The Plantations

TALES OF DEVASTATION WROUGHT BY THE FEDERAL troops on their march into the South have, with the passing of time, been blended into a composite picture with details familiar to all.

The traditional pattern of events preceding the arrival of the Northerners is equally familiar, as are also the heroic and resourceful attitudes of the women and slaves who faced the invaders. Admirable attitudes, however, rarely prevailed against the needs of hungry and threadbare troops, and after the storm had passed those remaining in its wake usually found themselves bereft of every movable possession except those which had been too well hidden for a hasty search to reveal. Sometimes, it is said, failure to produce some desired valuable, or too haughty a manner toward the conquerors, provoked the burning of a mansion, but whether or not this occurred, the old life of the home departed with the last whisper of marching feet. Plenty had made her exit from the scene, and Want took her place.

It is of the Utopia of Before the War that old Southerners speak. It was here and it is gone. The best of all possible worlds existed in the South and it was destroyed. And, truly, if merely a part of this remembered grandeur once existed in reality, Louisiana plantation life must have been almost paradisiacal.

The old home places were not built in a few months nor even, in some cases, in a few years. John Hampden Randolph, builder and original owner of Nottoway (thirty-one miles south of Baton Rouge), spent four years in selecting, cutting and seasoning the timbers for the mansion and in building the limekiln for the brickwork. Completed, Nottaway was a fortress calculated to defy the attacks of time and shelter a dozen generations of Southern gentility yet unborn. The way of life in what we term the Old South was expected by those who lived it to last forever, and two generations might be spent erecting and furnishing a home which was destined to be destroyed in a few hours by the fire of war.

Another such mansion was that of Charles Duralde*, a legend now, even to his descendants in St. Martinville, where settled many exiled patricians in the early decades of the past century. Nothing could have seemed more permanent than the life of the Duralde family at PINE ALLEY . The Duralde acres numbered in the tens of thousands, with a corresponding number of slaves, and the Duralde progeny an even two dozen twelve children from each of his two wives.
[* Duralde/Durand - This references the name as Duralde, other sources list name as Durand.]

Rarely equaled in pure fantasy is the story of preparations for the first Duralde wedding, a double ceremony at which two of the daughters became the brides of prominent members of St. Martinville society. While such stories have doubtless gained with retelling through the years, they yet seem to have an indigenous quality quite in keeping with the spirit of the times in which the events recorded are supposed to have taken place.

It is told that for the occasion of his daughters' wedding Charles Duralde prepared far in advance, bringing from China the strangest shipment ever to leave the shores of Cathay: a cargo of spiders, which he had freed in Pine Alley to spin a cloud of webs among the branches. Then slaves sprinkled the webs with gold and silver dust, and through this blazing corridor, over imported carpeting, the wedding procession wended its way to the magnificent altar which had been erected in front of the mansion. Food and wine were provided for two thousand guests, and the wedding festivities lasted for days.

It is said that the rooms of the mansion were sprayed each morning with costly perfume; that he and his family bathed in cologne and that his carriages were decorated with silver and upholstered with cloth of gold. Yet Charles Duralde lived to behold the ruin of all that he held dear. He served with his sons and grandsons in the War Between the States, and returned to witness the dispersal of his slaves, the raiding of his mansion and the utter destruction of his personal world. Dying a few years later, he hinted that a large part of his fortune was somewhere buried or hidden away in a foreign bank, but never revealed its location.

The slaves never returned to the Duralde plantation; the sugar mill has long since crumbled to ruin, and the mansion, decayed and abandoned, was demolished some years ago. His family scattered far and wide, nothing remained of the dynasty of Charles Duralde save a few fine portraits by an unknown artist, and these were lost in the flood of 1927.

Of greater prestige and wealth even than Duralde was Gabriel (Valcour) Aime, known as the 'Louis XIV of Louisiana.' Romanticists may stress that he was the owner of 'Le Petit Versailles' so called because the elaborate formal gardens of THE REFINERY, only completed after twenty years, were the product of the genius who had arranged the Garden of Versailles but historians are more apt to note that Valcour Aime was the first (1834) to refine sugar in Louisiana.

The Refinery, about twenty miles south of the present town of Donaldsonille, was really a vast agricultural experiment station developed to the fullest state of self-sufficiency. At one time Valcour Aime was dining with a friend in New Orleans. Both were epicures, and as they fell to comparing their personal chefs, then to speaking of the distant markets from which costly delicacies were obtained, Aime said to his friend:

'If you will be my guest at my home in St. James, I will promise you a dinner that you yourself will admit is perfect, every item of which will come from my own plantation.'

