American Sabbatical 98: 4/21/97

Cajun Country

4/21.. Cajun Country.

The party was over Monday morning, but we were in no hurry to leave. We had eaten red beans and rice, but hadn’t tried muffalettas, beignets, or crawfish remoulade, so we’d have to come back. We hadn’t seen much of the city outside the Quarter, either, but we tried to remedy that by spiraling out from Bourbon Street.

Basin Street, the old heart of Storyville, had been renewed out of existence, and paved over. Maybe just as well, to judge by the map of low dives and cribs operating there when Cotton was King. And then Sugar. It may be where jazz was born, but Dr. John and Marie Laveau were the conjuring physician and midwife, and their hospital has been bulldozed. But the mojo is still working on other back streets.

We cruised around the modern sculpture gardens downtown, then followed the last trolley line, Jackson Street, into the Garden District. A 19th century suburb where all the noblesse built elaborate residences, the District is another wonderland of Steamboat Gothic, wrought-iron effacement, shaded galleries and effusive plantings. Honeysuckle instead of horse manure scented its privy parts. Now engulfed by greater New Orleans, this enclave is just as visually exciting as the Quarter, and its outer fringe looks like a place where artists might even afford to live. And ride the streetcar to their desires.

Destrahan Bridge
We wanted to find our way up the river to Plantation Row, but got lost passing the Elk’s Lodge, or was it the airport? Anyway, we shuttled back and forth over elevated causeways looking down into hectares of cypress swamp.. the great drowned wilderness surrounding the Crescent City. When we eventually found our off ramp it led up to the most astonishing bridge yet, at Destrahan. Peggy’s first plantation house was just downriver on the north bank, and I dropped her there, then found a prospect to view this arching feat.

The Owl sat on the shoulder while I climbed the levee. Topped with a white gravel walkway, this necessary embankment looks onto the busy ship channel of Mama M., and admires the bridge. I couldn’t find its name. No signs. Not on the maps we had. Isn’t it strange how monumental utilitarian sculpture becomes invisible and un-remarked? This is another stay-suspended act of modernity. A huge one. The two soaring towers are dark burnt sienna, a ruddy black, and are shaped like narrow vertical rectangles standing on slightly spraddled legs, with the suspended deck arching through them. If the towers are square-cornered Os, the A-line stays supporting the roadway make this the OAOA Bridge. I mouthed these syllables while I drew the scene. Tangled swamp trees along the shore, big ships, barges, and towboats sweeping past at hull speed, wakes rolling along the banks. Wildflowers glimmering on the levee.

Bryce's View

My Post Sybaritic Stress Syndrome was acting up. After ignoring the aromas for three days, I was having a full-blown noserun. I started eating anti-histamines and acting erratic. Peggy, in the other seat, was exhibiting the giddy symptoms of Historiosis.

(Memo #94)

Apr 21 Creole plantations (Destrehan and Laura)

Who? settlers of French (and Spanish) descent

What? distinctive manor houses on sugar and indigo and cotton plantations

When? built in late 1700’s and early 1800’s

Where? along the Mississippi River in Louisiana

How? agricultural cash crop and slave labor fortune

Topics: plantation economy, King Cotton, indigo, sugar cane, Creole culture

Questions: How do plantations differ from Virginia to the Carolinas to Tennessee to Louisiana? What is Creole culture? What were the conditions on a Mississippi River plantation?

Laura in the Shade

The main problem for the plantation tourist in Louisiana is choice. There are eight or ten plantation houses near New Orleans open for day trippers and many more invite you as you drive the countryside. Old time maps show plantations as strips all the way to Baton Rouge. For a whole bunch of reasons I wound up seeing Destrehan Plantation on the east bank and Laura Plantation on the west bank. They were both windows into Louisiana plantation life and Creole culture, very different from the plantations we have seen in Virginia and the Carolinas.

Both houses are in the distinctive architectural style known as RAISED CREOLE COTTAGE. This apparently combines elements of French, Caribbean, and African buildings. Its outline is long with a low pitch to the roof (we realize that the modern Florida-Southern ranch house has much the same angles). The windows are all floor to ceiling with shutters that actually shut. The house is surrounded by a wide veranda (or gallery) and all rooms open directly onto it. There are no inner hallways, you move from room directly into another room (rooms are generally multi-purpose). It is a house raised a story off the ground on brick piers. The first (brick) floor can be simply a storage area (as it is at Laura) pretty much open to the air or an integral part of the house and wonderfully cool (Destrehan). The main floor is reached by small outer staircases to the veranda. The outer appearance of a Creole plantation is simple and airy.

Generic Plantation
The Louisiana planters were cosmopolitan. They spoke only French, sent their teenaged daughters to convent school (usually in St. Louis) and their sons to train in a city and to Europe. The plantations were their main money-making enterprises, but the heart of their social life was always in New Orleans and they maintained houses there. They would come to the plantations for the main rice season (and some of the elderly stayed year round). New Orleans was their base from January to April during the ball and Mardi Gras seasons. This was also the pattern in the low country of the Carolinas, the Georgetown area rice planters kept town houses in Charleston (sometimes in Georgetown too).

