By Jim Farber
Plantation: The word is like a lightning rod in the American vocabulary.
For some, "plantation" will forever be associated with the lost lifestyle of "Gone With the Wind" and its romantic aura of Southern gentility, honor and hospitality. But ever since Harriet Beecher Stowe published "Uncle Tom's Cabin: Life Among the Lowly" in 1852 the word has been synonymous with the moral and economic scourge of slavery.
It was only a year after the ground plan for the city of New Orleans was laid out in 1718 that the first large consignment of West African slaves arrived in Louisiana from Senegal and Gambia. By the late 1700s the growing and refining of sugar from sugar cane had become the region's principal crop with vast plantations lining the banks of the Mississippi River. Since it is a labor-intensive, torturous to harvest and dangerous to refine commodity, these plantations required large numbers of slaves. It was a harsh world.
An in-depth exploration of these plantations and the lives of the people who lived there yields a complex interwoven narrative that spans generations. And that is the story you will discover when you visit St. James Parrish, 50 miles north of New Orleans, home to such historic sugar plantations as Oak Alley, Evergreen, Felicity, St. Joseph, Laura and Houmas House.
Through a lengthy process of academic research, personal family histories and architectural restoration, these plantations are once again welcoming guests and each in its own individual way telling the story.
Hollywood has also played an important role in this history by featuring these plantations as the backdrops for numerous films from the 1964 horror classic, "Hush ... Hush, Sweet Charlotte" to more recent productions such as "Django Unchained," "Underground," the remake of "Roots," "Free State of Jones" and most recently Oprah Winfrey's "Queen Sugar," which is currently in production.
It's a relationship that has proven mutually beneficial. Film companies can take advantage of these historically rich locations (as well as Louisiana's appealing tax incentives). Production facilities, including a new state-of-the-art soundstage, have been created, providing a boon to the local economy. These film companies also contribute much-needed funds that go toward the restoration and maintenance of these iconic properties.
"That's were Django rode up to the house of Big Daddy," says the tour guide at Evergreen Plantation proudly. "And over there are the slave cabins they built for 'Roots."
Oak Alley: With its stately colonnaded exterior and brick-walk approach overhung by 300-year-old trees, Oak Alley is the most visually iconic of all Louisiana's plantations. It's a landmark that attracts visitors from around the world. "The Big House" built in the popular Greek Revival style was completed in 1837 and owned by one of the most illustrious of New Orleans' Creole families, the Romans.
Today the 25-acre plantation offers daily house tours escorted by a coterie of young Southern belles adorned in period finery. The emphasis is on details of furniture, china and the various activities that would have dominated the privileged lives of the owners and their guests.
Oak Alley is best known for its river-facing facade. But the rear of the house offers a very different view. Here a similar lane overhung by oaks frames a row of rough-hewn slave cabins. Devoid of entertaining Southern belles, visitors are encouraged to follow a self-guided exhibition path that includes re-creations of what the interiors might have included.
The restaurant offers excellent breakfast and lunch (try the oyster po' boy). There are also cottages that allow visitors to stay overnight with dinner delivered to their rooms. The great advantage is that overnight guests are free to wander the grounds after the throngs have long departed. It offers a rather ghostly experience of an era long dead.
Laura (Duparc Plantation): At first sight Duparc Plantation, now known as Laura in honor of its matriarch, Laura Locoul Gore, defies the preconceived notions of what a Southern plantation is supposed to look like.
In her memoir (written at the behest of her grandchildren), Gore describes the house this way: "The manor house was raised high above the ground resting on blue-grey glazed brick columns and walls supported underground by an 8-foot-deep pyramidal brick foundation. The cypress superstructure was inlaid with locally fired brick, plastered inside and stuccoed outside with a brightly painted (red, green, ochre and pearl gray) exterior. By 1808 the habitation consisted of 10 sizable buildings including quarters for 17 slaves, a barn, warehouses and a rudimentary sugar mill."
By the decade leading up to the Civil War, she recounts, the property included vast fields of sugar, the mansion, 69 slave cabins, communal kitchens and a slave hospital: "The sugar cane was cultivated, harvested and refined by a staff of 195, 175 of whom were slaves."
At Laura, the plantation's story is explicated as visitors walk through by means of a detailed, room-by-room study of the family tree, from its origins to the present day with an emphasis on the life of Laura Locoul Gore, who died at the age of 101 on June 8, 1963. Born at the height of the Civil War, two years before the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, she lived to see the inauguration of John F. Kennedy.