'Impossible,' said the New Orleans epicure. 'I do not doubt, my friend, that you can supply most of a dinner from your land, but a perfect dinner from your own plantation, that is impossible.'

'Do you care to wager that it is impossible,' asked Aime, 'and you yourself, on your word of honor, to be the judge?'

'Ten thousand dollars,' said the New Orleans man.

'It is a bet,' said Valcour Aime.

The dinner was eaten in the great dining-hall in St. James. There had been terrapin, shrimp and crabs, snipe and quail, breasts of wild duck, vegetables, salads, fruits, coffee and cigars, wines and a liqueur at the end.

'What say you, my friend?' questioned Valcour Aime.

'The dinner is perfect. But I think you lose,' answered the epicure, 'for no man can supply me with bananas, coffee and tobacco grown in St. James, Valcour Aime.'

'Ah, my friend, wait a moment,' smiled Aime. He ordered horses, slaves with lanterns. They mounted and rode out on the plantation, where the planter displayed a conservatory covering plots of coffee and tobacco, bananas and pineapples.

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The master of Le Petit Versailles was noted for his princely hospitality and lavish gestures. When the future king of France, Louis Philippe, was entertained at The Refinery, it is said that the plates and platters of gold from which His Highness had eaten were thrown into the Mississippi.

The mansion, built in 1799, appeared to be in traditional Louisiana style, with eight massive columns supporting the front galleries, but wings extending backward enclosed a Spanish-style patio. The floors and stairways were of marble, and secret stairs were built into the thick walls.

Though the mansion burned in the second decade of the present century, the remains of the fort from which cannon boomed a welcome to visitors and where children played at battle with oranges can still be seen, and the channel of the 'river' is there, with its decaying bridges over which the wild vines creep.

Lafcadio Hearn, after visiting the site of 'Le Petit Versailles' once the classic abode of white gazelles, peafowl, and kangaroos described it as: A garden once filled with every known variety of exotic trees, with all species of fantastic shrubs, with the rarest floral products of both hemispheres but left utterly uncared for during a generation, so that the groves have been made weird with hanging moss and the vines have degenerated into parasites, and richly cultivated oleanders have returned to their primitive form.

One of the earliest plantations of which we have record, MONTPLAISIR, established by the Chevalier de Pradel in 1750 on the west bank of the Mississippi opposite the Place d'Armes, is described by George C. H. Kernion in the Louisiana Quarterly. He writes:

The Chevalier had reached the zenith of his power. From a country gentleman he had become a 'grand Seigneur.' Wealth, slaves, a plantation in the country, a home in town (in whose romantic garden shaded by venerable trees, the revolutionists La Freniere, Foucault, Villere, Noyan, Mazan, Milhet and others were to secretly gather in 1759 and after his death, to hatch their revolutionary plot), fine clothes, jewels, social position all now were his. But one thing was lacking to make his happiness complete. It was a chateau, yes, a French chateau like those he had known in his beloved Limousin, built in Louisiana, near New Orleans, where he could spend the last years of his life in peace and semi-regal magnificence!

The act of sale was passed in France during the year 1750, and in 1751, the erection of the fairy palace, which was not to be completed before 1754, was started. The plans provided for a main building one hundred and six feet long by forty-eight feet wide, with wide galleries whose flooring was covered with cloth, running about its four sides. It had a gabled roof and wide attic, and contained a large dining-room, parlor, numerous bedrooms, study, laundry, and a room provided with large kettles known as the wax room, where the fruit of the 'driers' or wax trees that grew on the place was to be heated in order to extract therefrom wax with which the Chevalier was to manufacture the candles which he later exported to France or sold in the colony. The main house, whose every window was glassed, was elevated from the ground, and leading to the main entrance was an imposing flight of steps which gave the edifice an imposing appearance. Montplaisir must have been truly a marvel for its day, not only on account of its architecture but also on account of its interior decorations and the beauty of the furniture that embellished it. In the letters that he wrote to France about his new home, the Chevalier was always most enthusiastic. Everything used in its construction and furnishing, with the exception of brick and lumber, had been imported from France, and the numerous invoices which still exist show that he was unsparing in making it the finest home in the colony.

Montplaisir, with its stately mansion and the wonderful gardens that surrounded it, where 'parterres' laid out in the most approved French style were resplendent with blooming flowers, gladdened the now aging Chevalier's heart, and its wide expanse dotted with indigo, rice, corn and vegetables, with productive orchards, with innumerable 'driers,' and with a sawmill and a brick yard, contributed materially in defraying his enormous expenses.

