Life on the River

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April 25th 2011
Published: February 2nd 2012
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Nottoway frontNottoway frontNottoway front

The front of Nottoway in daylight
Today was another day spent in plantation country.

I got to see both ends of plantation tours here, with historical accuracy in one and fantasy in the other, along with both Anglo and Creole cultures.


The first plantation was Nottoway.

Remember that I stayed here last night.

The stay came with a free ticket to the tour, so I decided to take it.

The guides wear modern clothes, but otherwise the tour is definitely slated toward the tourist end of the spectrum.

The house is heavily restored.

Almost none of the furniture is original to the plantation; some of it is reproductions.

Even most of the artwork came from somewhere else.

Keeping that in mind, however, the place does do a good job of recreating the general antebellum era.

The tours focus on the standard architecture and decorative arts, with some history thrown in.

The original owner, John Hampton Randolph, came from Nottoway, Virginia, hence the name.

He had twelve children, all of whom lived to adulthood.

For the time, this was an astonishing feat.

Three of the girls ultimately studied
Nottoway white ballroomNottoway white ballroomNottoway white ballroom

Roughly half of the stunning White Ballroom at Nottoway Plantation. Note the chaperone mirror on the far wall.
art in Germany; their paintings are the only art original to the house.

One of them painted the plantation, giving one of the earliest documents of what it looked like.

Aside from its size, the plantation tour reminded me of Oak Alley.

There is a music room filled with antique instruments.

There were multiple bedrooms with the usual items.

There was an office with old documents under glass (one was from the builder, apologizing about the difficulty finding good carpenters).

The upper part of the walls on the lower floor have intricate plasterwork, which was done by Irish artisans.

The items depicted have symbolic meanings, grape leaves for hospitality and praying hands to show reverence.

The one amazing room in the house is the White Ballroom, which may take one’s breath away.

As the name implies, it’s done entirely in white, including the furniture.

With daylight steaming through the windows, it positively glows.

There is a picture of a debutante on the far wall.

Believe it or not, she has no relation to Nottoway whatsoever; the restorer chose it as a typical portrait of its time.

On a side wall is a convex mirror, which reveals the entire room in its reflection.

It’s called the “chaperone mirror”; fathers used it to keep an eye on their daughters and their dates during formal dances.

River Road

On the way to the next plantation, I took the chance to see the Mississippi River.

The road along the river is called the River Road, from back when it really did follow the river.

These days it should properly be called the “levee road”, since that is all I saw along it.

I finally got to see the river in the town of Donnaldson, which has turned its share of the levee into a public park with jogging trails and benches.

The Mississippi River has been highly romanticized as the river of exploration and travel.

The reality these days is very different, and the river has definitely been tamed for commerce.

In Louisiana, behind the levee is an area which is normally dry, but gets soaked during storms.

This area was cleared in Donaldson but is normally full of trees.

The modern MississippiThe modern MississippiThe modern Mississippi

What the modern Mississippi looks like. The leevee is in the front, with endless barges in the distance. The river was very high from rain, so most of the land between the river and leevee is flooded in this photo.
it is the actual river, which is muddy brown year round.

On the far side was a chemical plant terminal.

This is the reality of modern life on the Mississippi.

Laura Plantation

To get a realistic idea of what life used to be like, I went to Laura Plantation.

Laura is unusual for a plantation in that the lives of the people who lived there are well documented.

We have the plantation’s namesake to thank for this, who wrote an extensive memoir before she died in the early 1900s.

Laura is now run by descendents of Louisiana Creoles.

This place is their heritage, and they clearly take great pride is showing it to the world.

Laura ended up being my best plantation tour so far.

The plantation was founded by the last governor of Louisiana under French rule, Guillaume Duparc.

He got the position after serving in the French Navy.

In this latter capacity, he commanded one of the ships at Yorktown.

