What’s more intriguing than an ancient “allee” of live oaks firmly planted in the rich soils of a Louisiana sugar cane plantation more than 300 years ago? Twisted with time, centuries-old branches create a canopy leading from the Mighty Mississippi riverbanks to 28 Doric columns adorning an antebellum mansion. These oak trees stand sentinel over a past that’s equal parts grand, tragic and immensely storied.
It’s easy to imagine this bastion of French Creole history biding its time in silence, but that’s far from reality. The owners of Oak Alley Plantation know that its inherent strength lies in the intricate stories woven into every twist and turn, nook and cranny, ballroom and slave cabin of this “grand dame” of Creole culture about an hour from New Orleans.
Regardless of how history has written – and rewritten – its story over hundreds of years, Oak Alley Plantation lives and breathes its heritage while embracing every life lived within its walls, both enslaved and free. That’s why staying overnight in one of the plantation cottages is like a deep slumber with spirits both imagined and real.
It’s also why modern visual storytellers use Oak Alley Plantation as a setting for everything from Beyonce’s “Déjà Vu” music video to “Interview With a Vampire” starring Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise. The lines between reality and fiction blur pretty easily in a place so firmly rooted in an America that’s all but forgotten.
No Story Untold
But no story is untold at this plantation, and guests have free reign to walk in the footsteps of those who came before – way before.
The Greek Revival mansion came to life slowly in the 1830s, brick by brick, with slave labor. More than 200 enslaved members of the Oak Alley “family” lived their lives on this plantation — Antoine, Meanna, Pret-a-boire, Deterville, Baptiste, Augustine, Marie, Thalie. When asked about who they were and what became of them after emancipation, Hillary Loeber from Oak Alley explains:
“It’s impossible to simply reduce over-200 men and women who were enslaved here to characters in a story. There are some people of whom we know quite a bit: Antoine, for example, was an enslaved gardener who was the first to produce commercially viable pecans. There are others, such as Leandre, of whom we only know the sobering facts: he had the unenviable position on the plantation as ‘commendeur’ or ‘driver’, the enslaved man who was the task-master in the cane fields.”
She goes on to say that the Civil War and emancipation stirred equally varying responses from the men and women kept at Oak Alley Plantation. “Some ran away as soon as the Union took possession of New Orleans. Others were conscripted by the Union Army, and others changed their names entirely.”
A Civil War tent on the grounds now features a first-person reenactor known as “the Colonel” who offers guest a glimpse into how the war forever impacted not only Oak Alley Plantation but the entire plantation economy and lifestyle.
“New Orleans was taken by the Union early, 1862, and so the lower Mississippi—including Oak Alley—quickly became Union territory. The plantation continued to operate but not in any fiscally lucrative capacity. Enslaved men and women were self-emancipating, greatly reducing the plantation’s labor force, and the economy in general was a mess,” notes Hillary.
Checking into the Past
Checking into one of the overnight cottages is a bit disorienting as if you’re walking into someone’s home that’s been left intact for 100 years. But actually sleeping on the plantation grounds is a perspective-altering experience that reveals the intricacies of life on a sugar cane plantation.
The core of the estate is now preserved for its historical value, but the surrounding land of the original plantation still comprises working sugar-cane farms, which are highlighted in the Sugarcane Theater.
An Artifact Room in the “Big House” reveals 200-plus years of human habitation, interaction, and life in this immensely storied place, while a “Slavery at Oak Alley” exhibit spares no details. Don’t be surprised if you have an emotional response when exploring the master/slave relationship, which Oak Alley Plantation encourages guests to contemplate.
Getting it Right
Planted by one of Louisiana’s earliest French settlers in 1710, the enduring canopy of live oaks still pierces the sometimes-bucolic and often-stormy skies over this eerily preserved monument to a nation’s ever-unfolding story. We don’t always get it right, but the stories will always be told. Especially in a place like Oak Alley Plantation where roots dig deep, guestrooms cradle dreams both good and bad, and the surrounding soil bears sweet canes of sugar as it’s done for generations.