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.