When you think of the old south, the vision that comes to mind is grand plantation houses where women in petticoats sit drinking mint juleps. It’s a cliché, but something pretty much like that did exist, and it’s less than an hour away when you visit New Orleans.
At one time, the banks of the Mississippi River near the city were lined with plantations owned by families who grew rich off the sugar crops that thrived in the region’s damp soil. (The cotton plantations were further north, where the soil was more suitable.) Many of the old plantation houses are gone, but quite a few still exist, and they’re popular stops on the local tourist itinerary.
Perhaps the two most iconic of these plantation houses are Oak Alley and Laura, the first due to its beautiful setting and the second due to the famous story it evokes. On my recent trip to New Orleans, I visited both plantation houses. It was a fascinating day.
This may be the beauty queen of the plantation houses on River Road, and the reason is obvious at one glance. Oak Alley does indeed have an alley of oaks – a double row of 28 huge live oak trees that have stood in this spot for 300 years. In fact, they were there 100 years before French plantation owner Jacques Roman started building the mansion, which was completed in 1839.
Roman died in 1848, leaving the estate to his wife, Celina, who spent more time spending money than making it. By 1866 the plantation was sold to pay its debts, many of them owed to relatives. Later owners found it hard to manage as well, and in 1925 a cotton broker named Andrew Stewart bought the dilapidated house as a gift to his wife, Josephine, who restored and renovated it. She lived at Oak Alley after her husband’s death and died there in 1972, in her 90s, leaving the plantation house to a foundation so the public could visit.
The Greek Revival mansion is the very emblem of the old south, with its white pillars framed by the double row of huge live oak trees — see the photo at the top of this post. Inside, it’s classic as well. The formal parlour is filled with period furniture and pictures of the Roman family. This is where the men would gather to drink brandy after dinner, while the women would retire to another room. They were forbidden to drink, so they made do with bowls of fruits — soaked in brandy.
Opposite is a bright dining room with a long, cypress wood table that could seat 12 for festive dinners. The silver is monogrammed, the china top-quality. And over the table hangs an odd-looking square of cloth — a “shoo fly” fan, our guide explains. A slave boy would stand in the corner, swinging it back and forth with a rope to keep the flies off the food – life wasn’t without its annoyances, even when you lived in a mansion.
Up a steep flight of stairs are the bedrooms, including the spacious suite where Josephine Stewart slept. Oddly, it has twin beds — that’s so her private nurse could sleep in the same room in case she needed help.
But the real sight to see is out the door at the end of the hall: step out and you’re on the second-floor verandah, with a panoramic view of the oaks and the gardens around the house (see photo above).
The estate also has a display on the sugar industry, a bar, a restaurant and a gift shop, along with a display on slavery — which we’ll talk about later. And if you really want to feel what it’s like to live on a southern plantation, there are cottages, some 100 years old, where you can spend the night, b&b-style.
A short drive down River Road lies Laura, one of the other legendary plantation houses of south Louisiana. Both Laura and Oak Alley are Creole plantation houses: that is, built and owned by French aristocrats or people of mixed race. And looking at Laura, it’s easy to see its Creole origins from the rich colours – red, ochre, green and pearl. The English-speaking owners painted their houses white.
Laura was owned by four generations of the Duparc family, descended from revolutionary war hero Guillaume Duparc and his wife Nannette Prud’homme, originally from Quebec. And remarkably, it was the women in the family who ran the plantation.
The cast of characters was diverse: some of the Duparcs were dedicated plantation owners, while others were socialites who would rather have been in Paris. The line ended with Laura Locoul, the great-granddaughter of the original Duparc owners, seen in the photos below. She had no interest in running a plantation and sold it in 1891.
It’s an interesting story, but what makes it most noteworthy is the published memoirs of Laura, for whom the plantation is named. Her book, called Memories of the Old Plantation Home: A Creole Family Album, is a vivid account of life on a southern Louisiana plantation.
But there’s a second fascinating detail: back in the 1870s, a folklorist named Alcée Fortier came to Laura and spent some time gathering stories from the plantation’s freed slaves. He came away with some West African tales about characters called Compair Lapin et Piti-Bonhomme Godron — better known to English speakers as Br’er Rabbit and the Little Tar-Baby.
The plantation house was built from cypress trees felled on the plantation, by Senegalese slaves who were skilled in the art of carving posts and beams to fit together like a jigsaw puzzle: in effect, it was the first pre-fab mansion.
The house itself is not exactly grand — though it does have a wine cellar, thanks to the husband of one of the Duparc daughters, who owned a wine estate in France. The rooms are small and utilitarian but artfully designed and decorated; many have ornate fireplaces.
Here’s a shot of the dining room where Laura told her parents their dream of having their daughter take over the plantation was not to be.
After touring the house, we were led out into the gardens, where most of the food for the house was grown. But behind the gardens lay an eye-opening sight: a couple of the original slave cabins from the plantation. Built in attached pairs, they were a standard design: a front porch and one bare room, the size of an average bedroom. Six to 12 people lived in each room, sleeping on the floor or in hammocks. (The cabin pictured here is from Oak Alley.)
Like many of the other Louisiana plantations, Laura and Oak Alley both owned more than 100 slaves; the sugar industry demands a lot of labour. They were bought and sold like commodities, each one assigned a value depending on his or her age, physical condition and skills.
The Civil War ended slavery in the United States, but it didn’t mean freedom for the Louisiana slaves. With no money and no prospects, most stayed on the plantation as employees. And while they were paid, they now had to pay rent, and buy their food at inflated prices from the plantation store, leaving them in debt to their former owners.
The last inhabitants of the slave cabins left Laura in 1977. But over the years, most eventually made their escape, including a couple who formerly lived in one of the cabins on display. With help from relatives, they moved to the city, where they had a talented son who became a famous singer. The world knows him as Fats Domino.
A visit to the plantation houses of Louisiana is an experience you don’t soon forget. The houses are grand indeed, each with its own style and its own unique history. But the decadent life of the plantation owners had a dark side, and one that has left an indelible mark on U.S. history. Good or bad, they’ve left us some grand monuments to look at, and a piece of history that will never be repeated.
The photos in this post were taken with the Fujifilm X-A3 mirrorless camera