Plantation. For me, the word evokes many images. Opulent mansions on grand estates dripping with more southern charm than the KFC Colonel himself; the products of a simpler, bygone antebellum era. But also, I generally associate the word with slavery, the barbaric American practice that wasn’t ended until the Civil War nearly tore the country in two. It is hard for me to separate the ideas of the two, as they will be forever inextricably linked.
After the war and the abolition of slavery, it became near impossible for many of these plantations to remain open and many fell into disrepair or were torn down. However, some have been preserved providing a glimpse into what life was like for both the plantation owners and the slaves they kept. Oak Alley is one such plantation located along the Mississippi river halfway between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, near the small town of Vacherie, Louisiana.
During previous trips to New Orleans, I had always been interested in visiting the plantations, but the city itself held so much lure that it was difficult for me to get motivated to get out into the countryside. But rather than walk around the French Quarter, the Garden District, or Marigny (as spectacular as they are) for the 20th time, I decided it was time to do something different.
Part of my philosophy of making the most of every travel opportunity includes visiting new places when the opportunity arises. This means that even though I had been to New Orleans several times before and loved visiting it’s unique neighborhoods, it was time to challenge myself with a new destination.
So I hopped in my car and followed the old Mississippi River Road around the curves and bends of the mighty river as it wound out of New Orleans and into the Louisiana countryside. An hour or so later, I arrived at the gates of the resolute Oak Alley.
If you think you recognize Oak Alley, it’s because the house and grounds have been featured in numerous movies including Interview with the Vampire. I had never visited a plantation before, but was pleased to find that Oak Alley did not disappoint – it was the quintessential plantation setting I had anticipated.
As I pulled into the parking lot, I passed the fields where sugar cane grew tall in the plantations heyday. The farm land is still being used for sugar cane production to this day.
In addition to the house, there are several other structures including a garage with antique cars, overnight cottages for those who want to spend the night on plantation grounds, the overseer’s house, antique sugar cane harvesting equipment, large sugar processing kettles, gardens, a confederate army tent, and a restaurant/gift shop.
The tour itself took us through a few rooms of the house including the parlor, dining room, and a couple bedrooms. The tour covered the history of the plantation including its original construction by Jacques Telesphore Roman and subsequent preservation by the Stewart family, the last owners to live in the house.
Many design factors were included with the intention of keeping the house cool during the sweltering Louisiana summers. Some of the more interesting inclusions are:
- Wide verandas surrounding the entire house to ensure it was always in the shade
- Windows and doors located across from one another to generate cross breezes
- A large panel above the dining room table that could be waved back and forth when operated by a slave in order to ‘fan’ the diners while they ate
- Various methods for dealing with the animals that would inevitably find their way through the open windows including mosquito netting, fly traps, and a stick in the children’s’ bedroom that the night maiden could use to chase off any animals that might try to make off with the small children (I wish I were kidding)
Towards the end of the tour, we were escorted out onto the Veranda where we were presented with the view of the alley of oaks, the signature draw of this particular plantation.
Because the veranda wraps all the way around the house, I was able to walk all the way around and take in the view of the grounds from every direction.
The tours end coincided with the sun setting and I decided to stick around awhile longer to see the house lit up at night. As the light disappeared from the sky and the other visitors left, the plantation became extremely still, quiet, and peaceful. The mansion looked even better lit up at dusk, and the stately oaks provided the perfect frame.
Oak Alley more than exceeded my expectations for my first plantation visit and I spent much more time there than I originally intended. But I feel that the plantation somewhat neglects the role slavery played in its history. There are some informational placards and it was briefly mentioned during the tour, but given the role it played during the historical era of Oak Alley, it is not enough.
However, Oak Alley is in the process of reconstructing slave quarters on their original sites. Hopefully, this will give the necessary attention to slavery’s role at Oak Alley and the rest of the antebellum south.
3645 Louisiana 18
Hours: First tour at 9:30 am, last tour at 5:00 pm; grounds open until 9:00 pm
Cost: Adult – $18, Teens – $7.50, Children $4.50
TRR Tips – The tour itself takes less than an hour, so this can be a quick visit. However, in order to allow plenty of time for the grounds as well, at least two hours is recommended. Alternatively, if you don’t have a lot of time or don’t want to spend the money, you can still get a great view of the Oak Alley from the road outside of the plantation. I saw several cars pulling over, taking pictures, and heading on their way.