Ghosts Of the Mississippi
Published: May 2009
By George Howe Colt
Before the Civil War, there were several hundred plantations lining the River Road between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. The handful that remain offer a glimpse into a bygone era.
I am not a bed-and-breakfast person, and I'm on the outs with inns. I don't like thumping my head against the eaves of quaint New England saltboxes, ripping Shaker quilts when I turn over in bed, or smiling politely as my innkeeper, who gave up Wall Street "to find out what really matters," describes in numbing detail the renovations he's made in his life and his brick-and-mortar money pit. But as I turned down a long gravel driveway in Napoleonville, Louisiana, toward a white-columned mansion so elegant that I wondered whether I'd strayed onto the set of a car commercial, I had an inkling that Madewood Plantation House was no ordinary inn. Indeed, my room seemed large enough to host a respectable game of half-court basketball. My half tester English Regency mahogany bed was the size of a small tugboat. And if heretofore I hadn't known a tester from a toaster, I felt an undeniable frisson as I hung my jeans in an antique oak armoire and stowed my T-shirts in a marble-topped dresser embellished with hand-painted cameo angels. History lay all around me: in the Mathew Brady photograph of Robert E. Lee in the hallway; in the 48-foot-long ballroom, where Southern belles once waltzed till dawn. As I looked out a floor-to-ceiling "guillotine" window to the lawn where Union soldiers once camped, I could feel 150 years begin to fall away.
From Baton Rouge to New Orleans, the great sugar plantations border both sides of the river all the way," wrote Mark Twain in Life on the Mississippi, "...standing so close together, for long distances, that the broad river lying between the two rows, becomes a sort of spacious street." On the eve of the Civil War, this area was the richest in America, and its residents competed in building the most opulent mansions the country had ever seen. And even though the region became the nation's poorest after the war, many of Louisiana's plantations survived. During the Depression, however, most of what were known as "America's castles" fell prey to vandals or the wrecking ball. Of some 350 mansions that once lined the 100-mile stretch of the Mississippi between New Orleans and Baton Rouge known as the River Road, only a few dozen survive—but even that number makes the area home to one of the largest concentrations of antebellum plantations left standing. In an effort to keep their gold-leaf mirrors gold and their live oaks live, many have opened their ornate doors to overnight guests who wish to sleep in beds where Confederate soldiers once slept, sip mint juleps on verandas pocked by Yankee bullets, and relive, as one owner puts it, "a time when Southern aristocrats knew the true art of living." On a recent five-day meander along the River Road, I enjoyed a lifestyle straight out of Gone with the Wind and pondered the often painful history that seems embedded in each chandelier crystal, each wisp of Spanish moss.
I had also been drawn to the River Road by another sort of history—mine. For nearly a century, five generations of my family had gathered at our own ancestral manse, a rambling, 11-bedroom summer house on Cape Cod, less grand, perhaps, than Tara, but no less dear to its occupants. (In our innocence, we had called it the Big House, not knowing the phrase was commonly used to describe prisons and plantations.) Several years ago, unable to afford the taxes and upkeep, my extended family weighed the options—we, too, briefly considered opening it as a B&B—and reluctantly put it on the market. At the last minute, when it was about to be sold to a developer and torn down, a cousin stepped in and bought it. The Big House has undergone extensive renovation and, though every time I visit I thank God (and my cousin) for its existence, its original details are preserved only in family memories. I had come to Louisiana because I sorely missed the sense of opening a front door and walking into the past.
Driving north from New Orleans along the River Road, however, I soon realized that the past might be more elusive than I'd thought. For one thing, ever since 1949, when the Army Corps of Engineers built a 40-foot levee to contain it, the Mississippi itself has been all but invisible from the River Road, although its presence can be inferred from the tops of tankers that glide eerily by. For another, what the Tourist Bureau calls Plantation Country might be more accurately called Petrochemical Country, cane fields having given way over the course of the 20th century to a nightmare landscape of cranes, coal piles, and smokestacks that only Hieronymus Bosch or a Lego-loving six-year-old boy could find beautiful. (The name changes alone suggest the drastic transformation: Providence Plantation became IMC Agrico Chemical; Godchaux-Reserve Plantation became Globalplex; New Hope Plantation became Copolymer.)It seems almost hallucinatory, therefore, to round a bend and come upon a vast, lime-green lawn, a canopy of ancient live oaks, and an antebellum mansion so white it appears to glow in the fading afternoon light. It is as if a Tiffany saleswoman had opened a crumpled brown paper bag to display a flawless pearl.
