DAUPHIN PLANTATION DURING WORLD WAR II

Appeared on Corbett e-mail list Sat, 18 Nov 2000
From: Perdue and Persinos

Bob Perdue vtandwi@erols.com

This document, prepared by Russell Bean, a key Dauphin Plantation employee during World War II, was given to me by Robert Pettigrew, Jr., son of the first Plantation Dauphin manager. My thanks to him and to Maria Persinos who typed the document to a computer file.

Robert E. Perdue, Jr.

EAST BAY FARM
1942-1945

At the time of the Pearl Harbor attack, Plantation Dauphin had about 13,500 acres of growing sisal, some three-quarters being of producing age. Production of sisal fiber had risen steadily since the beginning of factory operations in 1929 to an assured 9000 long tons for 1941. Thus Dauphin was the largest sisal producing unit in the Western Hemisphere, and certainly the best-equipped as to factory machinery.

Previous to 1942, Dauphin had produced most of Haiti's sisal but Haiti was one of the minor producers of hard fibers among nations. Abaca, or Manila hemp, the best hard fiber, was produced almost exclusively in the Philippines at the rate of about 200,000 tons annually. Sisal was produced more widely, British East Africa having just lifted restrictions to hold its crop to 100,000 tons per year. Production there was about 132,000 tons, and quality was so-so. Java and Sumatra were producing about 90,000 tons per year of excellent sisal, grades which Dauphin has met consistently. Mexico produced henequen, a lower grade of hard fiber similar to sisal, at the rate of 140,000 tons or so per year.

When Java and the Philippines fell early in 1942, it became critically clear that at least a part of the war would have to be fought without Manila hemp, and that sisal was going to be one of the most critical war materials. Sisal would have to replace Manila hemp, but there wasn't enough available to fill the old needs and supply an expanding armed force too. It was inevitable that sisal acreage under Allied control would have to be expanded. As sisal is not the perfect substitute for Manila hemp in marine cordage, a movement was begun to turn some of the banana lands of Central America to growing Manila hemp, which is obtained from the false trunk of a species of non-edible banana. Neither Manila hemp or sisal can be grown overnight, so the stockpiles of hard fibers had to carry the demands for the time being. And a lot of substitutions would have to be made.

Each fiber has its field of best usage, but for perhaps 80 percent of the normal uses of Manila hemp, sisal can be used with no pain to anyone, just as henequen usually can be used for sisal. The products normally made from henequen and low grade sisal were to be pinched pretty hard. Some relief was to come from the use of jute, cotton and such softer fibers, and efforts were made to encourage production of lesser known hard fibers, principally in Latin America, but results weren't very good.

The plan of procedure worked out by the Allied nations seems to have been somewhat as follows:

  1. First class marine cordage would use stockpiled Manila and first grade sisal.
  2. Second grade cordage would use common sisal such as the African grades, henequen and the more obscure fibers if necessary.
  3. Low grade cordage and binder twine would be made of henequen, jute, paper, cotton, American hemp, the obscure fibers, or anything reasonably suitable and available.
  4. As so many nations were involved and the shortage of fiber so stringent, every effort would be made to keep prices from going wild.

Manila hemp culture would be pushed in Central America to help out in 1). Sisal production would be stepped up in Haiti to help out in 1) and 2). Henequen production would be encouraged in Cuba, and Mexico if possible, to help out in 2) and 3). American hemp (the marijuana plant) would aim at a production of over 100,000 tons of fiber to help out wherever it could. Most of this hemp was to be grown in the Corn Belt. Obscure fibers would be encouraged and financed, particularly in Latin America. Efforts would be made to help the British keep their African sisal production high. Direct efforts would be made to maintain and increase production in the Portuguese African colonies. The British would try to keep up jute production in India.

Some of these ideas were carried out somewhat less than satisfactorily. The obscure fiber program did little good. Mexico's henequen production seems to have got embroiled in price arguments and politics, and India's turmoil hurt jute production more than did the submarine campaign. British East Africa had a lot of troubles. A lot of the machinery was German built, and the war was close enough that military necessities got first call on men and materials. Even so, the sisal producers did a good job.

The American hemp program in the United States is a story by itself. By the end of 1944 it had fizzled out. Quality was low and costs were high. Probably the Narcotics people were glad to see the program junked.

