The following transcription is from a series of recordings my father made in the early 1990s:
Gravel operations in the hills...
Back in the early and mid-1930s we had a pretty big gravel operation out in the Sicily Island hills. Gifford-Hill operated a gravel washing plant. A lot of the local people worked there and a lot of people drove dump trucks that hauled pit run, sand, wash rock and dirt.
We had a dummy line railroad that was a spur off of the Missouri Pacific Railroad. The dummy line ran about three miles out to the hills. They had a little steam locomotive and some open box cars that belonged to the Missouri Pacific. The box cars would be dropped off near the gravel plant to be loaded with gravel before being taken back to the main line and picked up by the Missouri Pacific Railroad.
About the time WWII started, Gifford-Hill shut down. It was believed that they felt they had gotten the best of the gravel. In the years since, there have been gravel companies and washing plants that continue to get more gravel from the Sicily Island hills.
Mr. Reggie Cruse, who had a sawmill, got into the gravel business and started the Sicily Island Gravel Company. Asa Kiper from Wisner went into the gravel business. Roscoe Slay was involved in the gravel business. Buddy Chisum has been in the gravel business for years.
Mr. Cruse sold the Sicily Island Gravel Company to Asa Kiper, Buddy Chisum and William Feltus. Marvin Nolen was the superintendent out at the gravel pit. I was a bookkeeper for them for a couple of years. Marvin and Buddy owned some gravel trucks. Lynn Evans had gravel trucks that hauled out of the gravel pit. Between the people working at the gravel company and all the trucking companies and drivers, the gravel business provided many, many jobs.
Besides the jobs in the school system, the next biggest industry would be the gravel business.
Charles McNair worked for Gifford-Hill back in the 1930s. He was the son of John G. McNair and cousin Jessie Chisum. His brothers and sisters were Eva, Son, Jack, Kitty, Nell, and Bit.
He continued to work for Gifford-Hill down below Alexandria near Turkey Creek. He moved on from there to Kinder, Louisiana where he retired after working for Gifford-Hill for many years. Charles married Wanda Peniston, Mr. John Peniston’s child from his first marriage to Beatrice Munn.
Several people left Sicily Island to work for Gifford-Hill but didn’t stay with them. I think Chisum “Son” McNair and Big Emmett Chisum worked for them at Turkey Creek.
Charles, Son and Big Emmett walked that dummy line every morning to work at the gravel washing plant in the hills of Sicily Island. They walked three miles to work and three miles home every day.
Some of the children of the employees who moved to Sicily Island in 1935-1936 to work for Gifford-Hill were the Dumain twin girls. They were in my third grade class. They had an older sister and brother named Cecil. There was also Doc Melton’s daughter. Doc was the engineer on the locomotive for the dummy line.
Now there are trucks that can haul 25 yards of gravel. Kiper’s in Wisner and a man in Harrisonburg still have the little 5 yard trucks. Those smaller trucks were handy when you needed a load of gravel in your yard or driveway. The bigger trucks were so heavy that unless there had been a drought, they would sink down in the ground and rut up the area.
Getting to the gravel...
First they’d have to push the trees and saplings off. Then they would use a bulldozer to push the overburden off. The bulldozers would start on the side of a hill and work back and forth.
Once they hit gravel they could tell by sight how much gravel was there and how far from the top of the hill the gravel was located. Sometimes they would go down through 20, 30 or 40 feet of dirt before they hit the gravel bed. Other times they would only have to go down through about 10 or 12 feet of dirt before hitting the strata of gravel. Once they got into the gravel, they would bring in the drag-lines with buckets on the end of them to scoop out the gravel.
There is no doubt that Gifford-Hill made a big mistake when they left here in the late 1930s-early 40s because they believed they had gotten the best of the gravel.
Now, perhaps, the best of the gravel is gone.
Water used to separate the dirt from the gravel came from the hollows out in the hills. The gravel company would take bulldozers and drag-lines and dam up the water in the hollows and it would accumulate into ponds. They would place culverts at certain depths in the levees to keep the dams from blowing out or overflowing.
I remember one time when one of those dams broke after a heavy rain. That water came gushing down out of those hills, down to the hillside on the Bend road and just covered some people’s property. It just ruined the property by leaving behind two or three feet of sand on top of the ground where they farmed.
The hills prior to the gravel operations...
Up until the time when gravel companies like Gifford-Hill moved in, the hills of Sicily Island were practically untouched. There were no roads in the hills. The only people who went in the hills were people who had cattle or hogs running loose in there. Some people deer hunted on the edge of the hills. There were places in those hills where very few white settlers had ever stepped foot.
I can’t even imagine the Indians being way back in those hills. It was virgin timber and forest up until the gravel companies started going deeper into the hills. There are still places where very few people have been. No telling what was there or what may still be there.
Wildlife in the hills...
Over the years, people have reported seeing bears and panthers in the Sicily Island hills. If there was ever a place where bears and panthers could survive and thrive it would be in the Sicily Island Hills. Bobcats were all over the place. I’ve seen them out there in the past. I’ve even seen tracks of a mama bobcat and her babies. Coyotes and Armadillos were not seen in these parts until the 1940s and 50s but now they are all over the place, not just in the hills.
Several years ago, the State of Louisiana purchased a lot of the land in the hills and turned it into a Wildlife Management Area.
Note: Parts 1-46 of 'The Stories That Should Be Told' can be found in the Tags List on the right-hand side of the blog.