Back to our New Orleans trip.
Heading home from New Orleans, we visited Laura Plantation in Vacherie, along the River Road. We were there two years ago, but we didn’t have B with us then, and we wanted him to see it, as well.
It’s called Laura Plantation after Laura Locoul Gore, granddaughter of the Frenchman Guillaume Duparc who settled there in 1804.
It’s one of the thousand or so Creole plantation homes that used to line the Mississippi from New Orleans on up to Baton Rouge.
All but seven of them were demolished over time, because the homes were built of cypress; it doesn’t rot and termites don’t like it, so it was a sought-after wood in the swamps of Louisiana. The big cypresses in the bayous had been cut down long ago for home-building, so when the plantation homes were deserted, people pulled them down to reuse the timbers.
At some point realization dawned that some of the homes should be preserved for posterity. Laura Plantation was one of them because of its additional historical significance. It is where the Compair Lapin (Brer Rabbit) stories were first written down from the 1870s onward by Alcee Fortier, a French Creole from one of the neighboring plantations. He recorded the tales as he heard the former slaves tell them in French.
The word “Creole” has had different meanings, but at the time of the Laura plantation, a Creole was a white person of Spanish or French descent. Before the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, pretty much everyone in New Orleans and the surrounding areas spoke French. Even after 1803, it took a while before English became more common. To the creoles, Americans were ill-mannered boors, to be looked down upon, certainly not to be emulated in any way.
The creole plantations were all built more or less in the same pattern. The front faced the Mississippi; pecan trees were planted along the drive, which in time funneled the river breeze straight toward the house. The Big House was built in a U-shape, with the two arms of the U facing toward the back of the plantation. It was built on pillars because the Mississippi flooded ever year.
Because the houses were built in a swamp, the pillars spread out into big pyramids underground, with the bases touching one another so they wouldn’t shift.
The area beneath the house was used for storage. Large earthen pots dug into the ground were used for cold storage. This area of the Laura Plantation was also used to store the wine that the family imported from their estates in the Bordeaux region of France to sell in New Orleans.
The two wings of the U are gone from Laura Plantation. The first wing was broken down by a son who decided to leave the plantation, taking “his share” with him to start his own place. The second wing burned down in a fire in 2004.
The kitchen was a separate building behind the big house, both for hygiene and fire-safety reasons and to keep the big house as cool as possible.
Beyond the kitchen lay the animal pens and vegetable gardens.
Further away, the slave huts originally lined a wide “road” to the sugar cane fields. At Laura Plantation a few of these are still standing.
Although Laura had taken over the management of the plantation, Laura’s mother stayed close by, building a house for herself a few hundred yards from the Big House.
During the Civil War, it was easy for the Union Navy to destroy all the plantation homes from their ships in the river, thus eliminating Southern income. It is said that when the Union navy bombed Laura Plantation, Laura’s mother stood on the balcony of her separate house, chewing them out until one of the cannon killed her.
So the Civil War ended plantation life as Louisiana had known it.
Several of the former slaves stayed on, though, even after the plantation no longer functioned, because they could stay in their cabins and maintain their vegetable gardens. I suppose that, being illiterate, relatively unskilled and newly freed in a hostile environment, a roof over their head and food for their babies was of primary importance, even if it meant staying in sight of the Big House and all it stood for.
Descendents of the plantation slaves lived in the slave huts until the 1970’s.
Update: In response to some comments and building up to a post about Meridian, Mississippi, I’ve written several more posts about American slavery, the first one being my next post.