“The Mississippi River towns are comely, clean, well built, and pleasing to the eye, and cheering to the spirit. The Mississippi Valley is as reposeful as a dreamland, nothing worldly about it…nothing to hang a fret or a worry upon.”
– Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi
“It takes a big man to admit when he’s wrong. I am NOT a big man.”
October 6, 2015 – Day 38 – Darrow and Vacherie, Louisiana
After overnighting at a Wal-Mart south of Baton Rouge, we continued our journey southward, and decided to tour two more plantation homes. There were over 400 plantations along the Mississippi between Baton Rouge and New Orleans in the 1800s. Of the handful that remain, at least 8 are open to the public for tours. After reading on-line reviews and talking to locals, we decided to tour our top 2, the Houmas House Plantation and Gardens in Darrow and the Laura Plantation in Vacherie.
The lawn and gardens at the Houmas House were drop-dead gorgeous, among the most beautiful we’ve ever seen. It’s worth the price of admission just to walk the grounds and see the 600+ year old live oak trees. We noticed several artists on the grounds sketching and painting, and ran into a professional photographer who snapped our picture on a bridge. Not surprisingly, they do lots of weddings here. Our tour guide was dressed in full Antebellum garb and spoke with a semi-authentic Southern accent that only Lil Jan could understand. I appreciated her knowledge, sense of humor, and the patience she showed with a young mother on our tour who was trying to handle an unruly, crying child. Not as patient, I wanted to stuff him in the antique chamber pot. The interior of the home was stunning. I especially liked the statue of Abraham Lincoln containing 60 pounds of silver and a gold clock owned by Marie Antoinette that was given to Napoleon’s brother as a wedding gift. I found it odd that the current owner of the house, apparently a wealthy bachelor, still lives there. He sleeps in one of the antique-filled bedrooms, and each morning picks up after himself to make the room “show ready” for tours. Only his private bathroom is off-limits. I think it would be cool if he slept in one morning and they still did tours, pointing out that the sleeping man in the antique bed is the owner…and the toddler in the chamber pot is a reminder not to be unruly.
Every Southern plantation has a unique story, and the Houmas House Plantation is no exception. Its first owners were the indigenous Houmas Indians who acquired the property via a land grant. In the mid 1700’s, new owners built a French Provincial house on the property. By the time of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the plantation was a fully operational sugar cane plantation. General Wade Hampton, a Revolutionary War general, purchased the property in 1810 and shortly after began construction on the Mansion. Sugar production continued to increase and the plantation grew to 300,000 acres. It continued to change hands, and would eventually become the largest producer of sugar cane in the country. During the Civil War, Irish owner John Burnside saved the Mansion from destruction by the Union forces by declaring immunity as a subject of the British crown. Well played. John was an interesting character. For some reason, he would pay money to any local residents who would name their sons “John.” He was also heavily into sports betting, and secretly purchased a champion thoroughbred from back east, stored it in the Mansion’s billiard room, and used it to defeat fellow businessmen in a big race. Nice. Apparently they had no Clue it was the thoroughbred, from the billiard room, with the horseshoe.
By the late 1800s, the plantation was producing a massive 20 million pounds of sugar per year. In 1927, it managed to survive the epic “great flood” that devastated so much of the river valley. However, it suffered financial losses that got even worse during the Great Depression just two years later. The Mansion closed and fell into disrepair, but was brought back as a summer home by Dr. George Crozat in 1940. In 1963 the popular Bette Davis film Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte was shot on the property and Ms. Davis stayed in one of the bedrooms during filming. Scenes from other films were also shot here, including Mandingo and Fletch Lives. TV show episodes filmed here include All My Children, Top Chef, and Wheel of Fortune. We enjoyed walking through the Houmas Mansion and around the amazing gardens. Although purists probably don’t appreciate a not true to the period bonsai garden on the premises, we thought it was pretty cool. There are a couple of restaurant options as well, including a high end one that serves a 9-course meal. Unlike yesterday’s tour at Frogmore Plantation, there was no touring the sugar cane fields, no evidence of slave quarters, and no mention of the 750 slaves who labored there over the years. Rather, the emphasis here is on the land barons, the interior, and the gardens. We believe Houmas has earned its title, the Crown Jewel of Louisiana’s River Road.
