Louisiana’s Great River Road (part two)
ABOVE PHOTO: Evergreen
By Renée S. Gordon
“It is one thing to be a slave in a land where few understand what “Freedom” really is….But it is a completely different matter to be a slave in the “Land of the Free.”
--F. V. Walton
In the years prior to the Civil War cotton may have been king but sugar was definitely emperor in southern Louisiana. Ostentatious plantation houses lined the River Road from New Orleans to Baton Rouge accessed by magnificent oak lined alleys designed to funnel the cooling breeze from the river up to and through the great house. The road was referred to as “Millionaires Row” and approximately two-thirds of the nation’s millionaires resided in Plantation Country in view of the Mississippi River. Plantations were in reality towns that included, the owners’ residence, barns, work specific buildings and slave villages for the workers. www.knowla.org
Archeology suggests that, in general, early villages reflected Afrocentric patterns, styles and building techniques. Eventually slave communities took on a more formal, street-like, pattern with the cabins arranged in rows with small gardens in the rear. Cabins were primarily shotgun structures with a single room. They were usually wooden, cypress or pine, and elevated off the ground with a roofed porch. Some plantations housed slaves in “duplexes,” cabins that held two families separated by a wall.
Each plantation has a unique story to tell about those in the “Big House” and those who made it possible for them to live there. No place in America has such a concentration of sites that interpret the varying aspects of the pre-Civil War story. A trip to Plantation Country is a trip worth taking. www.louisianatravel.com
The eastern shore of the river was known as the German Coast, “Cote des Allemends,” and was famous for the quantity and quality of its meats and grains in the Colonial Era. In the early 19th-century farmers began to grow cash crops and the era of the large plantations began.
The western shore of the river was lined with more Creole, American and European owned plantations. There are differences in architectural techniques and distinguishing features. A strong indicator of ownership is the color of the main house. Creole houses tended to be brightly colored while American homes were not.
Donaldsonville is a “Louisiana Main Street Community” as well as home to the River Road African American Museum. The museum is listed on both the National Park Service Underground Network to Freedom and the Louisiana African American Heritage Trail. Founder Kathe Hambrick returned to Louisiana in 1991 only to discover that the African American story was not being adequately interpreted and the stories of those who were the backbone of the Louisiana economy were being forgotten.
She took as her charge the preservation and protection of this history and the educational outreach. The museum opened in 1994. The galleries feature Louisiana Folk Artists, Rural Roots of Jazz, Free People of Color and Slave Inventories. An exterior Freedom Garden features plants that the enslaved would have grown for nutritional and medicinal purposes. www.africanamericanmuseum.org
The years after the Civil War brought economic collapse to many of the River Road planters and many grand homes fell into disrepair. The first great house to undergo restoration was the iconic Oak Alley, the most photographed manor house in Louisiana, in 1925. The magnificent Greek Revival edifice is situated at the end of a quarter-mile roadway amidst the overhanging 300-year old live oak trees for which it has come to be named. An anonymous settler planted the 28 oak trees 80-feet apart in the 1700s.
Jacques Télésphore Roman began construction of the “Grande Dame of the Great River Road’ in 1837 and it was completed two years later. It was originally named Bon Séjour, “pleasant sojourn.” The house has 16” thick walls, high ceilings and most of the windows also function as doors to keep the house cool. Eighty percent of the glass is original but the only original piece of furniture is a rosewood cradle. The most notable features are the 28 Doric columns on the exterior.
After the 40-minute house tour led by costumed guides it is customary to sip a mint julep and sample a pecan praline as you wander the grounds. One of Oak Alley’s most famous residents was Antoine, an enslaved gardener, who is credited with the development of a new variety of pecans known as the Centennial. They were awarded a prize at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. Sugarcane was the primary crop and the labor force included more than 100 slaves.
The enslaved lived in a village away from the house that was comprised of 20 whitewashed cabins in two rows of 10. Six of the 20 are original and have been authentically restored. The two-room cabins took the form of crude wooden single-story duplexes with a central fireplace. Each family had one room. After Emancipation the cabins housed farm workers.
Oak Alley is currently supporting research into the economic and social and cultural lives of African Americans through the Reconstruction years. A transitional exhibit, “Slavery at Oak Alley,” interprets this history through displays and tours in the reconstructed 1830-50 slave quarters.
Many television commercials and programs as well as portions of Beyoncé’s “Déjà Vu” music video, Interview with a Vampire, The Long Hot Summer and “Ghost Hunters” have been filmed there. Oak Alley has modern B&B cottages, a restaurant and a gift shop and it is a perfect site for weddings. www.oakalleyplantation.com
PHOTO: Evergreen slave row
Louis Scioneaux constructed St. Joseph’s raised Creole plantation cottage around 1830. The 12,000-sq. ft., 10-room, residence was built of bricks and cypress from the area using slave labor. The façade of the house has a 90-ft. long gallery that is 12-ft. wide and is adorned with ten pillars. In 1842 it was sold to Dr. Cazimir Mericq, a doctor, who originally came to the plantation to treat yellow fever victims.
