Oak Alley Plantation, Vacherie Louisiana
Final installment of our trip to New Orleans: While our husbands worked, the ladies and I took a day trip to one of the nearby historical plantations in Vacherie, Louisiana. Oak Alley Plantation, known as ‘The Grande Dame of the Great River Road’, like many southern plantations was originally established to grow sugar cane. This plantation was originally owned by a Creole family. The Creole were descendants of the French and/or Spanish colonial settlers in Louisiana. To this day they are a very proud people purposely creating an insulated community of their own and maintaining their traditions.
Along our entrance walk we meandered through the property, meeting a new friend and appreciating the stunning and artistic displays of history.
My new little friend
Plantation Sugar Kettle
We stopped outside for a Mint Julep, a specialty of the South, then began our tour of the plantation home learning some very interesting colonial era history while being regaled with stories about the family who originally owned this plantation.
The plantation was built in 1837-39 for a very wealthy and well connected Creole sugar cane farmer, Jacques Telesphore Roman III and his wife, Marie Thérèse Celina Josephine Pilie (commonly known as Celina). Jacques was the brother of the governor of Lousiana, and the brother-in-law to Lousiana’s Sugar King.
Oak Alley, leading to the Mississippi River
Although the Romans called their new plantation home “Bon Sejour,” it would eventually be dubbed “Oak Alley”. The magnificent double row of oak trees framing the house at one end and leading to the Mississippi River at the other, lends this plantation the most spectacular setting in the entire Mississippi River valley. The trees have grown to their full height, and the trunks are over 20 feet in circumference. The branches soar into the sky, intertwining to create a fantastical canopy over the alley.
Celina’s father was a New Orleans architect, who provided the plans for the soft pink, two story house surrounded by 28 columns and its surrounding estate, ensuring it suited her elegant and refined taste. And Jacques was excited to provide his bride, Celina, with her dream home.
The house includes a square floor plan, organized around a central hall that runs from front to rear on both levels. The living and dining rooms, kitchen, parlor and sitting rooms are on the first floor. The house was designed with high ceilings, large windows, and a symmetrical interior, allowing the frequent gulf breeze to cool the house naturally and efficiently.
The family portrait wall gives us a poignant glimpse into the harshness of the realities of life in the late 19th century. Jacques and Celina were blessed with six children, however only three of them survived beyond their toddler years: Octavie, Louise and Henri. The other three are shown here in remembrance via silhouette cameos.
All of the bedrooms are located on the second floor. The rooms are decorated with antiques, displaying life in the 1800s. The bedroom shown on the left is the Nursery, and on the right, the Mourning Room. There is also a second-floor gallery providing a great view of the surrounding landscape.
One significantly historical item we learned about during our tour was the Colonial-era Courting candle: A spiral, iron-forged, adjustable height candle holder, used to limit how long a suitor was welcome to visit. A young woman’s father would set the candle to the height of his choosing in the candle holder. When the candle melted to the top of the holder, it was time for the suitor to leave. In other words, if a particular suitor was not to the father’s liking, the candle could be placed low in the holder, burning quickly to the top of the holder. An acceptable suitor might find the candle placed higher in the holder.
Louise, being raised in upper-class Louisana culture held as tightly to proper Creole traditions as her family did. This was why she lost her temper when she was called upon by a suitor, who was not altogether a gentleman. He called on her one night in a state of intoxication, attempted to kiss her, and she fled from him like a proper Creole lady should do. Unfortunately, she tripped and fell on the stairs. She was wearing an iron ring hoop skirt at the time and the hoop sliced a serious wound in Louise’s leg. Despite medical treatment the cut refused to heal and Gangrene set in. Louise became very ill, and she had to have her Ieg amputated to save her life. This led to her being rejected by potential future suitors as she was then considered unsuitable to marry and run a household with only one leg. Louise never quite recovered emotionally from the social ramifications of the amputation. After her mother’s passing in 1867, she left the plantation for St. Louis and decided to become a Carmelite nun. In 1877, Louise along with a group of other nuns, returned to New Orleans and formed the Monastery of St. Joseph and St. Teresa of the Discalceated Carmelite Nuns of New Orleans, Louisiana. She is revered in New Orleans to this day.