The Chevalier died at his beloved Montplaisir, March 18, 1764.

AFTON VILLA, in West Feliciana Parish, is a forty-room mansion built by David Barrow in 1849, and said to have to been modeled after a villa near Tours, France. It was so named because Mary Barrow, daughter of the owner by his first wife, was locally famous for her singing of 'Flow Gently, Sweet Afton.' At the present time it is open to the public.

At the time of the Northern invasion the Union Army passed that way, and the officer in charge, noticing the grandeur of the gateway, ordered his men to enter and take quarters in the house. The men, noticing the design of the gate and being unable to see any trace of the house hidden far back in the trees, refused to go in, declaring that such an entrance led only to a cemetery. So Afton Villa, as it is now called, escaped pillage.

The house has cathedral-like Gothic windows with stained glasses, bat demented towers with cannon, Moorish galleries; but while it is of hybrid style the general effect is pleasing. A moat was once contemplated, but fear of breeding mosquitoes saved the mansion from having a portcullis and drawbridge.

HARVEY'S CASTLE at Harvey, near New Orleans, built by Captain Harvey for his bride, was a home of quite another type. Though it was constructed in ninety days on a wager, and the work was all done by free Negroes, yet when it was demolished it was found to be almost as solid as when first built. Planned by Harvey and his contractor without other assistance, this house displayed the current influence of the time, the writings of Sir Walter Scott, and externally was much like the old State Capitol in Baton Rouge built three years later.

Each of its three stories contained ten rooms, and the ceilings on all floors were eighteen feet high. Its two turrets afforded an unobstructed view of the river, and for years served as a landmark for river pilots. Expensive furnishings, velvet hangings and oil paintings imported from abroad embellished the interior, and in its time it was one of the show places of the New Orleans area. Then the home was sold, to become an amusement resort, then a cheap tenement, and finally an abandoned pile which was demolished in 1924.

Deserving of more than passing mention is GREENWOOD, near St. Francisille, whose lands were originally granted by the Spanish Government to Oliver Pollock, the merchant who, with the assistance of young Governor Galvez, financed the colonies to the amount of three hundred thousand dollars during the American Revolution and saved the Mississippi Valley from British troops advancing from the north. Pollock sold the plantation to the Barrow family, and the plantation house, one hundred feet square, with Doric columns, was built by William Ruffin Barrow in 1830. The paneled cypress doors have silver doorknobs and hinges.

KENILWORTH, about twelve miles southeast of New Orleans, was originally built, in 1759, as a blockhouse or fort, and remodeled in 1800. It was in this mansion during the Bienvenue tenure that General Beauregard was presented with a golden dress sword, commemorating his brilliant Mexican campaign. Kenilworth has its ghosts a headless man and a lady in white whose footprints are said to be visible on the stairway the morning after the full moon.

Mention should also be made of the SOLIS PLANTATION, which is not far from Kenilworth, for it was here that for the first time in America sugar was granulated. Solis, a refugee from Santo Domingo, had brought with him a small wooden sugar mill with which he made unsuccessful attempts to make sugar. In 1791 his holdings were bought by Antonio Mendez, who, with the aid of a sugar-maker from Cuba named Morin, was at last successful in inducing granulation. In the following year Etienne de Bore, having procured cane from Mendez, hired Morin, and in 1795 produced sugar for the first time on a commercial scale.

PARLANGE, south of New Roads, is now a national monument to the Old South, selected by Secretary of the Interior Harold A. Ickes as a mansion typifying the taste and tradition of the days before the Civil War.

The house was built in 1750 on a land grant to the Marquis Vincent de Ternant, and the plantation has descended in direct line to the present owners. On either side of the driveway are octagonal brick pigeonniers, and the house, approached through a grove of live-oaks and pecans, is a white, green-shuttered, one-and-a-half-story raised cottage of cypress, mud and moss construction. The furnishings of Parlange include rarities in silver, glass and porcelain, and many fine pieces of old furniture. The slave-made implements with which the house was built have been preserved.

During the War Between the States the cash assets of the Ternant estate, amounting to three hundred thousand dollars, were placed in metal chests and buried, and not one of these has ever been found. Parlange served as headquarters for both General Banks, U.S.A., and General Dick Taylor, C.S.A., during the Red River Campaign.

