Known as “The Grand Dame of the River Road” Oak Alley Plantation combines a fascinating story of love, hope and despair. Jaques Roman dreamed of having a massive sugar plantation, acquiring wealth and displaying his prestige for all to see. He began his conquests with the acquisition of Oak Alley. Standing beneath the line of massive live oaks, he realized this was the perfect place to build a mansion the likes of which had not been seen before in this area. Construction was begun in January 1836 and after three years of labor intensive building, all done by his slaves, Jaques was able to move his family into their new home. The years were not kind to the family as they faced misfortunate after misfortunate, finally watching their beloved home be sold at auction. The house was eventually purchased in 1925 by Andrew Stewart, who restored the property to its original grandeur. The Stewarts were childless and donated their property to be preserved as a historic landmark that anyone can visit today. Oak Alley’s scenic vista has been featured in movies, such as Interview with the Vampire, commercials, and might have been the inspiration for the scene of Twelve Oaks in Gone with the Wind.
I have always enjoyed visiting historic properties to learn more about the past and had wanted to visit the Louisiana plantations since childhood. It took me a while to make it, but Oak Alley was worth the wait. We started our tour by visiting their newly constructed “Slavery at Oak Alley” exhibit. It’s a horrifying account of the brutality of slavery detailed through artifacts, historical records from the plantation and reconstructed slaver cabins. The exhibit ends with a list of all the names of the slaves etched on the wall as a respectful tribute to their lives.
Our tour continued through the grounds of the plantation consisting of a Civil War Encampment, showing the life of a typical Civil War officer. The tent has been refurnished with period furniture and their friendly Civil War historian is available to answer any questions. After chatting for a few minutes, we wandered over to the former carriage house that had been transformed into a garage during later years. The men in the family gazed longingly at the two fully restored antique vehicles while I complained that the tires looked too thin to travel long distances.
Our next stop was for a guided tour of the mansion. While we waited for our tour to begin we talked with one of the docents and petted the plantation cat, “Alley.” Because it was a rainy day and we had arrived early, our tour consisted of just our family so it was highly personalized. The docent took the time to answer all our questions, allowed me to snap pictures where ever I wanted, and explained the history of the house and the original occupants, the Romans, in detail. He didn’t even mind when I peeked around corners and asked, “What’s in this or that room?” (Usually it was a closet or bathroom that had been added when the house was updated with the last owners.) While much of the plantation’s original flooring and furnishings had been stolen or destroyed during the years the plantation sat empty, the Roman family has donated some family heirlooms and the plantation has been restored with period era furnishings.
Oak Alley Plantation is located in Vacherie, Louisiana, a thirty minute drive outside the city of New Orleans and is open to the public 9 AM to 5 PM daily during the months of March through October and closing a half hour earlier November-February.