Southern comfort in Louisiana
By BETTY LOWRY
At Tezcuco Plantation (built in 1855), draperies fall by the tall windows and the walls are painted blue ("to repel bugs," according to Gay Lynn Young, the house's guide to its history). You can sleep in the haunted master bedroom suite for $160 double, including a breakfast of juice, fruit, ham, eggs, grits and beaten biscuits.
Less opulent digs (converted stables and other outbuildings) begin at $65, but the unidentified ghost stays in the Big House.
The River Road -- Routes 44/61 north from New Orleans to West Feliciana -- was never a highway. Commercial travelers and goods moved by paddle-wheel boat and barge on the Mississippi River in the 19th century, leaving the River Road to carriage and horseback travel between the plantations.
Cottage Plantation (1810) displays an impressive Philadelphia Coach that cost $1,075 in 1820 dollars. It was used when the Butler family entertained houseguests as prominent as Andrew Jackson. In those days, the rambling house presided over 500 acres of cotton and indigo.
A more recent Mrs. Butler put a cat picture or object in each room, and there's now a swimming pool as well as a croquet court. Never mind: Ninety percent of the glass in the house is original, and the Spanish moss still drips romantically from the oaks.
The outbuildings here are named for their original functions: milk house, taproom, schoolroom; carriage house.
Family names along the River Road recur with the regularity of royal dynasties. Anne Butler, hostess-owner of Butler-Greenwood (about 1790), traces her family-property associations for eight generations.
She shows you a sword one of her ancestors wore at the funeral of Gen. Robert E. Lee, and points out oaks that were acorns more than 200 years ago.
The plantation is on the National Register of Historic Places, and guests stay in cottages each with its own kitchenette (breakfast makings included in the room rate). The accommodation named the Kitchen, built in 1796, has a Jacuzzi next to the original 115-foot-deep well. There's a swimming pool and a duck pond.
In the years after the Civil War, fires and financial ruin took their toll along the River Road. Bit by bit the land was sold, and in the houses, imported wall coverings were devoured by the damp climate. Untended gardens sent rampaging vines up against exterior walls, taking moisture from the mortar.
Some families hung on. Restoration began in earnest in the mid 20th century, when Hollywood studios found it was cheaper to shoot the real thing than to build replicas. Tax relief came to owners who opened their places to the public as house museums a few days a week.
Eventually, some homes became bed-and-breakfast inns.
"This is the house that the movies saved," co-owner Rick Barnes told the little group of tourists he was leading through the elegant rooms of Greenwood (1830). Scenes filmed here are from North and South, Sister Sister, Durango, Stormswept and Louisiana (a French miniseries).
According to Barnes, National Geographic has called this "the (nation's) most perfect example of Greek Revival architecture." The plantation itself expanded when sugar replaced cotton as the main crop: "12,000 acres required 1,100 slaves," he said.
Barnes called attention to the silver keyhole covers ("to keep out evil spirits," original owners believed) and said the wallpaper is "by courtesy of the film companies -- the original walls were white."
The house was built by William Ruffin Barrow (1800-1852), whose portrait hangs by that of his 16-year-old cousin/wife.
The Myrtles (1796) has a lively ghost named Chloe who sometimes steals an earring from a guest in the Ladies' Parlor. One earring? Chloe, a slave, had one ear cut off by her master for eavesdropping. She retaliated by putting some ground-up oleander in a cake, killing his wife and two children. Chloe reportedly was then hung by the other slaves.
Her ghost wears a green turban to hide the missing ear. The house's guide shows a photograph of the house with a dim, turbaned figure standing half-hidden by a pillar.
Not all the hauntings are laid to Chloe. The house was built over or near an Indian graveyard. Six of seven sons died in the Civil War. A hall mirror has stains forming what is said to be a spirit trapped by its own reflection. Opposite is the stairway where a former owner died on the 17th step (his ghost gets just that far).
The River Road plantations were built within a 50-year span, and each was virtually a self-sustaining village.
At Burnside, the 150-year-old slave cabins from three plantations, plus a schoolhouse built for freed slaves, have been reassembled to show a more realistic view of the Old South. Farm tools decorate the walls, and your drinking glass is a mason jar.
Kathy Hambrick, founder and director of the River Road African American Museum & Gallery, located on the grounds of Tezcuco Plantation, said she had examined countless plantation histories. "Buy-and-sell records show only first names," she said, "but we have put together so many details we can almost guarantee finding the right (River Road) plantation for family genealogists."
In addition to showing rare memorabilia of slave and sharecropping days, the museum honors African-American achievers in science, politics, sports, literature and music. Gallery exhibits include African masks, 19th century crafts and the work of contemporary folk artists such as Alvin Batiste of Donaldsonville.
IF YOU GO
GETTING THERE: The River Road is S.R. 44 from New Orleans to Baton Rouge and U.S. 61 north from Baton Rouge. It is close enough to New Orleans or Baton Rouge to make an overnight or weekend side trip. You can drive its length -- about 45 miles -- but don't, unless you have plenty of extra hours, and patience, to meander.
The road mostly follows the river, which coils like a snake. Best bet: Target a portion of the road and take Interstate 10 to that area, then mosey along as much of the road as you desire. You'll find plantation homes on both sides of the Mississippi.
You can cross the river only at key points. One is the Sunshine Bridge (I-10 Sorrento-Sunshine Bridge, Exit 182, to Donaldsonville), which will deposit you near Nottoway. Another is the Mississippi River Bridge at Gramercy/Lutcher, about halfway between New Orleans and Gonzales.
Or take a ferry across the Mississippi at Plaquemine-St. Gabriel. Ferries run daily, every half-hour, from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. Fare: $1. Just remember that there can be a long wait at rush hour when the chemical plants change shifts.
WHEN TO GO: The time for azaleas is February to March. Magnolias bloom May to November. In December, holiday bonfires burn on the levees, the houses are extravagantly decorated, and on the first December weekend, "Christmas in the Country" is celebrated in St. Francisville.
The plantation B&Bs are open all year.
STAYING THERE: Prices include breakfast and a house tour:
Tezcuco Plantation, 3138 Hwy. 44, Darrow (Burnside); call toll-free 1-877-567-3334, or (225) 562-3929. $65-160.
The Myrtles, Hwy. 61N, St. Francisville; toll-free 1-800-809-0565, or (225) 635-6277. From $115.
Butler Greenwood, Hwy 61N, St. Francisville, (225) 635-6312. From $125.
Greenwood, 6838 Highland Rd., St. Francisville, (225) 655-4475. From $95.
The Cottage Plantation, Hwy 61, St. Francisville, (225) 635-3674, from $80.
FOR MORE INFORMATION: Contact the River Road African American Museum & Gallery, (225) 644-7955, www.africanamericanmuseum.org.
Ascension Parish Tourist Commission, toll-free 1-888-775-7990.
West Feliciana Parish Tourist Commission, toll-free 1-800-789-4221.
Louisiana Office of Tourism, toll-free 1-800-99GUMBO, or www.louisianatravel.com
-- Betty Lowry is a freelance writer living in Wayland, Mass.
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