Like that of every River Road mansion, Madewood's past is filled with enough money, cruelty, loss, war, suffering, and rebirth to sustain several television miniseries. In 1846, Thomas Pugh, a wealthy sugar planter and father of 15, decided to build a house that would outdo his nephew's next door. It took four years to make 600,000 bricks from local clay and another four to fashion them into the regal manse dubbed Queen of the Bayou. Although Union troops torched the surrounding land, Madewood was spared by a Yankee general who took pity on the Confederate widow living there. Over the following century, the plantation saw six different owners, all of whom wanted the land but not the house. By 1964, when a New Orleans businesswoman (whose family had lost its own plantation during the Depression) bought the house and 20 acres for $70,000, the Queen of the Bayou—on the market for 15 years and unoccupied for nearly 20—was 11,000 square feet of handyman's special. The roof leaked, the windows were broken, the lace curtains had rotted to powder, and the ballroom was piled to its 16-foot ceiling with hay. It took two years to clean out the place, and two decades before—in a response to an unusually high electric bill—Madewood was opened to paying guests.
Madewood bills itself as a "house party in the cane fields." During my visit, the party began with wine and cheese under the Waterford crystal chandelier in the library. There were nine of us: a farmer and his wife from Georgia, a paper distributor and his wife from Florida, a prison guard and his wife from Illinois, a dot-com couple from California, and me. At first we were as awkward as contestants on the initial episode of a reality TV show (Survivor: Plantation Country). But by the time we sat down at a long oak table in the candlelit dining room, the conversation wafted easily from Mardi Gras to teenage fashion to politics. The meal, prepared and served by longtime family retainers (summoned when one of us sheepishly rang a bell shaped like a belle), constituted a sort of Greatest Hits of Louisiana cuisine: chicken and andouille gumbo; crawfish étouffée; corn bread. An exquisitely civilized 2 1/2 hours later (10 times the duration of an average meal at my house), we adjourned to the parlor for brandy and coffee.
After the other guests retired to their rooms upstairs, I had the run of the first floor: curling up in an English wing chair in the library with a back issue of theSouthern Review; studying the Hogarth prints over the 18th-century Hiller organ in the music room. Ever since first visiting the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, where period rooms lie irresistible but untouchable behind red velvet ropes, I've fantasized about slipping under those ropes and living in history—at least until the guards kicked me out. At Madewood, I lived out that fantasy. Yet it is hardly a museum, but rather a mix of the grand and the homey that brought to mind my own Big House. The doorknobs rattle comfortably; the guest rooms are equipped with boom boxes; the antique paintings are interspersed with family snapshots; my bedroom door was embellished with initials carved by a former owner's children. The next morning, after bracing myself with a cup of chicory-laced coffee (delivered to my room on a silver tray), I felt sufficiently at home to do my Pilates exercise routine on the bedroom rug without worrying that I would offend the Southern belle who stared at me from her 19th-century portrait on the wall.
A leisurely 40-minute drive north of Napoleonville, past sugar-cane fields, columned ranch houses, and an occasional oak-shaded antebellum cottage, brought me to Nottoway Plantation. If Madewood is sweet, selfless Melanie, Nottoway is vain, gorgeous, over-the-top Scarlett. The father of 11 who built Nottoway in 1859 insisted that he would have preferred more modest digs, but wealth and position demanded he keep up with the Joneses, not to mention the Pughs. So John Hampden Randolph built a 64-room, 53,000-square-foot, Italianate mansion resembling a three-tier wedding cake—the kind that might have been served had Liza Minnelli married Liberace.Its in-your-face grandeur was nearly destroyed a few years later, however, when a Union gunboat opened fire on "the white castle."The story goes that a Northern officer, a former guest, recognized Nottoway and came ashore, eventually promising Mrs. Randolph he would spare the house if she'd invite him back after the war. Thanks to a wealthy Australian who spent a night here in 1985 and loved it so much that he bought it, the largest surviving antebellum mansion in the South remains largely intact, from the lightning rod on its slate roof to the green velvet curtains that, rumor has it, so impressed David O. Selznick, he copied them for Gone with the Wind.
