Saturday, April 06, 2013

30 Days of Why I Love New Orleans - Day 13

Lower Mississippi Plantations

Many of these plantations help explain a statistic—in 1850, it’s estimated that almost 2/3 of our country’s millionaires lived along the Great River Road here in Louisiana.

Naturally, the plantations are broken up into Upper and Lower because you’ll be going in two different directions from NOLA to visit each set of plantations.

I’m going to start out with one I love and where I’ve stayed overnight--Oak Alley. (3645 Highway 18, Vacherie)

The very name conjures up a view most of us have seen at some time in our lives—the sweeping line of oaks that leads to the grand plantation.

Oak Alley is grand on just about every scale. Naturally, it’s impressive just to approach the mansion—there are 28 towering oaks that are estimated to be over three hundred years old.
They lead to and create a frame for the entrance to the mansion.

The plantation itself is a star—it’s been used in numerous movies and television shows including Interview With a Vampire, The Long Hot Summer, and many more. It looks like one of the grand estates seen in Gone With the Wind, but that exterior was actually filmed elsewhere. The house was built in 1837 (for Jacques Telephore Roman III) and conjures up images of fine carriages and women in sweeping antebellum gowns. There are massive columns and a second floor gallery. But there is much more to see here than just the house—which is beautifully kept with period pieces and décor. Not that a tour of the house isn’t filled with wondrous sites and the guides tell the history exceptionally well.

But here, you can also visit a Civil War campsite, see restored outbuildings, and also see an
excellent slave quarters exhibit. There’s a blacksmith’s shop and other buildings pertinent to the day to day running of a plantation with all the work that was involved. There are gardens, gravestones, and a gift shop, naturally. At Oak Alley, you can really get beneath the beauty—though that is abundant—and get down to daily basics and all that went into running these massive estates. (The forge is original!)

We stayed here with a group in one of the outbuildings; we were a fairly large group so we actually had a little “house” to ourselves. It’s beautiful to be here at night, to see the oaks as twilight falls, and to discover all the grounds have to offer. I also love the restaurant—let me mention again that the shrimp po-boy is delicious. When you come, you’ll naturally be regaled with tales as well about the local haunts and when you see mist fall over the oaks, you’ll believe you see fine gentlemen
and elegant ladies strolling along them.

Just down the street is Laura. (2247 Highway 18) This is a classic raised Creole plantation and it was built by Guillame Duparc, a Revolutionary War veteran in 1805. It’s really interesting to visit Laura right after exploring Oak Alley—you get a sense of the difference of the classic English/American plantation and the Creole plantation. Something very fun for me in the grand scheme of wonderful stories we hear as children is the literary tradition that was born here; the slaves told stories. The original French was translated by folklorist Alcee Fortier and later became Joel Chandler Harris’s tales found in the Uncle Remus and
Brer Rabbit books. Now, every time I’m at Disney going on Splash Mountain, I think of Laura!  Like many places, Laura was devastated by a fire but it’s been excellently restored to show true Creole style. As always, look Laura up before going and check out hours and appointment times for tours.

On to Nottoway, again, grand and wonderful—and I especially love it because of the name. It literally came to the time of building when it was being constructed in 1859. The architect was Henry Howard and John Randolph was going to be moving in with
his wife and eleven children and it was meant to be a mansion. Therefore, only the finest wood could be used—not the pieces with knots. So, the cry went up—“Knot away!” And thus, goes the legend, the house—the largest on the stretch of River Road. Okay, big. I mean big. 53,000 square feet, 64 rooms. There are fireplaces galore, beautiful windows, antiques, wonderful things that display the life of the, ahem, really well-to-do.

Nottoway might have been a victim of the Civil War, however, when a Union gunboat was bearing down, one of her officers asked the house be spared—once upon a time, he’d been a
guest there and he couldn’t bear to see the home destroyed. (30970 Highway 405, White Castle)

I really (really, really, really!) suggest you see this plantation. It’s truly one of our finest examples of antebellum architecture.

Destrehan (13034 River Road) was built by a “free man of color.” It was built in the Creole
style in 1787 but then modified in 1830-1840. A historical note here is that Union soldiers freed the slaves working here when they came through during the Civil War. Sugar drove the economy here, and there are several buildings to be seen.

Houmas House, dating from 1840, survived the Civil War because its owner, John Burnside, was Irish. He demanded that he be treated as a British subject, and therefore, he’d best be left alone. (40136 Highway 942, Darrow. He grew sugar cane and had a number of sugar mills. The house is grand with galleries and columns and if you're out in that direction, you should also stop in nearby Houma, Louisiana. There you’ll find one of the finest independent book stores still going strong in our country. That’s because it’s run by Molly and Kay who know their readers, know their books, and are it's one of the most friendly places you’ll ever find.

To round out this group of exceptionally fine and historic plantations, you can hop on over to Madewood in Napoleonville at 4350 Highway 308. It, too, was erected for a sugar planter between 1840 and 1848 and is considered to be the first building of note by architect Henry
Howard. It’s a bed and breakfast, the nicest, most hospitable kind, and yes . . . you can rent it for events!
Louisiana is famed for its gracious grand plantations—venues that teach us about a past that was considered romantically slow and graceful—except that, of course, these days, they teach you all that is good and not so good about history. But here’s the thing, remember—knowing we behaved badly doesn’t change history. It should never be white-washed. So see these grand places to appreciate—and to remember! We continue daily to fight for true equality for everyone, no matter what their color—or religion, sex, sexual orientation, or ethnicity!

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