CHINA, TEXAS WOMAN TELLS HER STORY OF 95 YEARS
Enterprise Journal August 19, 1973
Mrs. Pelagie Leger of China speaks no English. But her gestures are eloquent, and her blue eyes wise with the passing of 95 years, twinkled as she told her story in the language of La Louisane for her grandson, Weldon Leger, to translate.
“I was born,” she began about three miles from Church Point, Louisiana. My father was Placide Blanchard – my mother Modesse Lejune. I had four brothers and five sisters. I was the fifth child. “We raised all our own food. My father planted about 75 acres of rice, cotton, corn, sugar cane and vegetables – about 200 acres in all. As soon as we were old enough, we worked the field. I chopped plenty of cotton and picked it too.”
The strong, blue-veined hands bear witness to the work she has done.
“Food was cooked in a dirt chimney,” she continued. “Tante Selene Parisot, she baked le pain – the bread – in a big black iron pot – le forge – with coals piled all around it. It came out brown and beautiful. Aunt Celene was a good cook.” She sniffed ecstatically at the memory of that warm, fragrant loaf.
“Les patates douce” – sweet potatoes – we would put them in the hot ashes before going to bed and take them out in the morning before making the fire and they were ready to eat,” she remembered.
They had cattle, hogs, chickens, ducks, turkeys and guineas, Mrs. Leger explained through her translator. The ducks and guineas were excellent for wintertime gumbos. But there were few ways of preserving the meat, so they only killed what they could consume in a short while.
Beef and pork they salted down in crocks, and sometimes beef was cut in long strips, liberally peppered with black and red pepper – pimen rouge and pimen noir, she said – and sun-cured to make tasso.
Clothes were all made by hand – even the men’s – she said. She had no sewing machine until several years after she married.
Pelagie Blanchard was 17 when she married 21 year old Joseph Alcar Leger, whose family lived nearby; She fell in love in the cathechism school, she said smiling.
“I cast my eye on this young boy,” she confessed, “and I never took them off.”
They were married December 31, 1896 in l’eglise de Sacre Coeur de Jesus in Church Point. The present church still bears that name. There was no honeymoon. On the day following the wedding, New Year’s Day, her mother in law cooked a huge turkey, but after that the young Mrs. Leger took over the household duties. Besides her husband’s parents there were six younger brothers for whom to cook, sew and wash.
“When we first married,” said Mrs. Leger through her interpreter, “we lived at a place called the Big Pond. Once when I was a young girl, a man killed a bear there and brought my father some meat.”
The young Leger was energetic. While Pelagie went about the endless household chores, he operated a small rice mill, a syrup mill, a grist mill and a blacksmith shop. Often late at night he was still shaping the hot iron into plow points for himself and other farmers.
During these years, Pelagie bore nine children. There was Lawrence, the eldest, the twins Clemance and Armance, Mary, two more sets of twins Aurella and Orien and Annie and Lannie, and Robert. Armance died at about one yer and Aurelia at a year and a half. All except Eric and Lillia who were born later, were christend in the church where the Legers had made there wedding vows.
Wishing to expand, Leger began to look toward Texas for more land. He considered land at Spindletop, but on January 8, 1914, he purchased from Beaumont Rice Mills 172.85 acres in the James Gerish Jr. League at what was called Westbury, little more than a switch then. There was an old house on the land, and although it was in bad repair, they lived there several years.
As World War I drew to a close in November 1918, it was the time of terrible influenza epidemic fort he Legers. The buried three of Leger’s brothers, whom they had reared, and one of the brother’s wives within days.
“There was Dallas, Fidelice, Jacques and Jacques’ wife,” said Mrs. Leger. “Jacques and his wife and their baby Louis, one year old were living in the China marsh when they got flooded, water up to the floor. When the boy who was helping them went for help, it was too late. We took the baby, Louis and raised him.”
At the Leger home their daughter Clemance was desperately ill with the flu and about to give birth to her first child. A few miles away their eldest son Lawrence was unconscious ant thought to be dying.
Mrs. Leger went alone in her buggy to Lawrence’s home to see what she could do for him. She helped her sister-in-law make him more comfortable and returned home to Clemance, not knowing whether she would see her son alive again. But the next day when she returned he had regained conscientiousness.
“Everybody was having their trouble,” said the indomitable Pelagie Leger. “We helped each other the best we could.”
The Legers survived that tragic time and added more to their holdings until they totaled 1,002 acres. Eventually they moved to a better house in China they bought from Beaumont Rice Mills. The place had formerly belonged to a Major Cole.
As he acquired more land, Leger began farming about 250 acres of cotton, corn and highland crops. As many as 10 tenant farmers sharecropped with him. Leger furnished to each tenant a house, land, seed, mules and tools to farm. Every day he made his rounds on horseback. Some of those tenant houses, all made of cypress lumber, still stand near the Weldon Leger place.
On April 27, 1961, the lad with whom Pelagie Blanchard had fallen in love with so many years before, now an old man of 87 died. But from that long love affair came 11 children, of whom six are living, 23 grandchildren, 56 great-grandchildren and 23 great-great grandchildren.
The petite 95-year-old still owns and retains control of 883 acres of land, which she and Leger struggled to posses. Although her grand-son, Weldon Leger, is her manager, he consults her on decisions.
In the afternoon she sits in a favorite chair by a window and looks out on the living green of fields and trees. She is, as they say in La Louisane, tres magnifique!