JEFFERSON DAVIS PARISH

 

By

 

John Berton Gremillion

 

(transcribed by Leora White, 2008)

 

A. EARLY HISTORY
 

        To properly understand the history of the settlement of the Jefferson Davis Parish, one must, of necessity, understand the fact that prior to January 1, 1913, the territory now called Jefferson Davis Parish was, with Allen and Beauregard Parishes, part of  “Imperial Calcasieu” Parish.

           

        All of the early histories include facts of Calcasieu Parish settlement.  The reader must realize that the hub of activity evolved around Lake Charles and from that locality was the Jefferson Davis section of “Imperial Calcasieu” started and governed during the first years.  The reader must also attempt to select from the facts about this vast territory, which encompassed a total area of nearly 2,000,000 acres -  larger then either the states of Rhode Island and Delaware or the Kingdom of Belgium - those  that apply  to what is Jefferson Davis Parish today.

 

        From a history, Southwest Louisiana, Biographical and Historical, edited by Perrin and published in 1891, the following is extracted:

 

        The Settlement of Calcasieu - This Parish, like most of the others in southwest Louisiana, has quite a mixed population,  consisting of Creoles, Acadians, Americans from half a dozen or a dozen different states, and a few Indians.  The Lake Charles Echo of October 24, 1890, says of the population of Calcasieu:  ‘In the early days of America, when the Spaniards were settling Louisiana and Mexico, while Texas was a wild prairie region, the land unknown on the outskirt or confines of two great colonies, one having its seat in the famed place of the Montezumas and the other having the center in the valley of the wooded banked of the great continent-draining Mississippi, the present region of Calcasieu was the home of a few Indians and wild deer.

 

        When Texas loomed up into a great country, and as the Lone Star State severed her connection with Mexico, our section remained the outskirt between Louisiana and Texas, the Calcasieu River was then known as Rio Hondo.

 

        Among the Indians in the western region afterward conceded to the United States as part of Louisiana, from an unknown origin, sprung a race of people of mixed ancestry, known as Red Bones.  These and few others for many years constituted the entire population of Calcasieu, attached to St. Landry, from which it was separated about the year 1840, and designated the parish of Calcasieu.  Later a part was taken from this territory in forming the parish of Vernon; and again, a part was taken in creating the parish of Cameron.  The Rio Hondo, lost its Indian name and acquired that of Quelque Shoue, from which again, by those strange changes which time effects without the reason being retained, it passed into the name of Calcasieu, whence may be attributed the pronunciation, ‘Culcashu,’ yet given by many old inhabitants. 

 

        While settlements were not made so early in the parish of Calcasieu as in some other portions of southwest Louisiana, we have seen that white people came here about 1815 and formed settlements along the Calcasieu River.  We have followed that little settlement until we find it spread out over a large section of country, and the people began to think of it being organized into a parish to themselves.  They had been for years going to Opelousas to attend court and vote, if they voted at all, and they determined on better accommodations.  

 

         This resulted in the organization of a new parish under the following act: 

 

         An act to create a new parish, to be called the parish of Calcasieu.

 

         SECTION 1. Be it enacted by the Senate and the House of Representatives of the State of Louisiana, in General Assembly convened, that from after the passage of this act, all territory in the parish of St. Landry, within the following boundaries, to wit:  Commencing at the mouth of the River Mermentau, thence up said River to the mouth of the Bayou Nez Pique, thence up said bayou to the mouth of Cedar Creek, thence due north to the dividing line between the parishes of St. Landry and Rapides, thence along said line to the Sabine River, thence down the said river to the mouth, thence along the seacoast to the place of beginning, shall form and constitute a new parish, to be called the parish of Calcasieu.

 

        The act was approved March 24, 1840, and signed by A. B. Roman, Governor.  The necessary steps were taken at once and the new parish set to work. 