After Louisiana was sold to the United States, he convinced Thomas Jefferson to give him the plantation as a reward for
Rural Louisiana cemeteryRural Louisiana cemeteryRural Louisiana cemetery

Proof that not just New Orleans cemeteries are picturesque. This one is just outside Donaldson, with the leevee directly behind it.
his naval service.

The tour starts in the basement.

The guide describes Creole culture in detail and how this is reflected in the house.

For starters, the only people who lived at Laura were slaves.

Owners were expected to live in New Orleans.

What everyone thinks of as the plantation house is actually a business office!

The most important item is that in Creole culture family and business were intertwined.

Children were expected to work in their families’ business, and at least one was expected to ultimately take over.

This provided lots of advantages, but also lots of conflicts.

Laura’s family had plenty of both, which she documented in her book.

The basement contains a number of ceramic jars.

They were used to hold olive oil and other goods shipped from France.

The Creoles quickly figured out that the jars were more valuable than what they contained.

Thanks to the huge volume of water from northern states, the Mississippi River has an average temperature of 56 degrees, even in summer.

This water seeps into the soil, so it’s also much colder than the air
Laura PlantationLaura PlantationLaura Plantation

The main house at Laura Plantation. It has been heavily restored to the original plans after a fire.

The jars allowed people to store things in this cold soil and keep it dry.

They became refrigerators for people who could not get ice.

The house was built by slaves in only three months.

They came from Senegal, which had the reputation for producing the best carpenters at the time.

The money for the job went to their owner.

The contract specified a “36 house”.

In the basement, the floor beams above are numbered from one to thirty six.

Creole houses were built to a standard design at the time, so knowing the number of beams gave the size.

The next part of the tour covers the first floor.

The house has four front doors.

The ones of either end go to offices.

One office was for men and the other office was for women.

A remarkable number of women ran Creole plantations.

The other two doors go to the center room.

This room was for socializing after conducting business.

Of course, the socializing served to further community ties.

One custom that latter settlers did not get
Brown GoldBrown GoldBrown Gold

Raw sugar, the source of wealth for Creole sugarcane planters. Sugarcane ranked with rice in the amount of labor needed to produce it, and the possible profits.
is that people only entered the house through the far doors, depending on who they planned to meet.

The center doors were used to cool the house.

They let in lots of bugs and animals.

When later American settlers built traditional English houses with a center door, the Creoles could not understand why they would want to use the same door that animals used.

In the center room, the guide tells the rest of the family story.

The plantation ultimately passed to a grandson who was borderline insane, Guillaume Benjamin Duparc.

He killed his cousin in a duel when he was seventeen.

His parents then sent him to a French military school for five years.

He came back when he was eligible to inherit.

He had to have a child to do so, to prove he would pass on the family business.

He quickly married the daughter of a local plantation owner, and had a daughter of his own, Elisabeth Duparc.

After he inherited, he promptly spent it partying in New Orleans (sound familiar?) and died of poisoning.

His daughter was Laura’s mother.

French storage jarFrench storage jarFrench storage jar

Buried in the ground, these became the perfect refrigerator.

Laura’s mother insisted she would be different than her abusive father.

If anything, she went too far in the other direction.

She told Laura that she would inherit the plantation from an early age, and that she had to study up and be a good girl accordingly.

There was partially a cultural reason for this.

The Louisiana government was trying to deemphasize traditional Creole culture at this point, by insisting Creoles not speak French at home, learn English, and follow American customs.

Laura Locoul ultimately rebelled at her mother’s interference.

In her early 20s, she scandalized the family by getting secretly engaged.

She kept the romance a secret from her family not because her fiancé was not from Louisiana, but because he was an Episcopalian!

She did ultimately inherit the plantation, at which point she sold it all and moved to St. Louis with her husband.

She spent the rest of her life there.

Tellingly, her memoirs were written in English; she disowned her cultural legacy along with her family one.

To this day, descendents of other family members discuss Laura only to the extent
Laura plantation owner's officeLaura plantation owner's officeLaura plantation owner's office

A creole plantation house was a business office. Here is where business was conducted
they have to.

