Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Oak Alley Plantation lives on, documenting life in Antebellum south


With the grandeur of Tara in "Gone with the Wind," Oak Alley's "big house" rests at the end of a grand oak entryway.

The view from the second-story balcony at Oak Alley.
A docent in period dress guides guests through the living room of Oak Alley.


PLANTATIONS make me nervous.
Revisiting the sorry history of slavery should make one uncomfortable. The juxtaposition of small, stark slave houses against the opulent mansions is always startling.
Especially with "Twelve Years a Slave" fresh in our minds, and its deserving recent Oscar wins, one realizes that suffering and pain of many crafted "the good life" for the few.
YET HISTORY lives on -- with all its complexity -- in the beautiful Oak Alley Plantation near New Orleans. Located in Vacherie, Louisiana, where creole French is still spoken and the oaks are centuries old, Oak Alley is commanding. With its graceful crepe myrtles, restful gardens and enduring cast iron sugar kettles, one almost smells molasses thickening in the glory days.
I VISITED the plantation for the second time, thinking of my journeys in terms of understanding history.  I overheard one tourist say to another, "I noticed in the guest register that your name is Riley.  My family might have been owned by your family."
Spring is fully sprung at Oak Alley.
And old-fashioned blacksmith shows
how to make nails in an exhibit.
INSTEAD OF offending one another, the two women -- one white, one black, both curious and articulate -- exchanged addresses and the intent to continue their acquaintance in pursuit of research and information. Learning trumped guilt, prejudice or anger.
Oak Alley, now a non-profit trust and historical monument, gained a reputation before the Civil War for its decent treatment of slaves.  Owned by a wealthy Creole sugar planter, Jacques Telesphore Roman, and his bride Celina, it is a splendid example of the Greek Revival architecture of the times, designed by the bride's father.
Cookie pauses outside the slave quarters of Oak Alley.
THE PLACE was a  prestigious home and grand receptions were held in the ballroom. (Couples still marry in the historic home and one was planning their wedding during our visit.) But the oaks are the undisputed stars. The "alley" for which the place is named is a quarter-mile long with more than two dozen 300-year old Virginia Live Oaks. The trees are registered and named. The star of the oak show has a 30-foot girth and 127-foot spread of limbs. Live oaks can live to be 600 years old, which makes the Oak Alley trees only middle-aged.
THE GRANDLY decorated and furnished rooms of the Big House contrast to the slavery, two rows of cabins where the ledger with the slaves names is displayed.
One of the property's most successful gardeners was a slave named Antoine, who successfully grafted 110 trees in a nearby orchard.  His showpiece trees were particularly pretty and prolific,
An Oak Alley bedroom, with canopy.
but were displaced to make way for sugarcane through the years. Last year, Oak Alley Foundation planted 13 pecan trees to replace them and to honor the gifted slave, Antoine, who made the pecan an important part of the plantation's legacy.The home's last owners, the Stewarts, are buried on the place along with beloved pets. The lady of the house, Josephine, gardened daily until her death in 1972.  The boxwoods she fussed over are 100 years old.

The slave quarters are of course simpler, more utilitarian.
A HOST of movies has been filmed at the plantation, including the 1965 classic, "Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte," with Bette Davis, 1993's "Interview with the Vampire" (Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt stayed in New Orleans during the filming of the Anne Rice best seller) and in Beyonce's hit music video, "Deja Vu."
UNLIKE MANY other historic homes and plantations, Oak Alley is still a working sugarcane operation.  The Big House tour is fascinating and you can self-guide yourself around the slave grounds, with a stop for a praline or a dish of gumbo at the restaurant.  OakAlleyPlantation.org

Begorrah! 'Tis St. Patrick's Day soon.  We'll   look at the loves and lore of the Irish and some of the world's most joyful parades. Who was St. Patrick -- really? Is it true about the snakes? All that and more at: www.whereiscookie.com. Remember to explore, learn and live. Find us Wednesdays and weekends and share the link.

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