Felman Battley, a soft-spoken black man, has scratched out a living picking cotton and pecans for most of his 59 years in Pointe Coupee parish, fattening pigs and raising vegetables out back to supplement what the family buys on credit at the grocery store up the road.
Most years, he was lucky to make $2,500.
Soon, Battley expects to pay cash for a new Ford, build "a nice comfortable home," give his daughter, Felicia, enough money so she won't have to work her way through college at Louisiana State University, and travel first class to Europe with his wife, Ide. Two of Battley's sisters are itching to go to Las Vegas.
"We have an oil well in the back yard," Battley says with a grin.
Any day now, the mail carrier will deliver the family's first royalty check from an oil and natural gas well pumping furiously on the Battley property at the rate of 5.5 million cubic feet of gas and 288 barrels of oil a day. The family's take -- to be divided equally among Battley, his 87-year-old mother, Celestine, nine brothers and sisters -- comes to $20,000 a month.
"When I picked pecans and cotton, I was just getting by; wasn't enough to say nothing about," reflects Battley, a construction handyman. From his mother's porch, he gazes off toward the gleaming oil and gas rig hissing in the cow pasture. His sharecropper father, Alex, bought the 34 acres with the proceeds from an onion crop in 1946. "Now," he says, "it looks like we're going to be rich."
The Battley well, and others like it, promise to bring enormous wealth to hundreds of poor blacks and blue-collar Cajuns in this moss-hung parish of live oak and sugar cane plantations, parking a former underclass in high cotton and forever altering the course of this Deep South community along the False River.
Their sudden good fortune amidst this parish (county) of 23,000 where one out of four people gets food stamps comes from the hottest spot in oil-rich Louisiana's Tuscaloosa Trend, a deep pocket of oil and natural gas that cuts a swath 20 miles wide across the backwoods and alligator bayous.
The first deep drilling rig hit gas on a cane plantation here in 1975. Since then, the cost of leasing a single acre has skyrocketed from $50 to as much as $40,000. Geologists project some 35 trillion cubic feet of natural gas reserves worth upward of $250 billion in the Tuscaloosa. The abundant pockets of natural gas attracted oilmen after prices were deregulated for gas found below 15,000 feet, where the rich strikes are being made in Pointe Coupee.
At $9 per 1,000 cubic feet, such gas will mean higher heating bills for the energy-starved Northeast this winter, and huge profits for oil giants who risk as much as $10 million to sink a well.
Beneath the willows in small towns like Ventress and New Roads that dot the False River, the gas money has started working a slow transformation, clogging traffic with 18-wheelers weighted down under rigging and drill bits, and fueling daydreams. Pharmacist Bubba Porciau aims to stop counting out prescriptions and start raising quarterhorses. Others have bought new cars and remodeled old homes.
But change takes time for people who still refer to an eight-mile lake separating New Roads from Ventress--the False River--as "the river," even though the Mississippi took another turn, or "cut point," back in 1722, giving Pointe Coupee its name. Harry Guidroz plans to keep driving a school bus and cut the grass with his shirt off, in spite of six-figure royalties. New facts of life have been slow to sink in.
"If everything pans out--the 25-year life expectancy of the gas fields, people's ability to manage the money--there will be more millionaires" per acre in Pointe Coupee parish than any place its size in the United States, predicts Calvin Thomas, senior geologist with the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources in Baton Rouge.
So far, the prosperity has been democratic, making both rich and poor landowners richer. State law and oil-patch custom dictate that anyone with an acre or two touching any 640-acre unit carved up by state conservation officials for drilling gets to share in the spoils. That includes the descendants of onion farmer Alex Battley, who had saved enough to buy a few acres left over from huge plantations handed down from Spanish land grants.
Retired state senator J. E. Jumonville stands to become a Cajun potentate. At 61, Big Jim figures his net worth at perhaps $300 million. Portly and good-natured, he owns the 5,000-acre Ponderosa ranch, 20 racehorses, 2,200 head of prize cattle, three Rolls Royces (including one $600,000 limousine custom-made for actress Barbara Hutton) and three oil and gas wells. One well alone yields $1 million a month in royalty income.
