Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Laura: A Creole Plantation - Plantation Visit Part 2.

Our second plantation was Laura: A Creole Plantation and it could not have been more different. This is not a typical plantation home with the elaborate white columned, balconied antebellum mansion. Instead, it is a raised, wooden Creole style home painted yellow and is also surprisingly small. Despite all this, Laura is unique and extremely interesting because visitors become totally immersed in Louisiana’s rich, Creole culture. Louisiana Creoles, from the millionaire to the poorest slave, lived separate from the Anglo-American in family, architecture, music, food, society and life-style. What Laura lacks in grandeur, it makes up in colorful Creole history and characters. The 70 minute tour is based on 5,000 pages of documents from the French National Archives related to the free and enslaved families who lived here and told by guides who share the compelling, real-life accounts of 7 generations of Laura Plantation’s Creole inhabitants. No costumed tour guides here, only enthusiastic historic story-tellers sharing the well-researched history of the family and the plantation from the American Revolution through the Civil War and beyond. Another reason that Laura doesn't look like a grand southern plantation home is because this was a working plantation with a business residence rather than being the primary home for the family who actually resided in New Orleans. The property is restored to historic accuracy and is still surrounded by fields of sugar cane. The tour begins at the main house. Formerly known as Duparc Plantation and shaded by the low branches of large oak trees, the main house is almost hidden from the road. Constructed in 1804-1805, the "big house" at Laura Plantation has a raised brick basement and it is one of only 30 substantial Creole raised houses in the state. It's not a manor like Oak Alley but more a cornucopia of historical detail with the raised basement-turned-wine cellar, the birthing room, and family heirlooms. The rooms painted in alternating shades of ochre, red, green, mauve and gray have been beautifully decorated to provide an idea of daily life. However, a few rooms inside the home have been left unrestored to give a sense of history and to show construction methods. A large collection of family treasures and items of apparel are on display, with some pieces donated to the plantation by families of the original owners. Also architecturally noteworthy are the Federal-style interior woodwork and Norman roof truss which were unusual for later Creole style houses. We are then led to the gardens and the more sobering sight of a dozen slave shacks. The original slave quarters still stand at Laura Plantation and these shacks used to stretch over 3 1/2 miles out. The guide explained that when a bell rang, the slaves would send their small children to walk to the main house to get their family rations. I didn't know what to expect regarding the topic of slavery (which was not discussed at all at Oak Alley) but our guide did not gloss over or sugar coat the way of life during those times. There was a lot of information regarding the family as well as their slaves and their lives and stories. Indeed, Laura Plantation is well known for the West-African stories the home’s former slaves related to folklorist Alcée Fortier. Alcée Fortier, who later became Professor of Romance Languages and folklore at Tulane University, was said to have collected Louisiana Creole versions of the West African Br'er Rabbit stories. Recorded in the slave cabins here in the 1870s, they were later popularized in English and became the “Tales of Br’er Rabbit.” Also, the parents and family of U.S. singer-songwriter Fats Domino ("Blueberry Hill") had lived and worked on the plantation. With 11 structures listed on the National Register, there is plenty of opportunity to explore its newly restored Manor House, the formal and kitchen gardens, Banana-Land grove, and its authentic Creole cottages and slave cabins. The complex continued functioning as a plantation into the 20th century and the slave quarters, which workers continued to live in until 1977, contributes to the historic significance of the complex. Due to its historical importance, the plantation is on the National Register of Historic Places and is also included on the Louisiana African American Heritage Trail. Since opening in 1994, Laura is Louisiana's fastest growing historic attraction. The plantation offers a very tangible explanation of the Creole culture and way of life in Louisiana The tour is worth it because you really get a unique sense of Creole culture. We visited this plantation after seeing Oak Alley and were able to enjoy the extremes in a business-run plantation versus the grandeur of Oak Alley. If you have the time, I recommend going to both plantations as they are very different and will give you a good perspective of both wealthy families, plantations, and the difference between Creole/French and American/English governing, architecture, business, and of course, slavery. However if you can only choose one between Laura and Oak Alley, choose Oak Alley. Yes, I know it is shallow of me but there really is no competition. I liked the tour much better than the one at Laura. The rooms were far more interesting to look at and more opulent. The self guided walks around the property and the spectacular oaks should be a must see for everyone visiting the area and then there were those mint juleps! Yes, they do tend to gloss over the history of slavery, so if you want a more accurate portrayal of what life was like for all of those that lived on a plantation, then Laura would be the right choice or go and enjoy Oak Alley and then read a book about the history of slavery.

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