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La Plantation Dauphin, S.A., is a closed corporation, American financed and operated. It started in 1927 as the Haitian American Development Corporation, incorporated in Delaware. Being caught in the crossfire of both American and Haitian corporation taxes proved to be a little hard to bear, since in 1936 Plantation Dauphin was organized under Haitian law to handle operations. Most of the procurement of materials is handled by a New York purchasing agent, and sales of fibre have been made before entering ports of other countries. The bulk of the sisal produced has been sold to United States firms, the exceptions being a few sales previous to 1940 to mills in Belgium and Germany, the latter deals for the purpose of obtaining sisal machinery. At that time, the Krupp works had no real competitors in the productions of sisal decorticators.

In 1941, Dauphin had a capital layout of just under $1,200,000, and was in fairly good financial condition. The price of sisal had averaged about four cents per pound for several years except for the nosedive when Java dumped in 1940. The European markets had been closed and the Java producers seem to have seen something coming. Shipments began to get erratic as ships got scarce and it became clear that warehouse space would have to be increased to take care of several months production.

In addition, material shortages began to show up. Even in 1940 it was seen that the system of stocking materials and supplies would have to be overhauled. The lapse of time between sending an order and receiving goods, even from the United States, always had been long, generally an average of three or four months. Therefore, an ordinary six months' minimum stock of regularly used supplies was maintained. No slick system was used to guarantee such a minimum and a lot of items in the smaller use categories were stocked just as far ahead as use could be seen reasonably.

Anyway, the lapse of time between order and delivery began to creep up with no apparent stopping point and it began to look as though a lot of goods had better be stocked for two years ahead. Later, in spite of the best of intentions and priorities from the United States government, Dauphin's operations were kept up by these supplies.

During 1941 the materials and supplies depots were enlarged and office space was increased. Dauphin was riding a banner year of production and prices were good enough.

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Expansion did not start immediately after Pearl Harbor Sunday. It was a foregone conclusion among the American staff men that expansion would have to come, but there was no guarantee that Dauphin would be in on it. For Dauphin to have tried to expand with no help from the United States government in obtaining the necessary equipment would have been foolish. It was fairly certain though that Dauphin would have a part in the expansion and it was clear where the expansion should take place.

Fort Liberty Bay is land-locked and kidney shaped, roughly two by five miles, with the concave side facing inland. Toward the sea side on the north is a narrow inlet. The two peninsulas locking in the bay on the north are old coral reefs, each containing 3000 odd acres of flat, rocky land, perfect for sisal. The west peninsula was planted already, a part of the original plantation. The original Dauphin mill is on the west side of the bay from which sisal fields extend to the northwest, west and southwest.

Fort Liberty town is on the south side of the bay with a lot of little farms on land which is fairly good for small scale farming but not very good for sisal. On the east side of the bay there was undeveloped land, some 3000 acres, and northeast, toward the Dominican border, another 3000 acres. Southeast of the bay there was another block of about 3000 acres, parts of which had marginal farms. Then on the north was the undeveloped peninsula with 3000 acres.

To the east is the Massacre River Valley, which separates Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Dauphin already controlled some 2000 acres of Massacre Valley land, a small part of which had been used for growing bananas and tobacco. The valley land would grow good sisal but the cost of development and operation would be high. A small part of the area was used later for growing ramie.

About 1930, surveys were made of some of the land to the east of the bay. As this area had been considered worthless, property lines were vague; but it was known that most of the land was claimed by the Haitian government. The Haitian American Development Corporation had opened property lines on about 5000 acres but leases had not been taken up. Only one block of privately owned land, about 600 acres, had been bought.

An arrangement was made with the land office of the Haitian government to put a surveyor to reopening lines, the plantation standing the expense. It was figured that there was not much to lose even if there were to be no expansion. Land procurement is a long, slow, nerve-wracking procedure in Haiti, but not expensive. Such non-agricultural land (as it was called) as interested Dauphin sells for less than four dollars per acre and can be rented from the government for less than 25 cents per acre per year. The incidental costs of land procurement often amount to more than the prices mentioned.

It should be explained here that sisal grows well on lands which generally are considered as worthless for general farming, or at least are considered worthless in Haiti. Plains and valley lands which are covered by small farms are difficult to buy, and are expensive.

