Thursday, February 3, 2022

HGB Ep. 421 - Laura and Oak Alley Plantations

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Moment in Oddity - The Johnny Cash Tarantula (Suggested by: Jared Rang)

Johnny Cash was known as "The Man in Black," so why wouldn't scientists name an all black tarantula after him? Tarantulas are some of the most unique spiders in the world and there are about 29 species of them in the United States. They belong to the genus Aphonopelma and fourteen of the species in America are entirely new to science with Aphonopelma johnnycashi being one of them. This variety was discovered around 2015. Most male johnnycashi taratulas are black in coloration, hence the inspiration for the name. Also, the scientist who discovered the species, Dr. Chris Hamilton, said the species is mainly found near Folsom Prison in California and who doesn't know the tune "Folsom Prison Blues" made famous by Cash? The johnnycashi taratula is pretty cool, but naming a spider after a famous musician, certainly is odd!

This Month in History - Gunslinger John Wesley Hardin Pardoned

In the month of February, on the 16th in 1894, Gunslinger John Wesley Hardin is pardoned. Hardin was an infamous gunslinger who was thought to have killed at least 40 people in his time. His first murder was at the age of fifteen and the victim was an ex-slave. Hardin went on the run, but was eventually arrested in Waco, Texas - oddly, for a crime he hadn't committed. He escaped and ran to his friend Wild Bill Hickok who ran Abilene, Texas. Hardin found more trouble here when he shot through his hotel room wall to stop another guest's snoring that had awakened him. The shots killed the man and Hardin was on the run again. He finally ended up in Florida where he shot another man and was arrested. He was spared the gallows and given a life sentence, which he served fifteen years of before being pardoned. He moved to El Paso and became what else, a lawyer. His past caught up to him though and he was shot in the back and killed in a revenge murder.

Laura and Oak Alley Plantations (Suggested by Yvette Tan)

Traveling through the swamp lands of Louisiana is an adventure, not only through nature, but through history. The dank humid air and large oaks filled with Spanish Moss add an air of the creepy. So much is haunted here. These swamp lands were once dotted with large plantations and some of them still exist today. Laura Plantation and Oak Alley Plantation are found near Vacherie, Lousiana. Today, they are museums that one can explore and possibly interact with a few ghosts. Join us as we explore the history and hauntings of the Laura and Oak Alley Plantations!

Vacherie, Louisiana is a part of the St. James Parish and located an hour away from New Orleans. This small town was used as a location for filming the series True Detective. The name means cowshed in French, or what we prefer Dairy Farm, and is home to several former plantations. Little has changed here and most people who live here were born in the area and never leave.

Most people are familiar with the tale of Br'er Rabbit because of Disney's movie Song of the South and the amusement park ride Splash Mountain, which was inspired by the movie. What most people probably don't know is that the tales about Br'er Rabbit were brought over to America from Senegal by slaves and made known to the rest of the world by a neighbor of the Laura Plantation named Alcee Fortier. He visited the plantation in 1870 and recorded the stories of the freedmen still working on the plantation after the Civil War. These stories were passed down in the creole language. They featured the clever rabbit and the stupid fool, said in creole as Compair Lapin and Compair Bouki. Br'er rabbit is indeed a trickster in the stories. These stories were published by Fortier in 1894 as "Louisiana Folk Tales: In French Dialect and English Translation." Eventually they would be adapted into the stories that Disney used for their movie.

But before the stories and before the plantation, there was a large Acolapissa village here. It was named Tabiscanja, meaning long river view, and dated to the early 1700s. There were ceremonial mounds built high above the river and huts were placed at higher elevations as well. This was a small, obscure Native American group that lived in Louisiana and Mississippi and are believed to have spoken a Muskogean language called Mobilian. They disappeared as they merged into other tribes, but a remnant did stay here and would live on part of the plantation until 1915. A little side story here told by the plantation website says that "In the mid-1700s, a Catholic missionary came and chopped down the Acolapissa's 14ft-high, red-painted totem. The priest was upset because the totem was an erect phallus." This totem pole was called a Baton Rouge, which means red stick. SO for those of you living in Baton Rouge, well... Actually, legend claims Baton Rouge got its name from a cypress pole stained red with blood that marked a boundary on hunting grounds between Native American tribes.

