I could imagine fancy, horse drawn carriages coming down the path after arriving from New Orleans, a courting couple, out on a walk under the watchful eye of a chaperone, freed slaves leaving the plantation after the Civil War, walking away from the only home that many had ever known even though they were in shackles.
The original purpose of the property was as a sugarcane plantation, which resulted in it being home to a large slave population. Along with a tour of the big house (where the plantation owner and his family lived), visitors can tour the plantation's former slave quarters. (When I visited the restoration process had not yet been completed.) Gazing out onto the Mississippi River, I reckoned that the alley would have been the first glimpse slaves would have had of their new "home" after being bought at a slave market in New Orleans. I wondered how many times slaves looked out onto the river just as I was, imagining the flowing waters as a symbol of the gateway to their freedom.
Whenever I tour historic homes I always have a hard time imagining it as someone's home and not as a place to tour while on vacation; furniture that is off-limits to modern day visitors was at one time everyday articles that people used. Excluding the last family to have lived at Oak Alley (it was this particular family that completely renovated the plantation from a state of disrepair and neglect in the 1920s), the other families lived there during a time when American society was entirely different from what it is now, especially a rural plantation society. On the little more than hour drive to Oak Alley from downtown New Orleans, it was surprising to me how quickly and dramatically the landscape changed. Gone were the high rise buildings and crowded streets, replaced with endless stretches of vast open land. During the antebellum period, the plantation usually functioned as a self-sustainable community due to its being far removed from cities and towns. Visiting in the 21st century, I could feel the remoteness of Oak Alley even though bustling New Orleans and other modern innovations were not too far away.
Unlike other antebellum plantations, Oak Alley did not enjoy a "gloried existence" for too long. Following the South's defeat in the American Civil War, regal plantation life came to an end for without the institution of slavery, the plantation and its residents' lavish lifestyle could not continue. Plantations fell into disrepair and Oak Alley was no exception; the upkeep was too much without "free labor." While walking the grounds following the tour of the big house, I couldn't help but think of the popular American song "Dixie" specifically the lyrics, "old times they are not forgotten." The tune originated in the 1850s and became the de facto anthem for the South during the American Civil War. The life that was once prevalent at Oak Alley, a side of America long in the past and reserved for the pages of history books, is definitely not forgotten and a visit there will reaffirm as much.