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On Relationships: Dogtrot Porches and Gravehouses

 

This is a draft of the first chapter of my upcoming book, A Pineywoods Manifesto: A Field Manual on Life

Even though it’s a draft, I’m sharing. I solicit your feedback.

This will be the front copy of A Pineywoods Manifesto.

 

CHAPTER 1: ON RELATIONSHIPS: DOGTROT PORCHES AND GRAVE HOUSES

I once saw a handmade sign in an African refugee camp. On It was scrawled, “1.If you like people, people will like you. 2. Trust God.”

“Tell me who you are, and I’ll tell you where you’re from.”

-Wallace Stegner

 

Let me start out right: we’re different down South.

Not always different in a bad way, but different.

And my part of the South, the Pineywoods area of western Louisiana, bounded by the Sabine and Calcasieu Rivers, is unique from the rest of our state. We’re not cotton country, we’re not Cajun, and most of all, we’re not New Orleans. Most of us avoid the Crescent City like the proverbial plague.

We’re country people.

We’re the descendants of Yeoman Farmers, mostly of Scots-Irish origin, who migrated from the Carolinas through Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi. Wherever they stopped, they built rough cabins and become small-time dirt farmers, living off the land.

For some reason, or many reasons, many settled in this frontier area called known as No Man’s Land. You need to understand about this area if you’re going to understand this book.

The historic No Man’s Land, averaging about fifty miles wide, stretched from the Gulf northward using the parallel Calcasieu River (east)  and Sabine Rivers (west) as its border. It was set up by colonial powers Spain and France to avoid a war over the border of Texas and the Louisiana Territory. They designated the strip as a neutral territory and agreed no government, soldiers, or settlers would live in this buffer zone.

But those migrating Scots-Irish farmers and stockmen, plus a baker’s dozen other ethnicities found a home in the No Man’s Land. The idea of no, or little government, appealed to these freedom-seeking frontiersman. They simply wanted to be left alone.

Most importantly, there was land. Many of their ancestors had fled Europe seeking land and opportunity. Arriving in America, they found much of the Atlantic coastal plain already habituated, so they kept moving west. The scattered throughout the Appalachian Mountains and some, once they found gaps and passes, kept heading west, then south.

They often traveled in family groups with neighbors, often making stopovers in Georgia, Alabama, or Mississippi and even eastern Louisiana with its large rivers and cotton culture.

But these sojourns were usually short. They were looking for a specific brand of freedom. As one old-timer put it, “My pa would stay in one place until he saw chimney smoke from a neighbor’s homestead, then move on to find a more secluded location.”

Those that arrived, and stayed in the Louisiana Pineywoods found what they were looking for: land for the taking and no one to bother them. A man could stake out one hundred and twenty acres, live on it for five years, and get clear title to it from the Spanish, French, or later Americans, in spite of the territory’s neutral status.

Many found homes in the Pineywoods sections of these states. Evidently, it reminded them of them of home.

These land-loving people, mixed in with others who were avoiding the law, created a unique and colorful culture that even today remains.  The No Man’s Land, or Neutral Strip, became known as the Outlaw Strip. It was a good spot to lay low from the law.

Several of my fore bearers came to escape the law or begin a new life. They were hardy and hard-working people who were self-reliant. An early observer of the Pineywoods, an Episcopalian Bishop named Robert Hargrove described our area well,  “There was more in the man than in the land.”

My people weren’t bluebloods. They were the underdogs from Europe, and even from the eastern coast of America. They moved until they found a place that felt like home and had the freedom they so desperately craved.

The Pineywoods way of life revolves around relationships. It values people more than land or possessions. This was never more evident than in 2005 after our area was devastated by Hurricane Rita. We simply got up, sharpened our chain saws, and went to work helping each other clean up and rebuild. It brought the best out in our culture.

“The man being more than the land” is also found in how we’ll fight each other until some outside force intrudes. Then, Pineywooders will band together, protect each other’s backs, and fight for each other.

It’s in our blood and DNA.

Pineywoods men were hardy, self-reliant, stubborn to a fault, principled, and skeptical of any authority.

I once asked our Parish Sheriff. “Sheriff Moses, do you think that Outlaw Strip spirit still exists in Beauregard Parish?”

He grinned wearily.  “Oh yeah, and the closer you get to the rivers, the stronger it is.”

I hate to admit it, but I’m proud of that independent ornery spirit we’ve retained.

Finally, the Pineywoods spirit is seen in the early architecture of our people.

They built log houses of pine or cypress that were called double pen dogtrot homes.  The main feature was a long hallway down the center of the home dividing the dwelling into two sections or “pens.” Porches were built on the front and back. This allowed folks to find a porch breeze from any direction. The houses received their name from the dogs trotting back and forth on the middle porch.

 

NEW ENGLAND

And in spite of their desire for freedom, these pioneers loved sharing fellowship and coffee on the dogtrot porch with both neighbors and passing strangers.

Secondly, they had a great respect for life and death. When a loved one was buried, they built small grave houses over the burial spot. This was to keep roaming livestock from disturbing the resting place. There are still a few cemeteries with these grave houses.

I view them in the context of respect for the dead. A respect for relationships that extends beyond death.

So the early people of the Pineywoods were complex and paradoxical.  They wanted to be left alone, but always had room for another place at the supper table. They lived fully, knowing that death could be right around the corner in a land with few doctors and dangers galore.

They are my people and they value relationships, so that’s where we’ll start.

 

 

 

 

 

About Curt Iles

I write to have influence and impact through well-told stories of my Louisiana and African sojourn.

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