 

        The first seat of justice or court house was some six miles from Lake Charles on an air line, but about twenty-five by way of the Calcasieu River.  It was called Marion, but was a small place, and had been used as a stopping or resting place for drovers passing with their herds of cattle from Texas to the New Orleans market. After a few years, about 1851-52, the parish seat was moved to Lake Charles 

 

        From the beginning Calcasieu Parish had the possibilities of a rice growing country, and great profits to the farmer were to be derived from this source. 

 

        In the earlier years it was a universal opinion that rice could not be harvested by machinery.  In 1887 a rice machine was brought to the parish and tried with success. Three years later William Deering & Co. started to improve their harvesters to adapt them to the farmer’s use.  At that time a Mr. E. S. Center advised his firm to enter this field, but they said to him, “You might as well send cotton presses to Manitoba as harvesters to Louisiana.”  Not discouraged, however, he persevered until he was successful, and later cut rice in eighteen inches of mud.  To back up his guarantee, he shipped into southwest Louisiana a train load of the William Deering harvesters - a train load of twenty-two cars containing three hundred machines. 

 

        The train left Chicago beautifully decorated with flags and flowers, and it was said to be the most beautiful freight train that ever entered the southern states.  At every station along the route it was met by large crowds, who hailed it with cheers and speeches of welcome.  When the train arrived at Lake Charles, over a thousand people were at the depot to welcome the representatives of the Deering Company.

 

        Professor Knapp of Lake Charles and Mr. Cary of Jennings, made short addresses to the people on behalf of the Deering Company.

 

        Some of the other resources which interested comers in the early days were timber, sugar, hay, fruits, vegetables, figs and corn. 

 

        The Baptists were the pioneers of religion in Calcasieu.  They established their first church on the Calcasieu River in the midst of the earliest settlement.  It was called Antioch Church, and some years after it was moved to the Big Woods, about ten miles from the original site.  Shortly after, a number of the members withdrew and formed a church, in the immediate vicinity of the Freewill Baptist. 

 

        Next after the Baptists came the Methodists.  Their first church was called Ryan’s Chapel, and was located about eight miles from where Lake Charles now stands, on the west fork of the Calcasieu River.  After Lake Charles was laid out as a town, other denominations organized churches.  The first church in the town was Methodist, and for sometime the building was used both as church and school house.  Then came the Catholics, the German Methodists, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodist Episcopal and Congregationalists in the order named.

 

        The first school in the parish was taught at the house of the old pioneer, Jacob Ryan, who hired a man named Thomas Rigmaiden to  teach his children and those of his sons-in-law, Moss and Vincent.  The first school house was built on Bayou Dend (D'Inde), six or eight miles from Lake Charles.  The next school house was perhaps at Lake Charles, after it was laid out as a town.

 

        Early comers to the section of Calcasieu which is now Jefferson Davis Parish were many, but whenever old timers are questioned about who they were, names like Cary, Daughenbaugh, McFarlain, White, Mahaffey, Jasinsky, Reever, More and Kokanour seen to stand out.

 

        It is believed that they went to small settlements along the Louisiana Western Railroad, now the Southern Pacific, and established residences.

 

        The first settlers who came from the northern section of the country, among the Creole people, were known as “Yankees.”  It was doubtful whether or not the “Yankees” considered the appellation complimentary, and the natives refrained from its use in the presence of their new neighbors.  On the other hand, the new settlers had the same perplexing problem regarding the name “Acadians” or “Cajuns” as it was usually shortened when carelessly spoken. However, when it was learned these were not considered derogatory terms, this became the usual method of discriminating the people of the two sections of the country.

 

        Over sixty years ago this portion of the State was sparsely settled and expansive prairies were almost covered by herds of wild cattle and horses.  This stock was corralled and branded once or twice each year. No provision was made by the owners for shelter or feeding of the stock and the resultant loss was often great in a severe winter.  The only remuneration from this loss was obtained by the sale of hides which were removed and cured as soon as possible after the death of the animals. 

