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Webster Parish – Eden of the New South

By 1903, Minden and Webster Parish was experiencing growing pains along with the rest of the nation. In 1893, at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Professor Frederick Jackson Turner had delivered his famous address outlining his “Frontier Thesis.” In this speech, Turner declared the frontier, as the United States had known it, the line between civilization and wilderness, had ceased to exist. He had commented on the need for a change in how the people of the United States viewed their society. One of the natural extensions of Turner’s ideas came in 1920, when the United States Census, reported for the first time, that more than half of the people of the United States were urban residents, the first time we were not a majority rural people. These changes in society were being confronted by the leading citizens of Webster Parish in 1903 and they were alarmed. They recognized the symptoms of change in their community, particularly the dwindling number of farmers, and came up with what seemed a reasonable solution. A group was formed in Minden to determine how to attract more farmers to move to Webster Parish. Today’s Echo of Our Past will examine that group formed more than 115 years ago, and how they sought to respond to the changes in our community.

In April 1903, the Louisiana Land and Immigration Company was founded in Minden. F. H. Drake was chosen President, with Thomas Crichton as Vice-President, and Edmond L. Stewart, the man who started the idea for the organization, as Secretary. The purpose of this company was to secure the listing of all available lands in Webster Parish with a view of selling them to immigrants and to do any and everything to build up the country and save it from the collapse of farming. The group produced a small 10-page pamphlet that Stewart took to the Trans-Mississippi Conference in Seattle, Washington in August 1903. He also placed these pamphlets in every train station he visited on his trip all the way north to St. Paul, Minnesota, and then all the way west to Seattle. This first distribution brought dozens of letters of inquiry and actually attracted a few settlers to the parish.  One letter came from a man in Trion, Georgia, who reported that he knew of a great many farmers in his area that would be interested in relocating to Webster Parish. The company devoted substantial efforts to obtaining special concessions in the form of railroad rates and several of the families were successful in making the move from Georgia to Webster Parish.

With these small successes to build upon, the Louisiana Land and Immigration Company set its sights on the St. Louis World’s Fair of 1904 as the ideal place to promote Webster Parish. The Webster Parish Police Jury appropriated $350 to pay for the costs of printing a longer and more elaborate illustrated brochure to be distributed by the Louisiana State Board of Agriculture and Immigration at the St. Louis Fair. The Jury’s contribution was matched by a like contribution from the company. Also, the leading railroad lines that connected to the L&A line running through Minden and the VS& P line through Sibley bought advertisements in the booklet that helped defray the costs. I had the privilege of using a copy of that brochure through the courtesy of the late Frank Griffith, whose father, B. F. Griffith was Sheriff of Webster Parish in 1904. Let’s see what those citizens of 1904 thought were the characteristics that would attract people to relocate to Webster Parish. 

The brochure is titled: “Webster Parish, Louisiana — The Homeseeker’s Paradise — The Eden of the New South — The Promised Land of Peace and Plenty.”  On the title page, since this information was geared toward farmers, was a listing of the crops that could be grown in Webster Parish, including:  peaches, plums, sugar cane, pears, figs, cotton, apples, grapes, and corn.  Following this were ads from the major railroads, showing how it was possible to make connections from areas north and east of Louisiana to Webster Parish. Also included were illustrations of Minden High School (then still housed in the old 1850s Minden Female College building) and the plans for the soon to be built 1905 Webster Parish Courthouse (that was torn down at the time the Minden Civic Center was constructed in 1969-1970.)  Then the booklet began describing the reasons a farmer would want to settle in our parish.

The soil was described as easy to cultivate and 90% of the land was considered cultivatable, requiring only “arousing to action with the plow and tickling with the hoe to make it laugh loudly with a rich harvest.” The climate was described as moderate with the temperature rarely reaching 100°, due to the “breezes from the Gulf of Mexico.” 

Winter snows were described as rare, with the earliest frost in middle October and the latest at the first of April. The claim was made of more days of sunshine in a year than in Italy, and that it is “never too warm or too cold to work out in the open air.” (I guess 

they had forgotten five years earlier on February 13, 1899, when the temperature reached -16° in Minden. I hoped no one worked outside that day.)

