History: Gilmer the enterprising pioneer

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The Bossier Banner’s issue for September 29, 1932 carried a long article about James B. Gilmer written by J. T. Manry.  Two previous articles in The Bossier Press-Tribune enumerated many of his characteristics.  This article will reveal more of his ways of thinking and acting.

“It is said of him that his orders were clear and positive, to those who worked for him, to let nothing go to waste that could be salvaged and used, and so positive was he that these orders would be obeyed that he never hesitated to wager on them being carried out as directed.”

“Two miles from the Orchard he built the town of Collinsburg.  Here he established several factories and a tanyard.  From the wool that grew on the backs of his sheep and the cotton that grew in his fields he manufactured the cloth that supplied the clothes for his slaves.  He tanned the hides from his slaughtered animals and converted them into shoes.  (The late C. J. Foster, Sr., told the writer that the ‘first pair of shoes he ever bought came from Jim Gilmer’s tanyard.’) From a bed of potter’s clay, located near by, he manufactured all the crockery and stoneware used by his slaves.  He brought down Red River bios de arc timber from the Indian Territory, which, together with hickory grown on his own soil, he manufactured into wagons.  (One of these wagons was still in use when the writer located in Louisiana a half century ago.)”

“From his own cattle, sheep and hogs, he produced the meat for his family and slaves, and his fields of grain furnished the bread.  That his slaves might have the best of medical attention, he established a sanitarium in Collinsburg, and brought from Ireland a skilled physician and surgeon and put him in charge—Dr. Walker, now dead many years.  A son of Dr. Walker, Mr. George Walker, died only a few months ago at his home in Collinsburg, where he spend his long life, and from him the writer obtained much valuable information for this article.”

“The enterprise of Mr. Gilmer was without bounds.  He imported from France the silk mulberry trees—some of which are still standing at the Orchard home site—and also silk worms, and contemplated and started a silk industry.  A few years ago a Department of Agriculture attache, from Washington, made inquiry in Bossier Parish concerning the success of certain pasture grasses which, their records showed, had been imported by Mr. Gilmer, during 1847, for experimental purposes.”

“The early settlements along Red River in Caddo Parish were confined to the higher lands along the river front, from the fact that the backlands were composed of swamps and lagoons, or shallow lakes.  Mr. Gilmer recognized the great potential value of these lands for agricultural purposes if they were drained.  With this purpose in view, he began three immense ditches, or canals, near the lower end of Soda Lake, about seven miles north of Shreveport.  These canals can still be seen [1932], and are known as the Gilmer ditches.  At that time there was regular steamboat service to Albany, Mooringsport and Jefferson, Texas.  The people at these places became fearful that, if the Gilmer project succeeded, their boat transportation would cease, and appealed to the Government for protection, and secured an injunction stopping the work.  It is also probable that he contemplated closing Dooley, Cowhide and Cottonwood bayous.  A half century later all of this was done, and thousands of acres of the finest lands in the state were reclaimed.”

Next week’s column will continue with more of ames B. Gilmer’s enterprises.

Ann Middleton is Director of the Bossier Parish Library Historical Center. She can be reached at (318) 746-7717 or by e-mail at amiddlet@state.lib.la.us