We managed to pack a lot into our four day New Orleans trip this summer and on our final day in Louisiana we were able to fit in a few stops outside of the city on the way to the airport. We picked up a rental car for the day (for less than the price of a one way taxi fare to the airport!) and headed out of the big city, stopping first in Cajun swamp country for an awesome bayou tour, and then to “plantation alley” for a look at the antebellum south.
We only had time to make one stop, so I decided to visit the mother of all Mississippi River plantations, Oak Alley. The stretch of the river between Baton Rouge and New Orleans had originally been the site of a string of elegant plantation houses before the civil war. Many had been destroyed during the fighting and others had fallen into disrepair and neglect after emancipation, but there are a few that have been restored and provide an amazing peak into life along the Mississippi in the early 19th century.
Oak Alley is probably the closest thing you can find to the popular image of the classic plantation house, bringing to mind the Tara Plantation from Gone with the Wind. It gets it’s name from the row of live oak trees planted along the entranceway, which form an amazing canopy of branches starting at the road and ending at the white pillared great house. One thing I learned is that the oaks actually pre-date the house. The house which currently stands was built by a Creole plantation owner in 1839, but the row of oak trees was noted by a French missionary in the area in the early 18th century. Who planted the trees and why has been lost to history.
This visit was my second visit to the plantation. When I visited New Orleans in 2003 on a road trip with my brother we stopped and briefly visited the grounds on our way to the city, but we were too cheap to pay the admission charge to tour the house. The site has been expanded significantly since then with a lovely little restaurant added as well as a row of restored slave cabins which attempts to give the story of the 90 plus percent of the original occupants who didn’t live in luxury in the main house. All in all it was a very worthwhile stop and well worth the $20 admission price. (Children over six were $5 and under six were free)
It took us about an hour to drive from the swamp tour to the plantation and we arrived at about noon, just in time to stop for lunch in the little cafe near the entrance. My husband had mentioned that he had never had a chance to try some real traditional cooking yet on our trip and this was our chance to have shrimp and gumbo. Even the kid’s menu had the option of a plate of fried shrimp, which my six year old daughter appreciated. Rested and fed, we went first to the big house which was only accessible by guided tour.
The house was impressive, but surprisingly small on the inside. I guess that adding a wide deck with pillars to both levels around all four sides really cuts down on the inside floor space. Each floor only had four relatively modest sized rooms. It was well restored and very interesting to see, but while the costumed guide seemed genuinely passionate about the place, she went into a lot of detail about the history of the family and details about various objects and right from the start we had a hard time keeping the kids engaged. We stuck with it until we got a chance to look at the upper levels but when she directed everyone’s attention to the huge family tree framed on the wall on the upper hallway we took the chance to duck out and let the kids run around a bit.
As lovely as the great house was, I found it much more interesting to take the self guided tour through the restored slave cabins at the back of the property. They were laid out in chronological order with the first ones displaying a typical layout of a slave cabin and showing some of the unpleasant trapping of slavery such as shackles and chains, along with copies of slave “inventories” and other records. Another cabin showed the records relating to the fate of the former slaves after the emancipation declaration and others showed the everyday life of farmers under the sharecropping system and the pre-civil rights years. There were some interesting displays of the personal effects of the workers on the plantations and another showcasing the work of a slave named Antoine who used grafting techniques to develop the paper shell pecan, the first commercially practical pecan that made a fortune for the plantation owner and is the ancestor of most pecan trees today. He died in obscurity while the master became rich through his skill.
Throughout the Oak Alley Plantation site it felt like there was a definite effort to display not just the amazing beauty and opulence of the antebellum era, but to also give a voice to the majority of it’s former residents who lived out their lives in slavery and oppression. There was certainly more emphasis on this than on my last visit 12 years ago which seems like a step in the right direction. As we drove away I made a comment about how pretty the house and trees looked and my five year old son said, “But it’s not right that one family got to live in such a nice house when all those people had to do all the work and they didn’t get anything.” And if that’s the only thing he learned from the visit, well it’s good enough for me.