5:26 PM / Wednesday October 5, 2022

7 Jun 2013

Louisiana’s Great River Road (part two)

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June 7, 2013 Category: Travel Posted by:

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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. and


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. 


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June 2, 2013 Category: Travel Posted by:

By Renée S. Gordon


Louisiana’s celebrated River Road parallels the east and west banks of the Mississippi River for the 70-miles between New Orleans and Baton Rouge through “Plantation Country.” The road traverses three parishes,—- St. Charles, St. John and St. James— and winds past bayous, levees, modern industries, historic communities and oak alleys that draw the eye to pillared mansions. Once the Great River Road was lined with approximately 350 antebellum mansions, overwhelmingly Greek revival, and the thoroughfare rivaled today’s Gold Coast estates. The large number of plantations was due to France’s granting long, narrow, land parcels to maximize river frontage during the Colonial Era. 


Nine of the plantations are currently accessible for tours, several have restaurants on the premises and a few offer on-site accommodations. Each plantation is unique both historically and architecturally and each is worthy of a visit. All of them reference the people, both free and enslaved, who contributed to the building and sustaining of a plantation culture that was unduplicated and unrivalled anywhere else in the world.


It was into a world rich with Native American culture that the first Europeans entered with De Soto. His party discovered the Mississippi River but it was not until 1682 that La Salle claimed the entire Mississippi River Valley, from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, for France. He named the land “Louisiane,” in honor of King Louis XIV. The acquisition of this land coincided with France’s decline as a world power and the king saw this as an opportunity to duplicate the manner in which the West Indies colonies were generating wealth. This entailed the importation of skilled enslaved Africans as they appeared to be able to withstand the subtropical climate and the working conditions.


Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville established Louisiana in 1699. Antoine Crozat, a slave trader, became the colony’s proprietor 12 years later. His patent stated that he was to settle the land with white Catholics and slaves. In 1717 the Company of the Indies, headed by John Law, took over, recruited Germans to settle what would be called the German Coast, and took up the charge to import 3,000 blacks within 10 years. The following year, New Orleans was founded and a year later it became the colony’s primary city. By 1721, there were 684 whites and 565 slaves, the first group arriving in 1719. Many more blacks were imported but only 1 in 4 survived the grueling conditions. In the mid 1700s the first Acadians moved into St. James Parish. By the onset of the Civil War there were 357,456 whites, 331,726 slaves and 18,647 free people of color.


The initial plantation crops were indigo, rice, cotton and tobacco but in 1751 Jesuit priests successfully grew sugarcane aided by skilled slaves. The boom years began for the River Road plantations at the beginning of the 19th-century with several contemporaneous events, the invention of the cotton gin (1794), the mechanization of spinning and weaving (1780s), the influx of Haitian planters and slaves with a needed skill set (1790s) and the creation of an economically feasible sugar granulation process by Etienne Boré in 1795. The average plantation profit was 10 percent and the average sugarcane plantation was valued at $200,000 in 1820s dollars. Slave labor made great wealth possible and Louisiana ranked #1 in the number of families with more than 100 slaves, 100. Fifty free people of color owned slaves.     


Complete itineraries are available online that include basic historic background, maps, driving directions, hours of operation and available amenities. The plantations we are visiting in this article basically follow a route that begins 30 miles west of New Orleans on the east side of the river. Ideally, you should plan to spend a minimum of two days touring the sites along the River Road.


Destrehan Plantation, the “oldest documented plantation house in the Lower Mississippi River Valley,” has an abundance of history dating from the colonial era through Reconstruction. Charles Parquet, a freeman, completed the original manor house and dependencies for Charles deLogny, a free mulatto, in 1790. The house was a two-story, raised Creole cottage His payment included a “brute negro.”


In 1810, after changing from indigo to sugar, the wealthy owner, Jean Noel d’Estrehand, husband of deLogny’s daughter Celeste, added two garconnieres. These buildings are unique to the region and were constructed to house teenaged males. Thirty years later the home was renovated to reflect the Greek Revival style with added interior curving stairs, plastered ceiling beams and concealed brick Doric columns over the existing ones. The 17-acre plantation was originally 6,000-acres.  


Highlights of the interior and outbuildings include a bed and dresser handcarved by a freeman of color, the butler’s pantry and warming kitchen, slave cabins and an original document signed by Jefferson and Madison. Costumed living history guides bring the stories to life and demonstrate crafts on-site. The plantation was the setting for Interview with a Vampire.


Several extremely noteworthy events occurred at Destrehan. Stephen Henderson, a Scotsman, wed Eleonor Destrehan. She died shortly and he followed years later. In his will he freed his slaves but after a 12-year court battle relatives had the will overturned in 1838. 


A small museum in one of the outbuildings is devoted to interpreting the story of the 1811 Slave Revolt through artifacts, documents and folk art depictions of scenes from the revolt, the largest in US history.


