Plantation Tour - Kent House: French translation service
Along with three other people, I was asked by a former client of mine to serve as translator for a plantation tour for a large group of French people from the regions of Cognac, Charente, and Bordeaux. I'll be leading a tour of Americans to their region in a little over a month... Made some great connections!
The Kent House is a former cotton and sugarcane plantation which is the oldest standing structure in Central Louisiana. It survived the Civil War, in which the nearby City of Alexandria was burned by Union troops - as were the cotton and sugarcane fields for the plantation.
Built during the time when Louisiana was still part of the Spanish Territory, the French-American couple applied for a land grant from Spain, on the grounds that they were good Catholics. They were initially awarded 500 acres - and ended up with 1,200, with the addition of their 14 children, which entitled them to further land concessions.
This building was passed on to the City of Alexandria and was moved to its current location - still on its original grounds - and preserved as a museum (and one of the best kept secrets... it was my first visit here as well). Ever the history student, I did one tour with a docent, and on the second tour with the French people, I was soon running lead.
Ten of the original 14 made it to adulthood, though life expectancy wasn't beyond 53 years of age. Between yellow fever and typhus, you were never guaranteed a full, healthy life as we know it today. This child died at the age of three.
The house was built on bricks to protect it from flooding from the nearby river/bayou. It also served as a breeze-way and provided a cool shaded area... Summers in this part of the world can be brutal.
The local guides were extremely knowledgeable, and the tour revealed the origin of numerous sayings and phrases in our modern manner of speech. Here in the dining room, we learned that this board above the table kept wind over the food and diners and kept away insects. Without air conditioning and screens, this was a necessity to stay cool and bug free...
This tea setting included an original block of tea from China. It was a very expensive commodity, and the ladies of the house kept everything of value under lock and key.
An original piece of clothing... the key pockets, worn under a lady's dress. The wearer of this was the mother of 14 children, and still revealed a waistline of under 20 inches. Diet and poor nutrition meant that people of this time were much smaller than today. A woman of 5' in height was considered average!
The wooden candle holder actually served as a heat screen for ladies in the parlor (which came from the French word "parler" - for the room where people sat and chatted with one another. Because of facial scars from smallpox and yellow fever during childhood, the women used cosmetics such as beeswax to give their faces a shiny, smooth complexion. This heat screen was certainly necessary!
A portrait of a French general, who was close friends with the owner of the plantation. And in a quite interesting turn of events, the son of the original owner became a lawyer and judge and started a school here with a William Sherman - who later was the Union general who hampered much of the Civil War economy by burning cities and plantations... That school was moved to Baton Rouge to become the state's largest university - LSU.
Catholic indeed... every bedroom had on of these little mounts on the wall, which had holy water for blessing.
They did not like baths - thinking they weren't healthy. They bathed once a week or so. The father bathed first, then the mother, then from oldest child to youngest... SAME WATER. Hence the term, "Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater." I wasn't surprised at the infant mortality rate with such a practice!
Master bed... In addition to the mosquito screens which every bed had, this bed has a most interesting headboard. As mother and father slept on a feather mattress, this giant rolling pin at the top of the headboard was used every day to smooth out the mattress before the next night of sleep.
The kitchen - which was always separate from the house as a fire hazard. The brick oven took two days to heat up - but then the coals could be removed and the help could cook food for a full day and a half. The path from the kitchen to the house was called the whistle walk. Slaves had to whistle for two reasons: they announced the arrival of food - and they couldn't sneak any bites for themselves and eat, while whistling.
This kitchen is still used to this very day, once a week and for special occasions. The large hearth is directly behind our guide and just behind her you can see the brick oven.
The bricks in front of the hearth retained a good deal of heat, and to further heat the contents of a pot such as this (used for cornbread), coals would be place on the lid. It shape reveals this secondary and intelligent use.
Adjacent to the kitchen was a house, divided by a center wall, for two slave families. They would have been of favored status, having a porch and wooden floors. The slaves painted their wooden posts and doorways with red to ward off evil spirits...
And this was a spirit tree... when the wind would blow in a direction that would make a bottle "whistle," then they would immediately take and plug it up and throw it in the bayou... They had captured an evil spirit.
The woman in this picture moved into this slave house in 1836 - at the age of four years old. She lived here for 110 YEARS!!! What she must have seen... from the slave experience to the Civil War to Reconstruction and then Redemption.
With a doorway cut in the wall for ease of access during tours, one can see the "saddlebag fireplace," divided in half by the center wall, with a common chimney stack.
Showing some of the various plantation tools... at her right hand a wooden instrument for washing clothes and in her left hand a soap mold.
The gardens for the kitchen. The slaves would be given just enough food to "feed their souls," hence the later term coined for Southern cooking from African-Americans, "Soul Food."
The reason for so much: here is an infamous harvesting bag, which would be filled by slaves/cotton pickers through the course of a day. It would be weighed afterwards - often resulting in a reward or a beating. A slave mother with an infant could put the child on the bag as a form of a sled, while she continued to work her way down the rows of cotton.
And another prime mover of plantation agriculture, economy, and slavery: sugar. Here we see where sugar was separated - the byproduct, molasses, being the ingredient for making rum. Rum drove the slave trade more than practically any other export. Cotton drove the textile industry, but rum and other distilled spirits were used for barter, demanded by African slave traders, and was a key part of everyday life.
Fermenting sugar. We actually stuck our fingers in this foul-looking soup and tried it! Not bad at all... you could taste the alcohol as it was forming!