A Story All Its Own

St. James Parish boasts storied past, bright future
Every year on Christmas Eve, thousands of people from around the globe attend the lighting of the bonfires in St. James Parish.

Long established in a state with a vibrant history, St. James Parish’s history stands out among the most dynamic in Louisiana lore.

The founding of the Parish as one of Louisiana’s original 19 by the state’s governing body, the Legislative Council of the Territory of Orleans, set up following the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 in the period post-European colony and pre-American statehood, was on March 31, 1807. St. James Parish’s present-day boundaries mirror the ecclesiastical lines drawn during 18th-century Spanish control. Its 249 square miles rank second smallest in total land size among Louisiana’s 64 parishes. However, what truly distinguishes St. James Parish is its intersection of storied traditions, diverse settlement patterns, and unique ecology that sustains strong agricultural and industrial ventures.

“I’d say other than sugarcane and the plantations,” area historian Charlie Douet explained by phone recently, “the biggest influence in shaping the history of St. James Parish was in 1892 when Lutcher & Moore Cypress Lumber Company came in. It was the largest cypress mill in the country for about 30 years.”

Indeed, Douet’s estimation of the period from 1895-1920 as defining toward St. James’ modern-day development is backed up by U.S. Census Bureau figures. Following the Civil War, abolishment of slavery and Reconstruction effectively forced the collapse of sugarcane plantations so emblematic of Queen Silver’s massive profits, which peaked in the 1850s. The arrival of Henry J. Lutcher, already wealthy from sawmills that single-handedly shaped Orange, Texas into a thriving town, came a few years after he purchased 400 hundred acres of land bountiful in centuries-old, swamp-borne cypress trees near the East Bank town 42 miles upriver from New Orleans that now bears his name. Census data for St. James Parish shows its population grew by roughly 40 percent from 1890 to 1910, increasing from approximately 15,000 to 23,000 citizens.

“The company treated this town like a plantation,” explained Douet, who serves on the board of directors for the St. James Parish Historical Society as well as the German-Acadian Coast Historical and Genealogical Society. “They set up 200 company houses and all the employees lived in company houses.

“In those days, you had so many people — young men, in particular — who’d just jump on a train somewhere, and get off when they saw an opportunity,” added Douet, who worked for Shell Oil Company for 30 years. After retirement, Douet’s self-described “hobby” led to his research and writing several articles related to the import and impact of Lutcher & Moore Cypress Lumber Company in St. James Parish.

“They were immigrants and wanted to be in the United States. You could tell that by how hard they worked.”    

Native Americans scantly populated what would become St. James Parish as counted in the first French colonial census taken in 1769. Tribes indigenous to South Louisiana selected for more permanent settlement land further north and upriver, regarding the region too flood-prone. While some Chitimachas and Houmas fished and hunted here, it was the local Choctaws that cultivated the fruity tobacco they dried in tree stumps. That process has changed little over the last three centuries in growing Perique tobacco, which is a sought-after flavor found only in St. James Parish. The flavor took its name from the nickname of Pierre Chenet, an exiled Acadian and farmer who introduced it to eager colonial and European markets with a profitable commercial production process started in 1824.

Douet is among area historians who point to Lillian C. Bourgeois’ book “Cabacocey: The History, Customs and Folklore of St. James Parish” (Pelican Publishing, 1999) as the definitive resource for learning its colonial and antebellum cultural development. The colorful, well-crafted book takes its title from the Cabacocey Plantation, granted to French settler Jacques Cantrelle, who amassed a fortune growing indigo in the 1760s.

St. James Parish remained a relative wilderness compared to growth in neighboring St. John the Baptist and Ascension parishes, although, Bourgeois points out the Parish’s role before the Civil War as being the educational center of Louisiana.  The elegant Jefferson College, founded in 1830, was the first important place for higher education, while the Convent of the Sacred Heart formed in 1835 and was famed for housing and educating daughters of prominent families from Louisiana, Mexico and Central America.

Today, St. James Parish’s unique past has created cherished customs such as the annual Christmas Eve bonfires on the levee, burning to light the path for Papa Noel. It continues to grow in both population and economic numbers; consider recent capital investments in the Port of South Louisiana, and inclusion starting in 2015 as part of the New Orleans Metropolitan Statistical Area for data crunched by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.  

Even given the present-day boom, St. James Parish will continue to be defined by its small boundaries and terrain.

“It’s still growing,” Douet explains. “But you get these little towns like Lutcher and Gramercy — their boundaries are set with the river on one side, swamp on the other side. So it’s always been of little growth, and I think 100 years from now we’ll still see the same scale of growth.” 

By Frank Etheridge

Categories: Maritime