After living in Louisiana for 3 years now and working in the tourism and historic preservation industries, I have grown accustomed to a litany of questions from curious visitors to our state (and curious Louisianans as well!). One of them, which was discussed in an earlier blog post, is the difference between Cajuns and Creoles. Another popular question that I hear quite a bit is “What is that?” when people see a cistern.
An understandable question, for sure. Most people today are so used to water pumped through pipes from their local or city water companies that they never bother to think that this amenity was not always offered, especially in remote rural areas in plantation country, Louisiana. My answer to the “What is that” cistern question usually sounds like something like this:
Even though the area around places such as The Cabin Restaurant seem developed today, they were very agrarian and isolated up until the 1970’s. Because of the remoteness, there was no municipal drinking water out in the country. There were three options to obtain drinking water: haul buckets of water from the Mississippi River, dig a well, or build a cistern.
Cisterns were the best option in south Louisiana. Our humid, subtropical climate produces quite a bit of rain year round (the precipitation of southern Louisiana is rather constant throughout the year. The area’s total average rainfall amount is about 64 inches a year). This water was much cleaner than that of the muddy Mississippi, and did not require the labor to haul up out of a well. If water was taken from the Mississippi, it had to settle in large earthenware jars so that you didn’t swallow a mouthful of dirt.
Pipes were connected to the roof drainage system of homes, which allowed water to run from the roof to the cistern, which was constructed of large cypress planks that sat on top of a brick foundation. It was stored in the cistern and was then used for drinking or general use. However, even though rain water was purer than that in the Mississippi, there were no purification or sterilization procedures at that time, so it could still contain contaminants.
Thus concludes my answer to “What is that?” cistern question. We have several cisterns here at The Cabin and Bernadette’s, and some over at The Cajun Village, too. Make sure to check them out when you come visit. They’ll make you appreciate the indoor plumbing in your home much, much more!