Heart of Louisiana: Putt-putt boats

Published: Jan. 25, 2012 at 1:55 AM CST|Updated: Jan. 11, 2013 at 3:31 PM CST
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Back Brusly -- "You have to turn the fly wheel to get it to turn over and start," David Prejean says.

During the early 1900's, this was a common sound in the Atchafalaya Basin. An inboard motor, first built in 1904, that became the workhorse of cypress loggers, fishermen and people getting to and from homes deep in the swampy wilderness. The motor's nickname is the "putt-putt".

The design was simple, a cast iron engine with one or two cylinders. And the only control is the ignition timer.

"It's an advance situation where the more you advance the timing on it, the faster the engine runs," Prejean says.

David Prejean's antique cypress batteau and engine are a hand-me-down from his dad. "It was in real poor condition when I got it," he says.

These motorized-flat boats were a life-changer for people who made their living in the basin. "They could run more nets, they could run more traps, they could fish more fishing lines and cover more area."

The original motors came from a factory in Michigan. But after 30 years they were replaced by outboard motors -- the old putt-putt became obsolete almost everywhere except south Louisiana.

These old motors have a special connection to Louisiana. They were manufactured by a foundry in the town of Plaquemine.

The Nadler Foundry and Machine Works was located alongside Bayou Plaquemine. It's now a city park.

"In the mid 30's Nadler acquired the rights and the blueprints and started manufacturing the engines right here in Plaquemine, which is the only local engines we have," Prejean says.

J.B. Castagnos collect old motors. "I think they were built to last forever. I don't think they realized how soon they would be obsolete, but they were built, and that's why they still run today," Castagnos says.

The batteaus always draw a crowd at boat festivals -- they bring out the oldtimers and their stories.

"They'll tell you about carrying coffins on the front of them or picking moss. It's part of history," says Castagnos.

"My boat was built in the 1920s. And my engine was built around 1915," says boat owner Keith Dupuy.

Dupuy's cypress batteau was sunk in Lake Verret for more than 30 years. It's been fully restored.

"It's a little rush, a high to know that we're keeping something going that's part of our heritage," says Dupuy.

On most Sunday afternoons, you'll hear the putt-putt of these engines pulling out of Floyd's Morley Marine in Back Brusly. It's a bit of history that still lives in the Atchafalaya Basin.

According to David Prejean, the boats you see in this report are four of only five original cypress batteaus from the Atchafalaya Basin. The members of the Batteau Club display their antique boats and motors at wooden boat festivals around the country.