At Madewood, the moment I'd parked my car, a hostess greeted me with such warmth that I wondered whether we'd met before. At Nottoway, a bellman accompanied me in silence as I wrestled my suitcase up two flights of stairs, where we found 23 Texans touring my bedroom. It was a bedroom worth touring: a half tester 1860 rosewood bed so tall I had to use the embroidered footstool to climb aboard, and floor-to-ceiling windows that looked over the levee to the broad, mud-brown Mississippi—Nottoway's size makes it one of the few River Road mansions able to offer river views. But the antebellum vibe was undercut by the plastic drinking cups sheathed in hygienic wrap and the morning coffee, accompanied by vials of Coffee Rich, that was nearly as watery as the river outside my window. Nottoway seemed to be a cross between Chenonceau and Motel 6. It's not that I wanted the historical fidelity of Colonial Williamsburg (I was grateful that the mattresses were no longer stuffed with Spanish moss), but Madewood had spoiled me. Nottoway was a house—a magnificent house, to be sure—not a home, a distinction underscored when, returning from dinner in a nearby town, I found I'd been accidentally locked out and had to track down the security guard to let me in. The following morning, as I sat in the dining hall over my "full plantation breakfast" (if the seven Randolph daughters had eaten a full plantation breakfast every day, they would have had to wear their hoop skirts upside down), the sound system began to play a symphonic piece that seemed strangely familiar. The other guests looked up from their grits with dreamy expressions. Then it struck me: it was "Tara's Theme" from Gone with the Wind.
I shouldn't have been surprised. Never mind that Margaret Mitchell set her epic in the hills of northern Georgia. Never mind that the movie was filmed on a back lot in Hollywood. Tourists still flock to the River Road in search of Tara or a reasonable facsimile thereof. They come closest to finding it at Oak Alley, whose quarter-mile allée of 300-year-old live oaks has appeared in Interview with the Vampire, Primary Colors, and many other films. Not wanting to miss what one visitor called "Tara with nicer grounds," I backtracked 50 miles downriver—past colorful Creole cottages, trailer parks, derelict plantations, and Freetown, a 150-acre settlement founded by emancipated slaves in 1872—and pulled into a parking lot crowded with tour buses.
Like those of the Hollywood Tara, Oak Alley's trees are unencumbered by Spanish moss (a previous owner ordered it removed because she thought it looked creepy). There is something similarly sanitized about Oak Alley itself, one of several plantations at which guides dress in period costume. Ours, a portly man wearing a Confederate greatcoat, a broad-brimmed cavalry hat, and a tasseled sword, spouted a moonlight-and-magnolias patter so canned that I half expected a Confederate drummer boy to materialize and provide rim shots for his jokes. After the tour, I sat on the veranda nursing a mint julep sold to me by a middle-aged "belle" for $6 in a plastic cup imprinted with Oak Alley's address, phone number, and Web site. As I watched would-be Scarletts and Rhetts pose for photos beneath Oak Alley's eponymous oaks, I realized that during my plantation visits, the only people of color I'd seen, with the exception of two tour guides at Nottoway, were those sweeping the floors or serving the food. (Most guides managed to avoid saying what I came to think of as "the S-word," and conveyed the impression that, on their plantations, the antebellum masters had been benevolent patriarchs who treated their slaves as they did their own children. My Madewood tour guide introduced a 59-year-old woman in a maid's uniform, born on the plantation, as "a seventh-generation employee," a semantic whitewashing that made me squirm.) Perhaps I was feeling guilty at having so thoroughly enjoyed my taste of antebellum splendor at Madewood and Nottoway. But I knew that to experience plantation life fully, I should also be sharing a sparsely furnished two-room cabin with a dozen other people, eating salt pork and molasses, and cutting cane from "can see to can't see" (dawn to dusk) without pay. My reverie was interrupted when the plantation bell, once used to summon slaves to and from the fields, rang to announce the next tour.
There is, of course, no such B&B. But there is one River Road outpost that tells the story of life behind the big house. It had its genesis in 1991, when an African-American woman named Kathe Hambrick, who had recently moved back to Louisiana to help run the family funeral home, toured a River Road mansion. "The guide said the planter had owned 12,000 acres. I asked how many people had been enslaved there. 'I think about fifty,' he said." Hambrick was troubled. "What got me was the 'I think'—that they just didn't care enough to know."
Today Hambrick runs the River Road African American Museum in Donaldsonville, about an hour south of Baton Rouge. Here, visitors are confronted by the flip side of the Aubusson carpets and Waterford crystal chandeliers:a pair of leg-irons; a spiked collar used to punish runaways; a photo of a slave from nearby San Francisco Plantation, his forehead branded with his owner's initials. A sign near the entrance asks, COULD THESE BE YOUR ANCESTORS?above the names of more than 500 slaves who worked on local plantations, names that Hambrick tracked down through courthouse records. These days, people come from around the world—as well as from the predominantly African-American communities in the surrounding area—to study this list and to search local cane fields for ancestral graves.