The surveys went ahead and interest began to be shown by the owners and claimants of the few private blocks of land scattered through the area. Tentative offers were made to buy the land if claims could be established and delimited. The squabbles over ownership became quite warm.

The land east of the bay was a wilderness of thornbush, uninhabited, with very few trails and no roads. Dauphin was fortunate in having copies of an old photographic mosaic of the northeast corner of Haiti, the work having been done during the Marine occupation. The mosaic had been made, without any particular ground control, at a scale of 1:10,000, but proved to be reasonably accurate and rich in detail. The same mosaic had been a godsend to the mapping of the original plantation. By April, when the go-ahead signal was given to the expansion program, enough land had been surveyed to make a provisional layout of an integrated plantation.

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Negotiations had been going on with the United States government as to what would be the basis for financing new plantings and contracting production. Almost all Haitian cordage sisal other than flume tow recovered as a by-product went eventually under contract to a United States government procurement agency. An exception of that produced by the small Altieri mill near Cap-Haitien. The United States government was willing to finance new plantings through the Export-Import Bank.

Several large projects were financed eventually by the Export-Import Bank in the West Indies; but the Dauphin expansion financed itself. Several items in the contracts offered by Washington were not particularly advantageous. Financing for expansion was tied up with contracts for taking fiber, as was expected, but some of the provisions for labor betterment were out of line when viewed from Haitian conditions. The most famous clause involved birth certificates for laborers. Mere mention of birth certificates in Haiti is always good for a laugh. However, the serious item involved financing for expansion by virtue of a mortgage on Dauphin's original holdings.

Dauphin stood a good chance of making profits sufficient during the war to finance a new plantation. And if the profits were not used for expansion, the principal stockholders, who lived in the United States, would have to pay out most of them in taxes anyway. Therefore under Export-Import financing, Dauphin would end the war with a mortgaged plantation, and the Bank would have its money tied up in an investment on which pressure certainly would be strong for liquidation. If Dauphin financed the expansion, it would have at the end of the war two plantations, probably efficient ones, and probably free of debt. If for any reason Dauphin could not finance the whole expansion program, it would be easy to get financing from private banking facilities, and with few strings attached. It was considered as more or less incidental that if Dauphin handled its expansion in its own way, fewer men and less machinery and waste motion would be needed than would be the case if Washington were involved directly.

The Export-Import Bank financed a 600 acre expansion program at the Haitian Agricultural Corporation plantation, located halfway between Liberty Fort and Cap-Haitien, and 13,000 acres through the Societe Haitiano-Americaine de Development Agricole (SHADA), of which 5500 acres were planted near Cap-Haitien and 7500 near Saint Marc.

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As the first talk of sisal expansion in Haiti centered around Dauphin, where a tentative 12,000 acre unit was spoken of as a possible development, all the negotiations seemed to fall into a pattern of 12,000 acre units. Of course the cropping cycle of sisal would make it awkward to put in 12,000 acres all at once. It takes nearly three years for the plants to get large enough to cut, and then the plants yield periodic cuts for five or six more years. Then the fields are cleaned out, replanted, and the cycle begins again. Therefore a well-balanced sisal plantation would have about a third of its area planted the first year, another third along about the third or fourth year, the final third along toward the sixth or seventh year, and the original third would be ready for replanting by about the ninth year. This little gem of logic got sidetracked by the emergency. The idea was fixed that a large acreage would be planted as soon as possible, and a means would be figured out later for correcting field cycles to factory capacity.

Somewhere along the line of negotiations a cablegram was received in which Dauphin was asked how quickly 6000 acres could be planted, regardless of cost. Obviously this question originated in Washington. However, it was presumed that about twice normal cost was meant, and a year was given as the time which might be required to do the job. Preliminary estimates were prepared showing probable yields and machinery requirements based on a planting schedule of 6000 acres the first year and 6000 more spread over the next two years.

Eventually a contract was signed with the Defense Supplies Corporation by which production of fiber would be taken at about 7 cents per pound until July 1, 1945. Dauphin would receive priority help in obtaining materials and machinery for a new factory, and planting would be started toward a goal of 12,000 acres. This information was relayed to the plantation on April 28, 1942.

