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Jefferson Hennessy is a Webmaster and feature article journalist with a Master of Arts degree in Creative Writing from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Jefferson is available for feature and profile story writing assignments. He is willing to travel. Click on the "view my complete profile" link to send Jefferson an email message.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Joseph Henry Fabacher: The Father of Commercial Rice Farming in Acadiana

During a fourteen-year period in Acadia Parish, from 1880 to 1894, Joseph Henry Fabacher was the most dominant force in the rice industry’s transformation from primitive farming methods to large-scale commercial production.

The story of rice farming in south Louisiana begins in the fall of 1871 when Fabacher was a young boy of 12. In that year Fabacher’s father, Franz Joseph Fabacher, relocated his wife and six children from New Orleans to Faquetaique (fa-ka-tay) Prairie near what is now Eunice, LA. According to the few locals who lived near that area in 1871, the prairie land was considered to be completely worthless for farming purposes. But Franz Fabacher and his “German Colony” co-founding partner, Zeno Huber, were not to be deterred.

During the early 1870’s rice farmers grew what they called “Providence rice” for private use in the community. Their rice crop was given this name because a healthy crop depended entirely on the weather - lots of rain and providential good fortune - during the rice-growing season. Their vulnerable dependence on Providence was about to change.

The first innovative change in rice farming was the construction of water reservoirs that were large ponds surrounded by levees. These reservoirs would collect water year-round and the water could be drained into low-lying marsh rice fields when needed. The Fabacher Colonists were the first to build these reservoirs to grow Providence rice for private use.

Then in 1878, Franz Fabacher decided he had seen enough of farming. He sold all of his property and moved back to New Orleans. The elder Fabacher tried to convince his son Joseph to live in New Orleans, but nineteen-year-old Joseph the farmer was just getting started. During the next two years Joseph ran away from New Orleans three times to continue farming, and was eventually allowed by his father to remain at Faquetaique Prairie to farm his 84 acres of land.

The Providence rice crop of 1879 was “a dead failure” according to a local newspaper, the Opelousas Courier. But in 1880, something amazing occurred in the Fabacher Settlement that was described in the St. Landry Democrat newspaper as a small neighborhood no more than 3 or 4 miles wide.

The St. Landry Democrat article describes the astoundingly successful Providence rice crop of 1880 in the Fabacher Colony this way, “So we have here a small neighborhood where they used to produce absolutely nothing for sale, a revenue of $16,000. The rice lands in this neighborhood, the marshes, which were once considered not only worthless but a nuisance, are the most valuable; and it will not be long before they cannot be bought for any reasonable price.” The newspaper also declared that because of that year’s bumper crop, rice is “destined to become one of the greatest industries of southwest Louisiana.”

This was the first large-scale production of Providence rice grown in lowland marshes. But just two years later, in 1882, Fabacher would produce yet another innovative change in rice farming. He would be the first rice farmer to grow what is known as “upland rice,” which is grown on higher land than the low-lying marshes, and his first effort was a success.

Fabacher’s upland rice was grown on dry higher land because high land reservoirs would retain rainwater for a greater period of time. This also required him to relocate his rice fields to higher land. The change in rice field location was another unprecedented innovation.

With the success of this 1882 rice crop, Fabacher purchased 162 acres of land, bringing his total acreage to 246. During his highly successful rice farming years 1883 to 1894 he acquired a total of 627 acres of farmland.

In 1885, Fabacher created yet another rice farming innovation - the deep water well.

By 1893, Fabacher had three deep-water wells, the deepest being 205 feet. These wells were 4 by 4 feet round with a 40-foot wooden ladder leading to the bottom at water level. At the bottom of the well sat a steam engine water pump that could run 24 hours a day, 7 days a week pumping fresh water into high land reservoirs, which drained water down into “up land” rice fields through a complex series of canals. With the addition of steam powered water pumps, the Machine Age had arrived in southwest Louisiana.

When the Midland-Eunice Railroad was completed in 1894, Fabacher built a warehouse next to the railroad tracks and opened his rice storage and shipping business transporting the local farmers rice by railroad to be milled in Eunice and Crowley, and their milled rice was then transported worldwide.

The Fabacher family legacy also includes the story of Joseph Henry’s younger brother, Lawrence Fabacher, who is well known in New Orleans as the owner of Fabacher’s Restaurant and the Jackson Brewing Company, which bottled the wildly popular Jax Beer in the early 20th century.

When Joseph Henry Fabacher died in New Orleans at his mother’s home on February 2, 1910, he was the fifty-one year old father of thirteen children. Fabacher’s wife, Dora Ginkle, died six years earlier in 1904. Two years after her death Fabacher married again to Annie Crossen who bore one child. He bequeathed a sizable inheritance to his children and new wife.

Joseph Fabacher’s innovative journey transforming Providence rice from private use to commercial potential, to large-scale commercial “up land” rice production, to shipping and storage merchant for the rice farming community, has easily earned him the title “Father of Commercial Rice Farming in Acadiana.”