Major industrialization would not begin on the west bank of the river for another forty years into the second half of the twentieth century. Commerce was primarily agricultural but pockets of small businesses existed to meet the basic needs of citizens in many villages. Commercial fishing and sugar cane farming supported the economy. Another major player was the lumber industry, which had been an important part of the economy since the early days of the French colony.
Magnificent forests of oak and other hardwoods were cleared along with cypress trees, which dominated the swamps of the area. Draping the magnificent trees in the marshes was moss, a valuable commodity since colonial and antebellum days when it was used in the bousillage (entre’ pateaux, mud between posts) of Creole homes. Landry’s Moss Gin in Paradis bought moss for three cents a pound but according to the Reverend John Dorsey of Boutte, the backbreaking labor of picking and hauling the moss with a mule-drawn slide paid off as his family thrived from the profits of the hard work. Folklorists Jon and Jocelyn Donlon once recanted the legendary story of Henry Ford purchasing Louisiana moss but requiring that all moss be shipped to him in cypress boxes, the moss to be used for stuffing seats in his Model T, the valuable cypress (free to Ford), as wood interiors in the autos.
Cypress, which has great strength and durability and resists the heat and moisture of the southern climate, was in great demand and had been used by the Germans in colonial times. Although lumber was milled at plantation sawmills during most of the nineteenth century, large commercial sawmills were established in the latter part of the century. There were several mills on the west bank including ones at Bayou Gauche and Des Allemands. The largest of these was the Louisiana Cypress Lumber Company mill established by Joseph Cornelius Rathborne in 1889. The company owned 50,000 acres of swampland from which it drew vast supplies of timber. Some of this land was in St. Charles and in June 1911, George Cousin (born in Alsace- Lorraine) signed an agreement with Rathborne and it was at this site that Cousin’s Camp was established and served as home base for the workers. Each of these camps typically offered a variety of necessities including a boarding house, a general merchandise store, a machine shop, an entertainment hall, and a saloon among other things.
Harvesting cypress was a laborious task. The workers went into the swamps in the fall when the water was low and felled trees. When the waters rose in the spring, logs were made into rafts, which were towed by steamers to sawmills. The loggers, who were called “swampers,” endured many hardships including malaria. Cousin’s Camp, located behind the current Lakewood West Subdivision off U.S. Highway 90, was at its peak from 1912 to 1918. The lumber industry faded away as the supply of timber in the vicinity became largely exhausted.
This text is copyright © material by Marilyn Richoux, Joan Becnel and Suzanne Friloux, from St. Charles Parish, Louisiana: A Pictorial History, 2010.