When plantation life was flourishing, there were over four hundred plantation homes between New Orleans and Baton Rouge along the Mississippi River. Most of them occupied a narrow sliver of river front, just enough to provide access to the river for sending sugar cane or cotton down stream and getting supplies upstream. In the beginning travel through the bayous was very difficult, so the river was really the only way to go. Some of the plantations were pie shaped and extended thousands of acres back from the river. Otherwise were hemmed in by swamps and were not nearly as large. Because nearly all the plantation owners in Louisiana were French, their approach to this life style varied from the impressions we get from "Gone With the Wind."
The Creoles thought of their plantation homes as farm houses. Although some were quite extravagant, many were not. Rich farmers and their families also owned fancy homes in the French Quarter in New Orleans and spent as much time there as the planting schedule would allow. They would go into town for their culture and partying fix and return to the plantation to make more money so they could go to the big city again. Yellow fever outbreaks in town also drove planters back to the countryside. During severe outbreaks 350 people died from the fever every day. It also was said to have killed more Union soldiers here than Confederate bullets. In southern Louisiana sugar cane was the cash crop; further north cotton was the crop of choice. Neither of these products could be produced without the labor of slaves. Since a number of African countries were French colonies and the inhabitants already spoke French, they tended to import the slaves that were easy to communicate with. Buying slaves was expensive and plantation owners began to focus on "growing their own" and relatively few slaves were purchased after the 1820's.
Plantations were the family business and with each generation of the family, the most talented member was selected to be the president of the corporation. Surprisingly, many of the presidents were women. After the Civil War and the emancipation of the slaves, life carried on pretty much like it had before. The workers received a salary once a year after harvest time, but when they needed clothing, tools, or other supplies which had been provided to them before the war, they purchased them from the plantation store. And somehow they always managed to rack up a bill that somewhat exceeded their annual wage. The African American workers were free in name only and did not have the skills or knowledge to take advantage of that freedom. Eventually this economic model became untenable and many of the plantation homes were deserted and deteriorated. Some had been used for target practice by the Union soldiers and other caught fire. Others were washed away as the Mississippi River changed course. Today there are only a few left to show tourists what life in those days was like.
We toured two Creole plantation homes today. We were surprised that neither fit the big white pillar stereotype we have from the movies. The Laura Plantation was a fairly simple farm house painted in bright colors. Today it has furnishings of the time, but nothing original remains. What makes this house special is the extensive memoirs that the Laura this home is named for left behind. She lived to be 102 and wrote a detaiedl account of the her plantation home beginning with her great grandmother and the successive generations who lived there. Her grandmother was a talented business woman and made as much money from importing and reselling burgundy wine as she did from the sugar cane. The men in the family were hot heads and often killed one another in duels. Sometimes they were sent to France to military school to get them out of the way so the women could run the family business.
Oak Alley had the pillars we expected to see, but was painted a soft pink. It was right at the foot of the levee that holds back the river today. Its original owner was attracted by the two rows of 28 live oaks that someone had planted there one hundred years earlier. Today these massive trees are about four hundred years old and they make a dramatic entrance to the home and give it its name. Oak Alley was restored in a more lavish manner than Laura Plantation, but we were not allowed to photograph the interior. Hollywood has been allowed in however and a number of films, commercials, and music videos have been shot in this picturesque spot.