Within a 70-mile (112.6 km) stretch in southeastern Louisiana between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, you can observe the spectacular beauty of antebellum homes, compelling glimpses of history, a fascinating ecological system and the influence of Creole and Cajun culture. The powerful effect of the Mississippi River is on display in every facet of life in this area. You will drive parallel to the levee separating you from ships and barges sailing all over the United States and the world. Take a closer look at five of the plantation mansions in this part of the state and enjoy a boat ride through the swamp.
Destrehan Plantation, first stop out of New Orleans
Voted Louisiana’s Travel Attraction of the Year in 2010, Destrehan Plantation, built by hand between 1787 and 1790, is the oldest documented plantation home in the Lower Mississippi Valley. You will see two airborne plants hanging on the massive live oak trees scattered around the property. One is Spanish moss, sometimes called gray beard’s moss, and the other is resurrection fern, so named because of its tendency to turn brown and appear dead during a drought and then spring back to life and turn green again after a rain.
During a one-hour guided tour of this property, you will hear of the Slave Revolt of 1811, the value of Essex the cooper (barrel-maker) slave who was purchased for 1,500 USD in 1790, and the story of Marguerite the cook and laundress at Destrehan who taught table manners to the 14 children of Jean Noel Destrehan and his wife. You will learn the origin of phrases, such as “getting the short end of the stick” and “don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.” You will see flycatcher jars and a 1,300+ pound (~589.67 kg) solid marble bathtub.
In a carefully-protected room in the house, you can take a look at an original document signed by both Thomas Jefferson and James Madison appointing Jean Noel Destrehan to the Orleans Territorial Council.
This is a very informative tour. Barbara Fair and the staff of guides go through weeks of training and do a wonderful job.
A swamp tour reveals the ecology and regional cuisine
There are several companies offering boat rides through the murky swamps in Plantation Country, but Captain Thomas Billiot, known by the locals as “T Tom,” is one of the most knowledgeable, and his company is Cajun Pride Swamp Tours. You will be in a covered boat with 30-40 other people, but there is plenty of wildlife to be seen on all sides of the boat. As you keep your eyes trained on the water and thick vegetation looking for alligators, snakes, turtles, egrets, garfish, nutria rats and raccoons, T Tom (and other tour operators) will entertain you with tales about how the alligators are hunted and harvested under very strict regulations. He will also point out a cemetery far back in the swamp that was established after the horrible storm of 1915 that came without warning. He invites his guests to come back for a night tour and bonfire but warns that “the mosquitoes will tear you up.”
T Tom brought out a one-year-old alligator with its mouth taped for safety, and as he passed it around for the children to hold, he warned, “Don’t squeeze his middle. He’s got crawfish in there!” If you enjoy watching “Swamp People” on television, then you will really like actually being around T Tom and other authentic swamp people in an environment they dearly love. Swamp tours retail for 24 USD for adults and 18 USD for children, but there are discounts for booking online.
San Francisco Plantation, vivid colors and exotic details
Next stop on River Road is San Francisco Plantation, much closer to the river and to the highway than originally intended. The Flood of 1927 changed the course of the Mississippi River, so much of the land in front was lost. Construction of the main house was started in 1853 and took until 1856 to complete. This home had running water from the time it was built. A “gentleman’s shower” was even added in 1860. It was a very crude version of today’s showers, and the men were probably less clean when they got out than when they got in because the same water kept circulating over and over. There are 5 hand-painted ceilings, lots of elaborate gingerbread trim, and the floor in some of the spaces looks like carpet, but is actually crushed brick. It has been called the most opulent southern plantation. It covers 11,000 square feet and has 17 rooms. The eye-catching colors and architectural details reflect the Bavarian heritage of the original owner’s wife, Louise von Seybold Marmillion. Thanks to the generosity of the Marathon Oil Company, it is being meticulously maintained.
San Francisco Plantation is a National Historic Landmark and was a 2015 Travel Attraction of the Year.
