Along the banks of the Mississippi River, sugar cane was the gold currency of the Louisiana plantation. Robbery, slavery, and lifestyles of the rich and famous were the every day scenes at Houmas House in Darrow, Louisiana.
Daily life on “Big Mansions on the Plantation” may evoke romantic images of colonialism. For the plantation owners, money meant they could afford the pleasures of life. However, life wasn’t easy for anyone.
Modern day plantation life makes Houmas House a museum full of rich artifacts while our heads are filled with colonial romanticism.
However, a tour of Houmas House showed me that life on Louisiana plantation contained history lessons and secret lives buried within its walls.
A Houmas House history
In 1770, Alexander Latil and Maurice Conway purchased 300,000 acres of land from the Houmas Indians in exchange for $150 worth of goods. After purchasing the property, the new owners built the Red House.
The walls of this home were thick – two feet of brick and Spanish Moss as Latil and Conway settled in their new home on the banks of the Mississippi.
While there are a number of plantation homes in Louisiana, Houmas House has ties my native home in South Carolina. In 1811, General Wade Hampton left Columbia, SC and bought the Houmas House from Latil and Conway.
After arriving, Hampton began construction on the yellow house. With its massive size and undertaking, the new home took 17 years to complete. For the next 40 years, Hampton called this home.
During the 1850s, sugar cane became the staple crop of Houmas House and many other plantation homes. 20 millions pounds of sugar, sugar cane, and molasses were loaded on the boats at the dock and sent to New Orleans. Sugar turned to gold for Hampton and many other plantation owners.
When Wade Hampton died, he passed the house to his daughter and her husband – Caroline Hampton Preston and John Smith Preston. After moving from South Carolina with their six kids, Mae contracted yellow fever and died.
In 1857, John Burnside bought the home, the land, and 1,000 slaves for $1 million dollars. In 1927, a flood occurred. In 1930, 16 of the 24 oak trees were removed to build a levy.
In 1940, inventor and orthodontist Dr. Crozat bought the home and updated the home with bedrooms, an oval room, and bathrooms.
After a number of years, the house became run down. In 2003, Kevin Kelly bought the home and restored it. The grand re-opening took place on November 1, 2003 as 1800 guests were invited to the wedding of his two dogs – Grace and Sam.
While the Houmas House opening had an unusual beginning, Kelly has amassed $10 millions in furnishings for the house with art and priceless antiques.
From highway robbery to millionaire mansion, Houmas House has seen many owners over the years. However, life on the plantation wasn’t easy for anyone.
Plantation life and the secret lives of women
Slaves had a hard life. Some were treated respectfully while many labored long hours in tough conditions. No other people in US history may have suffered more than slaves.
However, the lives of women weren’t easy either. During the 1800s, women were of small stature – under 5 feet tall weighing between 75 and 85 pounds. Every day, they would wear 13 layers of clothes and a corset so tight their ribs would break. Other times, the women would faint, recover, and put on another corset.
When a woman’s husband died, she wore 16 layers of clothes in the hot, muggy Louisiana summer – and Fall, Spring, and Winter. Women wore veils, turned mirrors around, set their clocks to the time of their husbands death, and mourned for one year.
When a man’s wife died, he could marry again the day after she was buried.
As a girl, life wasn’t easier as a child. Females didn’t associate with males in the house as each had their own rooms to socialize. Proper behavior was required around women as no cursing, drinking, smoking, spitting or politics were allowed in their presence.
At age 14, girls were ready for marriage. If a girl wasn’t married by age 16, mom and dad would help find a suitable mate. At age 19, a girl was an old maid. Men waited until their mid 20s to early 30s to marry – 14 to 16 year old girls.
During child birth, women continued to wear all of their clothes. Many women died giving birth to their babies. Many others died as bleeding and infections, which went unnoticed during childbirth, killed them a few days later.
While men had the easiest of lives, bathing is not something people did very often. The rich would bathe two to three times a week, middle class one to two times, and poor and slaves two to three times a month.
Poor hygiene was due to the fear that too many baths would cause one to get sick. When people did bathe, they needed good soap or the lye would take hair right off their bodies.
While rich plantation owners and their families lived better than anyone else, life wasn’t always easy – especially for women.
The treasures of Houmas House
Long gone are the days of plantation life in Louisiana. Plantation homes like this are now museums romanticizing an era of high class society with beautiful homes.
Today, Houmas House holds as many priceless treasures as it does history lessons.
A 1901 David Grand Steinway piano from Hamburg sits in the parlor as paintings by Edouard Monet and Pual Gaugin hang on the walls.
A priceless sculpture of Abraham Lincoln made out of silver sits on the shelf designed by Gutzon Borglum – the man who sculpted Mount Rushmore.
An early 1800s Hall tree owned by Thomas Jefferson sits on the wall of the Oval Room. An 1863 music box from Switzerland plays the same 8 songs numerous times a day while a clock owned by Marie Antoinette and Napoleon sits on the mantle.
An 1847 census map of Louisiana hangs on the wall. Since it was buried in the floors under the Cypress, this kept Louisiana plantations safe during the Civil War.
History lessons from Louisiana plantations
Today, Houmas House is worth millions – and that’s just the furnishings. However, history lessons may be worth even more.
While we play Colonial Ken and Barbie in our minds, my eyes were opened to the struggles of real life on plantations. Traveling isn’t easy and our experiences teach us lessons we didn’t expect to learn.
May we hear the stories and reminders of the struggles of slavery and fight that everyone around the world may have freedom. These are reminders that memorable moments can happen at any time and in any place.
Whether we travel to other cultures or travel back through the centuries of time, Houmas House has opened my eyes to history. I am reminded me that we need to look past the stereotypes and romantic images of tourist destinations to look at the lives of people.
Treasures, plantation life, and history are buried deep in the annals of Houmas House. Not everything that is priceless is sitting on the shelf.
What are your thoughts about plantations? Memories of American romanticism or an era of tough living conditions and harsh history lessons? Would you want to live on a plantation?