Clearing gangs were formed that same afternoon and a provisional map was made of the area which was more or less cinched. This was about 9000 acres, consisting of the block east of the bay, the east peninsula, and the block northeast of the bay. The extra 3000 acres southeast of the bay was a questionable proposition.

The 9000 acre block is T-shaped, the peninsula and the northeast block being the stem. A survey line was begun next day at the south end, the root of the stem. It was to cut through in a northerly direction for about 2 miles. Then right angles were to be made, one line going west another 2 miles to a fixed point on the bay entrance channel, and the other going 2 miles east to a point on the Dominican border. This was to be the base line from which planting would begin. There was to be no time in which to make corrections in the base lines as it would take a month to clear them. It was fortunate that the old photographic mosaic proved to be quite accurate as the lines came out within a few feet of the fixed points.

One clearing gang started in the stem area and another a few days later on the west end of the peninsula. As there was no water in this area it was necessary to equip barges with tanks to furnish drinking water to the work gangs, which numbered over 2000 men within two months.

North about a mile up the stem of the T, the survey line crossed an old patch which swung across the wasteland from the bay toward the east, cutting south of the big hourglass-shaped brackish lagoon which shapes out of the T's stem on the east. A temporary village site was laid out at the path and given the name of Bouque, which means "pooped out" in Creole. The name did not stick as the Haitians knew the village was on the old Haitian American block of Angot. By mid- May, Angot was accessible by truck and the village was used as a base of operations for a year.

Clearing got well started by the third of May and preparations were made to start collecting planting material on the old plantation, which now became known as West Bay Farm. The new one was to be known as East Bay Farm.

No factory site was chosen immediately, but any idea of running the leaves around or across the bay to West Bay Farm had been discarded as foolishness. East Bay was to be a completely new unit. However, only materials necessary to field operations were ordered or bought in the first months. Three temporary wharves were built to handle the heavy tonnage of planting material.

It was going to take a lot of plants. About 2000 acres were to be planted during the remainder of 1942 and every plant would have to be transported across from West Bay. Comparatively small plants, under a pound size, would have to be used. The old fields did not have enough larger ones for the job. Each acre needed 2700 plants, about one ton.

The system worked out that women with donkeys collected plants at $1.20 per thousand and checked them in at the shore on the West Bay peninsula. Barges hauled part of them to the East Bay wharves, and sailboat men gradually took over the job at 20 cents per thousand. Women and donkeys took the plants on out to the planting gangs at 60 cents per thousand. So much handling was awkward and delays often ruined the plants. Therefore about 200 acres of bulbuls were planted as nursery, between lines of permanent plants. The bulbuls would supply good plants within a year. By the time the nursery plants would be finished six months later, suckers would be available from the first plantings at East Bay.

Sisal can be propagated either from suckers, which grow rapidly to planting size from rhizomes put out by mature plants, or from bulbuls, the small onionslip-like plants which shower down from the flower pole which the sisal plant puts up at the end of its life cycle. The bulbuls weigh out at the rate of about 100 to the pound, and they are plentiful. But they need at least ten months in the ordinary nursery to get to the size, say about a pound, to plant. Sisal does not make seed under ordinary conditions.

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The Defense Supplies Corporation signed up most of the other sisal producers in Haiti during 1942. Then Dauphin's contract was withdrawn and a new one submitted in which the price was boosted to around nine cents. This was a surprising gesture until it was learned how the latter price jibbed with those of other contracts. However, under the revised terms, Dauphin would embark on a sanitation and housing program under the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs, Dauphin and the United States government would split the cost fifty-fifty. The basic program was just about what Dauphin would have had to do under routine expansion anyway, so there was no reason to complain. The American Sanitary Mission in Port au Prince would keep an eye on the progress of the program.

The members of the Sanitary Mission were very nice fellows. During the latter part of the program they complimented Dauphin unofficially as the only outfit in Latin America under such an arrangement which carried out its part of the contract "rapidly, intelligently, and economically."

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Planting was well under way at East Bay in July, 1942. In round figures, 2000 acres were planted during the rest of that year, 5000 in 1943, and 2300 in 1944. These 9300 acres were increased to about 9500 in 1945 and the plantation as a unit was halted at least temporarily at this acreage. There were good reasons for not continuing directly on the 12,000 acres.