Both families (at Laura and Destrehan) were among the Louisiana elite and contained lawyers and cotton merchants, politicians and civic leaders. No one family member in either house was a totally dominant historical figure (such as George Mason), so the tourist hears the FAMILY history through numerous generations and there are many good stories. There are some artifacts associated with the families, but in both cases the houses have had other owners . Destrehan was a club house for oil company executives at one time. During a vacant period the sheriff foiled robbers who were trying to make off with the house’s huge marble bath tub.

Both houses were built by slave labor with expert craftsmanship by “free men of color”. The latter was an important social class in New Orleans. French law gave slaves (and women) many more rights than in the English colonies. Apparently slaves could even own guns to hunt for their families in French Louisiana.

The cypress for the houses was cut nearby (the trees for Laura were 3000 years old when they were cut!) and the bricks (incredible soft powder when you touch them) were made on the spot. Laura was a “maison de trente” meaning it had thirty beams. The slaves spent 11 months in the forest preparing the wood for Laura and then actually built the house in 11 days!!

Plantation Gates

I was fascinated to hear at both plantations (and later at Kate Chopin’s house) how prejudiced Creoles were against “Americans” who were considered fairly uncouth. For example, no Creole (and no Quebecois) uses the front door, “seule les animaux et les americains”! (only animals and Americans do) . Laura’s most flamboyant mistress Nanette refused to allow “Americans” into her house.

Old Plantation Drive
Both plantations had amazing stories. There were a number of strong women whose actions belie the stereotype of the soft southern lady. One mistress of Destrehan wanted the plantation to be run by and for its slaves. This will was voided by the courts. The colorful Nanette of Laura was killed by a cannon ball as she paced the veranda of the house swearing at the Union gunboats threatening it.

DESTREHAN - Destrehan is the nearest plantation to New Orleans. The major highway snakes through desolate delta swamp (small trees, Spanish moss, mud) from the suburbs to a Mississippi Bridge. Destrehan is hard by the modern levee, twelve miles from New Orleans (a three hour boat ride in its heyday). There are huge grand live oaks trees in the yard. The house was once a mile from the river bank, now a few hundred yards and a levee separate them. The plantation which ran TWO miles along the Mississippi and had 600 acres, was the second largest producer of sugar in the area and one of the owners worked hard to perfect the granulation process. The slave population varied from 57 to 210 slaves.

As in Virginia, the other plantation buildings (50+) were called “dependencies” and included a tannery, 2 hospitals, 24 double slave cabins, a wash house etc.

The house underwent numerous renovations. One owner enclosed part of the gallery to provide space for a grand interior staircase, widened the house by two rooms at either end to provide more bedrooms, added a number of Greek revival features in the mid 1800’s (wider doors with Greek trim, and front columns). Two small “garconnieres” are two storied separate additions across the veranda on either side. The name describes the purpose which was to provide a separate residential area (and billiards room) for grown sons .


Destrehan really used its ground level where the dining room and butler’s pantry are. On the April day I visited the reason was obvious: the temperature dropped at least ten degrees when I entered the brick floored rooms “under” the house. The table was set for dessert. The grand double staircase took us to the main floor where there is an elegant double parlor. Bedrooms open off the parlors on either side. There is much less furniture than in a Virginia plantation. The whole house seems rather spare and airy.

The Trees at Destrahan
After the Civil War the plantation was used to house 600 freedmen who were giving training. 75-80% returned to their prewar masters and became sharecroppers.
And Destrehan became property of an oil company

LAURA - Laura claims to be the place where in 1870 the Brer Rabbit stories were recorded (in French) as the Compair Lapin tales. Joel Chandler Harris recorded the same stories in Georgia in English. Compair Lapin and Brer Rabbit are both an outgrowth of hare the trickster stories brought over by slaves from Africa.

Like Destrehan, Laura has gone through many renovations. Originally it was designed as a “u” with the two rear wings funneling cool air into the court between (which the guide says was an African design). A spiteful heir chopped off one wing and moved it. The other was moved to the center so that the house is now an atypical “T” shape (without cooling winds). A turn of the century owner added the gingerbread, front staircases, larger doors, a front door. The house has not been fully furnished or restored. Wallpaper is peeling in places.


Laura is only a few hundred yards from the river. Oddly the 69 slave cabins were three and a half miles away from the main house. Four that remain have been moved near to the big house.

Closer in
Laura was run as a family COMPANY, directed by women at several points. We heard of the family tragedies, the members dying of yellow fever, the young daughter killed in France by an injection intended to cure her acne. (The mother was so distraught that she locked herself in her bedroom at Laura for the rest of her life.)

Laura is named after a spirited daughter of the house who lived 101 years (from the term of Abraham Lincoln to that of John F. Kennedy)! She remembered a former slave, a chronic runaway, showing her the scar on his forehead where her grandmother Nanette had branded him. Laura remembered her grandmother getting ready to sell a slave mother off and keep the son on the plantations. Laura’s kindhearted father bought the two slaves who stayed on after the Civil War in gratitude (at $12 a year). Laura wrote her memories of plantation life after Gone With the Wind presented a romantic view of the old South.

