Some of Keith Felder’s and Jules Lambert’s finely crafted wooden boats go straight to storage.
“The people who buy them,” Felder said, “know these boats won’t be built much longer.”
Tom Butler, 74, director of the Center for Traditional Louisiana Boat Building in Lockport, 25 miles south of Thibodaux, knows Felder’s work.
“He’s keeping the tradition alive,” Butler said. “He made a dugout, like the Indians did, from half a cypress log. That took awhile.”
In 2003, early in their retirements, Felder, now 68, and Lambert, 66, built their first boat together, a rowing skiff. They’ve built about 100 boats since.
“We used to take the boats we built paddling,” said Felder who lives in Denham Springs. His building partner lives in Watson. “We liked going up and down the Amite River. I couldn’t tell you the last time we did that.”
When you build boats the old way, age becomes a relative thing. Felder and Lambert are kids to the men in their 80s who are willing to pass on their knowledge.
“We took a blacksmith class to learn how to make our dugout tools,” Felder said. “From an 87-year-old man in Lutcher.”
When the boat builders are carving out a cypress log to make a dugout, they need a tree trunk at least 400 years old to give them the diameter the boat requires.
“LaSalle, in the mid to late 1600s, probably saw dugouts all the way down the Mississippi River,” Felder said. “Iberville described seeing 25 Indians in a boat 30 to 40 feet long.”
A long dugout of undetermined age hangs at the LSU Rural Life Museum. Felder knows the men who found the dugout 20 years ago in a sandbar near the mouth of Blind River in Livingston Parish.
Sunk in mud or sand and deprived of oxygen, the remains of dugouts almost 500 years old have been found. They become cracked when exposed to air.
“Pirogue” may come from the Carib Indian word “piraga” which means dugout.
What the birch bark canoe was to some Native Americans and European explorers and the covered wagon to western settlers, the pirogue was the boat of choice in the marshes of Louisiana.
Pointed on both ends, flat on the bottom, the dugout could be paddled or pulled through grass and over flats. By the late 1920s, boat builders were using cypress planks to make pirogues, retaining the flat bottom and pointed ends.
After World War II, marine plywood was used to build pirogues and, by the 1960s, fiberglass and aluminum.
Felder and Lambert learned their craft from old boat builders, going to the builders or taking classes at the center Butler and a retired Nicholls State University history professor, John Rochell, started at the college in Thibodaux. Butler is a retired Nicholls associate professor of library science.
“John and I would go fishing,” Butler said, “and see people building boats in their backyards or rolling the boats into Bayou Lafourche or wherever they were building them.”
“We said we better talk to these people before they’re gone,” Butler said.
The fishing buddies interviewed boat builders and took pictures of the men and their boats.
A collection of boats housed at the center in Lockport and the styles of boats built by Felder, Lambert and other builders tell the story of water travel in south Louisiana.
“I saw a newspaper story about a boat builder named Raymond Sedatol, who’s dead now,” Felder said.
Sedatol was in his late 70s. Felder was in his mid-50s.
“I told him that I wanted him to show me how to build a pirogue. He said, ‘Come on down.’”
Over four or five days, Felder and Sedatol built the boat.
“The next year, we built a Creole rowing skiff,” Felder said. “You stand up and row forward. Mr. Raymond said a Cajun wanted to see where he was going, not where he’d been.”
As he worked with Sedatol, Felder understood, as a boat builder understands, how different styles of craft came about.
“The pirogue was for work,” Felder said. “The skiff, because it was more stable and carried more people, was the family vehicle. Raymond took his daughter and family 30 miles to the doctor, from Pierre Part on Lake Verrett to Morgan City, across three lakes, in the 1940s. If you went to church, you took everybody in a boat. You didn’t leave children home alone, so wherever you were going the whole family went.”
When Felder and Lambert demonstrate their boat building at festivals, they take with them different styles of boats.
They make a swamp pirogue and a marsh pirogue, a cypress dugout, a Lafitte skiff (originally a one-man shrimp boat) and a Ponchartrain skiff (smaller than the Lafitte), a river skiff, a rowing skiff and a bateau.
Where they are in the construction of as many as three boats at a time determines if the duo works at Felder’s place or Lambert’s.
“If there’s too much sawdust at Keith’s, we varnish or paint at my house,” Lambert said.
A cypress, plank pirogue might take six or seven coats of varnish. Letting each coat dry before putting on the next takes weeks. Even a plywood paint job can take more than a week. “The boat talks to you,” Felder said.
“Even when you’re working inside,” Lambert said, “you’ve got bugs. If bugs get in the finish, you sand them off and start over. After Hurricane Isaac, I couldn’t varnish, even in the shop, because of the mosquitoes.”
Six years ago, boat builder Rodney Cheramie, of LaRose, agreed to work with Lambert and Felder on a 23-foot Lafitte skiff.
“Five or six years earlier, the old boat builders wouldn’t show you how they built boats,” Felder said. “It was a family secret.”
As young people found good paying jobs in the oil industry, the old builders, rather than see their skills lost, began taking students like Felder and Lambert.
“Rodney built 40- to 50-foot shrimp boats,” Felder said. “He’d sink the boats, swelling the wood and sealing the seams. Then, he’d pump the boats out until they floated. Then, they put the engine in and built the cabin.”
Felder and Lambert used 3M’s “5200” flexible glue to seal the seams in their Lafitte skiff. “We sold the skiff to a guy below New Orleans,” Felder said.
The builders added a cabin with portholes, leaving room for air conditioning, a power plant and bathroom.
“He made it into a pleasure boat,” Felder said.
Tom Butler and other volunteers at the boat center in Lockport keep the tradition of Louisiana boat building alive with a festival in May, the day before Mother’s Day. A museum houses traditional boats.
Boat building classes at the center, on the banks of Bayou Lafourche, are from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Mondays. Call (985) 532-5106 for information.
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