Stories From Around the Fireplace

by Father Jules C. Speyrer

Before television and even before the radio and the phonograph (or at least before I ever heard a radio or a phonograph!), and when the only source of light or heat for the house was the fireplace and the coaloil lamp, it was customary to congregate in the living room each evening. During Winter only the foolhardy would dare venture into any other room of the house. That was because only the living room had a fireplace.

My father (Jules Conrad Speyrer drfd (1852-1936) did not agree that homework was necessary for students after the schoolday had finished. Book learning was supposed to take place at school, he figured. Home was to be reserved for work and togetherness, and should not be intruded upon by school assignments. Since it was forbidden for his children to speak French on the schoolground, he insisted that fair-play required that only French be spoken at home! So, after supper, it was natural that we all gravitated towards the fireplace. And around that crackling and sputtering glow, we heard many interesting stories about our roots, our culture and the events of yesteryear.

I remember most vividly my father's stories about fishing and hunting expeditions. It was his custom to have a little `toddy' of moonshine whiskey each evening. And on those occasions when one toddy called for another, the stories probably became embellished and often included a bit of singing. With a full pipe of `homerun' tobacco, and in his accustomed place, he would regale us with stories of tales of his youth, the Civil War (he was 13 years old at its outbreak in 1865) and events he personally experienced.

One story I particularly remember, concerned the recounting of a courtship of a couple's experiences he remembered when he was a youth. The time preceded even coal oil lamps since tallow and suet candles were the only source of light when he was a youngster. When a young man, after having obtained permission from his girlfriend's father, began courting, a pin was placed in the candle which rested on the mantle above the fireplace. When the flame reached the pin and caused it to fall, it was expected that the suitor would observe this signal that it was time to depart from whence he came. However, if the father liked the courter, or if his daughter tended to gravitate towards becoming an old maid, he would grant the suitor an inch or two more on the candle. It was hoped that romance in this setting would end in marriage, one of which will be featured in a forthcoming issue.

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A Cannibalistic Indian Tribe!

As young inquisitive minds, we prodded and pleaded for even more stories. And after having imbibed yet one more toddy of white-mule whiskey it was fairly easy for my father to accommodate our wishes. Whether it was a story about hunting, fishing, slavery or the Civil War, we were all enthralled and to some degree relived the scenes and time he so well described.

This story was about a hunting expedition which as far as I can remember was on spanish grant land. And, as the story goes, it seems that after having found a place to camp overnight, and after the evening meal, the party settled to a friendly game of cards, not too far from the genial campfire. One of the players stepping outside to tend to the call of nature, returned to say that he had heard the cry of what he though to be of a man lost in the woods. Upon being questioned, he indicated with concern that the cries seemed to be getting closer and closer to the camp. However his version of what was happening was immediately challenged by one Mr. Sasoon, who announced in no uncertain terms, that this was not the cry of someone lost in the woods, but rather the cries of Indians who were cannibals, looking forward to a feast of human flesh. Needless to say, the camp was immediately moved to a safer place. And the next day, a visit to the previous night's site revealed a number of Indian footprints in the cold ashes of their earlier camp fire.

My skepticism was shattered when I read in a recently published history of St Landry and Acadia Parishes information confirming that there was indeed a tribe of cannibal Indians in the area. They are identified as the Karakawa tribe. It was not that extra toddy which was the source of the story, since it was true that there was such a tribe even though the rest of the story was no doubt somewhat exaggerated.

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The Invading Union Forces

My father, Jules, was born in 1852. The conflicts between the states were making the news of the day. And when the war was finally declared and being fought, my father was a young teenager. His brother, Louis, who joined the Confederate army did not have any particular disliking for the enemy. He was not a slave owner.

Papa recounted many sad events which took place during the war between the states. He told of Yankee soldiers stripping the farm of animals and grain, picking up horses, food, etc. Once my father hid his small saddle under the house and thus it escaped the clutches of the invading Yankees. On occasion, officers invaded the house and helped themselves to fresh milk, bread, etc. To their credit however, my father mentioned that the Yankee soldiers were always most cordial and polite. When grandma Josephine was ill and bedridden, they were careful not to disturb her. But no amount of pleading would convince the soldiers to leave anything behind.

Papa told us that even though he was a teenager at that time, he was astute enough to observe that the Yankee camp was on elevated ground, and vowed that if he ever build a house, it would be on that location.

And sure enough, he did build his home there. It is still standing near the Leonville four-corners, the first house in the entire vicinity. Build of sturdy red cypress and mud walls, it remains to this day, keeping constant vigil on the traffic between Leonville and Opelousas. The house served as the birthplace for many of his children, though the children of the first marriage were born at Conrad's residence, which was to the rear of the residence of Dr. Ralph Finley and his wife Alice. The Leonville four-corners house stood high and dry when the flood of 1927 inundated all of Leonville. Though somewhat changed and modernized with the addition of water and gas and indoor plumbing, its character remains the same except for the removal of the outside chimney. Well built, the house seemingly impervious to the ravages of time. It's still home for the four remaining children.

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Leonville's Sugar Refinery

Due east of the Pointe Claire road in Leonville, and immediately south of the post office there was once a sugar refinery owned by a family of Dejeans. Immediately west of this road, Conrad Speyrer owned acreage which he farmed, mostly for corn, cotton and potatoes.

Before the war the Dejeans prospered with the help of their slaves. It was a customary diversion for the ladies to throw pennies from their balcony and amuse themselves by watching the slave children vie with each other to retrieve as many coins as they could. ``How would it ever be possible,'' some would ask, ``for poor Conrad, to ever pay for the land he farmed, with a pair of mice for the two mules he owned?'' Seemingly, it was not possible. But when the Yankees destroyed the sugar refinery and relieved the Dejeans of their slave labor did they realize that Conrad had indeed remained insolvent. Instead of throwing pennies to children for recreation, it became a matter of peddling their finery to enable them to survive.

My father, Jules, in his own age, remembered as a teenager, the mounds of sugar left at the site of the refineries. He recounted to us how easy it was to go with a bucket and simply scoop up whatever amnount was need. Jules family luxuriated in making armfulls of ``pull'' candy.

General Sherman did not march to the Gulf, but there were others who did and contributed to the destruction of the south.

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