 

        Hogs also ranged at will although they manifested preference for timbered land where nuts and wild fruits were procurable.  When grown, they were captured by their owners and fattened for slaughter. 

 

        The scattered homes of 60 years ago were usually near or in the edge of timber where wood was easily available.  The houses were almost uniform in design, being substantially constructed, each having a spacious front porch, which at the distance appeared to be the front of the house proper, as it was covered with the same roof.  Some houses were erected without the use of nails, wooden pegs being substituted.

 

        A chimney was built at the end of the house, thereby providing a fireplace by which the house was heated.  The chimney was composed of small logs and clay instead of brick and mortar.  Most of the cooking was done over a fireplace, although stoves were in use in some of the homes.

 

        None of the houses except those in town had windows of glass.  Lighting was done by means of candles.  Kerosene lamps were unknown.  Candles were made at home from beef fat melted and poured into molds.  The candle wick was also home made.

 

        The people were of French descent and French was the prevailing language, and many were unable to speak or understand English.  They were neighborly and friendly.

 

        Schools were rare and of short duration; consequently, illiteracy was prevalent.  These enterprising people deplored the condition and constantly sought improvement.  Any who could afford the expense hired a teacher in the home to instruct children.  Catholicism predominated, few being of any other religion.

 

        Sources of amusement were meager and simple.  Those outdoors included fishing parties, bee tree cutting, etc., while the main indoor recreation was dancing.

 

        Economy was one of the main virtues of the Creoles.  Almost every necessity was made at home.  Mattresses were made from moss and feathers.  To prevent annoyance from mosquitoes, thin material similar to cheese cloth enclosed each bed as wire screening had not been introduced here.

 

        Cotton and wool were grown, carded, spun and woven, although this was rare.  When home-spun material was used, its use was confined principally to bed blankets and coats and trousers for the men and boys.  Also, grass hats were neatly fashioned by the deft fingers of the women.

 

        Other home products were meat, rice, sugar, syrup, tobacco, soap, meal, lye, and vinegar.

 

        Rope was often made from the hair of horses' tails and manes.  This rope was strong and skillfully made. Strands were of uniform size and were put in place with such precision that the completed article was worthy of note. 

 

        Vegetable and fruit canning were unknown.  Seasonal vegetables and fruit were abundant, more care being given to the production of peaches than is given now.  Nearly every home had peaches, figs, and plums; while others had pomegranates.

 

        Rice was not grown commercially to any great extent.  A sufficient amount was grown to meet the family’s requirements and the surplus was sold.   This cereal was sown in low lands and watered by rainfall.  Irrigation had not begun.  There were no rice mills and the cleaning, or hulling, of rice was done at home by means of a wooden mortar and pestle, both of which were of home manufacture.

 

        Travel was done principally on horseback or in buggies.  Oxen hitched to high-wheeled cars were used by the men of hauling hides, logs, lumber and rice to market.   There were no roads, merely trains, and there was not a bridge within ten miles of Welsh, exclusive of railroad bridges. A toll bridge spanned the bayou at the crossing to D’Arbonne Prairie. 

 

        There was no monetary indebtedness among the Creole people.  Deprived of banking facilities, they kept money at home in trunks and wardrobes.  It was usually in twenty dollar gold pieces and sometimes represented an appreciable sum. In a few instances as much as one thousand dollars in gold was kept at home.

 

        Jennings is the most important town in the Jefferson Davis area.  It is situated on the Southern Pacific Railroad, near the line between Jefferson Davis and Acadia Parishes.  In 1880 it was inhabited by only 25 inhabitants.  By 1891 it grew to four or five hundred.

 

        Jennings stands in the midst of a fine shipping section, where rice is the principal crop. During the first days, many northwestern people came to live around the town of Jennings - in fact, the town was principally settled by those enterprising people, who came to enjoy the healthful climate and rich lands.  The place had a church or two, several stores, a post office, newspaper, the Jennings Reporter, edited and published by Messrs. Cary & Son, which by 1891 had entered upon its third volume, and a new school house.