Evergreen Plantation with 22 original slave cabins
A notable part of the tour of Evergreen Plantation focuses on the 22 slave cabins that have never been moved from their original location. Posted in the area is a list created in 1835 of the 54 slaves noting their first name, their nationality, their work on the plantation and their value. A man named West, a blacksmith, was considered the most valuable at 1,500 USD. On this list of slaves and their nationalities and at that time in Louisiana’s history, an American was someone who had been born outside of the Louisiana Purchase region and had moved in. A Creole, in that setting, had a higher value than an American.The 90-minute tour at Evergreen emphasizes the dependency the plantation had on slave labor and later on the work of the newly-emancipated slaves. Pigeonniers and garconnieres flank the main house and are interesting parts of the fabric of plantation life.
Evergreen is still a private home, now owned by Matilda Stream who lives on the property and allows daily tours which help with the cost of upkeep. Also helping economically, two movies were recently filmed at Evergreen: “Abe Lincoln; Vampire Hunter” and “Django Unchained.” And “Roots,” the remake is being filmed there now.
St. Joseph Plantation, birthplace of H.H. Richardson
St. Joseph Plantation, sometimes called “The Priestley Place,” was the birthplace of H.H. Richardson, one of America’s most renowned architects. Richardson’s great grandfather was Joseph Priestley, who is generally credited with discovering oxygen. The 12,000 square foot home was built around 1830 by the Scioneaux family. It still sits on the original 1000-acre plot and continues to be a working sugar cane plantation. The word “plantation,” it should be noted, refers to the single crop grown on the property and not to the Big House.
A tour of St. Joseph includes the stories of Dr. Cazamine Mericq who lived there and provided medical care for the slaves, Gabriel Valcour Aime (reputed to be the richest man in Louisiana) and two sisters who were born, lived and died in the house and spoke only French. The house contains many crucifixes and kneeling benches, signifying the owners’ Catholic roots. You will find a bonnet tub, a pulley system on the porch, and many original doors and windows. The detached kitchen, several slave cabins, a barn and a blacksmith shop remain on the property, and you will learn about the mourning customs of the day. St. Joseph even offers a Creole Mourning Tour Experience in the month of October. Sylvia Zeringue, one member of the tour guide staff, is a native of Louisiana. She and her colleagues are very knowledgeable about this plantation and the whole area. If you are a musician, she might even give you a moment to try playing the antique pump organ in the house.
Laura Plantation, inspirational story of a woman who lived there
Thanks to a book “Memories of the Old Plantation Home” by Laura Locoul Gore and the dedication to accuracy of Joseph Dunn and others who share this site with visitors, the tour of Laura Plantation is the story of the people rather than the building.
The tour guide will lead your through four generations of the Duparc-Locoul family. Laura’s own history spans almost 100 years. She was born when Abraham Lincoln was president and died when John F. Kennedy was president.
There are 12 buildings on the property officially recognized by the National Register. One of them is a slave cabin built in 1840 where the Compair Lapin folktales were recorded, known in English as “The Tales of Br'er Rabbit.”
The house itself is referred to as A Creole Plantation, and the exterior colors reflect that heritage. The tour of Laura Plantation that you will receive has been called the “Best history tour in the USA!”
All of these and more
In addition to these five plantations, there are five more in Plantation Country with tours and special stories. Whitney Plantation focuses on the lives of the slaves who lived and worked there. Ormond, Oak Alley, and Houmas House offer bed and breakfast accommodations, and Poche Plantation is a destination RV resort. Average ticket prices for tours are 20 USD with discounts for students, military personnel and senior adults.
Lunch suggestions while touring this area include Connie’s Grill, Mabile’s, B & C Seafood, Spuddy’s and New Orleans Hamburger and Seafood. In each of these you can expect to find cajun dishes and appetizers such a turtle soup and alligator bites. Try them if you want to “eat like the locals.”
The Great River Road will teach you far more than history books ever could. Go. See. Hear. Feel. Eat. This is a world distinct from all others.