Most visitors landing in New Orleans immediately head downtown toward the French Quarter. I decided to explore sights outside the main tourist trek and headed to Destrehan Plantation, no more than a fifteen minute drive southwest of the airport.
Founded in 1787, this plantation originally comprised 6,000 acres, which later expanded to 10,000. Located along what is now called River Road, it seemed surreal to me that the plantation is actually across the street from the Mississippi River; however, visitors cannot see the river because of levees built in 1741.
Visitors to Destrehan Plantation will enter through the gift shop. Tours, given by costumed guides, run hourly and admission prices to see the house are $18.00 per ticket. Tour groups are small and guides are enthusiastic. Be on the lookout for a friendly, white cat named Splenda, who showed up one day and never left.
The grounds of the plantation are filled with live oaks with hanging Spanish moss. The site includes slave quarters, a cooper shop (a cooper was a barrel maker, which was an important job, as goods were shipped in barrels), a wash house (which is the original building) and an education center with demonstrations. This plantation was also the site of the trials of the 1811 Slave Revolt, the largest slave revolt in U.S. history.
Destrehan Plantation initially started as an indigo plantation, which is a plant that produces blue dye. Subsequent generations, however, found that sugar was more profitable and sugar became the main crop.
Visitors inside the house can imagine what life was like on a French Creole plantation in the late 1700s and 1800s. The rooms include the Jefferson Room, which houses historical documents (including documents signed by Thomas Jefferson) during the Louisiana Purchase. The house tour also visits a warming room, a children’s dining room, a cooling room, the adult dining room, men’s and women’s parlors, and various bedrooms. Living in a swampy part of Louisiana prior to the Civil War was difficult with little medicine, extreme summer heat (with little way to stay cool), and the constant battles with mosquitos. Our guide even showed us an antique bug catcher which would include water, sugar, a cork and blue cobalt. Insects could fly into the catcher at the bottom, but could not escape from the top.
Survival was tough as the average life expectancy of the Destrehan family was 30 years. One bedroom, Lydia’s room, tells the sad story of how one daughter died of yellow fever at age fifteen. This ailment was a common cause of death as even though beds had mosquito netting, the family often slept outside on the cooler porch. People were also smaller as the average male height was 5’4”, while women tended to be 4’11”.
Plantation residents were resourceful with using what they had. The abundance of Spanish moss on the grounds could be used for men’s wigs (we were shown an example, which frankly looked a little creepy), housing insulation, scrubbers, and stuffing for the pillows and beds.
The history of the house, itself, was a little sad as this home was abandoned in the 1950s, becoming neglected and vandalized over a period of twelve years. Luckily, in the early 1970s, the River Road Historical Society obtained the property, restoring it to its former grandeur. Today, movies and television shows have been filmed onsite, including most recently “Twelve Years a Slave”, starring actor Brad Pitt (which should be released late in 2013). Our guide informed us that Brad Pitt was resourceful at being hidden during the day, only appearing in the evenings after the tours had finished.
For a taste of what made Louisiana today, a visit to Destrehan Plantation is a step into another century. The house is a reminder of the life along the Mississippi River and the hurdles settlers had to overcome to make Louisiana a state.
13034 River Road
Destrehan, Louisiana 70047