Leonard Julien tickled the ivories at night, teaching himself how to play the piano. By day, Julien farmed sugar cane, lamenting the slowness of planting the stalks by hand.
Julien — a Modeste farmer who died in 1994 — liked music and he liked to tinker. He figured out an easier, simpler way to plant sugar cane, developing technology still in use today.
“He used to say, ‘Y’all laugh at me, but y’all will be talking about me when I’m gone,’ ” Julien’s son, Leonard Jr. remembered, chuckling at how his father’s creativity sometimes exasperated the family. Leonard Julien Sr. would stay up half the night playing the piano, annoying his wife and 11 children with the noise. Eventually he developed a 14-piece orchestra.
A fundraising effort is underway to protect Julien’s most famous burst of creativity. Julien developed a mechanical method for planting sugar cane in the 1960s. His planter was among the first of its kind.
One of his planters rusts outside the River Road African American Museum in Donaldsonville. The plan is to build a pavilion to protect the planter and to teach children about the engineering and math behind the invention. So far, $25 has been raised. Museum officials estimate they need $17,000.
Julien sold — at the most — 200 of the planters. He was marketing them during the civil rights era, selling them for $6,000 and making a $1,000 profit. He had to grapple with bootleg copies of his invention.
“Those white folks don’t like the idea of paying me that $1,000 royalty. If I were white, I’d be a millionaire by now,” Leonard Julien Sr. told Ebony magazine in 1976.
Julien was born in Ascension Parish. His life revolved around sugar cane farming.
Sugar cane was introduced to Louisiana in the 1700s by Jesuit priests. It continues to be a huge industry in Louisiana.
The problem facing Julien as a farmer was the sheer manpower associated with planting sugar cane. Stalks had to be taken from a moving cart and dropped horizontally by hand into the ground.
Julien started tinkering. He hooked a hand crank to a tractor and talked to a cousin, who was a Vietnam pilot.
He told Ebony magazine: “When I was first thinking about building this machine, I told this fella — a white guy — I wanted to get me a flexible drive shaft. He looked at me and said, ‘Julien, what the hell you gon’ do with a flexible drive shaft?’ I didn’t want to tell him what I wanted it for, so I said, ‘I got something; I’m going to need a drive shaft that can go in any direction.’ He says, ‘Well get yourself a hydraulic turbine.’ I didn’t know what that was, so I asked him where I could find one. He says, ‘Go back there by J.B. — J.B. got ’em.’ Well, I went back there, but I didn’t know what a hydraulic turbine looked like.”
Through trial and error, Julien came up with an invention that was patented in 1966, two days before the Beatles began recording “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” His invention grabbed the stalks and dropped them into furrows.
Former Ascension Parish School Superintendent Donald Songy’s father was the county agent for Ascension Parish when Julien was farming. Songy remembers Julien’s innovation.
“Prior to that, they had to hand plant the cane. They had to stick a piece of cane (and), physically by hand, lay the stalks down. This planter did it mechanically and a whole lot more quickly. It’s pretty much used universally today,” Songy said.
Leonard Julien Sr.’s daughter, Alyce Robinson, recalls one customer telling her the machine never broke on him. “It saved a lot of time, and it saved manpower. It was something that was innovative in the 1960s,” she said.
Julien himself seemed to be humble about his invention.
“I ain’t got much education, but I’ve been a farmer all my life. When a man’s been working with something as long as I have, it just comes natural he knows how to improve on it,” he told Ebony magazine.
Follow Michelle Millhollon on Twitter, @mmillhollon. For more coverage of Louisiana government and politics, follow our Politics Blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/ .