Another plantation home which is still in much the same condition as it was a century ago is THE SHADOWS, home of Weeks Hall, in New Iberia, where five generations have lived. It was built in 1830 by David Weeks, is of brick fired by slave labor, and the woodwork is Louisiana cypress. The blinds are the original ones, unchanged after more than a century of use.

This structure is one of the most photographed homes in Louisiana. Eight masonry columns of the Doric order adorn the front, and above are three attic dormer windows. All the interior woodwork and plaster detail is the original. The gardens are famous for the number, size and beauty of their camellias and azaleas. In the east garden is a clump of camellia trees planted when the house was built. Nowhere in the state do camellias flourish better than in New Iberia, to which these natives of China were brought from France.

An article appearing in the Times-Picayune for January 12., 1930, describing the house and grounds, concludes:

Aspidistra fringes both sides of the curved paths to the street, and on either hand azaleas and camellias crowd in well-arranged shrubbery groups with oleanders glowing at one corner of the house against young bamboo lances; yellow butterfly lilies dappling shrubbery with gold and here and there the pink filaments of tassel-like flpwers lifting . . . mistily over albizzia mimosa trees.

Many rare plants appear among those which fill the side gardens and encircle the ends of the house. ... It is like entering Eden from a village street.

OAK ALLEY, near Donaldsonville, built in 1836 for I. T. Roman, brother of Andre Bienvenu Roman, Governor of Louisiana (1831-35; 1839-43), is one of the most magnificent old plantarion houses now to be seen in Louisiana. It is of plastered brick, seventy feet square, girdled by twenty-eight Doric columns each eight feet in circumference. On this plantation, it is said, the first successful pecan grafting was performed by a slave gardener.

Adjoining Oak Alley are Saint Joseph and Felicity Plantations, wedding presents of Valcour Aime to two of his daughters. Next is the site of the famous 'Little Versailles.'

Among the often visited homes of Louisiana, some are noted because of having been the homes of famous people, others because of some historical event with which they are connected, others for their lassie or bizarre architecture, and others for some single feature.

CARPENTER HOUSE, near Delhi, is visited because Jesse James once shared its hospitality, and the owner proudly exhibits a bedspread under which the famous bandit is said to have slept. OAKLAWN MANOR has a bathtub carved from a single block of white marble, in which it is said that Henry Clay used to refresh himself. The walls of the great hall of LINWOOD, and other rooms, were originally painted to represent jungle scenes. Eliza Ripley, in her Social Life of Old New Orleans, wrote her impressions thus:

A great tiger jumped out of dense thickets toward savages who were fleeing in terror. Tall trees reached to the ceiling, with gaudily striped boa constrictors wound about their trunks; hissing snakes peered out of the jungle; birds of gay plumage, paroquets, parrots, peacocks everywhere, some way up, almost out of sight in the greenery; monkeys swung from limb to limb; orangoutangs and lots of almost naked dark-skinned natives wandered about. To cap the climax, right close to the steps one had to mount to the floor above was a lair of ferocious lions.

Though good taste frequently gave way to whimsicality, it would, in general, be difficult to exaggerate the magnificence of these establishments, which in their time were unrivaled in the New World. Northern visitors often experienced sympathetic pangs after viewing the remains of some ransacked and vandalized abode. Said one, in the New Orleans Democrat of June 19, 1877:

My principles now lead me to abhor slavery, rejoice in its abolition, yet sometimes in the heat and toil of the struggle for existence, the thought involuntarily steals over me that we have seen better days. I think of the wild rides after the deer; of the lolling, the book; the delicious nap on the gallery, in the summer house; of the long sittings at meals, and the after-dinner cigar of the polished groups in the easy but vivacious conversation in the parlor; of the chivalric devotion to beautiful women, of the clownish antics of pickaninnies when you tossed them a nickel, how they screamed for the rinds after you had eaten your watermelon on the piazza in the afternoon, and 'as fond recollection presents them to view' I feel the intrusive swelling of the tear of regret. . . .

The food and the social life of the days 'Before the War' were indeed something to recollect. Whole families often went visiting and stayed a week or a month, and to entertain and feed fifty guests was not unusual. A midnight snack before going to bed might consist of a dozen items, such as gumbo, hot meats, cold meats, salads, galantines, fruit, cakes, charlotte russes, whipped cream garnished with red cherries, caramel, sorbet and ice cream. A real dinner might terminate with a dozen desserts.

