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Oak Alley: History Comes Alive

© By Mike Keenan

  On TV, I recently watched presidential hopefuls, Democratic senators Obama and Clinton dramatically speak from historic churches in Selma, Alabama. They were present to celebrate the anniversary of a bloody march for voting rights in 1965. TV producers expertly mixed in old film of white policemen attacking the peaceful marchers with dogs, batons and water cannons. This was 41 years ago in a country that claims to promote liberty world wide. Barak and Hiliary cleverly used the opportunity to identify with minorities - blacks and women, and both indicated that the civil rights march had a long way yet to go, presumably all the way to the White House. It seemed surreal because I had just returned from a visit to a Louisiana plantation where I had read plaques presented for tourists that defined slaves and broke them down into positions of relative worth.
     Jacques Telesphore Roman purchased Oak Alley with an established sugar industry, live stock and 57 slaves. It took him three years to build a splendid manor house and surrounding buildings where he and his valuable holdings spanned two complete decades, ending with the Civil War.
     The plaques list records from an 1848 inventory of Roman's estate which lists 20 house click to read slaves and labels them as follows: Deterville (34 yrs.), $1,045.00, Simon (18 yrs.) - son of Antoinette, $1,000.00, Mèanna (34 yrs.) - Mulatress seamstress with her 5 children: Charles (10yrs), Raphael (7yrs.), Rosalie (5 yrs.), Elizabeth (2 yrs.), Genevieve (10 mos.), estimated together at: $1,500.00, Hyacinthe (35 yrs.) - Cook, $1,000.00.
     Field slaves numbered 93 and were listed in similar fashion: Léandre (63 yrs.) - Creole Negro field boss & driver, $500.00, Avril (35 yrs.) - Creole Negro teamster & laborer, $1,000.00, John (46 yrs.) - American Negro cooper (cask/barrel maker), $1,000.00, Hiram (42 yrs.) - American Negro blacksmith, $1,200.00 and so on.
     Here, in the Deep South, I found a Canadian connection to Oak Alley. In 1741, Roman married Marie D'Aigle, whose family had moved there from Canada. Plantations quickly lined both sides of the nearby Mississippi River, used for transportation as sugar became the major crop as far north as Baton Rouge.
     The main building is impressive. Twenty-eight classic columns surround the mansion. The columns measure 8 feet in circumference and are solid brick. The bricks were made in pie-shaped molds in order to achieve the circular form of the columns. All materials used in the construction of the building were found or manufactured on the plantation with the exception of marble for the floors and fireplaces and slate for the roof, both imported.
     The construction cleverly provides maximum protection from blazing summer heat, the veranda extending 13 feet from the walls to keep the home in shade for most of the day. Tall windows and doors face each other for cross ventilation, and ceilings stand 12 feet high with massive 16 inch thick walls throughout the house.
     Legend has it that Mrs. Roman christened her new home "Bon Sejour" (pleasant sojourn), however Mississippi River travelers, impressed by the avenue of mighty oaks, called it "Oak Alley", and so it remained. I highly recommend the Gray Line Tour. The plantation is located on the Mississippi between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. The quarter-mile canopy of 28 giant live oak trees, nearly 300 years old, form an impressive avenue leading to the classic Greek-revival style antebellum home.
     The grounds and building are truly incredible, evidenced by many entertainment productions filmed there - movies such as Primary Colors, Interview with a Vampire, Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte, Nightrider and television programs such as Days of our Lives and The Long Hot Summer. Yet, even as I toured the mansion with guides dressed in colourful period costumes and as I walked the well-manicured grounds, I could not get the image of those plaques out of my mind.

Mike Keenan writes for QMI Agency (Sun Media) Canada's largest newspaper publisher, printing 44 daily newspapers as well as a web portal, Canoe.ca. Besides regular columns for the St. Catharines Standard, Welland Tribune and Niagara Falls Review. Mike has been published in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, Buffalo Spree, Stitches, West of the City and Hamilton-Burlington's View Magazine. His work is found in QMI published dailies such as the Toronto Sun, Ottawa Sun, Vancouver Sun, London Free Press, Calgary Sun, Winnipeg Sun and Edmonton Sun.

Photo Credits
Mike Keenan

If you go
This Destination
as seen on
Oak Alley Plantation, Restaurant & Inn,
3645 Highway 18 (Great River Road),
Vacherie, Louisiana USA 70090:
Phone: (225) 265-2151 or 1-800-44ALLEY http://www.oakalleyplantation.com/
Gray Line Tours: http://www.graylineneworleans.com/plantation.shtml
Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vacherie,_Louisiana

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