Acadian refugees settled here in 1785. They had been run out of Canada by the British in a violent and harsh expulsion. People were burned from their homes and some were killed and this is considered a crime against humanity in line with genocide. The Acadians found refuge in Louisiana and it is from them that we get the Cajun culture. The word Acadien became the word Cadien, which became Cajun. A large area that the Acadians occupied became part of the Laura Plantation.

Guillaume Benjamin Demézière Duparc was the first owner of the Laura Plantation and so it was first called the Duparc Plantation or more specifically l'Habitation Duparc. He had been granted the large track of land by Thomas Jefferson in 1804 for his service during the Revolutionary War. The largest building on the property was the Big House, which was built with slave labor and completed in 1805. There was a raised brick basement and the house was built in a U-shape with a central coutryard flanked on either side by wings. That raised brick basement means that the house was raised high above the ground, supported by blue-gray glazed brick columns and walls. There was an 8-foot deep pyramidal brick foundation underground. A separate kitchen building was behind the house. Much of the house was prefabricated and made from wood and done in the Creole architectural style, but it had unique elements. There was Federal-style interior woodwork and a Norman roof truss. There were no hallways, just two rows of five rooms that opened into each other. The interior was plastered and the outside was stuccoed and covered in several bright hues of red, ochre, pearl and green. The 24,000 square foot house was surrounded by a white picket fence encompassing a large yard for entertainment. The property also had a dairy, smokehouse, blacksmith shop and overseer cabins.

Duparc continued to buy more land until the property covered 12,000 acres. The Mississippi River was only 600 feet away. The main crop was sugarcane, but the land also produced pecans, rice and indigo. Slave cabins lined a dirt road behind the plantation house and this road led to a sugar mill about a mile away. Two families would share a cabin with doors for privacy and they shared a central fireplace. The cabins each had their own gardens and chicken coops or pigpens. There were 69 cabins in all with a separate communal kitchen building and an infirmary. At its height before the Civil War, the plantation had around 186 slaves.

Guillaume Duparc lived at the plantation for four years before he died in 1808 and the property passed to his daughter Elisabeth Duparc. She had married George Raymond Locoul, so the plantation became the property of the Locoul family and eventually passed to Laura Locoul Gore who was the fourth mistress of the plantation. She ran it as a sugar cane plantation and the name of the plantation comes from her first name. She wrote the memoir "Memories of the Old Plantation Home: A Creole Family Album," which wasn't published until 2000.

Florian Waguespack bought Laura Plantation in 1891 and continued the production of sugarcane on the farm. After about a century of production and occupation, the main house and gardens were in disrepair, so the Laura Plantation Company, LLC was established and acquired fourteen acres that included the main house and other outbuildings in 1993. Restoration was done to the French parterre garden, a pecan orchard, the roads and fences, a potager planted adjacent to the original kitchen and vegetable plots were replanted near the surviving slave cabins.

Today, the Big House no longer has the back wings and a back kitchen wing had been added off the back porch. Six of the slave quarters still remain and there is a second house known as Maison de Reprise, which was built for the first female president of the Duparc Plantation. The plantation was listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a museum that can be toured that houses many of the family heirlooms from over the years. A fire in 2004 damaged 80% of the Big House and completely destroyed the newer kitchen wing, which was not rebuilt. The rest of the house was restored in 2006.

The Duparc family were Creole and the plantation celebrates this heritage. Creole was about culture, not race, so many different groups are also considered Creole whether they were enslaved or free blacks, white European immigrants, Native American or Acadian descendants. To be Creole meant that you were probably born in Louisiana, spoke Spanish, French and/or Creole and practiced the Catholic faith. French was the main language though, with most Creoles having that as their first language. This culture was very different from the White-Anglo-Saxon-Protestant culture that made up most of America. The Creole culture faltered when public eduation was mandated in 1916 and schools were segregated and the French language was deemed a foreign language and English became the mandatory language. The Jim Crowe laws of the 1960s further divided the Creoles into separate segregated groups. Much is still lost today, but a resurgence in Creole food, music, folklore, architecture and traditions has taken place. And Creole was not limited to America. Brazil and the Guianas are recognized as Creole countries and many islands in the Caribbean are saturated with Creole culture.