Asked about a rumor that he dropped $1 million one recent night at the baccarat tables in Las Vegas, he replied: "I'll have to take the Fifth Amendment on that."
A self-made oil dredging magnate who bought his land in 1947 for $7.50 an acre, Big Jim says his new oil wells won't change his lifestyle. "There never was anything that I wanted that I didn't buy," he says. "Now, I'll just owe less money to fewer banks." He held forth from his gold fixtured jacuzzi, a 375-pound servant scrubbing his back and between his toes.
"It's touched rich and poor, black and white--no one's been left out," says attorney John Wayne Jewell, 38, of New Roads. He has hit the lawbooks hard to protect unsophisticated landowners from savvy oilmen who, by all accounts, have snapped up more than a few mineral leases at bargain prices.
Anna Battley Cador, 65, leased her land to Chevron in 1973 for $15 an acre and one-sixth royalty, she says, a pittance at today's prices. She never consulted a lawyer. "Our mistake," she concedes now. Yet, Cador and her husband, Joseph, a retired construction worker, stand to earn hundreds of thousands of dollars from a well near their tidy brick home and their share of the Battley well.
But tradition dies hard in the Deep South, especially for once-poor folks set in their ways. The Cadors still plant turnips and sweet potatoes out back "just the way our parents taught us," she says. "It's hard to shake loose and be extravagant, even though you know you can buy anything you want."
Joseph never dreamed he might die a millionaire. "But it's lookin' like that's the way it's gonna be," he says.
While race relations have been slow to evolve from plantation days here, some black newly rich report a recent thaw. "Now, white people look up to you if you're prospering," says Anna Cador. "Sales people treat you differently."
Indeed, an army of door-to-door hustlers, hawking everything from aluminum siding to Bibles, has descended on the parish. Long-lost relatives have materialized from nowhere. A self-styled cousin from New York sued one black farmer, claiming illegitimate blood lineage entitled him to part of the farmer's natural gas royalties. So far, the pretender has been fended off in court.
Most natives are still living on the edge of their American dream, in shock. One man left a royalty check for $150,000 on his dresser for days before asking the local banker what to do with it. Others don't trust banks, having never had enough money to use them. Among those are Cajuns who cashed their checks, plopped the money into safety deposit boxes and went rabbit hunting.
Henry Toussaint, 67, a retired black painter who never attended school, has been told his small house sits atop the oil patch. But he gets a far-off look in his eyes when asked what having money will mean to him. "I'm still scratching my head over what's happening," he says. "I been working for so long for nothing and still got nothing to show and can't get nothing. I just want to die happy with my stomach full up."
Charles Ray Smith, president of the bank of New Roads, has been preaching high-yield money market certificates. "We can't tell 'em to put it into a 5 percent savings account," he says. "They're not that gullible."
About 150 townspeople turned out for a recent bank soiree featuring free wine, cheese and financial advice by money wizards who came from Baton Rouge, 40 miles to the south. Smith aims to please his customers. In the five years since oil and gas were discovered, his bank's assets have tripled to about $100 million. Last year, customers snapped up $34 million in money market certificates.
But such investments are baffling to many overnight tycoons. Bank trust officer Gary Smith beats his head against a wall trying to explain the benefit of tax-exempt bonds to help customers like Mayola Hebert, 64, outdo the tax man. All she knows about money, she says, is that "I've been squeezin' the bills so long, I made the eagle grin."
The parish, half black, half white, includes thousands who will miss out because their land sits on a dry hole, or because, like Lula Overstreet, 65, they never had enough to buy into the game.
"When you ain't got it, you ain't got it," says Overstreet, a retired maid. She lives on $167 a month Social Security, renting a drafty wood shack for $25 a month. Behind her house, a gas well rises like the Empire State Building from a sugar cane field. "If they had land to sell, I didn't have money to buy it."
She has read all about the Battleys in Ebony magazine, even tuned them on her black-and-white TV on "That's Incredible!", but she neither begrudges their good luck nor envies them the reporters who descend on their yard to ask the same question: "How does it feel to be suddenly rich?"
"It feels very, very good," says Dorseline Battley Nelson, 44, whose husband cuts hair and works as a janitor. "I'm looking forward to my new life. I don't ever want to go back to picking pecans and cotton."