Before the Civil War the banks of the Mississippi River were lined with luxurious plantation homes between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. At that time the wealthiest people in our country lived here. When the sugar planters had enough of country life, they would travel to their city mansions in New Orleans and conduct business, arrange marriages, fight duels and drink too much. Many of these homes were destroyed during the Civil War. Sometimes the homes were vandalized or burned down by Union forces. Others fell on hard times after the war when there were no slaves to rely on to harvest the sugar cane. In some cases their owners never returned from the war. Today only a few are left for us to admire.
Houmas House was named after the Houmas Indians who originally lived in this spot. They were peaceful and friendly and got along well with the various Europeans passing through as Louisiana went through Spanish, French and American hands. But they were not able to resist the European’s germs. After many Houmas died of small pox, those that remained sold what became the plantation property for $150 worth of gee gaws. A sad, but familiar story.
The plantation home grew, was renovated, was replaced, was modified a number of time over the years. But John Burnside, an Irish immigrant, saved the house from being savaged by the Union Army by hanging a Union Jack over the balcony and telling the Yankee invaders it was the property of a British citizen and not to be tampered with. This ploy worked, especially remarkable in light of how the Irish usually feel about the British.
In the late 1800’s when 200 million pounds of sugar were produced here every year, the home was known as the Sugar Palace. At the time the home was built, the Mississippi River was so narrow here that people could converse across it. But as the bayous were drained and dikes were built higher and higher all the water had to come through the river basin and it grew to over a mile wide. The plantation lost frontage land and many of the impressive oak trees similar to those that we admired today. The largest are over 500 years old.
We have toured a variety of great homes over the years, but especially enjoyed today because the house was so accessible to us. The current owner bought it in 2002 and lives on the top floor. But he has opened the rest of the house to visitors and allowed photographs of all the contents even with a flash. We could walk on the carpets, touch the clock that originally belong to Marie Antoinette, and take our time as the guide walked us through the house. Although the mansion was not in poor condition when the current owner bought it, he has spent big bucks to restore it to the configuration and color scheme it had when it was the Sugar Palace. The gardens were also magnificent and we saw a fleet of gardeners working to keep it that way. Spring is well underway here and the azaleas were blooming enthusiastically even though the Spanish Moss draped over them in places. It must be nice to be rich.