The origins of Charles Deslondes, the acknowledged leader of the uprising, have been obscured by time. His owner may have brought him from Haiti while escaping the revolution. We know that the revolt was planned on Deslondes Plantation and began with an attack on Andry Plantation where it was believed military weapons were stored. They began on January 8, 1811, by killing Andry’s son and setting out in the direction of New Orleans. A slave named Trepagnier informed on them and by the next morning the community was warned. Charles and his force numbered 200 but they were no match for the combined federal troops and militia. The revolt ended on January 12th, 60 men were killed outright and 70 were tried. The trials were held at Destrehan on the 13th and 14th. Eighteen men confessed and were shot at their “home” plantation and their heads placed atop poles as a warning. Deslondes was tortured and decapitated. 


A federal order created the Federal Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands or Freedmen’s Bureau, established to assist freed slaves with adjusting to their changed status. Destrehan Plantation was confiscated and became the Rost Home Colony, one of four in the state, for a two-year period.


The 16-acre 1790 Ormond Plantation’s main house is a two-story Louisiana Colonial constructed on land given to Pierre d’Trepagnier for Revolutionary War service. The house has been the scene of tragedies that began almost immediately. In 1798, Pierre was called away from the table to meet with a visitor. He disappeared. Basile LaPlace purchased the home in 1898 and less than  a year later he was shot and hung from a tree at his home by the Ku Klux Klan. 


The manor house, furnished in period antiques, is now a B&B and a gourmet restaurant under the auspices of Chef Kiral who uses only the freshest local ingredients. The house is a perfect setting for weddings, receptions and getaways.


San Francisco Plantation, the most authentically restored plantation on River Road is also notable for its architecture and antique collection. The galleried steamboat Gothic-style great house was constructed in December of 1856 on a sugar plantation that was initially owned By Elisée Rillieux , a free man of color, then by Edmond Marmillion in 1830. The entire estate including the house, sugar mill, and slaves were purchased. 


The home’s façade was originally off-white but was repainted in vivid colors and 900-ft. of manicured lawn was between the river and the home. Highlights of an interior tour include five handpainted ceilings, an 1850’s office chair, one of only five made, the second floor murals by Dominique Canova and the 26-ft. long solid mahogany dining table. The 17-room house is 11,000-sq. ft. and has 72 windows on the attic level. San Francisco has undergone a $2.5-million restoration and it was well worth the cost. Tours of the house are available as well as the school and slave quarters.


The movie Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte was filmed at Houmas House Plantation, once known as “The Sugar Palace” due to its status as the largest sugar producer in the nation. The entire plantation has been restored to its former glory and costumed docents guide you through 16-rooms that reflect the antebellum years. The house is replete with period furnishings and stunning artwork that reflects the region.


Alexander Latiel and Mares Conwan purchased the 300,000-acres of land from the Houma Indians for $150.00 in trade goods in 1770. Latiel erected a red brick, two-story, house but five years later sold his share. Two Americans purchased the plantation and constructed the 2-story, 4-room, Creole cottage that is the basis of the current home. The plantation was sold to John Burnside, a Scotsman, for $1 million and under his guidance the house became one of the most elaborate on the River Road. Burnside saved the plantation from Union devastation in the Civil War by claiming British citizenship. Houmas Plantation, one of the wealthiest plantations, held the greatest number of enslaved people in the state. The number is estimated to have been close to 1,000.


Highlights of the interior are a magnificent, 1812, pegged, free-standing, three-story spiral staircase, a clock owned by Marie Antoinette and Napoleon, Thomas Jefferson’s coatrack, a metamorphosis table designed by Aaron Burr and 65 lb. statue of Lincoln by Borglum that is so detailed you can see the veins in his hands and feel the toes in his shoe.


The plantation has a magnificent garden filled with indigenous trees and plants. There are two restaurants, the iconic Turtle Bar situated inside one of the twin garconnieres and a wonderful marketplace that houses a gift shop, bookstore and art gallery.


These plantations are award-winningg and Destrehan, Ormond and San Francisco are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. San Francisco Plantation is also a site on the Louisiana African American History Trail.


Visitors should also designate some time to take a narrated Cajun Pride Swamp Tour in 5,000-acre Manchac Swamp. This is an outstanding tour and I heartily recommend it. Tours are aboard a pontoon boat, so as not to disturb the wildlife, and the ride is smooth. As you glide through the bayou the guide points out creatures, land formations and historic locations. The featured creature is the alligator and the guide manages to call them right up to the boat for food and photographs. Onboard displays include a baby gator so that you can get up close and personal. Highlights of the tour are an early dwelling, a 1915 cemetery and the story of Julia Brown, the town oracle, who predicted her demise and that of the town. The swamp is believed to be haunted and will be the subject of a television program hosted by Jack Osbourne in July.


Unique events make every season special in Plantation Country but one of the top contenders for event of the year is “Bonfires on the Levee.” This custom migrated from Europe and is one of the oldest Christmas traditions in the U.S. Bonfires, limited to 20-ft. tall with a 12-ft. wide base, are lit atop the levee to light the way for Papa Noel.


For a good time visit


I wish you smooth travels!


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