 

        Welsh was a flourishing town on the Southern Pacific Railroad, 23 miles east of Lake Charles, and half a mile from the Lacassine Bayou, a wooded stream flowing south to the Gulf.  With the exception of the Lacassine it is surrounded by a vast expanse of prairie, reaching to the Mermentau River on the east, and to the long leaf pine on the Calcasieu River on the north and west.

 

        The town of Welsh was plated in 1884, and began to grow rapidly about June, 1887.  In April 1887, the Messrs. Jasinsky and Reever, of Gutherie County, Iowa, and George D. Moore, Mitchelville, of the same state, visited Welsh and being captivated with its splendid location and superior surroundings, purchased lands in and near the town.  In July of the same year there was witnessed a veritable boom in the construction of several good business houses and residences.

 

        About two hundred families of western and northern people have settled in and around Welsh from almost every state in the union from Texas to New York. The town was incorporated in April, 1888, and Henry Welsh elected first mayor, an honor appropriately conferred, he having been the founder of the town.  He was a gentleman known and respected throughout southwest Louisiana and his hospitable home was, for many years, the principal stopping place for travelers before the railroad was built. 

 

        Two other villages were in existence around the turn of the century, Lacassine and Lake Arthur. 

 

        The latter,  which lies in the southeast part of the parish on a lake of the same name, began to consider itself a town in 1890, and started a newspaper on May 22 of that year.  The newspaper was called the Lake Arthur Herald, by P. M. Kokanour.

 

        On the afternoon of June, 12, 1912, Jefferson Davis Parish citizens were greeted with the glaring headline in the Jennings Daily Times Record, “Governor Hall Signed Parish Division Bill This Morning.”  And beneath the double deck two column headline was the following special dispatch:  “Baton Rouge, June 12, Governor Luther B. Hall signed the bills creating Beauregard, Allen and Jefferson Davis Parishes this morning.  These bills were passed by both houses without a dissenting vote from either and are in accordance with the lines agreed upon by the Lake Charles convention.” 

 

        The climax of a sixteen year fight was thus conveyed to the citizens of Jefferson Davis Parish.  Beginning in 1896, bills providing for a division of “Imperial Calcasieu” Parish had been presented no less than eight times and at each session a bitter fight had ensued with the result in all previous attempts a failure to secure the desired division. 

 

        Jennings and DeRidder had been leading the fighters for this division.  Back in the early days, it was a day’s journey from Jennings to Lake Chares where all the official business was transacted, and it was a sore point with the Jennings inhabitants.  They began their agitation for a division of the Parish with a parish seat either at Jennings or Welsh but were repeatedly defeated in the State legislature. 

 

        Only one representative was allowed from “Imperial Calcasieu” Parish at the beginning of this fight and that representative was never from any place other than Lake Charles for the simple reason Lake Charles had the most population.  But citizens of Jennings and the surrounding area contested the issue, never giving up.  Their efforts were rewarded when the bill was signed by Governor Hall.

 

        On October 22, 1912, climaxing another long fight, the people of the newly-created Jefferson Davis Parish selected Jennings as the permanent Parish Seat by a Majority of 79 in preference to Welsh.  These two towns had been left in the running after Lake Arthur was eliminated in the first election. 

 

        Then came the question of a division of the Parish into wards.  Already there had been much discussion, the members from Jennings pointing out that there should be as few wards as possible, not over five, in order to cut down of expenses.

 

        A provisional board had been appointed by Governor Hall, composed of E. D. Conner, representing Jennings, Dr. J. H. Cooper, the Rev. R. P. Howell, S.T. Langley and H. T. Merrit.  On every question brought before this board in which the influence of either Welsh or Jennings was at stake those voting in favor of Welsh were Cooper, Howell and Langley.  Conner and Merrit voted for Jennings.

 

        At one of the meetings in which the “number of wards” issue was being thrashed out, Copper drew an ordinance from his pocket and proceeded to introduce a resolution for the division of the Parish into nine wards.

