Elie Guidry, Thomas Colvin, and Errol Cuneo

Wooden Boatbuilding

Thibodaux, Lafourche Parish

Elie Guidry was born in 1906, in Terrebonne Parish. One of his early childhood memories is the storm of 1909 that completely annihilated the village of Little Caillou, where the Guidry family resided. Orville Guidry, Jr., Elie's father, was a master boatbuilder, supplying sailing luggers for the oyster trade and a variety of other boats for the small marsh community and surrounding population. Orville Guidry, Jr. had learned his craft by apprenticing, in the traditional manner, to Nicholas Rhodes, also of Little Caillou. This trade went hand in hand with the work of Orville Guidry, Sr., who had operated a cordelle service pulling loaded oyster boats to Houma by mule during the 1800s.

Building the lugger

Elie grew up in his father's boatyard and from the time he was four or five years of age, began to help build the boats. When he was eight years old, Elie had to go to work in the cotton fields because of conditions during World War I. When the war ended, he returned to building boats with his brothers. At age twenty, he was already an expert in his field and turned out boats with remarkable skill and efficiency. People from all over the parish requisitioned his boats, and in 1926, he opened his own shipyard and dry dock facility in the St. Louis Canal. For the next twenty years, Elie built fishing and freight boats, as well as some tug and work boats and luxury pleasure crafts. He also repaired and rebuilt boats for his customers.

Retiring from the business of building boats in 1949, Elie became employed by Cenac Towing Company in Houma. There, until the age of 72, and the onset of poor health, he served as master carpenter and boat repairman.

Elie Guidry is one of a very small number of individuals who remember the construction of the sailing lugger in detail. The knowledge he possesses is a treasure that he is helping to preserve through the Louisiana Folklife Apprenticeship Program.

The lugger under construction at Vermilionville. Photo: Maida Owens.

Thomas Colvin is another individual who is working to preserve the art of boat building in Louisiana. Tom first apprenticed with the late Eugene Glockner of Mandeville. He had met Glockner in 1963, while looking for a skiff to purchase and found that he was the best skiff builder in that area. Tom was keenly interested in learning the craft, and began to visit Eugene Glockner in his home. He learned to shape the bowstems and transoms. He also learned how to fit the seams watertight. Over the years, he has built several skiffs. One of them, an old style rowing cypress lake skiff, was demonstrated at the Louisiana World Exposition in 1984, and is now on display at Nicholls State University. It has also frequently been displayed at the annual Louisiana Folklife Festival since 1986.

Tom had been in the trade of millworking since 1967, and in 1971, opened his own shop, where he builds cabinets, skiffs, pirogues, and furniture. He builds cypress plank pirogues on order, and in their construction, uses techniques similar to skiff building, shaping the ribs and fitting the floor boards and side planks. In 1967, Tom built his first cypress dugout pirogue, measuring 14 feet long and 18 inches wide. It wasn't until 1985 that he built another dugout, which is half-scale and is on display at Nicholls State University.

In 1986, Tom constructed two builders' half-scale models of a sailing lugger that were displayed in an exhibition supported by the Louisiana Folklife Program. Also in 1986, he began as the boat carpenter for the sailing lugger project sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Center for Traditional Louisiana Boatbuilding at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux and apprenticed to Elie Guidry. Under Elie's tutelage, Tom has been responsible for over-seeing the instruction and development of the younger, less experienced boat carpenters.

Detail of the lugger. Photo: Maida Owens.

In 1987, Tom was awarded a grant through the Folklife Program, so that he could continue to receive instruction from Elie Guidry. During this apprenticeship period, Tom was aided by Errol Cuneo, another carpenter, who although less experienced, was able to provide the physical assistance for the construction that Elie could not give due to his health conditions. Errol had received some instruction from a master boatbuilder in 1964, but had to halt that apprenticeship because of the death of his teacher, J.A. Pellegrin, as well as the need to work in another profession in order to earn a living. As Tom learned from Elie, he was able to share the information with Errol, and they both benefited greatly. They worked together demonstrating boatbuilding techniques at the 1987 Louisiana Folklife Festival. In 1988, another grant was awarded to Errol Cuneo, so that they could continue to work together and share information. Thus, Elie Guidry, Thomas Colvin, and Errol Cuneo have contributed to the preservation of this craft. The sailing lugger is now being completed at Vermilionville, a cultural tourist attraction in Lafayette.

This apprenticeship profile is adapted from the apprenticeship grant applications and an interview with Thomas Butler, Nicholls State University, 1988. It was originally published in 1993 in the booklet, Keeping It Alive: Cultural Conservation Through Apprenticeship, by Sheri Dunbar and Maida Owens.