Creole Slavery

The tour ultimately leaves the house and passes through the slave cabins.

These are the only intact slave cabins on a Louisiana plantation.

Slavery under the Creoles was different to that under the English.

The French king created an entire body of law, the Code Noir, to govern handling slaves.

Owners were required to furnish adequate food and shelter.

Slaves got every Sunday off for worship.

Slavery was culturally based, not racially; any non-Catholic could be a slave, including many Native Americans.

The biggest difference was something called “gradual emancipation”.

Sugar cane had to be picked in a short period of time, often requiring eighteen or more hours per day to get it done.

To ensure slaves did not sabotage the harvest, most owners paid them a bonus when it was done.

Slaves that saved their bonuses over a few decades acquired enough funds to buy their freedom.

The slave cabins are simple four room houses.

Each family got one room.

The cabins stretched for over a mile along a dirt road.

The first and
Laura slave cabinsLaura slave cabinsLaura slave cabins

Two of the dozens of slave cabins that once stood at Laura Plantation. They originally stretched to the forest in the distance.
last still stand; the last is barely visible in the heat haze.

Every morning a bell would ring, and slave families would send their young children to pick up breakfast materials (everyone else was working in the fields).

Imagine hauling a pot of stuff a mile at eight years old.

Unusually, Laura plantation has pictures of many of the slaves.

Laura’s mother arranged to take them just before the Civil War; they were found in the attic of the main house.

The cabins survived because they were used by sharecroppers after the Civil War (see April 6th).

They also survived because they have historic significance.

In the 1840s, French folklore expert Alcee Fortier recorded the stories of slaves on the plantation.

When his book was translated into English, the name was changed to Brer Rabbit.

These famous stories were partly born in the cabins on Laura Plantation (several other plantations had similiar stores)

After Laura, I drove to the northern end of the plantations, in Natchez Mississippi.

Many plantation gift shops have a famous map of the plantations, with Natchez at the top.

The drive took
Slave cabin interiorSlave cabin interiorSlave cabin interior

The interior of one room of the slave cabin. Each room held a family.
a while.

When I got to Natchez, I had dinner at a barbeque place called Pig Out.

Their barbeque is unusual in that they serve it with no sauce at all.

One can add it themselves if they want.

I ate mine without, because it would be less messy.

The meat was heavenly, long cooked and moist.

This barbeque ranked with Lexington as the best of the trip.

I now realize that I like my barbeque with less sauce than most, because it allows the meat’s flavor to shine through (and it leaves less to clean up afterward).

I stayed at a bed and breakfast called Historic Oak Hill.

It says something about this town that virtually every descent accommodation is a bed and breakfast.

All of them are in historic buildings.

This one is on the National Register of Historic Places.

It was a merchant’s house rather than a plantation like yesterday.

The back yard was memorable, with a fountain surrounded by a wide lawn.

Additional photos below
Photos: 26, Displayed: 26


Chaperone MirrorChaperone Mirror
Chaperone Mirror

What the chaperone saw during a party in the White Ballroom
Guest bedroomGuest bedroom
Guest bedroom

Those willing to spend more than I did can stay here overnight!
Nottoway gardensNottoway gardens
Nottoway gardens

A small portion of the plantation gardens
Notoway fountainNotoway fountain
Notoway fountain

Fountain within the gardens
Laura sugar kettlesLaura sugar kettles
Laura sugar kettles

Now used as planters, these kettles were used to boil sugarcane into syrup
Numbered beamNumbered beam
Numbered beam

Creole plantations were constructed to a standard pattern, including numbered beams like this
Laura porchLaura porch
Laura porch

Cooling in the days before air conditioning
Laura gardensLaura gardens
Laura gardens

A small portion of the gardens at Laura
Food gardenFood garden
Food garden

Laura was a self-contained world.
Outer buildingsOuter buildings
Outer buildings

Surviving outer buildings at Laura
Slave food basketSlave food basket
Slave food basket

Each day, the youngest child in a slave family lugged this basket to the main house to pick up supplies.

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