Plantations conjur conflicting emotions. On one hand, there are beautiful landscapes crowned with gorgeous homes. On the other is the repressive past that found men, women and child enslaved based merely on their circumstance of birth. Many plantations were host to cruelty and witnessed the violence of war and rebellion. Some groups believe these plantations should all be razed. But do these homes simply bear the sins of their owners or can they be a place of healing? For us, as is the case for all history whether good, bad or somewhere in between, there is always value. And when considering the spirits that still remain, simply erasing the past may not serve whatever their connection to the property may be. Laura Plantation is no different than many of the other plantations in the south. Nearly all have ghost stories connected to them. Laura Plantation doesn't seem to want to embrace those stories, but that doesn't make the ghosts disappear.

Our listener Yvette Tan, who suggested this location, has visited Laura Plantation and she said of her visit, "I began to get a headache as the tour group moved from a bedroom to the dining room, the sensation going away after we exited the house through the kitchen. I thought nothing of it. Later, as the group rested underneath a covered bridge on the property, I asked if anyone had experienced anything supernatural in the area. The guide said that though they weren’t allowed to say anything, there have been reports of one of the slaves (sort of like the mayordoma or manager) appearing in the dining room. Imagine the coincidence!" Activity in the home seemed to pickup after the fire and remodeling. People who walk the grounds never fell alone. But other than this little bit of information, that's all we got as paranormal investigations are not allowed. The same can't be said of Oak Alley Plantation that has at least four apparitions on the grounds.

Oak Alley Plantation is less than four miles away from Laura Plantation and is known as the "Grand Dame of the Great River Road." No one knows for sure who planted the huge hundred-year-old oaks that line the eight-hundred-foot path up to the plantation. There are twenty-eight of them spaced eighty feet apart. They predate the plantation by at least 100 years. Historians believe that Oak Alley got its name from riverboat captains who saw the alley formed by the oaks and gave the landmark the navigational nickname. A French Creole named Valcour Aime purchased the land here in 1830 and established a sugarcane plantation. He named it The Bon Séjour Plantation - meaning good or pleasant stay - and Aime became one of the wealthiest men in the South acquiring the nickname "King of Sugar." Valcour Aime had a brother-in-law named Jacques Télesphore Roman who also owned a plantation and in 1836, the men exchanged property. Roman would be the one to build the mansion here and it was constructed with slave labor. The house was completed in 1839.

The mansion was built by George Swainey in the Greek Revival architectural style with a square floor plan. A central hall runs through the middle of both stories of the house. The windows are large and the ceilings high at twelve feet. This design probably helped with cooling the house in the oppressive summer heat. The mansion was built from bricks that were made on site and then stuccoed and painted white as to look like marble. The front has a distinctive colonnade of  28 Doric columns to match the 28 oak trees. The roof was made of slate with four dormers, one on each side of the hipped roof.

The Bon Sejour had a master gardener among its enslaved population of 200 and he was named Antoine and he was brilliant with plants. He is credited with creating the "paper shell" pecan that can be cracked with the hand by using grafting techniques in 1846. These are today known as the Centennial Variety. The original grove was cleared to plant more sugarcane after the Civil War and another original stand on the Anita Plantation was washed away in a river break in 1990. Roman died of tuberculosis in 1848 and his wife Celina took over operations at the plantation. Celina loved spending money and wasn't very good at management and the plantation came under heavy debt she nearly bankrupted the estate. In 1859 her son, Henri, took over, but with the onslaught of the Civil War, the property lost its economic viability - probably because much of the work force was free and left. The plantation was put up for auction in 1866 and sold to John Armstrong for $32,800.

Confederate War veteran Antonio Sobral was the next owner, buying the property in 1881, and he tried to get the sugar cane business going again, but had little success. The Hardin Family owned the property next and they saved the oak trees from destruction by levee work supervised by the Army Corps of Engineers. This was a massive property that had been established by a very wealthy man and it seemed that no one could manage to upkeep the property. It fell into steady disrepair until 1925 when Andrew and Josephine Stewart bought the property. They hired architect Richard Koch to refurbish and modernize the house. The black and white marble floors were replaced with wood and a kitchen would be built in the rear of the first floor. Extra dormers would added to the roof as well. The Stewarts transformed the former sugar plantation into a cattle ranch. Sugar cane would return in the 1960s, however. Josephine planted a formal garden as well. She would continue on at the plantation after Andrew died and when she passed in 1972, she left the property to the Oak Alley Foundation, which opened the property to the public. A garage was turned into a theater and there is still a blacksmith shop on the property as well as the Stewart graveyard. And recreated slave quarters were added to reflect the true history of the property. A slave database project has also been underway to identify all the slaves that had once been on the property.

