Getting out of the airport, we were hit with a wave of hot humid air so thick, you can almost feel it enveloping you like a sticky blanket. We’ve arrived in New Orleans. Instead of getting into a cab and heading to the hotel to freshen up like normal sane people, we decided to rent a car and head out to the plantation. Gotta make the most of our time right?
On the outskirts of New Orleans the road was flat for miles on end, and on either side of the highway, swamp land crept up on the pavement. Driving about an hour west from the airport on the Great River Road towards Baton Rouge, you’ll enter Plantation country. Here, on either side of the Mississippi river, you’ll see magnificent old mansions built by rich plantation owners before the Civil War, a relic of yesteryears. These historical landmarks provide the public with a glimpse into bygone days.
Oak Alley Plantation, one of the most beautiful examples of a Southern plantation was built in 1839 by the Roman family – Jacques and Celina – the Sugar King of Louisiana. From the River Road, you walk along an avenue lined on either side with ancient oak trees draping over the walkway creating an arch. At the end of the road the mansion peeked out from the shade creating a picturesque view. This magnificent example of Greek Revival architecture was was built in 3 years solely from slave labor. The mansion reminds me of Tara in Gone with the Wind with its stately white columns and wrapped-around porch. This charming antebellum estate has been featured in many movies and TV shows. In fact, this is the place where Lestat lived in the movie version of Interview With a Vampire.
In addition to the house and grounds, you can also tour the reconstructed slave quarters. At the height of the pre-Civil war period, Oak Alley had 113 slaves on their plantation. These exhibits provide an opportunity for visitors to explore the complicated history of slavery in the South. Peeking inside the cabins you’ll see a recreation of the living conditions for slaves at that time. Walking through you are confronted with many relics left over from those days: rusty iron shackles and the pronged collars worn as punishment by slaves who ran away. Seeing these remnants in real life really hits home, it shows a glimpse of the horrific indignities that African-American slaves suffered as portrayed in movies like Django Unchained.
Like many people at that time, Jacques succumbed to yellow fever and passed away in 1849. Due to Celina’s extravagant spending habits (see the tidbit below), the estate started struggling financially. After the Civil War in 1865, they declared bankruptcy and auctioned off their large estate. The plantation passed hands a few times but eventually was abandoned and reclaimed by nature. Cows moved in and made their home in the marble halls of Oak Alley for a few decades. Eventually, the Stewarts bought the estate and restored it to its original glory.
Visiting Oak Alley, we were awestruck by the beauty and grandeur of the plantation. Spending the afternoon sipping our mint julep and wandering the grounds, we were transported back to the genteel South. Then we were reminded that all of this beauty was built on the back of slave labor.
Some tidbits we learned while visiting the plantation:
Pineapple – Way back when, pineapple was a very coveted fruit because it didn’t grow locally and had to be imported from the West Indies. So when people come to visit, they would receive a pineapple on the first day and last day of their stay. Back then, people also tended to come and visit for a long period of time, usually for months since it was so hard to get around. When a guest overstayed their welcome, the host would gently hint at this fact by serving them a pineapple. That would let people know that it’s their last day and they should pack up and leave.
Ice – Ice is another thing that is hard to get in the South and had to be shipped down from Canada along the Mississippi river. In addition to using the ice to keep the food fresh, in the hot summer months, a large block of ice was usually placed in the center of the dinning table and a house slave would stand in a corner fanning it creating a cool breeze for the diners. Jacque and Celina usually spent about $1,000 a week buying ice. Taking in inflation, we are talking about $30,000 in today’s dollar. Can you imagine?
Courting candles – These spiral candle holders were used to indicate to the suitors how long they are welcome to stay when they came calling. The base of the candle was spun to adjust the height it would extend from the holder. When the candle burned down to the top of the holder, it meant that the suitor’s visit was coming to an end. The father would set the candle height according to his preference, a higher base indicates that he likes the suitor and the lower base shows that he does not approve.
- Car: $40 per day, Hertz
- Admission: $20 per person