Of Kin & Cane:
Selections from the Edward J. Gay and Family Papers
March 18 – July 6, 2013
in Upper and Lower Main Galleries
Though the ink has long dried on countless pages of correspondence, penned by many hands over several generations in the Edward J. Gay family, the experiences these documents record come to life for the reader even today. The saga of an influential Louisiana family, rooted literally and figuratively in the cultivation of sugar cane for almost two centuries, is explored in the new exhibition “Of Kin and Cane: Selections from the Edward J. Gay and Family Papers.”
The display, presented by LSU Libraries Special Collections, showcases historical documents ranging from the Louisiana territorial period through the Progressive era that depict multiple generations of the Gay family and reflect their involvement in state and national politics, business, and sugar cane cultivation. It will be on view in Hill Memorial Library on the LSU campus, March 18 to July 6, 2013.
A symposium, also entitled “Of Kin and Cane,” will be held Sunday, March 24, 12:30 p.m.-5:00 p.m. in Hill Memorial Library. The meeting offers an opportunity for history scholars and agriculture specialists and practitioners to explore historical aspects of sugar research, technology, and plantation management, as well as current day practices of a family sugar concern that has been in continuous operation for close to 200 years. Speakers include Kenneth Gravois, Ph.D., Sugarcane Specialist with the LSU Ag Center; Richard Follett, Ph.D., Reader in American History, University of Sussex; John Gay, Co-owner St. Louis Planting and Vice-President of E.J. Gay Planting and Manufacturing Company; and E. Phelps Gay, President, E.J. Gay Planting and Manufacturing Company. Pre-registration is not required. See http://lib.lsu.edu/special/about/blogfiles/kincaneschedpark.pdf for additional information.
Both events are free and open to the public.
The Gay family collection is one of the most significant groups of papers among Special Collections’ archival holdings. It has been used extensively in important works on enslaved and post-Civil War free labor, plantation economy, and the sugar industry, and offers a myriad of potential topics for research. The exhibit will also feature clothing and other artifacts associated with the family that are held by the LSU School of Human Ecology Textile and Costume Museum.
“Perhaps what is so engaging about the Edward J. Gay and Family Papers is the multi-generational character of the collection and how those generations reflect the times in which they lived–the panoply of American, and in particular southern, history played out in the life of a family,” said Tara Laver, Interim Head of Special Collections.
Historical themes such as the spread of settlement from the East to places like Tennessee and Missouri, then to Louisiana, the establishment of plantations and acquisition of land and slaves and the associated plantation society, the development of sugar cultivation and commerce in Louisiana, the coming and experience of the Civil War and its lingering economic, political, and social aftermath, and the Progressive era and World War I are all illustrated in the story of this family and the documentation they left behind. Besides these weighty events, family joys and sorrows and the human experiences common to all times and places are also found among the papers of this close-knit, very prosperous circle of kin–births, deaths, heartbreaks, weddings, celebrations, travels, financial uncertainty, and familial relationships.
At the center of the collection are Lavinia Hynes and Edward J. Gay. Born in Virginia in 1816 and an established St. Louis, merchant, Gay came to Louisiana as a result of his marriage in 1836 to Lavinia Hynes, daughter of Andrew Hynes, a Nashville merchant who, through his own marriage, inherited part of Home Plantation in Iberville Parish, near Plaquemine. (Much as Gay would, Hynes played a large part in managing the agricultural and financial affairs of his father-in-law, Joseph Erwin, who had established Home; both Hynes and Erwin and their families also figure prominently in the collection.)
Andrew Hynes died in 1849, and Gay eventually bought out the interests of the other heirs, built a new, grand residence on the place, and changed its name to St. Louis Plantation. He made Louisiana his official residence in 1860, and the Gays spent the majority of the Civil War there, though he, Lavinia, and their six surviving adult children continued to divide their time between St. Louis Plantation in Iberville Parish and the city of St. Louis, Mo., where much of their extended family resided.
A skilled businessman and effective plantation manager, Gay built up a network of real estate and sugar growing, processing, and selling operations that employed his sons and sons-in-law and connected his ongoing interests in Missouri, Iberville Parish and the surrounding area, and New Orleans. In 1884, Gay was elected as a Democrat to represent Louisiana’s Third District in the House of Representatives, defeating former Reconstruction-era Governor William Pitt Kellogg in a contentious race. He served in Congress until his death in 1889. Lavinia died in 1891.
Edward J. and Lavinia Gay’s children and grandchildren carried on the family’s tradition of influence and importance in the Louisiana sugar industry, and his descendants continue to farm and advocate for sugar interests to the present day.
Images: (1) Edward J. Gay engraving, c. 1880. Gay-Butler-Plater Family Papers, Mss. 4872; (2) Democratic Convention badge, 1888. Gay-Butler-Plater Family Papers, Mss. 4872; (3) Lavinia Gay’s License to Produce Sugar, 1891. Edward J. Gay and Family Papers, Mss. 1295.