The message of the tour (our expert guide, Joseph Dunn, explained) is that plantation life was not a simple black-or-white proposition. Social relationships between masters and slaves, particularly house slaves, were often complex. There were also distinctly different social classes within the slave population. The bottom tier consisted of the field hands, most often Africans, who cultivated, harvested and refined the sugar cane, endlessly stirring boiling cauldrons of melting sugar. There were the skilled craftsmen: blacksmiths, weavers, wood-carvers and carpenters. And there were the house slaves, usually Creole (Louisiana-born French-speakers) who tended to the family: cooks, servants, nannies and drivers. This pecking order was also complicated by the population of Octoroons, slaves whose skin color reflected "blended" bloodlines.
"There was integration," Dunn emphasized repeatedly. "But there was never equality."
St. Joseph Plantation: Unlike its nearby neighbors, St. Joseph remains a working sugar plantation, though tractors and harvesters have long since taken the place of the black slaves and later the indentured sharecroppers who worked the fields. The large manor house was built in 1830 in a style known as "raised Creole architecture."
What makes a visit to St. Joseph so unique is its tour guides. They are not by-the-numbers reciters of facts or simply an "Antiques Roadshow" guide to the interior decor. The tours are given by a pair of cousins, Maureen Gilly and Joan Boudreaux, who are direct descendants of Joseph Waguespack, who purchased the house in the years following the Civil War. When Gilly and Boudreaux describe life in the house they are not reading from a script but speaking about their own lives and family history. And as Boudreaux proudly pointed out, the house is also the birthplace of one of America's most famous 19th- century architects, Henry Hobson Richardson (1838-66), whose style became known as Richardsonian Romanesque.
Whitney Plantation: The mandate at Whitney Plantation is to offer visitors a tour unlike any other. The entire focus at Whitney is slavery and to serve as a memorial to the untold millions who lived and died under its yoke. Whitney Plantation, with its walls of remembrance, modern figurative sculptures, informative displays and historic artifacts more closely resembles a museum of the Holocaust.
The spirits of the dead are everywhere. There are inscribed lists of slaves recording their owner-given names, approximate ages, their skills and the dates of their deaths.
For years the plantation changed hands. In 1990 it was even purchased by a chemical company that planned to erect a plant that would be the world's largest producer of rayon. Luckily the plan was thwarted by a consortium of local historic preservation groups.
In 1999 Whitney Plantation was purchased (intact) by John Cummings, a New Orleans attorney, who had the vision (and the funds) to create this most unique of plantation experiences.
Evergreen Plantation: With its exterior double staircase and vast grounds, Evergreen Plantation is the largest intact plantation complex in the South. No fewer than 37 of its mostly antebellum buildings, including its 22 original slave cabins, are listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. It is also one of only three residences in America that are designated national landmarks. Today Evergreen is the private home of Matilda Gray, an oil heiress from Lake Charles, Louisiana, who purchased it out of bankruptcy in 1946. A woman of vast resources, it was said of Gray, she collected houses the way other people collect jewelry. The initial restoration of the house was completed in 1952. When Gray died in 1971 the property passed to her niece, Matilda Gray Stream, who has continued her aunt's dedication to restoring the plantation.
The "big house," built in 1832, and the grounds have appeared in numerous films. Our guide, Jo Banner, enjoyed telling the story of how Quentin Tarantino insisted that an entire 10-acre field of sugar cane that fronts the plantation be replaced with artificial cotton plants in order to transform Evergreen into a Mississippi plantation. The process took months, cost immense sums of money and appears for 20 seconds in the film "Django Unchained."
The interior of the mansion is adorned with a superb collection of period furnishings and original artworks, though they are not indigenous to the house. Evergreen also contains the largest collection of historic slave cabins of any of the plantations.
Houmas House Plantation: At the height of its productivity in the 19th century, Houmas House Plantation (named for the local tribe of American Indians) was the largest sugar-cane operation in the region, covering more than 200,000 acres worked by more than 250 slaves.
Today Houmas House is the region's only five-star resort with its perfectly restored Sugar Palace mansion (built in 1828) as the crown jewel. The perfectly manicured grounds are lushly landscaped and accentuated by classical statuary and bubbling fountains. The guest cottages are sumptuous and designed with elegant style, from the original Currier and Ives prints on the wall to the walk-in showers and four-poster beds worthy of Scarlett O'Hara.
Houmas House features several dining spots, including Latil's Landing Restaurant. The intimate dining room is located in the original portion of the house that dates back to the 1770s. The gourmet cuisine is overseen by Chef Joseph Dicapo. An $85 seven-course tasting menu is available as well as a matching wine flight.
The impeccable restoration of the property can be credited to Kevin Kelly, who purchased the house and grounds in 2003. There is no better way to experience a visit to Louisiana's Plantation Country than to stay at Houmas House.
WHEN YOU GO
For information on New Orleans Plantation Country: www.visitnopc.com
Jim Farber is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.