Sunday, May 11, 2014

cane harvest tradition revived in catahoula

Teche News
Wednesday, January 22, 1973
Mrs. Tootie Guirard

In the old days, and of course, before television, folks had more time for having their own fun instead of looking and listening to others enjoying theirs. Also, they enjoyed many celebrations which we are so quickly forgetting and which our children know nothing about.
     I have in mind a particular celebration which I enjoyed as a child and which my family and friends and Jim and I enjoyed again this harvest season. This celebration was known as the "Cutting of the Last Sugar Cane." 
     Before we had cane cutting machines, all cane was cut by hand. The workers arrived early in the morning and worked late into the afternoon. This was called "from can't to can't," that is, from "can't see" A.M. to "can't see" P.M.

Race with Time

     With farm families it was a race with time against an early freeze. Workers ate wherever they were cutting. This meant that food was prepared and served in the fields by the women of the household. The women not only prepared the food and kept the house going but they also drove wagons and weighed the cane while the men cut and stacked it. A sudden cold snap (and before weather forecasting a cold snap was always sudden) could sour the cane causing the loss of a whole year's work. Getting that crop cut and to the mill before the cold weather set in was quite an accomplishment and required the combined efforts of the whole family. You can well imagine what a relief it was when the last of the cane was loaded in the wagons and on its way to the mill at last!!

Our Celebration

     One afternoon at sunset, on the most beautiful afternoon any of us had ever seen, we had a LAST SUGAR CANE CUTTING CELEBRATION. Jim and I invited our neighbors (who also grow sugar cane) and their children and all of those who grow our crops for us. In all, I think we were about 25 Cajuns.
     We had set up a table on a turn row and on it we had bottles of wine and ice cold beer and snacks and cookies to go with it. Orphe "Baby" Romero came from town and played the Acadian accordion for us.

Dance In Mud

     After Jim and I had offered our prayers of thanksgiving and after Jackie and Howard, jointly, cut down the LAST SUGAR CANE in that whole big field we drank toast after toast to everything we could think of. Soon we no longer felt the cold wind blowing nor did we notice the water seeping into our shoes nor the mud which almost, but not quite, kept us from dancing.

Howard Theriot wields a cane knife to cut the symbolic last sugar cane stalk as his brother, Jackie Theriot, assists. Looking on in the background are Beck Beckstrom, Orphe "Baby" Romero and James Guirard. The old Cajun custom of celebrating the cutting of the final stalk of cane after a long and arduous harvest was revived several weeks ago by Mr. and Mrs. James Guirard of Catahoula. The Theriot brothers farm the Guirard land.

Jim had put down three long planks for the women to stand on (the fields were water logged) but who can stand still when Baby plays his accordion and soon we all moved over to the turn row and no one cared about the mud.
      It was as though God had accepted our prayers of thanksgiving and had added for our enjoyment the most beautiful sunset any of us had ever experienced. As the sun set, the whole sky turned to gold. Back of us a silvery moon started its way across the heavens. We saw flock after flock of ducks and cranes flying in perfect formation in the golden sky. What a setting for Cajuns dancing and celebrating in their own fields, with their own friends and neighbors, the CUTTING OF THE LAST SUGAR CANE!
      Certainly this called for a celebration and celebrate they did. One stalk of cane was left standing in the field. Neighbors were advised of the fact on the morrow, at sunset, the last stalk would be cut. The neighbors took an hour off from their own harvesting and all joined in the celebration.
     Cane tops were used as decorations. Men put the long green leaves in their hat bands. Women tucked them into their belts or carried them like bouquets. Stalks were stuck in the harnesses and collars of mules and horses and some poked out of the cracks of the sides of the wagons. (Mrs. Walter Theriot had a picture of this.)
     Ribbons and colored paper and flowers were tied to the LAST STALK OF CANE and the men and the women and their children sat about in a circle, laughing and joking. A jug of wine, or whiskey, or both was passed around and the children enjoyed lemonade and tea cakes. They sang old French songs and congratulated the host on his good fortune. The climax came when the father and mother and their children knelt on the bare ground and offered a prayer of thanksgiving to God. Then everyone stood while the father, bolstered by the shouts of encouragements from his friends and the effects of the whisky and wine, flexed his muscles, gave a war whoop, jumped once or twice in the air and with one great swish of his cane knife cut down the LAST SUGAR CANE.

Mr. and Mrs. James Guirard accept the brightly decorated cane stalk from Howard Theriot as part of the short ceremony before the celebration really gets underway with refreshment and music. The stalk is adorned with colorful strips of paper and a bright aluminum foil.

Our Cajun ancestors did not miss a chance to have fun and a celebration was hardly over before another was in the making. Cajuns say "when you're dead, it's for a long time, so have fun NOW!"
     This year God was exceptionally good to us, which does not mean that He didn't give us a couple of good scares! First a high-water scare and then Hurricane Carmen which weakened just before reaching us and the cold weather and even the rains held off until all of our cane had been cut and hauled to the mill . . . All except one last cane and it became our very own LAST SUGAR CANE and we had one whopper of a celebration even "more better" than what we used to have long ago.
     Jackie and Howard Theriot grow and harvest our cane crop and we consider ourselves very fortunate in having two fine young men such as they are to make our crops. They "for dam sure" know their business.