Thursday, November 26, 2015

Vacherie, Louisiana Oak Alley Plantation (3/3)

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Slave Quarters (3/3)

Slavery on Oak Alley Plantation was seen as some of the most arduous enslavement conditions, although not because of the owners, but because of the location and type of plantation. Louisiana summers could get dangerously hot during the days, and would never really cool down during the nights. Heat stroke and dehydration were common, although they were watched for and treated. Winters weren't any better, with the arctic winds blowing straight down the plains of central United States and the humidity coming off the Mississippi river in the plantation's backyard. Freezes were common, and the long life cycle of sugar cane brought the planting and harvesting times into the late, and early, portions of the seasons.

In addition to the unforgiving environment, the harvest itself was labor intensive. Unlike the crops of cotton or tobacco, sugar cane had to be watched constantly. The plant grows very shallow roots and any amount of rain or wind could destroy most of the crop. When it comes time to harvest, there is no simple picking of the fruit; all of the plant needs to be cut down, the long slender leaves must be cut off and down the stalk and the stalk itself must be chopped into manageable pieces.

After the sugar crop has been harvested it still needed to be boiled down into molasses, a process that involves several very large metal vats, ladles the size of pool skimmers and barrels that weigh 1200 pounds on average.

Jacques Roman had the original slave quarters built close to the main house, and therefore close to the other amenities such as the kitchen and the outhouses. In addition to the set of slaves that he had at the time of his marriage to Celina and the building of the plantation, he also purchased his mother's slaves upon her death. Jacques and two other siblings fought over what was to be done with the slaves after their mother's death. Victorin argued that their mother did not want the slave families split up, but Sothsene stated that since she did not put that in her will exactly that they should sell them individually for the greater profit. Jacques, having a new plantation to stock, bought them all at auction and kept the entire lot together.

This family style approach to slavery was carried over from the economic advantages of owning several plantations that bordered each other up and down the Mississippi river. What could be borrowed and traded between the family plantations saved the family money.

Slaves frequently traveled between the family plantations, relaying goods and communication. Several of the slaves were godparents to children from different plantations, and so forth, hinting at the intermingling of the family estates, economies and communities.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Vacherie, Louisiana Oak Alley Plantation (2/3)

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Main house (2/3)

The main house was built for the Roman owners from 1837 to 1839 and took nearly three years to complete. It was a gift from Jacques Telesphore Roman to his bride Celina, although it is rumored to have been designed by Celina's own father, Gilbert Joseph Pilie. Constructed mainly by slave labor, the building materials were mostly found on the plantation grounds, although finishing touches were imported from other places in the United States and Europe-most likely France at the time. It was for Celina that the back oak alley was planted so that she would feel that her new country life on the plantation could be just as grand as what she was used to from living in her father's house in New Orleans.

The house itself is built in the Greek Rival style and while grand both inside and out, it is surprisingly small on the inside. This is due to the thick walls that provide insulation for the inhabitants during the hot Louisiana summers. When the weather got to hot, or humid to stay inside, the family and their guests would move to the lounge chairs and rockers that line the truly magnificent porches that run the entire length and breadth of the top and bottom floors.

The ground floor is comprised of several sitting rooms and a main dining room of which the most notable feature is the large fan suspended over the dining table. The fan was manually operated by a slave whose job it was to stand off to one side and pull the drawstring for the fan all night, or at least until the family and their guests were done with their seven course meal, and coffee, and tonics. Less important than keeping the diners cool, the fan was mainly used to keep the flies off the food, drink and diners.

The top floor of the house is all bedrooms, with a personally sitting room for the lady of the house. The master bedroom is astonishingly small for our modern standards, but the quality of the furniture cannot be argued. Most large pieces of furniture, such as beds and armoires, were made specifically for the room and weren't moved with the inhabitant. Furniture stayed in place and a new set was purchased with the new home, for wealthy families. The average tenant would take what furniture came with their new rooms.

There is also a nursery, with several very small beds, a crib and some child size furniture.
There are two more bedrooms upstairs that would have been used for distinguished guests, if there were no older children occupying the space at the time. It was not unheard of for guests to stay for several weeks to several months at a time, travel being so arduous at the time, so guests were usually lodged in the tenant houses to the east of the property.

After the Roman Family the plantation passed to several owners before finally coming to the Foundation that takes care of it today. After the Roman Family it was part owned by Hubert Bonzano in the late 1800s, then Jefferson Davis Hardin in the mid 1900s, who restored the main roof and saved the house from demolishment. The final owners to live on the plantation were Josephine and Andrew Stewart, who maintained renovations to the house and the gardens.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Vacherie, Louisiana: Oak Alley Plantation (1/3)

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Grounds and Farm (1/3)

Sugar cane was a major income for the plantation, though the grounds were not very extensive compared to larger plantations up and down the Mississippi. If you look around on your drive up to the plantation you can still see fields of sugar cane today, the wet Mississippi area is perfect for the crop.