The third owner, Francois Gabriel ‘Valcour’ Aime, purchased the 1,000-acre plantation complete with slaves and outbuildings for his daughter as a wedding gift in 1855 and in 1877 Joseph Waguespack purchased St. Joseph’s at a sheriff’s sale and the property has remained in the family since that time. It is one of the most intact sugar plantations in Plantation Country. Tours of the property include a film on the sugar process, the main house. Schoolhouse, detached kitchen and original slave cabins and are often conducted by members of the family.
“Twelve Years a Slave,” the true story of Solomon Northrup, a free man duped into becoming a slave, starring Chiwetel Ejiofor and Brad Pitt, was filmed here. It is scheduled to open this summer. www.stjosephplantation.com
Laura Plantation, one of only eight Creole plantations remaining, is one of my personal favorites both for its history and its uniqueness. A Senegalese slave constructed the main house in 1805 for Guillaume Duparc and Nanette Prudhomme. The vividly colored raised Creole cottage stands atop 8-ft. below ground columns and has exterior stairs. For 84 years ownership was passed to the females in the family.
Tours emphasize the Creole lifestyle and the interaction with African culture, both free and enslaved. Of particular note are the original African designs on the doors on the second level. On the grounds there are 12 buildings with a National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) designation. The four cabin slave quarters interpret the years there were 12,000-acres and 69 cabins housing eight slaves per cabin with a kitchen for every five cabins. The slaves worked in two shifts with the first one beginning at 3 AM.
Folklorist Alcée Fortier first heard and recorded 20 West African stories of Compair Lapin, better known as Br’er Rabbit, in 1871 at Laura. He published his “Louisiana Folktales” in the 1890s and shortly thereafter Joel Chandler Harris published a version of them in Georgia. In 1946 Disney incorporated the tales in the controversial Song of the South. Tours are outstanding and are offered daily. www.lauraplantation.com
Evergreen Plantation has 37 buildings, in their original locations, on the NRHP and is the most intact plantation in the South. German farmer Christophe Haydel established the plantation circa 1760 and in 1790 built a two-story French Creole cottage three rooms wide and one room deep. In the 1780s, he changed his crop to indigo worked by 100 slaves. His daughter, Magdelaine Haydel Becnel, owned the plantation from 1799 until 1830. In 1832 her grandson Pierre remodeled the original house adding Greek Revival elements including the Doric columns and the majestic double staircase on the exterior. The alley leading to the house consists of 100 oak trees. The complex was known as the Becnel Plantation until 1894.
Tours of the grounds feature stables, two pigeonniers, two garconieries, a kitchen, Greek Revival privy, an overseer’s house, domestic slave quarters and a double row of 22 slave dwellings. The wooden rows of cabins look as if the slaves just walked away and the feeling they evoke is as unique as the cabins themselves. One of the most intriguing displays at Evergreen is a slave inventory from 1835 that includes not only the names and values of the enslaved but also their country of origin.
Evergreen is privately owned but it is open for tours and special events. Quentin Tarantino selected it as a location for Django Unchained. www.evergreenplantation.org
If you opt not to dine at one of the plantation restaurants there are always wonderful choices nearby.
B&C Seafood Market & Cajun Restaurant is very near Laura Plantation and offers both dine-in and take-out choices. It is locally owned, serves breakfast, lunch and dinner and is a favorite of local residents.
Frenier Landing Landing Restaurant and Oyster Bar’s Chef Wes Mobley whips up fine cuisine for lunch and dinner using fresh produce. The restaurant is situated on the western shore of Lake Pontchartrain and the view is as spectacular as the food. www.frenierlanding.com
Plantation Country is a unique and interesting region and can easily be added to any trip to New Orleans. You may even encounter spirits who refuse to leave the beauty and the history behind. Come, visit and linger a while. www.neworleansplantationcountry.com
I wish you smooth travels!
Thirty-five businesses will participate in the Baltimore Avenue Dollar Strolls on June 13th and September 12th. They will take place between 43rd and 51st Streets from 5:30 to 8:30 PM. www.universitycity.org/baltimore-ave-dollar-stroll
The DuPont Clifford Brown Jazz Festival will celebrate its 25th Anniversary
in Wilmington Delaware June 19th thru 22nd. It is one of the largest festivals on this coast, is held in Rodney Square and is free to the public. www.CliffordBrownJazzFest.com and www.VisitWilmingtonDE.com
The 23rd Annual Afrikan American Festival will be held in Downtown Hampton, Virginia, Mill Point Park, June 28-30, 2013. More than 60 vendors including will participate along with live entertainment. Admission is free and details and schedules are online. www.visithampton.com
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