In mid-June, we enjoyed a three-day tour of historic plantations along Louisiana's River Road.
We didn’t tour all the plantations, for there are too many to visit during such a short trip. However, we did visit five of 10 plantations included in New Orleans Plantation Country. Each is located between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, a distance of 80 miles via Interstate 10, but considerably longer via the River Road that follows the Mississippi River.
The Louisiana plantations have many common features, the most important being their location along the Mississippi River that served as their lifeline to the world.
Most plantations were rectangular in shape with limited river frontage. However, they were very deep. Oak Alley Plantation is a half-mile wide and eight miles deep.
Cotton doesn’t do well in southern Louisiana, and the main plantation crop was sugar cane, or “white gold.”
Slaves, as many as several hundred on larger plantations, were used in the labor-intensive planting, harvesting and processing of sugar cane.
The mansions we visited were similar in style, with brick walkways and brick and cypress structures. Slaves crafted the bricks, cut the trees and built the houses.
Numerous doors and windows across both the front and back of the homes allowed for cross ventilation. High ceilings permitted heat to rise. Windows and doors were highlighted with hurricane shutters.
Our tour began shortly after arriving at the New Orleans airport where we were met by Dayna James, who provided three days of transportation.
James is a lifetime resident of the area and served as an amazing source of information about the plantations, the culture and the people.
The first stop was Oak Alley Plantation, named for 28 live oak trees that border the quarter-mile brick path leading from the river to the 1836 mansion.
On our tour of the “Big House,” Samuel, our guide, described life on a plantation. The grounds included several exhibits describing the lives of the slaves, the growing of sugar cane and the impact of the Civil War on the plantation.
Then it was on to Houmas House Plantation and Gardens, where we would spend the night.
The late afternoon was spent enjoying the plantation's 38 acres of gardens that include a 500-year-old live oak.
We toured the 16-room mansion with Michelle, our period-dressed guide. The house contains many beautiful antiques including a 1901 Steinway baby grand piano from Germany that has never left the house.
Michelle said the original owners in 1774 bought 300,000 acres from the Houmas Indians for $150.
Departing Houmas House the following morning, our first stop was at Laura: A Creole Plantation. Our guide, Kati, noted the mansion’s bright colors — yellow walls, blue hurricane shutters, blue and white railings and orange accents — following Caribbean tradition.
Kati brought the plantation tour to life with tales taken from plantation owner Laura’s book of memoirs.
The next stop at Whitney Plantation offered a unique focus on slavery and the lives of the plantation’s slaves.
Our small group entered the Antioch Church with sculptures of “The Children of Whitney.”
A film detailed the 1930s Work Projects Administration program where writers interviewed adults who had been slaves as children.
Walking through the property, guide Joy Banner described the slaves’ harsh living conditions that included problems with communication, fear of their family being separated or sold and the many different jobs slaves performed along with punishments they endured.
She explained the monetary value of slaves depended on age, sex, health and skills.
The plantation grounds contain memorials for slaves who died as children, along with those who were killed in an 1811 rebellion.
Our final stop was at Destrehan Plantation, where Beverly guided us on a tour of the home.
At eight miles deep and two miles wide at the river, Destrehan was one of the largest of the river plantations.
Destrehan pioneered the granulation of sugar and was a successful business operation.
The mansion’s Jefferson Room contains an original document signed by Thomas Jefferson appointing Jean Noel Destrehan to the Orleans Territorial Council. Jean Noel played an important role in Louisiana becoming a state in 1812.
Costumed artisans demonstrating period crafts are on the grounds.
We stopped to visit with Curtis Taylor who described various tools utilized in the 1700s and 1800s by carpenters.
We certainly enjoyed our tour of the Louisiana plantations. When planning your trip, consider limiting the number of plantations to two or three, as facts and places will begin to blur as you move from one plantation to the next.
David and Kay Scott are authors of “Complete Guide to the National Park Lodges” (Globe Pequot). Visit them at mypages.valdosta.edu/dlscott/Scott.html. Read their past columns at www.facebook.com/DavidKayScott. The Scotts live in Valdosta, Georgia.