in stuff, so she really did like it at Catahoula Lake and they really did like her. Hildred Sanson just adopted her and me along with her. How I got hooked up with the Sansons [a Catahoula Lake family of French and Indian descent with traditions such as pirogue building]: I went out there looking for Gilbert because Miss Jo Evans thought Emrick Sanson had died. Mama drove as far as she could drive before the road went underwater in the lake. She could see the house up on the hill so she said, "You go on up there and tell them you want to talk to Mr. Gilbert and I'll stay here at the car."

Campboat on Larto Lake, 1965. Photo: Don Sepalvado.

I walked about a mile up there and got to the house—I was just a kid—and I knocked on the front porch and Dalia's mama came out and I said, "I'd like to speak to Mr. Gilbert Sanson." And I said, "Well, the one I'd have really liked to talk to was Mr. Emrick but I heard he died," and she began to laugh. She said, "No, he ain't dead. He's sitting in here by the fireplace. Come on in here and talk to him." They didn't know where I came from, but by the time it was all over, Steve and Gilbert took me back out there and we got my mother.

That's the first time I was ever out there. I must have been about 12. Then Mama'd take me down there and leave me for the summer. I'd just go stay out there with the old folks and prowl around. They all got along with Mama, and they were very fond of Miss Jo and Mr. Bob [Evans]. They'd been friends all through the 1930s. They had a hunting camp out there at the landing, and they dug the mound out there. All the Sansons dug the mound for Mr. Bob. There was no money, so in the middle of the Depression it gave them something to do.

Claribel Hampton Gregory

I'll add a few things about my mother. She started out "slinging hash" as they used to say, built an insurance business and a credit bureau and my step–dad became part of that. She also started a flower shop she loved. All that ended abruptly with [her death from] cancer when she was 40. She took care of her parents and spent most of her short life trying to help the poor folks find support systems. She would take milk to young mothers in the quarters at night, get people to doctors, find people jobs, even help people bury their dead when they had no cash. She supported my step–brother and sister and me when we started to college. My brother got her whole salary as a waitress for a year before the Credit Bureau opened! She saw to it we all started college and finished school. Politically, she worked for the levees and outspokenly defended sharecroppers, fisherfolks, and anybody she felt was not treated fairly. She took me to Poverty Point to meet [archaeologist] Jim Ford, and hauled me and my buddies all over the woods looking for sites. She pretty much was a single parent a lot of her life raising two kids alone.

My step–brother went to LSU shortly after the families joined, but my sister and I were always hers! She liked the woods and taught us to appreciate what people past or present did for a living. Basically, she was a "natural ethnologist" and, if she'd had time, would have been a writer. My father died way too young, left her with lots of debts and family. My step–father was good to us kids, not so much her. They were an interesting pair. He was happier traveling, I think, but we all hung together. It was, she reminded me, her decision, her life choice! When I was 17, she emancipated me so I became legally an adult and in charge of my portion of what was left of my father's inheritance in Vidalia. He and his brother and sister had subdivided and sold my grandmother's place in 1946, except for a little portion that we all share. That bought us a house and store to pay off in Ferriday. All this foreshadowed what plantation after plantation family has experienced since.

I think of her a lot and wonder what she could have done with more time to do it. She treated all her kids as adults and didn't want us to be dependent on anyone. She always urged us to learn from other people and not to be judgmental! She was, I guess, the reason I became an anthropologist. It was the only place where I could practice the tolerance she taught me to have. I wish my mother had had even 30 more years to teach!


Flooding in LaSalle Parish in the French Forks area in 1962. Photo: Courtesy of Pete Gregory.

Ferriday's in the backswamp, especially the Black River side of Ferriday. It's on the low side, back away from the river. The water backs up—[Concordia] parish is like a great big cup—it catches water in the middle. Cocodrie Bayou catches it. It's right in between two river systems—it's a big old swamp. Ferriday slopes off towards Jonesville. It's lower on that west side so it flooded a bunch. It flooded in 1945, '49, '50, and some years we moved out, some years we didn't, but it flooded. Vidalia had a little ring levee that the railroad built, so Vidalia flooded from seepage water just like it did a year or two ago. Inside the levee the whole place filled up.

