A Visit to the Deep South: Louisiana Sugar Plantation, Oak Alley
Grounds and Farm (article 1 of 3)
Sugar cane was a major income for the plantation, though the grounds were not very extensive compared to larger plantations up and down the Mississippi River. If you look around on your drive up to the plantation you can still see fields of sugar cane today, the wet Mississippi area is perfect for the crop.
As you arrive and park, the first building you will come to is the Main Office and Ticketbooth. The main office and ticket booth was once believed to be a jail because when Jefferson Davis Hardin purchased the house in 1917 the floors were made of dirt and the windows all had bars on them. He converted it to live in while restoring the main house.
There are several buildings around the plantation that helped support the life and economy here. When you reach the crossroads from the main path you will find a massive planter. This is actually a sugar cane kettle.
Sugar Cane Kettles were used to heat and separate the sugar from the sugar cane plant. The "mash" of water and chopped, harvested sugar cane was heated and then cooled in a series of four massive kettles, varying in size from largest (which can be found in the middle of the back oak alley leading to the main house. Yes, that massive flower planter was once sugar cane equipment, and heaved into place over a fire by no less than four men) to the smallest (which could be handled by one person). The stalks were crushed, the juice heated gradually and the impurities were skimmed off the top until the excess water (molasses really) was allowed to finish seeping out, leaving the crystallized sugar behind.
To the right of the crossroads are the remade slave quarters that house the Slavery at Oak Alley exhibition. The original cabins were all destroyed through neglect, but they were initially 2 rows of 10 cabins housed all the slaves that lived and worked on the plantation. Uniquely placed, the slave quarters were built quite close to the main house, defying traditional locations on the far side of the plantation. The plantation supported and was supported by about 50-80 slaves at a time until 1865, the end of the Civil War.
Cattle and horse tack, along with farm and harvesting equipment, such as wheelbarrows, ploughs and carts were housed in the farm sheds past the slave quarters on the east side of the property. The equipment would have included necessary items for the pecan orchard (late 1800s) and minor dairy farm (1900s). Today, these buildings are privately owned and cannot be viewed, but examples of the farm equipment have been saved and are on display with the rest of the functioning plantation exhibits in the Slavery at Oak Alley exhibit.
Next to the equipment "sheds" are the restaurant and gift store. Make sure and schedule enough time to sample the classic Louisiana cuisine and play in the gift store, which has everything from the usual trinkets to artwork by local artists.
There was once an award wining pecan orchard on the grounds in this area. Grafted by Antoine, a slave, from 1846-1848 there were 110 trees total that were prized for their tenderness, thin shells and large size. The "Centennial Papershells", as they were named, were cut down though to make room for more sugar cane fields. Only about 14 trees are left on the plantation today, and only because they were replanted in the Stewart and current Foundation era.
Just north of the restaurant lie the Overseers' house, tenant quarters and farm equipment sheds, which are all private buildings now, but can be viewed from afar. The Blacksmith shop, on the other hand, is still used for demonstrations most days and is one of the few remaining 1890s style forge left in Louisiana.
To the left of the sugar cane kettle, heading in the direction of the main house, are the Garconnieres. These were housing for young men after the age of 15 and until they were married. Garcon, in French, means boys. Only married men, women and children were allowed to live in the main house.
The Plantation Bell can be found just outside, between the main house and the kitchen, the bell was used to measure out life on the plantation. Using different rings the bell would communicate to the inhabitants when to go to work and leave the fields, lunch and dinner times, the beginning and end of the day and functioned as an emergency signal. Cast in 1848.
The Gardens found around the grounds were mainly built by Josephine Stewart, the last resident owner, in the 1950s-70s. She was very fond of the English gardening style of the time and planted a great many boxwoods on the grounds to form the geometric hedge shapes that can be seen today. Many of these boxwoods are nearly 100 years old now. Coming around the front of the main house you will pass through the kitchen garden to get to the Outdoor Kitchen.
Kitchens were always built apart from the main house in case of fire. The kitchen having a surplus of fire starting activities, if it caught on fire then it could burn down and not catch anything else on fire. Now it is used as an antique car garage to house the Stewarts' collection from the early to middle 1900s.
Across from the Kitchen/Garage is an example of a Confederate Officer's tent. Take a few minutes to look around and watch the informational video on the war.
The live oaks around the grounds give the plantation it's name. The 28 oaks that line the front quarter mile drive from the house to the river were originally planted by an unknown settler in the early 1700s. The oaks are all members of the Live Oak Society and each has a name. More live oak trees were planted to line the back alleys and sides of the main house by Jacques Roman in the 1800s, in an attempt to make his socialite bride, Celina, more at home in the countryside after she moved to the plantation from her parents' house in New Orleans.