As you arrive and park, the first building you will come to is the Main Office and Ticketbooth. The main office and ticket booth was once believed to be a jail because when Jefferson Davis Hardin purchased the house in 1917 the floors were made of dirt and the windows all had bars on them. He converted it to live in while restoring the main house.

There are several buildings around the plantation that helped support the life and economy here. When you reach the crossroads from the main path you will find a massive planter. This is actually a sugar cane kettle.

Sugar Cane Kettles were used to heat and separate the sugar from the sugar cane plant. The "mash" of water and chopped, harvested sugar cane was heated and then cooled in a series of four massive kettles, varying in size from largest (which can be found in the middle of the back oak alley leading to the main house. Yes, that massive flower planter was once sugar cane equipment, and heaved into place over a fire by no less than four men) to the smallest (which could be handled by one person). The stalks were crushed, the juice heated gradually and the impurities were skimmed off the top until the excess water (molasses really) was allowed to finish seeping out, leaving the crystallized sugar behind.

To the right of the crossroads are the remade slave quarters that house the Slavery at Oak Alley exhibition. The original cabins were all destroyed through neglect, but they were initially 2 rows of 10 cabins housed all the slaves that lived and worked on the plantation. Uniquely placed, the slave quarters were built quite close to the main house, defying traditional locations on the far side of the plantation. The plantation supported and was supported by about 50-80 slaves at a time until 1865, the end of the Civil War. See more in the History Series #103

Cattle and horse tack, along with farm and harvesting equipment, such as wheelbarrows, ploughs and carts were housed in the farm sheds past the slave quarters on the east side of the property. The equipment would have included necessary items for the pecan orchard (late 1800s) and minor dairy farm (1900s). Today, these buildings are privately owned and cannot be viewed, but examples of the farm equipment have been saved and are on display with the rest of the functioning plantation exhibits in the Slavery at Oak Alley exhibit.

Next to the equipment "sheds" are the restaurant and gift store. Make sure and schedule enough time to sample the classic Louisiana cuisine and play in the gift store, which has everything from the usual trinkets to artwork by local artists.

There was once an award wining pecan orchard on the grounds in this area. Grafted by Antoine, a slave, from 1846-1848 there were 110 trees total that were prized for their tenderness, thin shells and large size. The "Centennial Papershells", as they were named, were cut down though to make room for more sugar cane fields. Only about 14 trees are left on the plantation today, and only because they were replanted in the Stewart and current Foundation era.

Just north of the restaurant lie the Overseers' house, tenant quarters and farm equipment sheds, which are all private buildings now, but can be viewed from afar. The Blacksmith shop, on the other hand, is still used for demonstrations most days and is one of the few remaining 1890s style forge left in Louisiana.

To the left of the sugar cane kettle, heading in the direction of the main house, are the Garconnieres. These were housing for young men after the age of 15 and until they were married. Garcon, in French, means boys. Only married men, women and children were allowed to live in the main house.

The Plantation Bell can be found just outside, between the main house and the kitchen, the bell was used to measure out life on the plantation. Using different rings the bell would communicate to the inhabitants when to go to work and leave the fields, lunch and dinner times, the beginning and end of the day and functioned as an emergency signal. Cast in 1848.

The Gardens found around the grounds were mainly built by Josephine Stewart, the last resident owner, in the 1950s-70s. She was very fond of the English gardening style of the time and planted a great many boxwoods on the grounds to form the geometric hedge shapes that can be seen today. Many of these boxwoods are nearly 100 years old now. Coming around the front of the main house you will pass through the kitchen garden to get to the Outdoor Kitchen.

Kitchens were always built apart from the main house in case of fire. The kitchen having a surplus of fire starting activities, if it caught on fire then it could burn down and not catch anything else on fire. Now it is used as an antique car garage to house the Stewarts' collection from the early to middle 1900s.

Across from the Kitchen/Garage is an example of a Confederate Officer's tent. Take a few minutes to look around and watch the informational video on the war.

The live oaks around the grounds give the plantation it's name. The 28 oaks that line the front quarter mile drive from the house to the river were originally planted by an unknown settler in the early 1700s. The oaks are all members of the Live Oak Society and each has a name. More live oak trees were planted to line the back alleys and sides of the main house by Jacques Roman in the 1800s, in an attempt to make his socialite bride, Celina, more at home in the countryside after she moved to the plantation from her parents' house in New Orleans.