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Yet aside from some local newspaper articles, a grade-school history curriculum in local schools and a few brief mentions in histories of the Jewish South, Kaplan is largely unremembered. I wondered why this American Jewish success story with a Cajun twist was so obscure.
In April I visited the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, where Kaplan’s personal papers are held in an archive — a singular life contained in 12 boxes on two rolling carts. In 54 diaries crammed with delicate but excitable script occasionally interrupted by arithmetic, Kaplan kept detailed records of his days. The pages are filled with business: trains, cars, dams, canals, meetings, and constant rushing among Lake Charles, Estherwood, Abbeville, Gueydan and New Orleans. The margins contain weather reports: fine day, beautiful day, “clody day,” “no Raine,” “had a good Raine.” (Kaplan became fluent
in English on his southward journey, but he still had trouble spelling certain words.)
The diary entries center largely on the rice business. Early settlers had planted what they called “Providence Rice,” tossing it in the wetlands and hoping for the best. Kaplan was not the first to modernize this process, but he came up with a crucial innovation in flood control that let in bayou water and kept out salt water, which would destroy the crop. Kaplan’s ingenuity helped create the “world’s largest irrigation system,” wrote Whitney Lynn Broussard, a former rice industry executive whose 1999 master’s thesis at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette chronicles Kaplan’s early years. “It is totally beyond comprehension,” Broussard wrote, “how any one man could accomplish so much in such a short time.”
Kaplan lost most of his money when the Depression crippled an already faltering rice industry. But he continued with his land development companies, bank and other enterprises. He also turned to new opportunities, primarily oil wells. It seemed Kaplan took on new endeavors as nimbly and frequently as a juggler accepts each ball, pin or unexpected object thrown his way.
Kaplan was, at one point, southwestern Louisiana’s largest taxpayer. He represented the interests of rice farmers in meetings with prominent Louisiana legislators. His expertise was also valued on a national scale; in 1922 the secretary of agriculture, Henry C. Wallace, invited him to Washington, where he attended a conference and dined at the White House with President Harding and his Cabinet. Sometimes, political battles turned physical: A controversial dam that Kaplan backed was blown up, supposedly by disgruntled locals who opposed the project. But in the diaries, these bits of drama are few and far between.
Personal information about Kaplan is even scarcer, appearing only when it intersects with financial or legal matters. In 1894, Kaplan gave some Crowley real estate to Miss Rebecca Lichtenstein of New Orleans. Documents state that the house was an “ante nuptial donation,” “by reason of the affection and love” he had for her. (They would have one son, Irving, and Kaplan would marry once more, after Lichtenstein’s death.)