So once I got over the shock of looking at such beautiful places built on the back of slavery. I was able to once again get lost in the beauty of these amazing plantations. By far the one I was looking the most forward to seeing was Oak Alley Plantation, named after the row of live oaks that line the main walkway to the front of the house. I sat on the bench across the road and stared. I took picture after picture and found that none really did it justice. I have seen the plantation in movies multiple times, but for me nothing seems so real as when I see it with my own eyes. Oak Alley was no different.
When I say that I have never seen anything so beautiful, I hope that you can believe it is no exaggeration. I have seen beautiful homes before, amazing monuments, awe inspiring views, but this house was something else entirely. It was breathtaking. I think because it felt accessible. I didn’t feel like a outsider peaking at something that would always be just beyond my reach. It felt real and present. It felt like I could touch this place everyday somehow. Could I afford to buy this place, nope, but it still feels accessible. Go figure.
Opulence is definitely not in short supply. But it is hard to see what might be original and what was added later. Unlike many of the plantation lining the river people actually lived at Oak Alley well into the late 20th century. It had a lot of years where it sat derelict and empty. At one point a herd of cows sought refuge in the dining room from a storm. But in the early part of the 20th century a wealthy family bought the plantation for the not so kingly, but maybe queenly price of $50,000 ($700K today) and restored it. They did add quite a few modern conveniences to the plantation, but largely they held onto the original charm.
What was surprising is that it actually isn’t very large. It only had 4 bedrooms. During the time of it’s construction, it was common for all of the children (no matter how many and what gender) to share one bedroom. Even the rich didn’t believe that every child deserved their own room… When boys were of age, typically about 13, they were given a cottage on the property as a private residence. I found myself thinking it was so that they could debauch themselves on the maid servants and sow any other oats and not disturb the delicate sensibilities residing at the big house. This seems hard to believe, until I remembered that people in those days were typically taking on adult responsibilities by the time they were 17. The girls of course stayed in the big house until marriage.
Speaking of marriage…I found this candle fascinating. It is a courting candle, and the ultimate in the passive aggressive persons arsenal of saying no. Basically the candle was used by the father. If the suitor in question was well liked, the candle was placed at it’s highest rung and the suitor knew it was okay for him to visit with the woman, but as he lost cool points the candle was lowered. If he lost all of his cool points, the candle was blown out and his suit was over. No words were necessary to tell a man to beat feet.
In keeping with the fascination that Americans had with their European forbears, a formal garden was maintained. It was pretty, but had nothing on the native trees of the south in beauty. I will take a row of live oaks and a field of wildflowers any day.
A few more pictures…
And of course, I didn’t leave without a souvenir!
Now that you’ve seen how the very wealthy residents of the region lived, I can’t close the chapter on the plantations of River Road without talking about life for the poorest residents.