When you think of southern grandeur it is easy to picture the beautiful Oak Alley Plantation. With its canopy of 28 Oak trees that form a path to the front of the “Big House” it looks like a scene straight out of Gone with the Wind. It may seem a very romantic setting. But its beauty also has a very dark past. A past that should not be hidden behind the beautiful façade. But for now let’s explore and learn more about Oak Alley and the life of those who owned it.
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Brief History – Oak Alley Plantation through the ages
The Bon Sejour plantation, as Oak Alley Plantation was originally named, was purchased by Valcour Aime in 1830. The purpose of the plantation was to grow sugarcane and Mr. Aime was known as the “King of Sugar”.
In 1836 Oak Alley Plantation changed hands to Jacques Roman who built the present mansion that stands on its grounds. However, his wife Marie Therese Josephine Celina Pile Roman managed the estate after Jacques death in 1848. Marie did not have the proper skill to manage the plantation. Therefore, her son Henri takes control in 1859 before it is bankrupt.
After the Civil War and the end of slavery, Oak Alley Plantation was no longer economically viable. Therefore, the plantation is sold at auction to John Armstrong for $32,800.
By 1920 the building had fallen into disrepair since the owners could not afford its upkeep. And a few years later it is purchased by Andrew and Josephine Stewart.
The Stewarts were the last owners to live in the mansion. They restore it and modernize it and live there till Josephine dies in 1972. At this time the Oak Alley Foundation receives the property and later opens it to the public as a tourist attraction.
The Big House
The antebellum mansion, also known as “The Big House”, is built in a Greek revival style with 28 Doriac columns on all four sides. It features a gorgeous wraparound porch on the second floor with doors and windows that open so that the breeze funneled by the 300 year old canopy of oak trees would make its way through the house and cool it.
As described in the brief history above, The Big House was built under Jacques Roman direction. Bricks were made on site, but the slate for the roof, the glass for the windows, and the marble for the dining room floor were imported and arrived by steamboat. It took 3 years to build and it was all accomplished through slave labor.
Before you go in the house for your tour make sure to purchase a refreshing drink (like the bourbon mint julep pictured above) at the stand outside. They will even give you a lid so that you can take your drink with you on the tour. Alcoholic and non-alcoholic versions are available.
The Dining Room
The dinning has two large doors you could open and the oak trees outside would funnel the air in. But flies would come in as well so they had a shufly fan over the table that was operated by one of the slaves. The slave would have to pull the cord to move the fan to keep the air flowing and keep the flies away.
Additionally, on the table they would have a special jar that was a fly catcher. It would be filled with something sweet like honey to attract the flies but the shape of it would keep the flies trapped inside. It was covered with a handkerchief so the guest would not have to see the flies inside the jar.
The Living Room
The Living room was used for other social gatherings including a place where men would come to court the daughters. They used a special candle called a courters candle, and the men where only allowed to court for however long it took the candle to melt. The father would adjust the hight of the candle depending on how much he liked the prospect.
What looks like a marble fireplace is actually wood painted to resemble marble. And all the marble floors have also been replaced with wood.
The Bedrooms and Porch Area
All bedrooms were on the second level of the house. Including a master bedroom, a multipurpose room which served as a guest room, an infirmary and even a mourning room. There is also a children’s room. All beds are surrounded by mosquito netting. The childrens beds have it attached to the wall and the adult rooms it is part of the canopy on the bed. The guest bed has a pineapple which is a sign of hospitality to welcome the guests to the home. Upstairs there is also a wrap around porch.
The Big House is not the only structure on the 2 acres of property. It also features slave cabins that have been turned into an exhibit and museum. These exhibits cover health care, punishment, and life after emancipation.
Since there is no formal tour of this area I encourage you to spend some time exploring it on your own. The slave’s lives are just as important as the lives of those who lived in the Big House. And the exhibit will help you learn about the history of the slaves that lived there.
If you pay attention, on the area where the slave cabins are, there are placards that talk about their life. The dark past of Oak Alley is finally acknowledged and we are reminded that the Plantation was built on the backs of slaves. They express the following:
“We hope that by bringing the life, work and identity of those who were enslaved here into focus, we look to bring truthfulness and clarity to the story of Oak Alley Plantation”
Oak Alley in the Spotlight
You may be thinking that the plantation looks familiar. And you may very well be right. Oak Alley has been featured in many movies, shows and even song videos. Some of the most famous ones being Interview with a Vampire, Days of our Lives, Ghost hunters, Knight Rider and Beyonce’s “Déjà vu” music video.
Paranormal Activity at Oak Alley Plantation
Although this plantation exudes southern charm, it does have like I mentioned above, a dark past. Oak Alley’s website has an entire section which describes its paranormal activities. Chairs rock on their own and objects fly across the rooms. It is said Oak Alley Plantation has at least 2 resident ghosts. One is thought to be Mrs. Stewart which is the last owner and another is a man in grey boots.
If paranormal activity is something you are interested in, then New Orleans is a great place to be. And you can read the story of 5 famous New Orleans ghosts in this post about Haunted New Orleans.
Oak Alley plantation is located about an hour from New Orleans on the Mississippi River in a town called Vacherie, Louisiana.
Address: 3645 Highway 18 (Great River Road), Vacherie, Louisiana 70090
How to get there: Best way to get there is by car. The area has many plantations that you can visit in one trip. However, if you do not have a car, several tour companies can take you there.
Hours of Operation
November – February
Monday to Friday 9:00 am – 4:30 pm
Saturday and Sunday 9:00 am – 5:00 pm
March – October
9:00 am – 5:00 pm daily
Access to the Big house is by tour only. Guided tours begin at 9:30 and run approx. every 30 min with groups of about 35-45.
Plantation is closed on New Years Day, Mardi Gras Tuesday, Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day.
At the time this article was written the cost of admission was as follows:
Youth (13-18 yrs old) $8
Children (6-12 yrs old) $5
Children under 5 – FREE
I had a $3 off coupon that came in my Visit New Orleans book. You can request your own book or check on their website for printable coupons. The book has great information about New Orleans as well as many valuable coupons you can use during your stay.
Final thoughts: Spending an afternoon at Oak Alley plantation is an afternoon filled with history. Not only does Oak Alley have Southern Charm but it also has a dark history of slavery. Make sure to take some beautiful pictures under the oak trees, have a refreshing drink and immerse yourself in history. But most importantly open your eyes and see past its pretty facade. And imagine what life must have been like for the slaves. Oak Alley is a perfect day trip if you are visiting New Orleans.