 

        This extraordinary proposition brought both Conner and Merrit to their feet, the former attempting to substitute a motion to divide the Parish into five wards.  Conner contended that nine wards for the little Parish of Jefferson Davis was preposterous.  The expense to taxpayers would be increased 80 percent without any direct benefit except to a few were working for political purposes.

 

        Under the nine ward plan the Western division could contain about 30 percent of the people while the four wards in the East would contain nearly 70 percent.  The contention was that this would create and arrangement whereby a small minority would be able to rule absolutely the great majority of citizens of the new Parish.

 

        The roll call on this resolution was along the same lines as previous motions - for, Cooper, Langley and Howell; against, Conner and Merrit.

 

        Hard feelings lasted for sometime after all the differences were ironed out but for the most part the Welsh supporters accepted the defeat as to where the Parish Seat would be in good grace and had little more to say.  Similarly, Jennings supporters did likewise on the “number of wards” issue. 

 

        Now, most of the trouble is forgotten, even the burning in effigy of leading Welsh supporters by Jennings citizens. 

 

        Numerous changes have been wrought during the past 60 years.  It may aptly be called “over a half-century of progress.”  Farms have modern equipment and extensive fields.  There are rice mills, cotton gins, attractive towns and clean streets, churches, schools - all to attest this progress.

  

B. AGRICULTURE

 

        Jefferson Davis Parish has a background which is predominately agricultural.  Diversified farming has met with increasing popularity; and today, rice, cotton, sweet potatoes, corn, and other crops as well as livestock, contribute to the agricultural income.

 

        According to the latest census figures, there are approximately 1,049 farms in Jefferson Davis Parish.  The average size of these farms is approximately 339.4 acres as compared with 277.0 acres in 1954.  The approximate land area of the parish is 421,120 acres of which 85 percent is in farms.  Most recent figures available indicate that 89,770 acres were planted in rice with a production of 1,615,096 barrels, 167 acres of cotton produced 97 bales; 529 acres were planted in corn with a yield of 13,646 bushels, and 462 acres of sweet potatoes with a yield of 34,032 bushels.  In addition, sale of dairy products proved to be a source of income for many Jefferson Davis Parish farmers.  Farm income derived from dairy products amounted to $37,660.  Too, poultry and poultry products sold increased to $116,355 in 1959.  For example, 265,262 dozens of eggs, 11,720 chickens were sold in 1959.  The value of sales of livestock and livestock products has increased from $1,042,273 in 1954 to $2,093,526 in 1959. 

 

        Tree fruits, nuts, and grapes are found in limited and abundant scale in Jefferson Davis Parish.  For example, peaches, 11 bushels; pears, 232 bushels; plums; figs; oranges, 240 field boxes; and pecans, 12,498 pounds, are harvested throughout the area. 

 

        The total value of all farm products sold in 1959 by farmers in Jefferson Davis Parish amounted to $14,215,230, or an average of $13,761 per farm. This average was higher than the parish average of $12,505 in 1954 and considerably higher than the state average of $4,503 in 1959.

 

        To assist farms in Jefferson Davis Parish and the surrounding area, Louisiana State University is operating experimental stations.  Investments in these projects have resulted in tremendous dividends to agriculture in Jefferson Davis Parish and the State of Louisiana.

 

C. GENERAL POPULATION CHARACTERISTICS

 

        Let us take a closer look at the residents of Jefferson Davis Parish.  In 1950 the total population of the parish was 26,298.  In 1960 total population figures for the parish were 29,825.

 

        In addition, Jefferson Davis Parish has experienced a change from rural to urban status.  For example, in 1950 the resident population of the Parish residing in urban areas represented 47.6 percent of the population. Latest figures available for 1960 indicated more urban residents in the parish than at any other time with 62.9 percent reported.  However Jefferson Davis Parish remains a highly rural area with approximately 37 percent of the population classified as rural farm and non-farm. 

