When you take a visit to Oak Alley Plantation, be sure you take a close look at the beds in the upstairs bedrooms. If you do, you’re sure to spot the rolling pin bed, one of the most ingenious pieces of furniture in the antebellum South. Rolling pin beds were all the rage in the heyday of plantation life because they helped ensure the longevity and comfort of mattresses stuffed with natural fibers. The mattresses in the beds here in Southeastern Louisiana were stuffed with the Spanish moss that grows so plentifully in our oak trees, but the qualities that make this moss great stuffing also make it a short-lived great stuffing. The moss is fluffy and full of air pockets, which makes for a soft, luxurious stuffing, but once you’ve put weight on it it begins to compress, making mattresses lumpy and uneven. The solution was the rolling pin bed, featuring a large wooden rolling pin attachment on the headboard that could be lifted down each morning and rolled across the bed to redistribute the moss and return the mattress to it’s soft and fluffy state of comfort. You can see this bed for yourself when you visit Oak Alley Plantation on our Oak Alley and Laura Plantation Tour or on our Grand Tour!
Many people know that Louisiana’s long history of French culture comes in part from the Acadians who fled to the area during the Great Upheaval, or ‘Le Grand Dérangement’, during the mid 18th century. The story of the Great Upheaval is perhaps best remembered through Henry Wordsworth Longfellow’s famous 1847 epic poem, Evangeline, A Tale of Acadie, depicting the fictional, romanticized tale of two lovers separated on their wedding day as a result of the expulsion from their homeland by the British. Although widely accepted as a work of fiction, in Louisiana the legend of Evangeline is believed to have some basis in fact, depicting the story of Emmeline Labiche and Louis Arceneaux, who tried to flee the village of St Gabriel in old Acadia but were caught by the British and separated. As the story goes, many years later Emmeline and Louis eventually made it to Louisiana and reunited underneath an oak tree. An ancient live oak in St Martinville on the bank of Bayou Teche bears a marker to this day remembering the legend of Evangeline and all that it represents for Emmeline Labiche, Louis Arceneaux, and more than 11,000 others who were thrown out of their homeland only to make a new one in the wilds of Louisiana. The Acadian descendants in Louisiana are called Cajuns.
The historic Sun Oak home can be found in the Faubourg Marigny, former site of the plantation of Bernard de Marigny. The site’s first structure was a brick-between-post cottage built by Constance Rixner Bouligny, a free woman of color who purchased the property in 1806 after de Marigny subdivided the property and named the street Rue Craps, now Rue Burgundy. Bouligny lived in the cottage until 1836, when it was purchased by Asher Moses Nathan, a Dutch Jewish immigrant who turned the cottage into present day house, expanding and rebuilding while incorporating parts of the original structure. Although the structure as it appears today was built before the Civil War, the home did not receive the name Sun Oak until it was purchased by preservationist educators Eugene Cizek and Faia and Lloyd Sensat in 1976. Today, Sun Oak House is an homage to the 20th century renaissance of Creole New Orleans and has been fully restored. Although it is a private home, it can be viewed by the public with an appointment. You can find more information on Sun Oak House here, or join one of our city tours to see the exterior of the home for yourself.
San Francisco Plantation is known as the most opulent plantation on the Mississippi River. Full of rich furnishings and elaborate architecture, it’s a hard title to argue with. The plantation was originally owned by a free man of color, Elisée Rillieux, a visionary and a speculator who purchased the land just 40 miles downriver from New Orleans in 1827 (the same year as our first Mardi Gras!). In addition to purchasing large tracts of land, Rillieux also bought slaves to establish a sugar plantation and increase the profitability of his purchase. Once the plantation was established, just three years later, he sold the land for the vast sum of $100,000 to Edmond Bozonier Marmillion and his partner Eugène Lartigue. It was Marmillion who went on to built the extravagent big house that now represents the plantation. The house was to be the prestigious inheritance of Marmillion’s two sons, and took nearly three years to complete. Artists were hired to create the hand painted ceilings, painted door panels, faux marbling, and faux wood grain throughout. The home became so well known that it even inspired novelist Francis Parkinson Keyes to pen the story Steamboat Gothic featuring the family she imagined lived in the grand home. The rich beauty of the home has been well preserved, and now stands as a completely unique antebellum home, representing one man’s vision and love for his family.
As you tour New Orleans and examine the beautiful iron and stone work found throughout the French Quarter and surrounding houses Uptown and in the Garden District, you will find one pattern repeated over and over: the pineapple. Once you take a look inside some of our historic homes and plantations, you will find the pineapple theme present there, as well. Why so many pineapples in a region known for citrus and sugar? Turns out, the pineapple is the classic symbol of Southern hospitality. Pineapples have been a treat to upper crust Westerners since Columbus brought one back from his first trip to the West Indies in the fifteenth century. It took decades before Europe could successfully cultivate the sweet fruit, so the pineapple became a hot commodity. In colonial America, where the pineapple was easier to come by, it became the ultimate sign of welcome to place a pineapple out for a guest. Some grocers even rented out pineapples to those who couldn’t afford the extravagant fruit! Even if you didn’t end up eating the pineapple, the simple fact that it was present upon arrival in someone’s home was testimony that the hostess had spared no expense to welcome you.
With few exceptions, the beautiful plantation homes in Southeast Louisiana that can now be viewed by the public were in various states of disrepair throughout the early parts of the 20th century. Thanks to wonderfully dedicated and caring individuals, these homes have been restored to their former glory and opened to the public for all to enjoy the beauty and experience the history of the antebellum South. Although the restoration efforts of these homes receive a great deal of attention, many people don’t realize that the gardens and grounds also undergo serious renovation when plantations are restored. One such plantation that has been restored in an especially remarkable manner is the lovely Houmas House Plantation. The plantation rests on the so-called Sugar Coast of the Mississippi River and was once the wealthiest plantation in the country, boasting a 300,000-acre property and 19 room mansion. Today, only twleve acres remain, but they have been turned into a series of stunning gardens, both old and new, offering a window to the past alongside a new vision for the future. When the current owner of Houmas House purchased the estate and began its restoration ten years ago he researched archives describing the gardens using newspaper articles going as far back as the 1870s. Combining the information with the help of artist and historian Jim Blanchard, he was able to recreated detailed plans for the home’s formal gardens. Of course, no historical record is complete, so there were holes that had to be filled in using Blanchard’s knowledge of typical plantation gardens from the area and time period along with inspiration from Houmas House’s head gardener, Craig Black. Black is also responsible for the modern gardens that can be found around the property as well. Any visitor to Houmas House Plantation and Gardens may be surprised to learn that these beautiful grounds, which include more than 300,000 plants which are changed out a minimum of three times annually to ensure the gardens are visitor-ready year round, are not completed. Kelly and Black have plans to eventually incorporate every species that can be found in Southeastern Louisiana into the gardens. Houmas House’s stunning grounds can be viewed at your leisure on both our Half Day EastBank Plantation Tour and our All Day Plantation Tour.