Floods are interesting for little kids. It was almost an annual event. We had no ring levee in Ferriday, we had no protection from Black River at all. If Black River backed up when the Mississippi went into flood, Ferriday flooded. The people on Black River flooded almost every year and then they'd move out. In 1945, the water stayed over two months. My dad slept in the attic of the house. Stuff we couldn't move we'd leave in the house. He'd go stay in the house at night and we'd come and go in the boat, a wooden bateau with a motor. Aluminum boats hadn't been born yet. I saw the birth of aluminum boats!

Main Street Jonesville. Photo: Don Sepalvado.

They watched the water all the time. I can remember my grandmother would get the Monroe Morning World and the first thing she would read were the obits for everybody in Franklin and Richland parish where she grew up. The second thing she'd read—[this was] to my grandfather, who couldn't see very well—she'd read the paper to him. She'd read him the flood stages, the river stages. There's that song, "How High is the Water?" Well, that's what he'd ask her. "How high's the water?" and she'd give him the stages from Cairo to the Gulf. And he could figure in his head how long it was going to take for the river to crest and come down, so they knew how to do that. People started putting boats together to move the cattle out up to the hills, and they'd start scaffolding furniture in the houses to get it up above the water that they thought was going to come. It's amazing what they could do. They'd scaffold stuff up in the houses, put stuff up in the attics, and we'd move as much as we could.

A lot of times, black people, for example, wound up living in tents on the levee—just miles of tents. There are pictures of them in Greenville living in tent towns and there must be some pictures of them in 1945 living in tent towns around Ferriday. Between Ferriday and Vidalia that whole levee that parallels the highway now . . . was covered with tents, nothing but poor black people, a few white people—just poor people. River people were all poor people. My grandfather said that the front land when the steamboats ran was good farming, and then the river flooded more and more and they got poorer and poorer. Once very prosperous Black River people were pretty poor [and] in desperate need of a levee.

In-board motor go boat in Jonesville outside the sea wall. Photo: Don Sepalvado.

It's interesting since the levee went in. That was always my mother's dream that they'd have that ring levee. She used to say if they had a levee down there they'd be some of the most affluent people in the parish and that's true. They've done really well—the levee plus soybeans. They all came out pretty good farmers. That's on the west side towards Jonesville. There was nothing below Vidalia but plantations. They didn't flood. That's really high. The plantations are still there, but corn and beans have replaced cotton. There are virtually no tenant farmers left.

Local Economy in the Delta

Chinese people were already in the Delta when I was growing up. They came to open a grocery store. They followed the railroad. One of them had a store in Ferriday; his brother had a store in St. Joseph. They followed the railroad and the railroad followed the timber. That's why my grandfather on my daddy's side was buying all that land. They'd buy the land to get the timber, they'd cut the timber off and sell the land. My grandfather got really active with the levee board and he got the contract after the 1927 high water to repair the levees, so they all went to work building levees. That's when my dad came home from college. My cousin [has] a letter he wrote her daddy, my uncle, saying, "Please come home. I need someone to manage this business. I've got 200 guys and X number of mules. I'm building levees and I need help. Come on home." It was a busy time. A lot of people followed the mills and the mills followed the railroad. That went together. So that's the first big change.

Photo: Lee's Market in Ferriday. Photo: Nicholas R. Spitzer.

The plantations were all tied to the river. Before the 1927 flood, it was still a plantation economy on the front [facing the river], and the plantations that had been there before the Civil War on the back [not facing the river but near the backswamp] all fell apart because they got flooded, or the Civil War destroyed them. They [Union soldiers] burned all the gins. The union gunboats came up the river and shelled Jonesville and went on up the Ouachita and Tensas, so that place caught most of the action in the war. The front land was all tied to Natchez. There was a road that went across from Monterey to Vidalia to the front and on to Natchez. The plantation families had kind of expanded, but those western plantations were pretty much gone after the war and the land just went back into woods.

There was virgin timber there well after 1900; they were still cutting virgin cypress there in the 1940s. There was a huge cypress mill in Ferriday that burned in the 1950s, like sawmills tended to do everywhere, and there's still a cypress mill there. There's still some cypress there, way down in the south end of the parish at Dismal Swamp in southern Concordia Parish. It's a funny looking place on a topo sheet; it looks like a guy with a long nose. It's a strange place. The timber companies just cut the cypress in the backswamp. They were very selective about what they wanted. They never clear cut, so they'd cut the cypress and drag it out with oxen, big ox teams. It'd take two or three yokes of oxen just to haul one log—they were huge—and so they cut it. By the 1950s, they were beginning to cut the oak, they cut hardwood. They went from hardwood to pulpwood. There's nothing left but little stuff; and of course, by the 1970s the soybeans had come and they clear cut everything. There's hardly any timber left. What had been big swamps when I was a kid were all just bean fields, just like Delta Farm. They put in the levee in the 1950s, must have been about 1955, '56.