The plantation has been used as a location in the films "The Long, Hot Summer," "Primary Colors" and "Interview with the Vampire." The series "North and South" also featured the plantation. Today, it is a restaurant and inn offering a tranquil retreat in the plantation country with award-winning food and tours. There are several cottages on the property for stays and weddings are regularly hosted. The "Spirits Bar" is aptly named not only for the drinks that are served, but this property is reputedly haunted by several spirits.

Two of the people who loved this home the most were Jacques Roman and Josephine Stewart and they both seem to still be here in the afterlife. The apparition of Roman has been seen walking around the mansion's galleries by both employees and guests. He is described often in formal wear. He usually vanishes after being seen. Jacques has also been seen wearing grey clothing and riding boots. Josephine spent much of her later years in the Lavender Room and her presence is felt here often. She enjoyed roses and planted many on the grounds, so if she is nearby the scent of roses is usually detected. Sometimes it is so strong as to be overwhelming. She has also been seen looking out of the window of this room. And once an employee outside saw the light turn on in the Lavender Room and a figure glided across the room and then looked out the window that resembled Josephine. Rocking chairs on the front porch have been known to move on their own.

Tragedy was a real thing for the Roman family and maybe it was karma for keeping slaves. Not only did Roman die of TB at a rather young age, they lost a daughter, Marie, after his passing at the age of eleven. Another daughter named Louise developed gangrene after a fall in her wire hoopskirt and her leg had to be amputated. She was so traumatized by the experience that she left and became a nun. And then, of course, the family lost the property. So there is reason for negative residue here. The dining room is the scene of much activity. Silverware and candlesticks have been known to go flying. Jacques wife is sometimes blamed for this, but the spirits of former slaves are thought to be here as well.

Ghost Hunters visited in Season 4 on episode 19, so clearly the place embraces its haunted reputation. Sandra Schexnayder was the house manager at the time and she shared her own experiences. She saw a spirit she called "the lady of the house" on the stairs, while she was seated at the piano. She had locked the house and was just waiting for the last tour to finish up. The ghost was wearing black, she walked to the staircase, stopped and turned to look at Sandra. Sandra stood up to walk towards the ghost and she disappeared. Another woman named Darlene Gravois was looking out the window and she saw a shadow and then a woman wearing an Antebellum costume outside. She thought it was maybe someone for the tour, but there was no one outside when she opened the door. This woman too was in black. The woman in black has also been seen in the large mirror in the hallway. Many people think that this ghost belongs to Celina, the wife of Jacques Roman.

Celina is also seen sitting on a bed in an upstairs bedroom. Sometimes there is just an impression in the bed as if someone unseen is sitting there. Dee Bergeron was a tour guide at the house and she told the guys that she witnessed a candle fall out of the candelabra on the table in the dining room. She put the candle back in the holder and as she turned to leave the room, the candle came out of the holder and shot across the room, hitting a door. Sandra will not go into the attic. She says she usually makes it to the fifteenth step and she just can't go any further because of an overwhelming presence that she feels. The employees also claimed that one night after turning everything off and going outside, all the lights came on. They were too scared to go back inside, so drove away and as they looked back, they saw that the house was dark once again.

During the investigation, Jason caught a heat signature on the FLIR camera on an outside balcony. When Grant went out there, there was barely a heat signature, so it was weird. Steve felt a presence next to him while sitting at the dining table. Jason and Grant both felt a cold spot in one of the rooms as they were talking about other people now owning the property and they wondered if it made previous owners angry since these owners could do whatever they wanted. A flashlight also turned on and off by itself.

The Louisiana Spirits Investigations group has also investigated the property and they captured several EVP. All the activity they captured happened in the attic. Shadows were seen on the walls and someone saw Roman's face in a mirror for a brief moment. One of the investigators also had his arm grabbed rather roughly by something he couldn't see. He dropped his camera from the force. There was one experience in Cottage 4 where the group stayed. They got an early morning wake-up call when there was a loud bang.

These two plantations are beautiful and a reminder of a troubling and interesting past. Are there still spirits that remain from that past? Are the Laura and Oak Alley Plantations haunted? That is for you to decide!

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