TALES OF DEVASTATION WROUGHT BY THE FEDERAL troops on their march into the South have, with the passing of time, been blended into a composite picture with details familiar to all.
The traditional pattern of events preceding the arrival of the Northerners is equally familiar, as are also the heroic and resourceful attitudes of the women and slaves who faced the invaders. Admirable attitudes, however, rarely prevailed against the needs of hungry and threadbare troops, and after the storm had passed those remaining in its wake usually found themselves bereft of every movable possession except those which had been too well hidden for a hasty search to reveal. Sometimes, it is said, failure to produce some desired valuable, or too haughty a manner toward the conquerors, provoked the burning of a mansion, but whether or not this occurred, the old life of the home departed with the last whisper of marching feet. Plenty had made her exit from the scene, and Want took her place.
It is of the Utopia of Before the War that old Southerners speak. It was here and it is gone. The best of all possible worlds existed in the South and it was destroyed. And, truly, if merely a part of this remembered grandeur once existed in reality, Louisiana plantation life must have been almost paradisiacal.
The old home places were not built in a few months nor even, in some cases, in a few years. John Hampden Randolph, builder and original owner of Nottoway (thirty-one miles south of Baton Rouge), spent four years in selecting, cutting and seasoning the timbers for the mansion and in building the limekiln for the brickwork. Completed, Nottaway was a fortress calculated to defy the attacks of time and shelter a dozen generations of Southern gentility yet unborn. The way of life in what we term the Old South was expected by those who lived it to last forever, and two generations might be spent erecting and furnishing a home which was destined to be destroyed in a few hours by the fire of war.
Another such mansion was that of Charles Duralde*, a legend now, even to his descendants in St. Martinville, where settled many exiled patricians in the early decades of the past century. Nothing could have seemed more permanent than the life of the Duralde family at PINE ALLEY . The Duralde acres numbered in the tens of thousands, with a corresponding number of slaves, and the Duralde progeny an even two dozen twelve children from each of his two wives.
[* Duralde/Durand - This references the name as Duralde, other sources list name as Durand.]
Rarely equaled in pure fantasy is the story of preparations for the first Duralde wedding, a double ceremony at which two of the daughters became the brides of prominent members of St. Martinville society. While such stories have doubtless gained with retelling through the years, they yet seem to have an indigenous quality quite in keeping with the spirit of the times in which the events recorded are supposed to have taken place.
It is told that for the occasion of his daughters' wedding Charles Duralde prepared far in advance, bringing from China the strangest shipment ever to leave the shores of Cathay: a cargo of spiders, which he had freed in Pine Alley to spin a cloud of webs among the branches. Then slaves sprinkled the webs with gold and silver dust, and through this blazing corridor, over imported carpeting, the wedding procession wended its way to the magnificent altar which had been erected in front of the mansion. Food and wine were provided for two thousand guests, and the wedding festivities lasted for days.
It is said that the rooms of the mansion were sprayed each morning with costly perfume; that he and his family bathed in cologne and that his carriages were decorated with silver and upholstered with cloth of gold. Yet Charles Duralde lived to behold the ruin of all that he held dear. He served with his sons and grandsons in the War Between the States, and returned to witness the dispersal of his slaves, the raiding of his mansion and the utter destruction of his personal world. Dying a few years later, he hinted that a large part of his fortune was somewhere buried or hidden away in a foreign bank, but never revealed its location.
The slaves never returned to the Duralde plantation; the sugar mill has long since crumbled to ruin, and the mansion, decayed and abandoned, was demolished some years ago. His family scattered far and wide, nothing remained of the dynasty of Charles Duralde save a few fine portraits by an unknown artist, and these were lost in the flood of 1927.
Of greater prestige and wealth even than Duralde was Gabriel (Valcour) Aime, known as the 'Louis XIV of Louisiana.' Romanticists may stress that he was the owner of 'Le Petit Versailles' so called because the elaborate formal gardens of THE REFINERY, only completed after twenty years, were the product of the genius who had arranged the Garden of Versailles but historians are more apt to note that Valcour Aime was the first (1834) to refine sugar in Louisiana.