The parish was said to be crossed with ever-running springs of fresh water including: Indian Creek, Flat Lick, Cooley, Brushy, Black Lake, Sauceman, Sherman, and Boone’s Creek. Rolling and well-drained land was listed as the typical landscape. This drainage and the elevation of 300’ was said to contribute to the low death rate among the elderly and the children, the absence of Yellow Fever, and the unusually “healthy, robust and energetic” citizens. The boast was made that, “the parish officials, including the Clerk of Court, the Sheriff, the Assessor, the Superintendent of Education, and the Parish Treasurer, all weigh over 200 pounds each.” (As a person in the position to speak that mere weight is not a sign of health, I wonder what the heights of these respective men were.) The other men were said to match these specimens and the women were described as “healthy, pretty, intelligent and attractive as those of any other section of our Southland.” Hospitality was considered as another major attraction of Webster Parish as “worthy strangers are met with open-handed hospitality and given a cordial welcome.”

Several pages were devoted to explaining the various crops that were being grown here and others that could be grown in Webster Parish. Cotton was listed as the staple crop with yields of one-half to one bale per acre, with a current price of $60 per bale. Other cash crops included:  corn, potatoes, oats, wheat, barley, rye, sorghum, sugar cane, tobacco, millet, alfalfa, peas, bermuda grass, clover, and all kinds of fruits, nuts, and vegetables. While tobacco was listed among the crops, it was explained that none was currently being grown, but studies had indicated that it would grow in our soil.  Cattle, hogs and horses were said to be able to live nine months on the native grasses and the remaining three months on oats, alfalfa and red clover.

The timber supply was said to have been thought until recently inexhaustible, but the many new mills are making inroads on the supply. Yellow pine was listed as the primary timber with vast forests of:  oak, gum, cypress, hickory and beech. The bay, sassafras, ash, chinquapin, poplar, willow, maple, witch hazel, elm, and mulberry were said to abound in the forest, while there was a more limited supply of walnut, locust and cedar.

Among the wildlife listed were:  wild deer, turkey, geese, ducks, squirrels, quail, snipe, trout, bass, perch, carp, buffalo, and catfish. However, the brochure did warn that the supply of wildlife had been decreasing greatly since the years when a person could live year-round by the rod and the gun.

Business plans talked of an appropriation to erect a cotton factory at Minden along with the idea of a trolley system for Minden. The booklet mentioned the recent construction of the railroad, cotton compress, oil mill and ice factory, brick factory, bottling works, foundry and other endeavors at Minden. Scattered throughout the book were pictures of some of the beautiful homes of Minden, some of which are still standing today.

Some needs were mentioned that an enterprising immigrant might want to invest in establishing. Minden had neither a laundry nor a dairy, and the brochure suggested the market for either would be great. It was also suggested that a turpentine factory, a broom factory or a canning factory might be a success in the parish.

The availability of land was also a selling point to prospective new residents. The Bodcaw Lumber Company at Minden and the Globe Lumber Company at Yellow Pine both had land for sale from $1.50 to $5.00 per acre.  The parish tax rate was set at 15 mills, while residents in Minden also paid an additional 5 mills for free public schools. The residents of each township in the parish paid a similar tax and great attention was paid to the fact that all public schools in the parish were free and were being improved each year.

Another selling point listed in the pamphlet was that no intoxicating liquors were allowed to be sold in the parish and anyone convicted of that offense was fined not less than $100. Another feature of the justice system was that all parish convicts were sentenced to work the roads, but the absence of crime caused a shortage of convicts, so all able-bodied males of age are required to work on the roads or pay for a proxy.  Along the theme of the moral society, the many churches of the parish were described and pictures of the larger churches in Minden were also included.

The major industries of the parish were described in detail along with testimonials from some of the earlier immigrants as to the success and happiness of their new life in Webster. In conclusion, both to the pamphlet and to this article, here are the final 16 reasons listed by the Louisiana Land and Immigration Company of Minden in 1904 in answer to the question of why settlers should want to come to our area.

Because it is the best country known for a man of moderate means.

Because you will find a country of rich soil awaiting the settler.

Because there are lands adapted to the growth of anything you plant.

Because you can be certain of profitable returns from whatever you put in the soil.

Because the winter does not consume what the summer produces.

Because there are more opportunities for diversified farming than anywhere else.

Because the seasons are regular, and no fear of crop failure.

Because the country is never scourged by cyclones and devastating storms or blizzards.

Because there is no better fruit country in the South; peaches, pears, plums, grapes, figs, besides other fruits and berries grow to perfection here.

Because truck farming is a success here; products being early on the market obtain high prices.

Because for healthfulness this section is unequalled on the face of the globe.

Because you have no long winter months to encounter, with no excessive dry heat in summer.

Because the climate is more uniform than most sections; no extremes of heat and cold.

Because you will find as orderly communities as anywhere on this continent.

Because you will find the most open-hearted people on the globe.

Webster Parish Historian John Agan’s column appears Tuesdays in the Minden Press-Herald.