White Castle man explains life on a sugar cane farm in the mid-20th century

TOMMY COMEAUX tcomeaux@postsouth.com
Barry Raffray

Barry Raffray dedicated two books he’s written explaining what life was like on a sugar cane farm to his family. The first, “Raising Sugar Cane,” is dedicated to his parents, Josie Correl Raffray and Newton Joseph Raffray Sr.

The sequel, “Raising Sugar Cane, Book II,” is dedicated to his children, Kent, Lane and Todd. It is really for them the now 74-year-old man took the time to put his life in print.

“I am hopeful that they will enjoy reading it and also learn…the struggles of life and trying to make a living and supporting a family” and the benefits to that end getting a better education will mean they would “have more opportunity for advancement,” the dedication to his sons reads.

“Sometimes good old fashioned hard work makes up for not having the brain of an Albert Einstein,” the dedication continues.

Born and reared in White Castle, Raffray also seems to hope the books keep his children from living the hard-scrabble life he describes in the books, especially the first which explains his childhood on Cedar Grove Plantation.

One of three surviving children, his parents had six, but lost three at birth due to an incompatibility between Josie and Newton’s blood types. Modern science has since resolved that issue for the most part .

“My daddy was an overseer and they raised me and my brother and sister on the plantation,” Raffray said. “Daddy was an overseer,” who became a plantation manager around 1960.

The son had little desire to work on the plantation as his father did, although he enjoyed riding with him in an old Dodge pickup truck in his youth.

“We worked there, though, we learned to work in the field,” Raffray said, adding he had a brother who “loved it.”

“He worked for the state for 35 years, but at Cedar Grove during vacations driving a tractor for Cedar Grove for 45 years,” he said.

“When I was a kid (he was born in 1943), there was about 140 families who worked the sugar mill and all that went with that,” Raffray said, from farmhands to mechanics to millworkers. “The largest group of workers were the ones who worked in the field.”

“The plantation provided us with a house to live in and free water,” he continued, as Cedar Grove did for all its workers. Groceries and other staples were bought at the plantation’s store.

“We owed our souls to the company store,” Raffray said. “Every plantation had a store and all you bought all your goods there and you didn’t necessarily get it at the best possible price.”

Payment to the store was made through the garnishment of a portion of workers’ wages, he said.

Cedar Grove Plantation lagged behind other area plantations in regard to its equipment, Raffray said.

“When I was a little kid, they mostly worked the fields with mules,” he said. “Cedar Grove was kind of behind everybody else. They were making a crop with 1930-something tractors while the other farmers were using tractors of the time, the 1950s.”

While the trucks and other equipment were old, the plantation’s owners kept them in tip-top condition, Raffray said.

“They were old but they spend a lot of money fixing up the old trucks and stuff,” he said.

Instead of following in his footsteps, Raffray went into the petrochemical industry as a distribution manager.

“I was in charge of the movement of all the equipment needed to operate nine plants and 200 market customers to keep them running daily,” he said. “I kept up with anything that moved even a pound of our product.”

The company was Foster Grant Chemicals, the corporation behind the sunglasses but during his 33-year career, the company changed hands at least five times, Raffray said.

“We made the product they made the sunglasses with,” he said, explaining the chemical left his plant as a clear fluid, but was converted into a polymer used to mold the sunglasses.

(Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series. The first book covers Raffray’s life from birth until he left for the military. The second begins after his stint in the U.S. Army. The first book ends with the teaser, “…something was happening to me and I did not know what.”