A southern state of mind

  • Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Leslee Spivey

Great River Road and Plantation Alley after leaving New Orleans.  No doubt, we expected to see beautiful plantations, but were totally unprepared for the large number of industries in the area. Later we learned that the 70 mile stretch between New Orleans and Baton Rouge is undergoing an industrial boom and today large petrochemical plants have replaced sugarcane and cotton as the mainstay of the riverside economy.  Louisiana is enjoying significant industrial growth primarily because of natural gas and easy access to the Mississippi River. With the Mississippi on one side of the road and the industry on the other, manufacturing facilities can transport their products quickly and economically.  However, one would never know the Mississippi is across the road because of the high levees that were designed by the Corp of Engineers to keep the river within its banks.

As we traveled along the River Road discussion centered on which of the four plantations to visit. We passed San Francisco Plantation, and decided that was not it; we were on the wrong side of the River to see Oak Alley and Laura Plantations, so Houmas House Plantation was our destination. 

The Houmas Plantation was once the largest sugarcane plantation in America and its owners were among the wealthiest in the south.  Extensive renovations have returned the mansion to the period reflecting the Great Sugar Empire of the 1800s.  The mansion began in 1805; was completed by South Carolina's Wade Hampton, III in 1828; and now rest among great oaks, some dating back 500 years. The house was beautiful and the tour was interesting, but, the grounds were magnificent. The present owner has restored the house focusing on the best parts of each period of history.  The 38 acre garden has plants indigenous to Louisiana and is one of the most beautiful gardens I have ever seen.  The 1964 Betty Davis Movie, Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte was filmed in the house and movie memorabilia is displayed on the tour.  Today, in addition to the main house, the plantation has several restaurants and cottages for guest to enjoy.  As we completed our tour, Bunny and I understood why Houmas House is called the Crown Jewel of Louisiana's River Road.

Natchez, Mississippi is all about a southern state of mind and was the next destination. The town is described as a blend of old and new, while offering visitors a glimpse into the American South. Located on a bluff above the Mississippi, Natchez is known to be the oldest settlement on the Mississippi, and was the wealthiest southern town before the Civil War because it was the main port for transporting sugarcane and cotton to New Orleans.  During the Civil War the town remained undamaged because the people quickly surrendered after the fall of New Orleans.  Today, the town observes this historical period through tours of beautiful homes and historical sites.  Presently there are some 75 neoclassical and Greek style dwellings that are part of the community and 12 homes are open year round.  In 1932 the town began to commemorate their heritage with costumed guides giving historic home tours and today continue the tradition with the spring and fall pilgrimage. Having only enough time to see one house, we chose Melrose Plantation since it is part of the National Park System. The park's historian shared many stories about the families that lived in the mansion as well as giving information on the history of the area. Melrose is a must see if you are in the area. Not only does Natchez capitalize on history, but it also takes advantage of its location along the Mississippi. During the 20th Century, the town suffered economically due to replacement of the steamboat and the location of the railroad but the town continued to promote and prosper from the two things that made it unique: the river and its heritage.  The picturesque downtown park with its trails overlooking the river was the perfect place to walk and was the location for the upcoming Spring Music Festival. The town maintains an active calendar of events during the year that tourist and locals support.  After leaving Natchez; Laurel, Mississippi was the destination for the evening.  Arriving at our hotel, we were somewhat surprised at the large number of people in the parking lot and lobby.  As we registered, Bunny and I learned that Laurel was hosting the African American Shriner's Convention and many Shriners were staying in our hotel. Without a doubt, the Shriners were the friendliest, most considerate group we had ever shared a hotel with.  As a rule no one speaks in an elevator; but not this group.

Everyone spoke; asked where you were from; and then had to tell their funny South Carolina stories. Being in a hotel filled with cheerful Shriners reminded us that regardless of where we go, or what we see, it’s always people that makes our trips fun. The Mississippi Shriners just like the rest of the folks we met along the way were gracious people with a southern state of mind. And, that’s why I’m proud to be from the south.  

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