The Beauty and the Pain
~Wednesday, February 1, 2023~
In our neck of the woods today, we woke up to mist and overcast, enough to cause what seems like rain. We happen to be in this little strip near the Gulf that seems to have dodged this icy, cold weather that northern Louisiana and Texas are experiencing. What a change from just a week or so ago as we were driving through Texas. There’d be no way to get through those areas now. We seem to be very lucky with the fact we have dodged most bad weather (except for the Tornado warning); that we could have done without.
With the decent weather still intact, we headed back to River Road, crossing the Mississippi River to several plantations, one of which was Oak Alley Plantation. We stopped by yesterday, but ran out of time to make it a worthwhile visit, so here we are. This used to be the territory of the Chitmacha nation, which over the years became a chicken farm, a country home, a cattle ranch and ultimately a sugar plantation. And with that came quite a diverse ethnicity with its occupants…..French Creole, Portuguese, German, Italian and American and they ranged from free and enslaved, agricultural tycoons, real estate speculators and immigrants.
When you walk the expansive property, your attention is drawn to the row of Live Oaks known as Oak Alley.
Originally, the row stretched further than it does today……a ¼ mile from the mansion to the river. While we waited for our tour, we couldn’t get enough of walking under these magnificent trees and the many photo opportunities it presented.
And here we go again….another private tour. This is certainly the time to be here isn’t it? Our tour guide Melissa, was excellent, though we were cautioned not to touch, photograph or video anything on the inside of the home. Not being able to at least photograph an interior on a tour is a rare thing in our experience. Just like the other plantations in the day, Oak Alley was built by and relied on enslaved men, women and children. The “Big House” (the planter’s mansion) referred to the way the home dominated the surrounding landscape and buildings, commanding attention and drawing a line between the enslaved and the property owners. One thing we learned on this tour that no one else really touched upon before, was the farming that the enslaved people did for their own households. Food rationing was all too common, so to ensure their families had enough to eat, they resorted to planting their own gardens. Their cabins were covered with a mixture of lime and water, called “whitewash” to make them look clean. When Jacques and Celina Roman acquired Oak Alley in 1836, their primary residents on the 1,200 acre property were 57 field slaves. In a very short time, that grew an additional 49, bringing his slave total to 106.
After our tour, we walked the remainder of the property where we stumbled on the Sugarcane Theatre which showed a fascinating film about the differences and similarities of harvesting sugar cane today. Of course with modern mechanization, yields are way higher at around 8,000 pounds per acre as opposed to the 1,500 or so back in the 1850’s. The gardens were lovely with the East Garden being particularly beautiful due to the efforts of the last owner, Josephine Stewart with her many camellias and dozens of antique roses and annuals.
Our second plantation visit of the day was about 30 minutes away at the Houmas House and Gardens. We decided to do an evening tour and had about 20 minutes to spare beforehand. So we chose to walk through the gardens sprinkled
with dozens of live oaks and many lovely water features. It was at one pond that we came across a grouchy black goose that ran up from the water
attempting to bite Jeff. My first thought was that it was defending something. I kept watching what was going on and noticed another goose just like it on a tiny island in the center of the pond sitting on something. A nest perhaps? Ah, maybe that’s what all this was about. But I’ll tell you one thing, I wasn’t about to take the same route. So I ended up meeting Jeff in another section of the garden…..the pet cemetery where many of the beloved dogs from the plantation’s past, rest in peace.
As the tour guide rang the bell to summon any who wished to take the tour, we arrived, being the only takers AGAIN! Wow, this has really been something having such dedicated attention. We were immediately impressed with how much there was to see on the inside of the home and what we were allowed to touch and photograph. I even got to play a 1901 Steinway piano…the same one that Betty Davis
played on while living at the home during the filming of “Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte”. We even got a glimpse of her room. Now that was something I wasn’t expecting.
With the Houmas Plantation owned by 8 different families over the years, John Burnside is a stand out, and here’s why……He acquired the 10,000 acre property in 1857 for $1 million, where he began enlarging his holdings, expanding his sugar plantations along the Mississippi. The Houmas Plantation alone would eventually grow to 12,000 acres in 2 years time. He also managed to build 4 sugar mills on the property to process his crop. This man was probably the most compassionate, forward thinking entrepreneur around. In fact, he earned the nickname “Sugar Prince” eventually owning about 1,000,000 acres of sugar plantations, making him the largest property holder in the South. He also operated his plantations with no slaves, paying his employees, not considering them property. He knew if he treated his workers as non-slave, he would have a more productive, happier workforce, and that he did. It was during this time that this part of Louisiana held the largest slave holdings prior to the Civil War. But even before emancipation, Burnside would become the first former slaveholder (approximately 750 slaves) to continue his sugar business through PAID labor. He also can be thanked for the preservation of the plantation during the Civil War, as he claimed British citizenship to avoid Union occupation of his land and flew a British flag from the second floor balcony of his home. His stubborn Irish ways and utter confidence thwarted any British takeover. For all they knew, he was a rich British aristocrat who happened to just be in Louisiana.
After our tour, there was a bar on the property called the Turtle Bar. It was unfortunate that we had such a door knob/no personality bartender. When Jeff asked what beers they had, the bartender’s best reply was, “See up there, everything you see on the wall is what we have.” Well, if Jeff had been able to read those labels at 12 feet high, it wouldn’t have been a question. It was kind of like when you go to the grocery store to ask a clerk where something is and the most they’ll do is POINT you in the direction of where it is, without the willingness to take you there. Is it that hard to find good help? A loud small group had already occupied most of the tiny bar so we opted for enjoying our beverages at one of the game tables between the bar and the restaurant….a nice cozy little spot surrounded by turtle shell adorned walls (thus the name). All in all, evening was a great time to visit this particular property with everything so beautifully lit.