A region is more than the city that anchors it. Keeping this in mind, when we tour a new city, we sometimes try to get out of town for a day or two. Visiting New Orleans gave us the opportunity to see a unique and lively Caribbean port city but we wanted to see more of deep-southern Louisiana, a region as foreign to us as any land abroad. So on the third day of a family trip to New Orleans, we rented a car and drove into the swamps. We were in route for the Oak Alley Plantation.
Plantations, once symbols of the American slave-system and cash crops, have appeared to have seen a resurgence in the form of tourism, weddings, and the occasional high-end bed and breakfast. The Oak Alley Plantation, in Vacherie, Louisiana, is likely the most picturesque of these estates. A sugar cane plantation throughout most of the 19th century, mismanagement and misfortune led the estate into disrepair until 1925, when an extensive restoration was commissioned by the new owner, Josephine Stewart. At the end of her life, Josephine gifted the estate to a foundation, which opened the plantation to the public.
After an hour of weaving across the Mississippi River, through swaps, and past fields in our rental car, we had arrived at Oak Alley. There was a small admission fee to get in and we set out with a map to explore the grounds.
We started our visit with the "Slavery at Oak Alley" exhibit which consisted of six reconstructed "slave cabins" organized to depict slave-life at different moments on the plantation, starting about 60 years before emancipation and ending just thereafter.
There is so much at stake when telling a story as disgraceful as that of slavery. One one hand, you must be unequivocally honest about the hardship, tragedy, and despair that underlines the very existence of a slave system. On the other hand, to focus solely on the system by which these people were oppressed and not on the customs, the culture, and the relationships these slaves formed with each other (and their slaveowners) would be equally dishonest.
Which is why I believe the way in which Oak Alley addresses the matter is the most tactful and respectful way they could have. Regarding slavery on the plantation, the exhibit is open about what they know, admit what they do not know, and focus their storytelling on the individual slaves that worked on the plantation, as well as the lives they made for themselves. Both the slavery exhibit and later, our tour docent, dedicated the regality and majesty of the estate to the slaves themselves and admitted that the beauty we were all enjoying today came at a tremendous human cost. Their thought to include all of the slave's names was an honest way to give credit where it was due.
After strolling through the Slavery at Oak Alley exhibits, we made our way down to the Big House, the architectural centerpiece of the plantation.
As I mentioned in another blog on our street car ride to the New Orleans Garden District, it was at the National WWII Museum that we were reminded of how popular the week between Christmas and the New Year could be for tourism; the Oak Alley Plantation was no exception. A short queue wrapped around the building and while it didn't appear significant, a few docents soon let us know it was uncommon (outside of this week) and due to the capacity of each tour, our wait would take over 45 minutes!
I am not a tremendously patient man and queues make me casually writhe. As is the case, I cooled-my-jets by indulging in a bona fide Southern Mint Julep. It likely came from a pre-made cocktail mix that was exceedingly sweet and syrupy. That being said, it was made with actual Kentucky Bourbon, which proved to be my favorite part.
When not standing impatiently in line or sipping on my mint julep, the wait allowed us to take turns posing with the beautiful scenery. We even, on occasion, managed a nice photo.
Finally, after a long and restless wait, we were pulsed into the mansion for our tour of the building. Our docent, a witty and enthusiastic woman who was dressed in a period-specific dress, took us through the house and spieled about the function and customs of each room. My favorite part of the tour was when she pointed out the low-tech luxuries that made life comfortable for the wealthy in the Antebellum South, such as glass fly traps or the massive fan above the dining room table, designed to keep bugs off of the food.
The house was filled with period-appropriate furniture and reproduced art of the original owners. Naturally, as it was Christmastime, the rooms appeared decorated in elegant Christmas decorations.
After touring through the downstairs and upstairs rooms, our tour guide paused to build up anticipation and then invited us to see the view that would greet the owners every morning—the oak alley of the Oak Alley Plantation. A double-row of 300 year old oak trees stretching 800 feet from the Big House to the banks of the Mississippi River.
These massive trees, reaching over the pathway and covered in mosses, are likely the plantation's greatest asset. They are the living embodiment of a romantic Southern lifestyle and the most alluring feature that draws tourists and film productions alike to the plantation.
We all had our turns taking pictures in front of the oak alley and then we were permitted to walk around the second-floor balcony to the other side of the building. Soon, we returned inside to the ground floor, where our tour concluded with a quick donation push. After that, we were out of the house and back on the grounds where we walked around the formal gardens, a small Civil War exhibit, and the garage where antique cars were stored. It made for plenty of great photo opportunities and more than a few chances to be silly.
We all knew our visit to the plantation was coming to a close, so we decided to swing back in front of the Big House to take a final "family portrait" in front of the structure.
After that, we went to the "gift shop". I was pretty close to buying a bottle of moonshine, but my frugal self caught the better of me. We enjoyed a scoop of ice cream and soon returned to the rental car.
Before officially leaving the area, we chose to park and climb an artificial levee to survey the mighty Mississippi River once again. I'm sure on most days it is quite a sight, but the dreary weather reflecting off of the water made the whole view a bit dull. We enjoyed the river from New Orleans much better.
The Oak Alley Plantation managed to balance all functions of its existence quite well. It served as a charming tourist stop, an honest telling of history, a romanticized depiction of the South, and a beautifully scenic garden, all at once. We were really glad to have taken the time to leave the city and visit this small taste of the southern Louisiana region.
For more photos from our visit, please check out the gallery below: