Historic Structures

History of the Plantation Part 2 Laurel Valley Sugar Plantation, Thibodaux Louisiana

For recreation the family enjoyed horse racing, the favorite pastime of many antebellum planters. It owned and stabled at Laurel Valley ten race horses, 18 mares and a stud named Watter Brown. Some of Louisiana's leading breeder and turn enthusiasts lived near the Lafourche area. On Bayou Teche, Alexander Porter kept his stables at Oaklawn and on the Mississippi River William Minor stabled his horses at Waterloo and Duncan Kenner stabled at Ashland. There were a number of tracks in the area, Planters set aside land for tracks in their pasture and held several match races each year. The more elaborate courses were at Natchez, Baton Rouge and New Orleans. In the beginning of the 1840's, it was not uncommon to have as many as 10,000 spectators attending the call and spring New Orleans race.

After the death of Joseph Tucker, Laurel Valley's operations came under the management of a cousin, Caleb, who married Joseph's widow in 1855. More than likely Caleb continued his cousin's agricultural policies, for the plantation remained a leading sugar producer in the parish. Civil War, however, seriously disrupted Laurel Valley's activities. In 1862, union troops placed it under strict military supervision after they captured New Orleans. General Benjamin Butler issued an order subjecting the property of Louisianians who hereafter bore arms against the United States government to confiscation. Laurel Valley lost its loyalty status around 1863 after Caleb joined Confederate troops at Vicksburg. The results were to be expected. According to an estimate, in 1865, Federal authorities seized between 1,000 and 1,500 hogsheads of sugar and 1,200 and 1,400 barrels of molasses. And, on April 15, 1863, when Emile LeBlanc, Parish Recorder, inventoried the plantation, he worte: "No horses, mules, catties, or other animals to be found. Implements of husbandry are not generally in good order and are so scattered about in such a manner as not to be found in lots for appraisal. No household furniture to be found in any buildings on the premises."

It would take almost twenty years for Laurel Valley to recover from The Civil War. Caleb was killed at Vicksburg and in the aftermath several individuals leased the plantation including the oldest son, Joseph Pennington Tucker. He took over in 1869, but was never able to attain pre-war levels of productivity.

His lack of managerial skills were not to blame for this situation. There were a number of factors that combined to hamper the operation of the plantation. When he took over the plantation was virtually without horses, mules, and equipment. Then, there were crevasses on Bayou Lafourche and the Mississippi River in 1867, and flood waters destroyed the entire crop. According the executor, Louis Bush, the levee breaks caused "heavy additional expenses on the plantation such as the erection of protection levees, draining machines and extra labor."

Finally, Tucker faced a situation almost unknown to his father: He had to deal with contract labor. The Freedman's Bureau directly supervised all plantation labor, and planters had to sign work contracts with all employees. Included in the contracts were the terms of employment, rate of pay, and requirements for housing and provisions. Tucker's feelings about the situation surfaced in 1871 when he contracted with twenty-three Chinese for one year's work and an option for a additional two years.

The inability of Laurel Valley to regain its productivity forced Tucker to rely more and more on credit to maintain the plantation. The proceeds from the sale of sugar and molasses were not enough to offset the expenses. In 1869, the plantation earned $53,720.53, in 1870, $39,168 and 1871, $62,308.65. Yet, at the same time, the indebtedness increased. At the beginning of his lease the plantation had outstanding debts of $42,000, but these rose to $59,905 in 1868, $92,824 in 1869, $108,053 in 1870 and $116,260 in 1871. With no end in sight, the executor, Louis Bush, appeared before the Parish Court in Thibodaux, on January 12, 1872, on behalf of the family and asked that the plantation be sold at public auction to satisfy its creditors.

Laurel Valley was sold on March 7, 1872, to a Thibodaux resident, Clay Knobloch. But on the same day that Knobloch passed his sale he sold the plantation to William P. Tucker, of Terrebonne Parish, another son of Joseph Tucker. William managed the plantation for the next twentyone months and through two grinding seasons. He gave up and sold to Samuel W. Hammond of New Orleans on December 12, 1873. Hammond held Laurel Valley for only seven months and sold his interest on July 10, 1874, to Burch A. Wormald, a Thibodaux resident.

Little is know of Wormald's plantation operations. Existing evidence suggests that he was ready to adopt new techniques to improve Laurel Valley's sugar production. In about 1876, he switched the mill's processing equipment from a steam train with open pans to vacuum pans and centrifugals. The new methods increased the efficiency of the mill in extracting sugar from cane syrup, and production totals gradually returned to pre-Civil War levels. Wormald tried briefly to diversify the plantation's economic base. In the 1880's he flooded the back fields and planted rice for several seasons. The harvest was never large and by 1890 he gave up cultivation. He also constructed a portion of the main house and, more than likely, erected the twenty-six double Creole quarters for the workers. But all of these activities cost money, in fact too much money for Wormald. To raise funds, he mortgaged the plantation to the New Orleans comerical firm of Behan and Zuberbier. In 1892, unable to pay about $70,000 in debts, he was forced to turn Laurel Valley over to his creditors.