The same thing happened at Delta Farm [a corporate farm that moved in ca. 1970 and purchased huge tracts of land]—they built their own levee. Delta Farms and the beans [soybeans] hit in the 1970s. There was a big bean boom in the 1970s all up and down the Delta and people got really rich, then went really broke. Delta Farm brought in all their own people. They all came from Missouri, just about, and had no idea about the place or what was there. The water came up and they flooded about the second year after they got it all cleared. That whole place flooded. Jeanette's [Pete's wife] dad was a block man for Allis Chalmers and they all used Allis Chalmers equipment because they were from the Midwest. And so he went down and told them, "You've got to get your equipment out of here because it's going to flood." Well, they parked the equipment and left it. It all flooded, they lost tons and tons of money because it all just rusted out and they didn't know enough to leave. They thought the levee had it whipped and the levee didn't. That was about 1971, there was a huge flood, and it almost wiped Delta Farm out.

Fishing Boat with live boxes on the Ouachita River. Photo: Pete Gregory.

Delta Farm is about 100,000 acres. They cleared it in a month. They started the bulldozers at Little River on Highway 84 and drove them day and night until they hit Red River. Bill Baker said he woke up right before he drove in the river one night and he knew he was at the south end. It took them about a month to clear it all. They'd pile it and burn it, pile it and burn it. The old timers at Larto asked them if they could go in and shoot the squirrels, but they said no, they wouldn't let them in at all. The squirrels were all jumping back into the fire to get to their nests—it burnt up all the squirrels. And they killed the hogs—they shot all the hogs. Everybody had hogs in the woods and they didn't give them a chance to get them out, so they didn't get their hogs back. It wasn't pretty. It was a mess. Over there, there were so many hogs that there weren't that many deer. On the Concordia side behind the plantations, like down in the Cocodrie swamps, there were lots of deer—are still—but that was land that didn't get hogged over. All along Black River, people raised hogs, bunches and bunches of hogs, and the deer populations diminished as the hog populations went up. They had cattle in the woods, too, so they had a whole swamp economy based on cows and hogs. Mostly that's what they did. Some of them commercial fished, too, but most of them raised cattle and hogs.

Fish Market in Ouachita Parish. Photo: Pete Gregory.

There was a lot of commercial fishing on Black River, some on the Mississippi River. Jonesville was probably one of the bigger commercial fishing centers in the South and that was because of the railroad again, because they could bring fish up there and ice them and ship them. The first ice house was in Natchez, the closest one, and it belonged to an Irishman named Kerrigan. Kerrigan bought this ice house; he built it down under the hill, and they'd pick up the ice, load it in the boats, and cover it with sawdust, then carry it down the river and unload it and carry it on wagons down into the swamps in Concordia Parish. They had a landing there where everybody brought their fish and iced them and took them back to Natchez. They took them out by wagon. I don't know when the fish boats started running, but Walter White and some of those guys were running fish boats big time in the 1930s—Cleveland Wiley and Walter White and all those guys.

The first fish boats to come to Jonesville came from Simmesport and the first big ice house on the upper Atchafalaya spawned whole fleets of boats buying bunches of fish, so it was all tied to the Atchafalaya fishing. The fish boats would go to pick–up points. They carried groceries, and they carried sundries and stuff. I used to know this girl down there whose name was Peaches. Her daddy named her Peaches because he'd ordered some peaches on the fish boat. They pulled up to the landing and they threw the box of peaches out on the bank and it busted open, and he's picking up cans of peaches off the dock, and they said, "You've got a daughter," and he said, "Good. We'll call her Peaches." They brought groceries, little supplies, things like that, because there weren't any roads. There were a few dirt roads—dirt and gravel roads—well up into the 1970s. Larto Lake got their first blacktop road probably about 1974.