We continued down the Great River Road toward Vacherie and our next stop, the Laura Plantation. This plantation is famous for its Creole-styled raised main house and several surviving outbuildings, including six slave cabins. If you want a “Gone with the Wind” experience with an impressive interior and grounds, go with the Houmas House. If you are more into history and story telling, and want to tour a slave cabin and get insights on slavery, I’d go with the Laura House. Our tour guide was superb and told captivating stories about the plantation and creole culture, heritage and history. As she spoke, the place came to life. We learned about Guillaume Duparc, the original French owner of the plantation, and how he was banished from France by his father for having shot a dear family friend’s son in a duel. He lived at the plantation for only 4 years, dying in 1808, just 3 years after the house was built. The Duparc daughter, Elisabeth, married into the Locoul family, and generations later, Laura Locoul Gore inherited the plantation after moving to New Orleans.
Laura’s memoirs, published in 2000, provide most of the insights and history of the plantation, and really drove its popularity as a tour stop. In her memoirs, Laura discusses growing up on the plantation and speaking to Pa Philippe, a “weather beaten” slave, when she was 7. “On his creased and wrinkled old face I saw the letters ‘V.D.P.’ I pointed my finger to his face and asked, “Oh Philippe, what is that mark on your forehead?” He turned and laughed in a hard, cackling, old voice saying, “Lord, child, don’t you know this is where they branded me when I used to run away?” I was horror stricken and ran into the house to my mother saying, “Oh, Mamma, they branded Philippe like they do cattle. I saw it. He told me so. Who did it, Mamma?” (Memories of a Plantation Homes by Laura Locoul Gore, p. 39) The incident left a lasting impression on Laura. She inherited the plantation and ran it as a sugar business until 1891, then sold it and moved away, never to return again.
The tour guide didn’t hide the fact that the owners’ sugar fortune was built on the backs of the 300 slaves working there during peak production. She told about slave owners having children with slaves, how the value/price of a slave was determined (based on their health, skills, and experience…see poster at bottom), and various cousins marrying cousins. We learned that the house was built on a foundation of brick pyramids, due to the clay that runs a mile deep before hitting solid ground. The house is quaint and interesting to tour, but doesn’t have near the grandeur of the Houmas House. In fact, on August 9, 2004, an electrical fire destroyed 80% of the house. Restoration work was completed two years later, despite being interrupted in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina.
The final story on our tour was about Alcée Fortier, a family neighbor and student of folklore, who visited the plantation in the 1870s to listen to the freedmen. He compiled the stories the freedmen told their children in the Louisiana Créole French language. The stories were about a clever, trickster rabbit and stupid fool, Compare Lapin and Compair Bouki. The stories originated in Senegal and were brought to America in the 1720s by enslaved Africans. Twenty-five years later, in 1894, Fortier published the freedmen’s stories in Louisiana Folk Tales: In French Dialect and English Translation. Preservationist Norman Marmillion was captivated by the tales and created a non-profit company that attracted enough investors, including some descendants of former owners, to embark on a ten-year restoration of the plantation. The tales continue to be passed from generation to generation. You may know them as the tales of Br’er Rabbit and Br’er Fox.
Before leaving the area and heading south to New Orleans, we decided to drive by the Oak Alley Plantation, which narrowly missed our cut of places to tour. While it has an impressive house and story like the others, it is best known for the rows of large live oaks that grace its lawn. Movies filmed at Oak Alley include Interview With a Vampire, Primary Colors, Midnight Bayou, Ghost Hunters, Night Rider, and The Long Hot Summer, along with episodes of Days of Our Lives and Beyoncé’s “Déjà Vu” music video. Had it been her All the Single Ladies video, I would have pulled over, put my hands up, and danced among the live oak trees.
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