The next day, I drove north of Baton Rouge, where the refineries end with a final belch, to St. Francisville, where the meadows, forests, and red-clay hills haven't changed much since Audubon painted 80 of his Birds of America there. I stayed at Butler Greenwood Plantation, where the live oaks, grown from acorns brought from Haiti in 1799, are now so thick one can hardly see the sky. Butler Greenwood is one of the few plantations still in the family of its original owners. Its big house, a simple raised cottage built long before the one-upmanship of Greek Revival took hold, contains a comfy clutter accumulated over centuries: the original land grant signed in 1797; silverware that was buried under the camellias to keep it from falling into the hands of Union soldiers; an ivory-handled sword that was carried by the current owner's great-grandfather at Robert E. Lee's funeral. "We haven't thrown anything out in two hundred years," says Anne Butler, the seventh-generation owner, who also writes books and speaks at Southern Belle Writing Workshopsto help keep the family seat in the family. It was here that I found myself missing my family's Big House most acutely and spinning fantasies of living there myself and never throwing anything out.
As I strolled through the music room, from whose corner the rosewood French Pleyel concert grand that Butler played as a child hasn't budged since before the Civil War, I was reminded that the River Road—despite the artificial creamers and the logo-edplastic cups—is one of the few places left in this country where history isn't framed in a museum or re-created in Disney animatronics. It is history to be touched, tasted, lived in—it must be savored before it disappears. Every few years, another plantation succumbs to fire, age, or the economy. That morning, en route to Butler Greenwood, I had seen an allée of ancient live oaks, their branches draped with pale boas of Spanish moss, leading to a field of weeds.
Small wonder that, whether they are Scarlett wannabes searching for Tara, Civil War buffs soaking up the atmosphere, or descendants of slaves exploring their roots (or Yankee writers seeking a vicarious sense of continuity), people come to the River Road looking for something they've lost. In an era when the average American moves once every five years and everything from diapers to income is described as "disposable," the plantation houses of the River Road offer an impression of endurance that is precious—and stunning. The other day, a middle-aged tourist stepped into the Butler Greenwood dining room and suddenly stopped. "It smells just like my grandmother's house," he said. Then he began to sob.
If you're looking for the actual River Road, it isn't a single route but rather a region between New Orleans and Baton Rouge (the "upper River Road" extends north past the state capital to St. Francisville and the Louisiana/Mississippi border). Most airlines fly to Baton Rouge and New Orleans.
PLACES TO STAY
Madewood Plantation House DOUBLES FROM $165. 4250 HWY. 308, NAPOLEONVILLE; 800/375-7151 OR 985/369-7151; www.madewood.com
Butler Greenwood Plantation Guests sleep in the old cook's quarters, the renovated kitchen, or one of five whimsical cottages on the grounds. DOUBLES FROM $125. 8345 HWY. 61, ST. FRANCISVILLE; 225/635-6312; www.butlergreenwood.com
BEST VALUE Oak Alley Plantation DOUBLES FROM $115. 3645 HWY. 18, VACHERIE; 800/442-5539 OR 225/265-2151; www.oakalleyplantation.com
Nottoway Plantation DOUBLES FROM $135. 30970 HWY. 405, WHITE CASTLE; 866/527-6884 OR 225/545-2730; www.nottoway.com
Myrtles Plantation The rooms at this 207-year-old cottage may be well-furnished with ghosts (to my disappointment, I slept like a baby) but they are a bit sparse when it comes to creature comforts. DOUBLES FROM $115. 7747 HWY. 61, ST. FRANCISVILLE; 800/809-0565 OR 225/635-6277; www.myrtlesplantation.com
PLACES TO EAT
Lafitte's Landing "He could cook a shoe and make it taste good," a friend told me about chef-owner John Folse. I opted instead for the heavenly soft-shell crab with crawfish tails and corn-bread stuffing. DINNER FOR TWO $80. 404 CLAIBORNE AVE., DONALDSONVILLE; 225/473-1232
The Cabin Hearty Cajun and Creole food in a converted slaves' cabin. DINNER FOR TWO $50. HWY. 22 AT HWY. 44, BURNSIDE; 225/473-3007
PLACES TO VISIT
Laura Plantation This 1805 French-Creole confection is three miles east
of Oak Alley. 2247 HWY. 18, VACHERIE; 888/799-7690 OR 225/265-7690; www.lauraplantation.com
San Francisco Plantation A fantastical steamboat Gothic mansion built in the 1850's. 2646 HWY. 44, GARYVILLE; 888/322-1756 OR 985/535-2341; www.sanfranciscoplantation.org
River Road African American Museum 406 CHARLES ST., DONALDSONVILLE; 225/474-5553; www.africanamericanmuseum.org
Louisiana State Penitentiary Museum Here you can see "Old Sparky" (the electric chair that ended the lives of 87 men and women from 1941 to 1991) as well as inmates' homemade weapons and the script from Dead Man Walking (filmed at the prison). HWY. 66, ANGOLA; 225/655-2592; www.angolamuseum.org