Aluminum bateaus started around in the 1950s, I guess. My grandfather built boats for people; he built boats for himself. My uncle built boats. They built big cypress bateaus. There was one sitting in the yard about half–finished all the time. My grandfather and I built one, I was in high school. I think that's the last boat we built—couldn't get the cypress. It got hard to get, and the aluminum replaced it pretty quick; but there were a lot of people who built boats. Now they're all aluminum or fiberglass. You never see a log pirogue anymore—they're all fiberglass. That's all gone. I think Emrick Sanson made the last dugout on Catahoula Lake. He made one for Miss Caroline Dormon and one for Miss Jo Evans, and I think those are the last two boats he made. He made two for them and one that went to the Smithsonian for John R. Swanton [an ethnographer with the Bureau of American Ethnology, Smithsonian Institution]. It's still up there [at the Smithsonian] somewhere.


When I was growing up, the downtown was more alive. The white part of town and the black part of town, both of them were pretty much alive. They had a lot of people farming and there were a lot of tenant farmers, so Saturday night it was just packed with people—people coming into town to buy groceries or whatever. It was a real lively place, but it started dying in the 1950s. Farming died, but to be honest, Ferriday died during Civil Rights. Civil Rights encountered lots of opposition. There was violence and boycotts. Blacks tired of Jim Crow persisted, and traditional all–white control eventually gave way. So they had this big confrontation. Some businesses, on both ends of town, closed. Three movie houses closed. One of the largest black nightclubs in the lower Delta closed. Businesses have re–opened but the lack of industry in Natchez, Mississippi, and in Ferriday left serious economic problems. "Boom and Bust" was the Delta pattern. It was not, and is not new to the region.

The Chinese store survived until all the old people died off and the kids went to college. One of the boys lived there until about four years ago when he died. He ran the store and he and his mother lived there. There were two Chinese families and about the time we got into high school, one of the families left. And the same thing's true of Mexicans. There was one Mexican family, a big Mexican family and they stayed. One of the boys ran for mayor recently. Jewish families owned most of the downtown, the big stores. They had a big mall. There was a grocery and a dime store, a dry goods store, and a furniture store all hooked together, so you could go inside and go from one store to the other and never get out from under the roof! They owned the whole block. The Goudcheaux, Pasternacks, and Mayers had their little part of town, too. They all lived there together in fairly nice houses, upper middle–class houses. They probably came with the railroad, too. Most of the Sicilians came with the railroad and I guess the Pasternacks must have come pretty close to the same time. The Sicilians, some Germans, and Latinos kept the Catholic church going. Protestants of all sorts dominate the town.

Ferriday was all one big plantation [until 1903]. It was Helena Plantation and J.C. Ferriday and . . . five [others] went together. These guys in Natchez and Vidalia—my grandfather went in there with them for a while—and they bought the plantation and split it up into lots along the railroad, so Ferriday is a new town. It dates to after 1900. When I was there, it was a pretty vibrant little place, probably around 5,000 people and that's about what it is now. It's always been from 50 to 80 percent black. The south end of town, they had black groceries, they had barbershops, a black movie, the same as most little Southern towns. It was called Bucktown. There were some Sicilians who lived in there, the Mexicans lived there, the Chinese guys lived there in the black part of town; but their kids all went to the white school when they were segregated.

There was a Peabody school there in town for black kids and they started building new schools when they were into "separate but equal;" but the old Peabody school was there for a long time. There was a public grammar school there and a high school, but the high school was like a consolidated school. They'd haul kids from way up in Tensas and way out almost to Black River. Monterey had a high school and a grade school, so there were only three schools in the parish—Ferriday, Monterey, and Vidalia—and it's still that way in terms of the public schools. Most of them are bussed in. There's more people there now, probably, than when I was a kid. I imagine the school populations have grown a little bit but not much.

Race in the Delta

In my mother's family, I had one cousin—one of the Gilley girls—she graduated the year before me and we were the first two people to ever finish high school in my mother's family. My dad's family, the German side of the family came with some education. They had a German school—they ran their own little German school until World War I shut them down. They built a little school house. My aunt finally took me up there and told me that's where the school was. They still had some of the German text books. So the Gregorys [were] fairly well educated, but none of my mother's people had been to school. My grandfather said they went to school right after the Civil War; but they had a lynching in Winnsboro, and whites came to the school to get the boys to go see the lynching. The schoolteacher was from the north and she told him, "If they go to the lynching, they can't come back to school." "Well, good," they said and then took them to the lynching and never let them go back to school.