 

        Furthermore, Jefferson Davis Parish is, population wise, comparatively young.  The average age per person in 1960 was 23.7 years as compared with the state average of 25.3 years. There were approximately 4,086 children under 5 years of age in Jefferson Davis Parish in 1960 and 12,923 of the total population of 29,825 were under 18 years of age. 

 

D. EDUCATION

 

        In the decades 1952-62, the school age population in Jefferson Davis Parish has risen from 8,105 to 8,969.  This represents an increase of 11 percent.  The state average for the same period was up 36 percent.  Meanwhile, the number of high school graduates increased approximately 84 percent having risen from 189 to 384 in the same period.

 

        The enrollment of more children in school, plus the enrichment of the instructional program in various subject matter areas, have necessitated the addition of numerous public school teachers.  In 1952, a total of 226 teachers were employed.  Today the number is 320.  Ten years ago only 72 percent of the teaching staff had earned four or more years of college as compared with 92 percent of the staff with four or more years of college preparation at the present time.

 

        An excellent measure of the importance of education and the support provided the program is the amount of money expended for the education of each public school child.  In 1952 Jefferson Davis Parish was spending about $194.00. Today the amount is $394.00.  The increase of 103 percent exceeds the state average.  In addition, the bonded debt per school age child has risen from $176.00 in 1952 to $419.00 in 1962 - up 138 percent.  Investments in school facilities – that is buildings, sites, and equipment have increased more than 100 percent since 1952.  Today, investments in facilities exceed $7,200,000 as compared with $3,497,000 in 1952.  The people of Jefferson Davis Parish are to be commended for their outstanding support and interest in the public school program.

 

 E. TAX EXEMPTIONS AND PERMANENT JOBS

 

        Since 1956 tax exemptions for industry have exceeded $5,700,000.  The largest exemption occurred in 1958.  The introduction of new industries has resulted in the creation of 149 new and permanent jobs.

 

F. COMMERCE AND INDUSTRY

 

        In 1956, a total of 3,342 residents in Jefferson Davis Parish were employed in nonagricultural occupations.  Of this total, 23.7 percent were engaged in mining, 15.4 percent were employed in transportation, and 34.0 percent were employed in trade occupations.  Other individuals were employed in construction, manufacturing, finance, service and other.  In 1961, trade, transportation, and mining remained as the leading non-agricultural professions in Jefferson Davis Parish. A substantial increase was registered in the number of individuals engaged in construction activities.

 

        Average weekly earnings by non-agricultural employees increased from $63.61 in 1956 to $92.09 in 1961. This increase represented a rise of 44.8 percent. The rate of increase for the state for the same period was 19.5 percent. Retail sale decreased slightly in the period 1956-1961; however, assessments increased from $28,791,000 to $37,233,000 or 29.3 percent.

 

G. MINERAL PRODUCTION

 

        In 1952, the value of minerals produced in Jefferson Davis Parish was $13,401,000.  In 1961, the value had increased to $47,681,768 or over $34,000,000.  The leading minerals produced were petroleum, natural gas, natural gas liquids, sand, and gravel.

 

H. HOUSING CHARACTERISTICS

 

        The number of houses established in Jefferson Davis Parish totaled 7,735 in 1950, of which 4,450 were owner occupied and 2,595 were renter occupied.  Some were vacant.  In 1960, 8,910 homes had been established in the parish, and the number which were owner occupied totaled 5,419 whereas the renter occupied total was 2,664.  The remainder were vacant.

 

I. HIGHLIGHTS

 

1. Population increased 13.4 percent.

2. Average weekly earnings increased 44.8 percent.

3. Severance tax collections increased 24.8 percent.

4. The average size per farm increased 49 percent.

5. Average income per farm increased 108 percent.

6. High school graduates increased 84 percent.

7. Professional training of teachers increased 29 percent.

8. Expenditure per pupil increased 103 percent.

 

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