Historic Treasures Beyond the Big Columns
Rare, interesting pieces among collections inside antebellum mansions
The Clementine Hunter murals at Melrose Plantation near Natchitoches
Thinking of the antebellum plantations in Louisiana, the first images that come to mind are the mansions themselves. These typically huge, ornate and architecturally complex homes served as the living quarters and business hubs for extremely wealthy sugar and cotton planters. Envision the homes’ massive columns, exquisite landscaping and formal gardens, centuries-old live oak trees and tranquil settings on the Mississippi River and other major waterways. Any Louisiana traveler packing a camera is likely to capture one or more snapshots of the majestic manors’ facades.
Beyond the big columns, items inside the mansions offer interesting stories tied to the historical pieces themselves and to the homeowners. Most Louisiana plantation homes are filled with furnishings, art and antiques dating from the early- to mid-1800s—the heyday and most wealthy period of antebellum plantation life.
Interesting pieces and the stories behind them are prevalent in all Louisiana plantation homes, and here are just some of the treasures to seek out:
- Rosedown Plantation State Historic Site in St. Francisville has a circa-1850s firescreen with needlepoint that is said to be the work of Martha Washington, wife of first U.S. President George Washington. Family accounts indicate the needlepoint was obtained when the plantation owner’s eldest son married Martha’s great-great-granddaughter, who possibly gave the artwork as a gift to her in-laws. It was mounted in the hand-carved rosewood firescreen and displayed in the mansion’s formal parlor.
- Houmas House Plantation in Burnside is owned by an avid antiques expert and collector, and the home proves it—every room has rare and unusual pieces with interesting stories. My favorite is the 68-pound solid silver shelf-top sculpture of Abraham Lincoln in the men’s parlor, a replica of a life-size statue at a New Jersey courthouse. Both works were done by Gutzon Borglum, the creator of Mount Rushmore National Memorial in South Dakota.
- The African House at Melrose Plantation near Natchitoches is the permanent home of a series of murals painted by noted primitive folk artist and former plantation resident Clementine Hunter. Painted in the 1950s, the murals depict antebellum plantation activities on the banks of the Cane River, ranging from cotton cultivation and harvest to a plantation wedding and baptism.
- Insider tip: Melrose’s African House is undergoing extensive renovations, and the murals will be housed at the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame and Northwest Louisiana History Museum in downtown Natchitoches through early April 2016. Unlike the African House at Melrose, the downtown Natchitoches facility is wheelchair-accessible.
- The Shadows Plantation on Bayou Teche in New Iberia has an ornate medicine chest that once held elixirs administered by the mansion matriarch, Mary Weeks Moore. It is said the ailing would visit Moore, who would consult a primitive medical book and administer the recommended medicine.
- Oak Alley Plantation in Vacherie has a marble tombstone that—in the mid-1800s—served as the door to the owner’s above-ground tomb in New Orleans’ St. Louis Cemetery No. 3. It’s said that a family member who was part of the local Carmelite monastery in the late 1800s repurposed the tomb from a family grave to one for deceased monastery nuns. The original family tombstone was replaced and repurposed as a marble base for a Madonna statue at the monastery, where it sat face-down and preserved by mud for more than a century. It was only rediscovered when the monastery was packing to move to a new facility in recent years, and the nuns returned it to Oak Alley when its origins were discovered.
- Laura Plantation has two rare 19th-century photographs on display that took more than three years of intensive research to interpret. The photos depict the plantation’s sugar mill in 1888 and sugar maker Edouard Gros—the son of enslaved workers at Laura prior to the Civil War. At the onset of the war, Gros enlisted in the Union Army’s French-speaking Corps d’Afrique, and he is enshrined at the African American Civil War Memorial in Washington, D.C. Gros returned to Laura as a free man following the war, and he lived and worked there until his death in 1902.