The Delta towns on Saturday night were all black, and the white people didn't really go into town very much. We went to town on Saturday nights because my daddy had a lot of labor. He always had a lot of people working for him, and we had the farm, so he'd pay everybody in town, and I liked to go to town with him. That was cool—I was little then and it was fun. I could go sit on the porch and eat sandwiches with the black guys, and he'd go pay them in the bar. I have really good memories of Vidalia on Saturday nights when it was a town. Vidalia never was much of a town, just that one little street from the courthouse to the river—that's all it was. I'm sure they lost a lot of things when they moved it away from the river, but it never did pop up again. There was a big old bar there belonged to an Irish guy—huge bar that was segregated down the middle, half white, half black, and that's where Daddy paid off all the labor on the place. There was a guy that came there on Saturday night and sold goat sandwiches, so I'd get left on the steps eating barbequed goat sandwiches while Daddy went in and paid everybody, got a little inebriated, and got ready to go home. It was a fun place.

In Ferriday, there was a blind black guitarist who played blues behind Pasternack's store. Everybody paid off their labor at Pasternack's and white people would sit in their cars and drink. People would come by and talk to them, people roamed around a bit, the white people sitting in the cars drinking and visiting with one another. It was a very formal thing. Guys would take their wives and kids—they'd all go; in the 1940s, mostly planter people, all hanging around in the cars visiting the black people. They spent endless hours watching black people have fun. It was bizarre. I think about it a lot. White people watched black people for entertainment. They loved baptisms. They'd go out of their way to go watch them baptize. Planter families would go down to the river and watch the black people get baptized. And they'd go watch them on Saturday nights—they'd talk about the dice games, talk about this, and talk about that. That was their entertainment. I think they didn't know how to have fun so they watched the black folks. It was very segregated; but there was that illicit level where it wasn't segregated at all. Most of the houses of prostitution were black and everyplace had a couple; but otherwise, it was very segregated. So, like I say, white people sitting in the car, black people playing in the street—but they didn't play together.

It wasn't like that in the hills. They didn't have [many] black people up there and if they did, they stayed way the hell away from the white people; but the Delta was a plantation place. It never changed. The town was kind of an extension of the big house and the quarters. There were lots and lots of black churches, and white people didn't go to them unless somebody died [whom] they knew. It was different. That all stopped in the 1950s pretty much. It got more and more segregated. More and more people moved from Mississippi up in the hills and that didn't help. When the paper mill opened in Natchez, all the hill people moved down to the Delta, and that made it a little more tense. The black people were going into the mill to work, but people still talk about them blowing up the guy at the tire plant. They killed the guy who organized the NAACP. That's about the worst thing that happened at Natchez and after that, it had to integrate or blow up. But a lot of things didn't work. They did the same thing in Ferriday. They killed a guy there, too. He had a shoe shop across the street from the Chinese store. The guy who's got the paper down there finally got them to reopen the case. Frank [Morris]—I was in college when they killed him, and they blew up the NAACP guy in Natchez about the same time. The Klan got really crazy then. When I was a kid growing up, you didn't hear much about that—you didn't have the Klan. They had it in the '30s during the Depression, they'd talk about it, but it grew up in the '60s.

The Delta Changes, But Stays the Same

[The Delta] was a strange kind of [place] meandering around, but it all kind of fit together. It's all hooked together by water, or it once was all hooked together by water. It's longer by road. When Jeanette and I first got married, she said "You guys drive forever," because I've got a cousin here and a cousin here we'd drive to Larto, we'd drive to Catahoula Lake. You know, in the Delta people drive immense distances, but if you stop and think about it it's 60 miles by road from one cousin to another and probably 10 miles by water. People fly now. Everyone up around Greenville's got a tractor, a new truck, and a plane. [Many] people [who have] land fly now. Delta Farm's got its own little airport back there.

It's all different now. Larto's all jammed up, the camps have taken over. All the bayous are dry in Concordia Parish, the swamp is completely dry. They have to pump water out of Black River into the bayous to fill up the middle of the parish. Last year they got scared, though, when the river got so high, and they began packing up on Black River. They put the big combine up on top of the mound at Frogmore—they thought they were going under for sure! My cousins moved all their furniture to Natchez and put it in storage. But the bayous are drying up because they've got it leveed off. My grandfather always said the levees would come, and they'll kill the fishing, they'll kill the swamp, and he was right. He said the levees will destroy their way of living. They didn't let Larto go under the levee—the fishermen voted to stay out—but once those levees went in, it became a wasteland out there.

