By Debi Lander
Before the Civil War, cotton was king and sugar reigned as “white gold.” The South’s economy depended on their production. Wealthy barons established large plantations where slaves worked the fields.
New Orleans became one of America’s wealthiest cities due to its strategic harbor. Today, many grand plantations still dot the Mississippi River Road. Exploring these historic sites provides a fascinating history lesson. Visitors no longer tour just the mansion house, they also see and hear about the outbuildings and slave quarters.
The following five plantations are within an easy drive from New Orleans, but visiting more than two a day proves difficult.
Destrehan Plantation, initially built in 1787, began producing indigo, then switched to more profitable sugar. The owner, Jean Noel Destrehan, and his brother-in-law pioneered the granulation of sugar, making Destrehan one of the largest sugar-producing plantations. Jean Noel went on to become a driving force for Louisiana statehood. Today, costumed interpreters lead tours through the “Big House” and grounds. You’ll also find crafts and tradesmen demonstrating their skills.
Oak Alley is renowned for the 28 live oaks lining the quarter-mile entryway to the Greek Revival mansion. The 300-year-old graceful trees, draped in Spanish moss, have become synonymous with the Old South. To walk under the dreamy canopy is to feel the presence of the past. In addition to touring the manor house, stop at the reconstructed slave dwellings and exhibits, and Sugarcane Theatre which shows a film about the crop’s economic importance. Overnight stays are available in newly built cottages.
Houmas House and Gardens in Darrow, a 38-acre estate, ranks as a must-see for gardeners. The stunning grounds include the Burnside Oak, Japanese gardens, bridges, fountains, pools and statuary — some of it whimsical. Even children like to explore these green acres. Though a bit pricey, an overnight stay in a cottage offers the sheer delight of evening strolls or early morning walks among the splendor. Guided tours of the manor house, once called the “Sugar Palace,” explain how it survived wars, floods, abandonment, and fortunately the ravages of time. Visitors find a variety of restaurants and the Louisiana River Road Interpretive Center now under construction, scheduled to open in fall 2019.
Laura Plantation presents a Creole style house in a riot of color. The guides do an exceptional job telling stories of the four generations of characters who lived and worked there. They don’t sugarcoat the complex relationships between owners, women, children, and slaves. The grounds include 12 buildings, among them the 1805 mansion, the 1840s slave cabins, and formal and kitchen gardens. You’ll leave with something to ponder.
I left the most poignant for last: Whitney Plantation. Whitney is the only plantation museum in the state with an exclusive focus on the lives of enslaved people. You first meet the Children of Whitney, a series of clay sculptures by artist Woodrow Nash. They represent former slaves as they were at the time of emancipation — children. Whitney presents stories told in their own words many years later. The statues grab at your heart; you won’t forget them.
My tour continued to the field of Angels, a memorial dedicated to 2,200 Louisiana slave children who died before their third birthday. A statue of a black angel carrying a baby to Heaven highlights the touching location. Original frescoes remain inside the main house, and the last surviving true French Creole Barn lies close. Call ahead for reservations.
I missed five more estates in Plantation Country. I suggest a visit anytime except the sultry days of summer.
Visit www.bylandersea.com to read more of local travel writer Debi Lander’s stories and travel tips.
Photo courtesy Debi Lander