When I visited New Orleans in the spring of 2007, I made sure that my trip would take me outside of the city limits, deep into the heart of Creole country. Luckily, there are numerous antebellum plantations one can visit that make for an easy day trip from New Orleans. I had decided to visit Oak Alley since it’s definitely one of the most recognizable plantations, featured in numerous Hollywood productions.
Oak Alley is located on the Mississippi River in the community of Vacherie. It’s named after its most prominent feature, an alley or canopied path which leads to the river created by a double row of live oaks about 800 feet long which were planted in the 18th century, before the present house was built. The outside features a free-standing colonnade of 28 Doric columns (Doric being a classic order of architecture) on all four sides, a feature that was common among the mansions in the Mississippi Valley at the time. The inside is characterized by high ceilings, large windows and a symmetrical facade.
I’ve toured various plantations in the American South and while one can’t deny the impressive location of some, most notably Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello estate which is situated on the summit of an 850-foot high peak in the Southwest Mountains of Virginia, the canopied path at Oak Alley is definitely what sets it apart and what makes visiting there so memorable. You see this path of striking trees that have stood there nearly 300 years, that have borne witness to so much history-the deep roots of the Creole culture back when Louisiana considered itself more French than American, the Reconstruction period, the Jim Crow South-and it’s simply amazing.
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.