Levees are a good idea, but if you want to keep the natural environment, it's bad. Once you commit to it, it's an environment you've got to keep up. You leave it alone for 30 years and it will be back to the woods. [Forester] Charlie Matherne said the bottomlands, the hardwoods would completely restore themselves in 30 years and I think that's possible. If that big flood last year had come over the levee, it would have been interesting. That's the highest I ever saw the Mississippi River. If they hadn't opened Morganza spillway, that whole place back home would have gone under. I stood there at the bridge at Natchez and the water was even with the top of the levee. I couldn't even see the levee on the Vidalia side! But now the river's dropped lower; it went from one extreme to the other. It's near dry over there now, and the salt water's coming up the river.

I guess nothing's ever going to stay the same for anybody, but if you went over there to the Delta and stayed a few days, it'd be just like it was. My feeling is, it doesn't really change—it changes but it doesn't. Now it's not reinforced by the law, and black people have some power to fight back, but they still struggle for economic power. The plantations are gone, agriculture's going. It never has industrialized, so it's had little booms and busts-little boom and bust oil spurt-little boom and bust paper mills—little boom and bust corporate farming, then it goes away. Money is held by a few people. It's like the plantation system without the plantation. It's always been a thing of bits and pieces—some people had big plantations and a lot of money, some people had nothing. They sharecropped or they lived out in the woods. Like Ferriday, you had people living across the levee on the lake, the river, and they never had anything. They lived in little shanty boats or they lived in makeshift shotgun houses or on somebody's land—they just squatted over there—and they fished in the lake and did whatever they could do. Most of those were white families and they were just as poor as you could imagine, so living over the levee was bad. It'd been better to live in Bucktown, economically for sure. My Uncle Charlie lived across the levee.

One of the things about my family was it was very diverse. My father's people were Catholic and planters, fairly well educated people; my mother's people were part–Indian sharecroppers, poor people. But you could travel—you didn't live on one [social] plane all the time. There were always black people around. I can't remember ever living away from black people. I used to be amazed at Catahoula Lake because there were never any black people out there and I thought it was so strange. The first place I ever went where there were no black people, my uncle lived up at Olla. There were no black people up there and I couldn't believe it.

Basically, it was going from the front to the backswamp, and in the backswamp there were very few black people. There used to be a line in Concordia Parish south of Monterey, from there to the mouth of Black River, both sides of the river, no black people. From that line north there were plantations or what was left of plantations or little sawmills where there were some black people. But then you got up there to the front and they were all kind of jammed up there where the big planters had been. By the time I was growing up, blacks were already leaving. They started leaving in the 1940s, World War II was kind of the catalyst for that—going north, going west, Houston, Dallas. They didn't have much choice, the farms were mechanizing.

Delta Farm still farms some beans, but mostly it's all corn. There's a little bit of cotton along Highway 84. Over there in Concordia Parish out at Frogmore, they're still growing cotton along there, but not much. It's pretty, just not much of it. It's great cotton country if you had a market for it. That's all they were growing when I was growing up, just about. I was out of high school before the soybeans hit. I was at LSU when they started all that bean farming, but up to then it was all cotton—miles and miles of cotton. My aunt married Howard Davis, and he had the cotton gin up at Clayton and his family moved from Mississippi in the 1930s and they farmed. They started as yeoman farmers, but they ended up with four or five plantations that they all put together, he and his brothers, and they all farmed it and they ran a gin. Now there's just that one there at Frogmore—that's a great big old computerized, mechanized super gin. He gins almost the whole Delta. It's hooked to the railroad, and that's the only gin that's left.

The Delta is still a strange, wonderful, place.

Hiram F. "Pete" Gregory is an anthropologist at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, Louisiana. Dayna Lee, his former student, served as regional folklorist for northwest Louisiana and now is an independent anthropologist based in New Orleans. In 2012, Dayna Lee interviewed Pete Gregory for the Delta Folklife Project and Delta Pieces: Northeast Louisiana Folklife.