First, the block southeast of the bay was very litigious, so to speak. The survey was allowed by the State. Then an endless string of private claimants showed up and a tangle developed. Many claims were poorly defined. Many overlapped. The State backed off and gave a sort of blanket recognition to the private claims without releasing its own. It would have taken years to have cleared up the mess.

Then too, the plantation was badly enough unbalanced already with 9000 acres planted in less than three years. Even if 3000 acres more were to be planted, a wait until 1948 or 1949 would be all to the good.

Finally, by 1944 the military value of new sisal plantings was questionable and the United States government was not in a position to encourage new plantings, even those like Dauphin's which cost no extra government money. There was no visible reason further to burden the postwar job of balancing the crop cycles.

However, a smaller expansion program at West Bay had increased that acreage to 14,000 by 1945, and provisions were made to increase it to 16,500 by the late 1940's if conditions should justify such plantings. Some of this expansion was taking place in 1945.

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In late 1942 a detailed estimate of materials and costs were prepared as follows:

"This project envisages the development of a 12,000 acre sisal plantation complete, all to be planted by early 1944. This means that full capacity production from the fields (about 8,000 acres) will be achieved in early 1945. The complete factory should therefore be ready for operation by January 1945.

"This project has been designed to employ the minimum possible amount of U.S. materials and especially those of a strategic nature.

"Local building materials will be used to the greatest possible extent. Local lime, masonry, brick, timbers, and hand sawn lumber will be used in construction to the greatest possible extent.

"The estimated cost of the project is $1,182,840.

"This does not include a waste processing plant. It does not include administrative expenses to the time of production. This latter will be carried by the present operations of La Plantation Dauphin.

"It does include all expenses of certain sanitary development and housing to be undertaken under the program with the government under our sales contract.

"This estimate is based on costs, wage scales, and other conditions as of October 1942."

The estimated $1,180,000 cost was divided roughly as follows:

Fields:
$405,000

Railroad:
225,000

Factory and buildings:
550,000

As of middle 1945, the 9000 acre plantation had cost roughly the following amounts:

Fields:
$390,000

Railroad:
230,000

Factory and buildings:
440,000

Considering the uncertainty of procedure involved, the estimate was accurate enough. The following modifications were involved during the development period:

Fields: The 9000-acre development caused a reduction which was offset partly by higher labor costs from 1943 on.

Railroad: Only slightly less railroad was involved in the 9000-acre plantation than in the 12,000-acre one. High costs of rail, locomotives and cars offset the difference.

Factory: Very little change in factory layout was made possible by lowering the acreage. Fortunate acquisitions of machinery and the discovery of a cheap source of water for the factory made most of the difference.

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Three sites were considered as possibly suitable for the factory. One overlooked the Lagon aux Boeufs, the hourglass-shaped lake near the center of the plantation. It had the disadvantage of being too shallow and placid for proper disposal of the mill waste. Later it was discovered that anopheles mosquitoes came from the lake and the site was discarded. Another site overlooked the northeast corner of Fort Liberty Bay. Its disadvantages were that mill waste would have a tendency to clog the wharves, and the site was quite distant from a proved water supply. The location selected was near the southeast corner of the bay. The factory village runs south along the coast and is known as Deraque, after the old name of the area. The village of Angot was abandoned gradually after 1943.

The one big question in 1942 was where the factory was to obtain its water supply. The West Bay system was and is expensive, both to install and to operate as no appreciable amount of underground water seems to be available in the area. There was no particular reason to expect better luck at East Bay.

However, a well rig was borrowed from SHADA and some test wells were dug in late 1942 and in 1943. The luck was good. The East-Bay area had at least a 400-foot cover of alluvium, with a good water stratum about 300 feet below sea level, and it could be pumped from about 90 feet below the average ground surface. Such a situation was good as compared with that at West Bay, where about all to be found was granite under a thin layer of alluvium or else strata of salty water.

It was a break to get to discard the idea of a long pipe line and a pumping station in the Massacre valley. Three wells and less than a mile of comparatively small pipe proved to be ample for the system. A well rig, casing, and cement asbestos pipe for the line were ordered. As wells were developed, the pumps were ordered.

Construction began to settle down in 1943 into a race against time and priorities to be sure the factory would be ready to operate in early 1945. The heavy and vital items were: