Sunday, April 24, 2011

Oak Alley: Louisiana's Premier Antebellum Mansion

The thing about bayous is that they are humid, wet places.  Very wet places.  The trees that grow there know it.  The things that live there know it.  I knew it, too.  Know it still.  Bayous drip. Another thing about bayous is that they are musical places. They sing to you all night long, in full chorus. There’s more to a bayou than frogs and crickets.

After having spent the afternoon touring a classic antebellum mansion, we had camped at Sam Houston Jones State Park in a bayou giving me a great appreciation for the people who live in (or rather, on), the bayou.  All along the old River Road snaking along the Mississippi between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, plantations once thrived a stone’s throw from the river’s edge. 

Scattered to the Wind: Dispersal And Wandering of the Acadians, 1755-1809 (Louisiana Life Series)The area had been settled by deported Acadians and then later by Frenchmen fleeing the revolution, and lastly by more than 10,000 French, African, and mixed descent Haitians fleeing the 1791 slave revolt.  Together, this population became known as Creole. Although a French colony for only three weeks, Louisiana’s legal system has the distinction of being the only state in the country that includes the Napoleonic Code, which among other things, forbids social or legal privileges being granted solely on the basis of birthright. 

It is ironic then that these creoles, these American born children of European aristocrats, snubbed their non French unrefined brethren with disdain and isolated themselves, speaking only French and perpetuating the very feudal class distinctions the Revolutions both in the American colonies as well as across the Atlantic had sought to dismantle.  Although the French language was banned in Louisiana after the Civil War by General Butler as punishment for alignment with the rebels, the military had no druthers about utilizing thousands of bilingual French speaking Creole soldiers during the world wars as interpreters.

Capturing Oak AlleySomewhere between the water and the land, the French Creole elite built country estates along the river.  Plantation homes of all shapes and sizes.  Some were constructed of simple clapboard.  Others were made of double wall thick slave hewn bricks.  Oak Alley, however, is not called the Grande Dame of the Great River Road for nothing.  Set back behind a quarter mile avenue lined with magnificent 300 year old grandmother Oaks, stands the classic Greek-revival style antebellum mansion owned by none other than a man who was known as the Sugar King of Louisiana.   

We had stopped in for a tour and learned that aside from the imported roof slate and marble used for the floors and fireplaces the materials for the construction of the mansion had all either been found or made on site.  Interestingly, this prominent family spent $400 a week to have ice chunks shipped down the Mississippi from the north in order to preserve delicacies such as dairy which was stored in large terra cotta olive crocks that were then buried in the cool earth away from the hot and humid climate.  We spied just a single window with the diamond etching of a bride-to-be, a tell-tale signature of an authentic antebellum mansion.

Spending a leisurely afternoon beneath the trees, communing with the awesomeness of nature and of time, we sipped our first Mint Julep.  We had later eaten lunch at the onsite cafĂ© where I sampled alligator, which seemed like the right thing to do at the time.  

Like so many southern plantations, this refined family eventual auctioned their beloved  1,360 acre estate and all their personal belongings in order to survive the post Civil War turmoil that resulted from the Reconstruction Act.  And like anything else left unattended in the bayou, all that was polished and refined was soon consumed and reclaimed by the wild.  Cattle, birds and snakes took up residency in the marble halls of Oak Alley until it was restored to its original grandeur. 

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