4 February 2017

US Roadtrip Diary: Louisiana Plantation Exploring

With heavy hearts we watched New Orleans disappear from the rear view mirror (well, ok, I kept an eye on the road with glances every so often Dad) and we began our roadtrip in earnest. With a car full of snacks, a few tunes on the radio and the satnav set to ‘wander’ we headed north along the 'Ole Miss' River.

After a few hedonistic (and rain-soaked) days in New Orleans soaking up the Jazz (not to mention beignet accompanied Hickory coffee) and gator spotting, we were ready to explore a little more history.

Oak Alley Plantation Louisiana Roadtrip US History Adventures of a London Kiwi

Whenever you decide on a a new destination to visit, there are always preconceived notions that float through your mind. Power suited business people striding through Manhattan, the striking, scretive  peak of Mount Fuji, bowler hatted civil servants drinking pints in London, the cream hued stone of Paris and the golden minarets of the Middle East.


Just a short drive from New Orleans city we leave the Bayou waters behind and began to wind through the fertile plains of smaller towns like Valerie. Before too long road signs appeared for the wealth of Plantation homes that dotted the lush banks, built by families rich from indigo, corn, cotton and sugarcane. This was the romantic idea I had of Louisiana in my mind.

Oak Alley Plantation Louisiana Roadtrip US History Adventures of a London Kiwi

In 1682, Robert de La Salle claimed the area between the Great Lakes and the Gulf Coast for France, hoping to stop the British from colonizing land west of the Appalachian Mountains. In 1718, the city of New Orleans was founded at the mouth of the Mississippi, giving the French control of traffic on the Mississippi and Missouri rivers.

Oak Alley Plantation Louisiana Roadtrip US History Adventures of a London Kiwi

In time and through a change of land ownerships (French, Spanish and back to French) the state came under American rule, the unique mixture of cultures (plus that of the Indian natives pushed further and further from their ancestral homes) began to thrive on the back of West-African slave labour. From simple farms to trading plantations fed with overseas investment, previously simple Creole houses were given massive Greek Revival columns, curved stairs, semi-detached wings, and other architectural elements popular at the time, reflecting the owner’s wealth.
Oak Alley Plantation, our first tourist stop, is named for the 800 feet (240 meters) long canopied path created by a double row of southern live oak trees planted in the early 18th century, long before the present house was built. 

Oak Alley Plantation Louisiana Roadtrip US History Adventures of a London Kiwi

One of a chain of riverside manors, these Antebellum homes were the summertime abodes of families who wintered in New Orleans (then often a day's journey away by horse and cart) though their indentured workers lived in huts year round on the site.

Oak Alley Plantation Louisiana Roadtrip US History Adventures of a London Kiwi
Oak Alley Plantation Louisiana Roadtrip US History Adventures of a London Kiwi

In the 21st Century, we parked my little car and joined one of the guided tours around the beautifully kept interior rooms. The mansion has a square floor plan, organized around a central hall that runs from the front to the rear on both floors and high ceilings that allow for plenty of cross-breezes on sticky summer evenings.

Led by guides dressed in period costumes, we learnt an astonishing range of facts, from the enormous ceiling mounted dining room Punkah or Shoe Fly Fan that a child slave used to fan the family and how silverware was laid tine downwards to display hallmarks. We also learned how the use of quarter candles (often just reeds dipped in tallow and burned instead) that were intentionally short so visitors would have to make their exit by the time the lights went out - was the (disputed) origin of the phrase the "short end of a stick", said candles which were especially handy for Fathers to restrict beaus visiting their daughters.

Oak Alley Plantation Louisiana Roadtrip US History Adventures of a London Kiwi
Oak Alley Plantation Louisiana Roadtrip US History Adventures of a London Kiwi

The exterior features a gorgeous free-standing colonnade of 28 Doric columns on all four sides that correspond to the 28 oak trees in the alley and a wrapround porch both at ground and first floor level that caught my breath with the majestic simplicity.

The interior rooms are painstakingly restored to a quintessentially 18th Century style. Our favourite tale? Because of the distances between cities visitors would often stay for weeks at a time, and a polite Southern way to tell them to get lost was to leave a whole pineapple on their breakfast tray the morning they should depart.

Oak Alley Plantation Louisiana Roadtrip US History Adventures of a London Kiwi
Oak Alley Plantation Louisiana Roadtrip US History Adventures of a London Kiwi

Exquisitely ridiculous. 

Oak Alley Plantation Louisiana Roadtrip US History Adventures of a London Kiwi

Oak Alley Plantation was properly #swoonworthy (as an aside, I feel as though I should trademark that hashtagged phrase.) Now kept by a trust, the property was designated a National Historic Landmark for its architecture and landscaping, and for the agricultural innovation of grafting pecan trees, performed here in 1846–47 by an enslaved gardener who had particular skill creating a pecan that could be peeled by hand.

Oak Alley Plantation Louisiana Roadtrip US History Adventures of a London Kiwi
Oak Alley Plantation Louisiana Roadtrip US History Adventures of a London Kiwi

Once we had taken our fill of unbelievable photos, we headed along the road to the Creole inspired architecture of the Laura Plantation. Formerly known as Duparc Plantation, it is significant for its early 19th-century Créole-style raised big house and several surviving outbuildings, including six slave cabins. It is one of only 15 plantation complexes in Louisiana with this many complete structures, and has been painstakingly restored after a fire gutted 80% of the building.

Laura Locoul Gore's, the fourth mistress of the plantation, wrote a memoir Memories of the Old Plantation Home, providing much of the history and stories about life on Laura Plantatio, whilst Alcée Fortier was said to have collected Louisiana Creole versions of the West African Br'er Rabbit stories here in the 1870s.

Laura Creole Plantation Louisiana Roadtrip US History Adventures of a London Kiwi

Unfortunately most of my photos were on the other memory card that I lost in Texas, but I can't ever forget the shock of hearing that direct descendants of the slave families were living here until 1977 or some of the abuse that indentured servants who effectively raised the children of the families were treated with.


If nothing else, the visit opened our eyes to the very real history of the Deep South.
  
A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots. 
Marcus Garvey

Laura Creole Plantation Louisiana Roadtrip US History Adventures of a London Kiwi

Would I recommend visiting Oak Alley sand the Laura Plantation as a 'must do' when visiting New Orleans and Louisiana? Absolutely. It's an experience we won't forget.

New Orleans Day Tip Plantation Louisiana Roadtrip US History Adventures of a London Kiwi

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