St. Martinville – Deep in the heart of the LaSuCo sugar mill, six huge boilers burn non-stop for the three and a half months of grinding season. For more than 50 years those boilers were under the control of a very dedicated employee by the name of Antoine Fontenette.
At the end of the 2015 grinding season employees gathered to say goodbye to Antoine, the boiler man. This was the year he walked out of the boiler room for the last time. At 80 years of age, after a 66- year working life, Antoine finally retired.
Sugar seems to have been Fontenette’s destiny from birth. He grew up in Loreauville and his father was a cane farmer. Antoine worked with his father from age 10, but says he learned early that farming was not for him. Since his teens, the mills have been his career. Over the years he worked at mills in New Iberia, Breaux Bridge and Loreauville.
Antoine married his wife, Dolores, also from Loreauville, in 1963. They had five daughters and three sons. Now they enjoy the company of 16 grandchildren. Antoine said he looks forward to visiting them more now that he will have the time. Some of his children and grandchildren live in the Loreauville area and some in New Orleans, but others are now in Austin and Port Arthur, Texas.
Fontenette said that the sugar business has changed over the years, but not all that much. When he started working at the mills, steam engines ground the cane, a job now done by big electric motors. Until the early 70’s raw sugar was sewn into bags, which is not done by mills anymore. The job of a boiler man, though has not really changed, he said.
Antoine monitored all six boilers and managed the processes needed to keep them cleared of ashes and fed with the bagasse fuel made from ground cane stalks. Maintaining the required temperature to boil off the cane juice requires constant attention and know-how. For more than 50 years, Antoine was a steady and reliable hand at the controls. Even to a hard worker like Antoine, grinding season must have been pretty grueling. He put in 12-hour days seven days a week during the 3-1/2 months of grinding. During that time He mostly worked from midnight to noon. He said that last Christmas was the first one he has spent at home in many years. Regular 40 hour weeks were usual the rest of the year, maintaining and servicing the plant for next year’s hectic grinding.
Teche News, Feburary 24, 2016