The two houses made the Creole culture extremely vivid. House space was divided by gender with the men’s side (and bedrooms) down river. The men’s side had a demie-porte or narrow door (too narrow for the hoop skirts). A gentleman looking for a chamber pot, would “look for the demie-porte”. Children (88 at Laura) were born in an upriver (woman’s) bedroom. Dining rooms were big because they were used for dancing. The Creole felt the Americans didn’t know how to have fun - the Puritans allowing no liquor, dancing, smoking.


Sugar Pot
TRIVIA - The guides were extremely knowledgeable and kept giving odd small facts which intrigue me but don’t always weave in well. So.. Louisiana at one time had seven factories processing Spanish moss (which the Creole called “Frenchman’s beard”) which was used for mattresses. While Jello is only a hundred years old, in colonial times a gelatin dessert was made by boiling pigs’ feet and adding sugar and cochineal (beetles - for red color) or spinach (for green color). Yum. The huge cisterns that collected water off the roofs were also the breeding places for mosquitoes that caused the yellow fever epidemics. Huge four foot tall pottery jars came into New Orleans carrying olives and olive oil. The locals would wash them out, bury them up to their necks and use them for cold storage (apparently they stayed a constant 45 degrees).


Slave Quarters at Laura

4/21.. cont.

The Owlers swivelnecked as we rose over the OAOA. Across the Mississippi, and headed West at last. Which meant along the River Road at this point. Every mile or so we’d pass another grand plantation house set back from the river, with long drives lined in live oaks. To our right, over the levee, we’d see ship superstructures twirling their electronics as they sped past. St. Charles Parish. The drowned woodlands all had the feathery foliage of willows, tossing in the persistent winds. St. John the Baptist. Wild white lilies and purple profusions lined the road. St. James. We were into the Cajun Country, and uncertain which bayou to boogaloo to.

Plantation Row ran west along the Mississippi banks, but if we were going to plunge deep into the delta waterways, that would mean a long swing south, adding another day, at least, to our next leg. We’d promised Seth we’d be in Boulder by Sunday. Here we were, sidetracked already. I was for “Cajun Country”. I had 50’s zydeco stomping on the music machine, and the scent of boudin making my nose drip already. Our patient navigator said, “This IS Cajun Country.” Somehow I thought I had to get beaten up in New Iberia like James Lee Burke’s Robichaux to get the full impact.

We pulled into a “Cajun Deli” in Paulina and wolfed down two catfish sandwiches, fully dressed, with hot sauce. I didn’t ask if they were river fish, but they tasted muddy enough to satisfy any imagination. I kept squirting the hot sauce on it. The owner had opened the door and greeted us into the tiny diningroom, glad-handed me repeatedly, and kept topping off the tall iced tea glasses. All the locals who came and went touched him like a talisman. I did the same on the way out, for luck.

Catfish Country

By mid-afternoon Madame was toured out, and we left the river at Plaquemine. My eyes were still smarting. Maybe from the big refineries we’d been downwind of. The atmosphere along the lower Mississippi is not salubrious. We couldn’t tell if all the supine armadillos along the road, with their little claws in the air, had been run down, or just passed out.

We quartered away from the big river by compass, cutting across the Atchafalaya Basin. This was the South we’d imagined. Gigantic old live oaks squatting beside the narrow roads, draped in moss. Tin-clad shotgun shacks, or shallow hip-roofed houses with the eaves almost to the ground. The buildings were all up on brick piers, and I realize that this has been a defining detail throughout the South, especially in low country. Keep your feet dry, I figured. Along the bayous modest houses on barges were tied up under the jungle growth, with skiffs knocking at the door.

Down these lanes I found one of my hypotheses shot full of holes. Virtually no lawn ornaments! I’d expected the French regions to be a paradise of signboard delight, like Quebec and Maine. There were occasional concentrations of cement kitsch, certainly, but you wouldn’t accuse the Cajuns of excess du dooryard, at least not in Iberville or St. Landry Parishes.

Chastened, the Owlers blundered out of the undergrowth south of Alexandria, and ran across yellow-flowered cattle country, and through mile after mile of young cane. Sugar cane. Back in Mississippi that park ranger had explained that the cane in “cane breaks”, the impenetrable thickets that lined early American waterways, was the wild bamboo we have seen everywhere in the South. These grids of grassy sprouts, now knee-high, are the cutting kind of cane, destined for candy bars, or the like. And cotton. Acres of cotton. Those clusters of galvanized buildings called Lafourche Gin, or Audnaud Gin, weren’t bottling plants, sonny. The tall wire-mesh carts outside, with fluffy rags tangled in the sides, were a dead give-away. This is still cotton country, too.

Punchy with anti-allergins, and stuffed full of plantation lore, we found a working phone jack, returned to cyberspace, and slid off into slumber.

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