Slave Name List
Between 1836 and the Civil War there were 198 men, women and children who were slaves at Oak Alley. This wall, in one of the slave quarters, is a respectful recognition of those that helped build this Plantation (click for larger image). Sadly for most, their first name is all that remains of their story. The most noted field slave who lived on Oak Alley Plantation was named Antoine. He is listed near the bottom of the far left column.
Paper Shell Pecans
Antoine was 25 when he was brought to Oak Alley. He skillfully maintained the gardens and orchards. News of Antoine’s skills quickly began to spread throughout the region. An amateur botanist in the area,
Dr. Colomb, had tried and failed repeatedly to create a new variety of pecans with thin shells that would be suitable for commercial processing, instead of those that grew in the wild with thick shells that were difficult to crack. Frustrated, Dr. Colomb called upon Antoine’s talents to help him. Being a master of the techniques of grafting, after trial with several trees, he successfully produced a variety of pecans in 1846 that could be cracked with one’s bare hands; the shell was so thin it was dubbed the “paper shell” pecan. Soon, Antoine was tending to 110 thriving pecan trees. Antoine’s efforts will forever be remembered.
When Jacques Telesphore Roman died in 1848 of tuberculosis, Celina took over management of the plantation but, typical of that day had no business or farming experience. Combining her lack of experience with her proclivity for lavish spending, Celina nearly drove the plantation into bankruptcy. Jacques’ only surviving son, Henri, assumed the responsibility for family affairs in 1859. His valiant efforts to preserve his family’s position and holdings failed against the overwhelming social and political turmoil resulting from the Civil War. Thus, the Roman family joined the ever-growing tide of once powerful Creoles caught in a downhill slide toward oblivion.
In 1866, Henri was forced to auction off the plantation along with all but their most personal belongings for $32,800 (worth $482,353 in today’s dollars). The plantation changed hands a few more times until in 1905 when the house was boarded up and left to face the elements. Bats and other creatures, domestic and wild, took up occupancy, and what had once been the site of envied elegance was at risk of disappearing in the shadows of the oaks and overgrown underbrush.
But in 1917, Jefferson Davis Hardin, Jr. became the new owner of Oak Alley. He poured his fortune and dreams into the plantation, devoting special care to the farm and orchard. Under the care of Mr. Hardin and his family, Oak Alley once again began to thrive. However, like so many of the area’s planters of the time, Mr. Hardin came to the end of his resources after a run of misfortunes in the form of fires, floods, sickness in his herds, and even a costly court litigation. In 1924, his dream of rehabilitating the mansion never realized, he signed Oak Alley over to the Whitney Bank, and silence again settled over the plantation.
Josephine Armstrong Stewart
In 1925, Mr. and Mrs. Andrew and Josephine Stewart purchased the Oak Alley Plantation and were the final owners. Their restoration of Oak Alley was one of the first along the Great River Road and began the trend toward saving old plantation homes. For the Stewarts it was “love at first sight” with Oak Alley, and they saw its historic and aesthetic value and felt it was a privilege to live there. To insure the house would remain open for all, Mrs. Stewart bequeathed the mansion and 25 surrounding acres to the Oak Alley Foundation trust. Today, Oak Alley Plantation is a National Historic Landmark. This designation was based, in part, upon the spectacular trees and the Oak Alley that still graces this historic home.
Shortly before leaving I spotted this guy, who was apparently reminding me that life is what you make it. Just remember to nap once in a while! I’m sure many of you would agree. Naps are the cat’s meow, right?
We had an unforgettable day trip learning about the great history of Oak Alley and drinking Mint Juleps! Some of us decided we could enjoy living out our days on this beautiful plantation. If you’re ever near New Orleans, be sure to stop in.
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