Thursday, April 24, 2014

PARTYING ON THE PORCH

This week I left The Mountain at Sewanee, Tennessee to return to my home in New Iberia, Louisiana for a book signing in recognition of the publication of Porch Posts, a book of essays that Janet Faulk-Gonzales and I co-authored. The signing will be held on the long gallery of the Wyche home at Belmont Plantation here in New Iberia, a historic place that was built as the summer home of the last Spanish Viceroy of Louisiana, the legal title of which goes back to a Spanish Land Grant. The Peebles family acquired Belmont in 1829, and it was passed on to John Fletcher Wyche, great-grandfather of Mary Wyche Estes who will hostess the porch party.

According to the memoirs of James Wyche, Jr., the original residence at Belmont was a raised cottage type of architecture, a story and a half structure, with a 56' front, two large rooms deep, and a 12' deep front gallery with eight square posts. A back gallery ran "all across, some 8' feet deep within an ell, containing kitchen, provision storeroom and a large room known as the 'ironing room,'" wrote Wyche. The plantation had a water-powered double mill sugar factory capable of serving two series of kettles and also had a distillery for making rum.

Belmont has been engaged in growing sugar cane from almost the beginning of the sugar industry in Louisiana, except for intervals during the Civil War when nothing was raised for commercial use. During 1813, the Belmont sugar mill was converted from water power to steam, but the mill did not operate after 1882 and was dismantled. A huge bell is housed in a wooden bell tower that still stands on the property and was formerly used to call field workers to labor or indoors for meals. It's seldom used now, except for demonstrations (at one time, demonstrations of bell ringing were carried out by Frieda, the Wyche dog, who held the bell rope in her teeth and rang the old bell) and for celebration of Independence Day.

This Sunday afternoon, after guests have been offered traditional Wyche hospitality of libations and food, Janet and I will read excerpts from Porch Posts, and my essay will highlight Wyche's Happy Hour sessions that were formerly held on the long gallery described above. Both the porch and Wyche family members will lend the appropriate ambience to the occasion—three of the Wyche clan are also authors: Mary Wyche Estes has published Mending of the Heart and Bass Reeves; her brother James Wyche III, published Slice, Dice and Die and Onions Make You Fry; and Guy Estes, Mary's son, has published a fantasy entitled Triad. All of these books deserve a good read.

This week, I pulled Memories of James W. Wyche, Jr. from my shelf of books about Louisiana and read a few excerpts to prime me for the Sunday afternoon reading. One of the chapters about the early childhood and boyhood of "Big Jimmy," as I called him, provoked my interest. He wrote: "I would take nothing for my rural upbringing, but then I am probably prejudiced, and rightly so. We would not wear shoes from the day school closed for the summer vacation until it opened in September, the soles of our feet becoming as thick and tough as shoe leather. We all learned to swim at an early age, under my father's tutelage, until he became assured of our proficiency. After that, the bayou became our aquatic playground, even with its immense but harmless gars. Rafts of logs would pass, towed by a steamboat and destined for a saw mill, upon which we would hitch a ride for half a mile, then swim back home.

"The certificate of proficiency was won when we could prove able to swim the bayou while wearing tights. Papa's assumption was a logical one; i.e., if we could accomplish this feat, it was reasonable to expect we could make it to the nearest shore, fully clothed, if we fell out of a boat. Papa would sit on the bayou bank when we went swimming to supervise us until we could prove our ability, after which his supervision was unnecessary and we could swim whenever it so pleased us...

"...My sister, Julia, swam the bayou on her pony, 'Dimple', when she was about five or six, and made the return trip safely. She did not know how to swim a stroke! She dried her clothes on a hickory limb or partly dried them, and the finishing touches and the ironing were done by Annie, our surrogate aunt whom I have mentioned before. I doubt very much that Mama knew of the incident until years afterward, or history would probably have been changed at that very juncture..."

The above excerpt was one of the stories told on the porch at Belmont, and was accompanied by a mint julep and the convivial spirits that always prevailed at Big Jimmy's Happy Hours.


I look forward to the party for Porch Posts and the reunion with old friends under the oaks at Belmont, and I wish that Big Jimmy, his sister Julia, and wife Arleen could join us while we sit on the porch and enjoy another memorable Happy Hour.
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