For really important occasions famous chefs were brought out to the plantations from New Orleans, perhaps several at one time; one famed for his sauces, for instance, and another whose pastries were reputed to be the finest in the State. At WALNUT GROVE a miniature railroad ran from the kitchen to the dining-room, bringing food in piping hot, and also testifying to the amount of edibles served. Over these groaning tables waved the punkas, operated by small black slaves, in exact imitation of the lordly customs of the Far East.

The plantation bells, used to summon slaves from the fields and for other similar purposes, are subjects of numerous legends. It is said that Bernard de Marigny tossed one thousand Mexican dollars into the cauldron when the bell for his estate was in preparation. The completed bell, we are told, possessed the purest and most delightful of tones. But like 'grandfather's clock' it refused to function when its special duty was at an end; on the day of freedom its fastenings gave way, it fell to the ground and was cracked beyond repair. Judah P. Benjamin had six hundred dollars melted into the bell at BELLECHASSE. The ZACHARY TAYLOR HOUSE is famous for the same reason, the President having brought back many dollars from the Mexican War for the express purpose of creating a bell for his plantation with as sweet a tone as possible.

Every plantation had a name, most of them simple and chosen for fairly obvious reasons. A glance at an old map reveals the existence of MAGNOLIA, HOME PLACE, OAKLAND, HARD TIMES, REVELRY, EXPERIMENT, LAKESIDE, WHITE HALL, SUGAR LAND, NORTH BEND, CRESCENT, RIVER LAND, LOCUST GROVE, OAK GROVE, MYRTLE GROVE, WILLOW GROVE, SOUTHERN RIGHTS, FORLORN HOPE, HARD SCRAPPLE, SPENDTHRIFT and FIFTH WHEEL, and many others.

Local gossip testifies that SPENDTHRIFT was so named because the original owner of the estate lost it to another man during a poker game, but HARD TIMES, FORLORN HOPE and FIFTH WHEEL remain mystifying with their pessimistic implications.

Such names as MAGNOLIA, LOCUST GROVE, MYRTLE GROVE and WILLOW GROVE are, of course, the result of the existence of a particular kind of tree which might be numerous on the plantation. The many 'oak' names, such as THREE OAKS, TWIN OAKS, OAKDALE, THE OAKS, OAK ALLEY, LIVE-OAKS, are evidence of the profusion of oak trees in Louisiana.

Sir Walter Scott's works were extremely popular throughout the State, probably because he pictured a society whose mood was much the same as that of the South during the period, and many a plantation was christened with such a name as WOODSTOCK, ROB ROY, MELROSE, IVANHOE and KENILWORTH.

Nostalgia for the land of their forefathers may have prompted others to call their homes VERSAILLES, CHATEAU DE CLERY, KENT, FONTAINEBLEAU and such names. AUSTERLITZ PLANTATION was, of course, so called in honor of Napoleon's victory at that place.

Some of these remain; many are gone. All suffered change, and bad fortune has, at one time or another, laid its depressing hand on every one. Evidences which verify the old tales of indignities to Southern homes and properties may be seen to this day. Treasure is found by some heir three or four generations removed from the harassed forebear who had hastily hidden it. Happily, among all the stories of wanton depredations are others, difficult for the Southerner to understand, but readily and frankly admitted by him such as the one told by the master of CRESCENT PLANTATION HOUSE. He said that when he had advised the Union soldiers of the illness of his wife, they not only refrained from burning the mansion or disturbing the premises in any way, but the officer in charge bowed sweepingly, and said: 'Sir, we do not murder women. I bid you good day!'

Gumbo Ya-Ya
A Collection of Louisiana Folk Tales, 1945
Houghton Mifflin Commpan - Boston
The Riverside Press, Cambridge, Compiled by Lyle Saxon, State Director, Edward Dreyer, Asst. State Special Writer. Material gathered by Workers of the Works 'Progress Administration, Louisiana Writers' Project, and Sponsored by the Louisiana Library Commission. As Written.

We are grateful to those earlier writers who recorded some of the phases of Louisiana folklore Alcee Fortier, Lafcadio Hearn, Grace King, and George W. Cable as well as to such contemporary writers as Doctor William A. Read, Edward Laroque Tinker, Roark Bradford, and Doctor Thad St. Martin. LYLE SAXON, EDWARD DREYER, ROBERT TALLANT

Webmaster Note: The copyright date being 1945, declares that all right and privileges of this work remain with the owners, heirs, and holders. I will remove this content upon written request from any controlling interest. I do hope I will be allowed to leave this narrative in place for the containing historic value.
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