In 1893, the partnership of Frank Barker and J. Wilson Lepine purchased Laurel Valley. With a nationwide depression at hand and falling agricultural prices, their timing might have been unfortunate. But both Barker and Lepine had been planting for some time. They came from families with a sugar-farming background and, for the previous ten years, they had operated Melodia Plantation, about four miles below Laurel Valley and onesixth its size. They represented a new plantation-owner type coming into prominence at the end of the nineteenth century. Gone was the so-called romance of the "royal" days of antebellum plantation life. In this age of commercialization these men were agricultural capitalists who epitomized the traits of Yankee enterprise,energy and an eye toward profit.

Both Barker and Lepine possessed particular traits complimentary to the other, laying the foundation for a successful management of their interests. Lepine preferred to direct the day-to-day operations of the plantations. He enjoyed directing work crews and supervising the mill at sugar-grinding time. He spent most of his time on the plantation where he lived with his family after moving from Melodia about 1897. Baker on the other hand, preferred to direct the plantation finances from New Orleans where he lived and owned and operated a commerical warehouse. Laurel Vally purchased provisions and sold sugar and molasses through Barker, thus eliminating the usual commission payments.

Soon after taking over, Barker and Lepine changed Laurel Valley from a plantation with a mill for processing only its own cane into what the sugar historian J. Carlye Sitterson would term a central factory complex. Not only was the cane from its own fields ground at the mill, but also that of neighbors and any tenants who rented land. This change of status was not unique, for other mill owners throughout Louisiana's sugar bowl had made similar changes, because of the high cost of labor and an inability to retain sufficient labor from season to season. In addition to adequate, pay, worker sought respect from owners and decent living conditions. If workers found these conditions, they stayed; if not, they simply moved on to another plantation. In an attempt to overcome labor's uncertainty, planters with mills began to rely more and more on small farmers for cane; this was a way to avoid the high cost labor. They found it economical to direct their capital into sugar manufacturing.

A more specific idea of their "neighbor-tenant" relationship can be obtained by examining the mills tonnage chart for the years 1899 to 1925. During this period the mill ground about 30,000 tons of cane every year. Of this amount, 11,300 tons came from Laurel Valley fields; the rest, 18,700 tons, was purchased from "neighbors and tenants." in 1908, for example, the mill purchased 27,705 tons from 53 farmers, including 6,623 tons from Melodia. Yet a number of farmers involved in these purchases fluctuated considerably from year to year. Some gave up and moved off to other farms, or to town, or became wage labors if they got too far in debt. In spite of the purchases, Barker-Lepine made reasonable profits. Income and expense statements, available for 1901, to 1915 (excepting, 1913), reveal that the partnership netted an average profit of $40,000 a year. This includes a flood loss of nearly $57,000 in 1912; the highest net profit was $81,707 in 1908 and the lowest $8,481 in 1906.

The decline and demise of Laurel Valley's factory mill complex began after World War I, because of declining cane production. From 1919 to 1925, the plantation averaged only 6,900 tons of cane a year, a fifty percent reduction from 1899 to 1918, when the average was 12,600 tons a year. Just as important for the success of the factory-mill complex, the "neighbors and tenants" also experienced similar declines. The amount of cane they sold to the mill averaged 15,557 tons a year, compared 18,984 tons before the war.

Laurel Valley's problem was not unique, however. It was caught up in a general decline throughout the Louisiana sugar bowel which witnessed falling prices, lower yields per acre, and higher production costs, Many factories found the pressures too great and shut down their operations. In 1910, for instance, raw sugar factories in the state numbered almost 200, but in 1926, only 54 remained. if the finger of blame must be pointed at someone, it should be at the planters themselves. During the war planters milled their best cane, that normally reserved for planting, preferring higher profits for the sucrose-rich plant cane. But when the war ended, planters found themselves with plant cane infected with mosaic disease which destroys the ability of cane to resist other types of infections. Consequently, at harvest, the planters faced reduced tonnage and lower sucrose quantities per stalk.

Declining field production and higher operating costs ultimately forced Laurel Valley to rely more and more on New Orleans banks for day to day credit. Indebtedness worsened until February4 1926, one month after the death of Lepine, when the Whitney Bank of New Orleans took over the management of plantation financial operations. The mill stayed opened that year, closing its doors only after infected cane produced insufficient sucrose to permit crystallization. Unable to find a buyer, the bank arranged with Wilson Lepine, Jr. to manage the plantation's agricultural operations. It took him about seventeen years to pay off the debts. By 1945, Laurel Valley was free of mortgages, but its cane was being transported to nearby factories for grinding.