Last week’s column described Orchard Place, the palatial home built by James Gilmer in Bossier Parish. This column will describe the man himself, continuing from J. T. Manry’s article in the September 29, 1932 issue of The Bossier Banner.
“When James B. Gilmer came to Northwest Louisiana he was not slow in recognizing the potential productive value of the alluvial lands of the Red River Valley. At that time this alluvion [sic] terrain presented a dense growth of primeval forest, mingled with almost impenetrable canebrakes which, in turn, were tangled with bramble and vines. Here the bear, the wolf, the wildcat, the deer and the wild turkey found their most congenial habitat. Truly, to claim this wilderness for the habitation of man and agricultural production, was the work of a brave and gifted brain. Yet, undaunted by what seemed to others an impossible task, Mr. Gilmer hesitated not, nor never doubted his ability to succeed. At that time, there were no levees on Red River, neither had any of the outlets or bayous been closed, and all of the Red River lands were subject to overflow. Mr. Gilmer made a careful inspection of these lands with the view of locating those least likely to overflow. He then made his selections and bought them from the Government. He next went back to the older states and bought Negroes in lots of more than a hundred at a time. He built houses and otherwise provided for their health, comfort and care. Thus provided with labor, and under his able management, these jungle forests soon melted away—like snow before an August sun. During the short span of a few years he had cleared and put into a high state of cultivation thirteen large Red River plantations, which embraced, with a few exceptions, all of the cultivated Red River lands from South Arkansas to a point below Shreveport.”
“The Georgians, published by Governor George Rockingham Gilmer about the year 1850, in his chapter devoted to the Gilmer family, says of James B. Gilmer, of Louisiana: ‘He is progressive to the point of recklessness. Last year he shipped more than three thousand bags of cotton.’ Judge Carter, now dead for many years, told a relative of J. B. Gilmer that he was one of the commissioners who made an inventory of the Gilmer property, and that he had never seen so complete a set of books as Mr. Gilmer caused to be kept; that each family on his holdings was treated as a separate unit and charged with what they consumed and credited with their production, or the proceeds thereof. In this way he was able to shift those who proved unprofitable on the farm to other work, for he carried on many lines of industry.”
“A Mr. Baker, who was manager of one of Mr. Gilmer’s farms, related to this relative an incident which shows the confidence Mr. Gilmer had in those employed by him: On an occasion, while returning from Shreveport, accompanied by Mr. Zack Doles, father of the late R. S. Doles and Jim Doles, one of Mr. Gilmer’s fine steers was found dead on the roadside, several miles from where the steer belonged. Mr. Doles said to Mr. Gilmer, ‘You boast of letting nothing go to waste, but there is one thing you will lose.’ To which Mr. Gilmer promptly replied ‘I will make shoes out of his hide.’ This reply resulted in the waging of a pair of boots. It so happened that some weeks later, both Mr. Doles and Mr. Gilmer met on the farm where the steer belonged, and the latter said, ‘Baker, where is the hide of the steer that died on the roadside near Benton?’ To which Mr. Baker replied, ‘In the tanyard.’ Mr. Doles had lost and paid the wager.”
Next week’s column will reveal more about James B. Gilmer and what happened to his North Louisiana estate or you can visit the Bossier Parish Library Historical Center to find out sooner.
Ann Middleton is Director of the Bossier Parish Library Historical Center. She can be reached at (318) 746-7717 or by e-mail at email@example.com