Photo by Ernest J. Monceaux
Masters of Their Craft: And the museum that keeps that craft alive.
Riding down La. 1, heading south toward the end of the earth, or Grande Isle, as the case may be, the road becomes narrower and narrower. You’re surrounded by water with a tinge of saltwater smell in the air. The ride conjures up images of shrimp boats, pirates, offshore oil wells—all the things that define Lafourche Parish. Boats of some kind or another are either floating in the water or resting in yards, almost as ubiquitous as cars and trucks. This land was created by water, enslaved by water, sometimes even devastated by water.
Along this road in the small town of Lockport, named for the structures that connected New Orleans to the bayous of the Lafourche region, exists a singular museum where you can go to learn about the past, the heritage of a people, and the craftsmanship of true artists.
In an age where fiberglass boats and aluminum hulls rule, wooden boats are a minority and wooden boat makers a forgotten treasure. Still, the ones that remain rely on skill, patience, and ingenuity to form their one-of-a-kind wooden creations. The Center for Traditional Louisiana Boat Building brings these boats and their creators to life for all the public to see, and moreover, it allows someone with a little nerve and lots of effort a chance to try their hand at building a wooden boat for themselves.
From the earliest days of Louisiana history, Native Americans used wooden boats as a mode of transportation, to secure trade, and search for food. Scavenging the waterways of lower Louisiana, the natives used dugout canoes made of one long, hollowed out cypress tree to forage for their sustenance. With the arrival of Acadians from Nova Scotia and the intermingling of cultures, these future Cajuns learned from the natives how to use the dugouts to live off the land. The Cajuns built pirogues and used them in much the same way as the Natives, harvesting the bounty from their new environment.
The Center for Traditional Louisiana Boat Building—in an old building that once housed a car dealership—sits on the corner of Lafourche and Main Street in Lockport, directly across from Bayou Lafourche where huge steel ships are being worked on and constructed daily.
For over twenty years it had been housed on the lower floor of Nicholls State University, until the mayor of Lockport, Richard Champagne, approached Director Joseph T. Butler with the idea of moving the museum to its own unique physical location. The abandoned Ford building, the mayor reasoned, would be a great place to house the museum and bring tourists to the town along with their other attractions and beautiful Bayou Side Park. So, for the past few years, boats have been moved into their new home.
Butler is there with a smile and priceless facts about the boats and history of the museum. His right hand man, Donald Lebeauf, is quick with good stories about the boats that are housed in the museum and the builders that constructed them. They are as much a part of the museum’s treasure as the wooden creations.
Many of the boats on display were made possible by grants from the National Heritage Act and built by some of the finest boat builders in Louisiana. They include a cypress dugout believed to be over four hundred years old and still intact.
“Somebody told me some guys down the bayou had found this boat,” recalls Butler. “They’d hooked their nets on the boat, but they thought it was just a log.”
Butler went to take a look and brought along representatives of the Chitimacha tribe and a state archaeologist, who confirmed it was something much more special than a log.
The collection also includes an assortment of flat-bottom pirogues used to navigate in shallow marshes, a Creole Rowing Skiff, a perfectly rectangular Chaland used as an all purpose utility boat, a large oyster lugger—the list of goes on, each boat with a special story to tell.
And in what other museum can a person learn how to physically create close replicas of what the museum contains? Here, under the tutelage of master boat builder Danny Weimer, for the price of tuition and materials, you can build a wooden boat from scratch and take it home.
This museum is a cultural treasure linking the past to the future, leaving a place where students, writers, and historians can learn about our boat building past and the importance of boat travel to the economy of the state.
As you visit this humble museum, the history of our maritime culture comes to life, from the early Native Americans paddling across the water, to fiery independent Cajuns who relied on their new waters for survival, to the hulking Lafitte Skiffs outfitted with trawl nets that prowl our coastal inland waters today, diving for their prey.
The Center for Traditional Louisiana Boat Building is more than a museum. It is a living, breathing history of Louisiana’s past, and thanks to men of vision like Joseph Butler who keep tradition alive, and the boat builders who take time to master their craft, it will remain a treasure of south Louisiana, allowing our past to flow along the bayou and into the future.
The Center for Traditional Louisiana Boat Building 202 Main Street Lockport, La. Call the Lockport City Hall for current hours of operation at (985) 532-3117. Kent J. Landry is a freelance writer who lives down on the bayou in south Louisiana.