The Refinery, about twenty miles south of the present town of Donaldsonille, was really a vast agricultural experiment station developed to the fullest state of self-sufficiency. At one time Valcour Aime was dining with a friend in New Orleans. Both were epicures, and as they fell to comparing their personal chefs, then to speaking of the distant markets from which costly delicacies were obtained, Aime said to his friend:
'If you will be my guest at my home in St. James, I will promise you a dinner that you yourself will admit is perfect, every item of which will come from my own plantation.'
'Impossible,' said the New Orleans epicure. 'I do not doubt, my friend, that you can supply most of a dinner from your land, but a perfect dinner from your own plantation, that is impossible.'
'Do you care to wager that it is impossible,' asked Aime, 'and you yourself, on your word of honor, to be the judge?'
'Ten thousand dollars,' said the New Orleans man.
'It is a bet,' said Valcour Aime.
The dinner was eaten in the great dining-hall in St. James. There had been terrapin, shrimp and crabs, snipe and quail, breasts of wild duck, vegetables, salads, fruits, coffee and cigars, wines and a liqueur at the end.
'What say you, my friend?' questioned Valcour Aime.
'The dinner is perfect. But I think you lose,' answered the epicure, 'for no man can supply me with bananas, coffee and tobacco grown in St. James, Valcour Aime.'
'Ah, my friend, wait a moment,' smiled Aime. He ordered horses, slaves with lanterns. They mounted and rode out on the plantation, where the planter displayed a conservatory covering plots of coffee and tobacco, bananas and pineapples.
The master of Le Petit Versailles was noted for his princely hospitality and lavish gestures. When the future king of France, Louis Philippe, was entertained at The Refinery, it is said that the plates and platters of gold from which His Highness had eaten were thrown into the Mississippi.
The mansion, built in 1799, appeared to be in traditional Louisiana style, with eight massive columns supporting the front galleries, but wings extending backward enclosed a Spanish-style patio. The floors and stairways were of marble, and secret stairs were built into the thick walls.
Though the mansion burned in the second decade of the present century, the remains of the fort from which cannon boomed a welcome to visitors and where children played at battle with oranges can still be seen, and the channel of the 'river' is there, with its decaying bridges over which the wild vines creep.
Lafcadio Hearn, after visiting the site of 'Le Petit Versailles' once the classic abode of white gazelles, peafowl, and kangaroos described it as: A garden once filled with every known variety of exotic trees, with all species of fantastic shrubs, with the rarest floral products of both hemispheres but left utterly uncared for during a generation, so that the groves have been made weird with hanging moss and the vines have degenerated into parasites, and richly cultivated oleanders have returned to their primitive form.
One of the earliest plantations of which we have record, MONTPLAISIR, established by the Chevalier de Pradel in 1750 on the west bank of the Mississippi opposite the Place d'Armes, is described by George C. H. Kernion in the Louisiana Quarterly. He writes:
The Chevalier had reached the zenith of his power. From a country gentleman he had become a 'grand Seigneur.' Wealth, slaves, a plantation in the country, a home in town (in whose romantic garden shaded by venerable trees, the revolutionists La Freniere, Foucault, Villere, Noyan, Mazan, Milhet and others were to secretly gather in 1759 and after his death, to hatch their revolutionary plot), fine clothes, jewels, social position all now were his. But one thing was lacking to make his happiness complete. It was a chateau, yes, a French chateau like those he had known in his beloved Limousin, built in Louisiana, near New Orleans, where he could spend the last years of his life in peace and semi-regal magnificence!
The act of sale was passed in France during the year 1750, and in 1751, the erection of the fairy palace, which was not to be completed before 1754, was started. The plans provided for a main building one hundred and six feet long by forty-eight feet wide, with wide galleries whose flooring was covered with cloth, running about its four sides. It had a gabled roof and wide attic, and contained a large dining-room, parlor, numerous bedrooms, study, laundry, and a room provided with large kettles known as the wax room, where the fruit of the 'driers' or wax trees that grew on the place was to be heated in order to extract therefrom wax with which the Chevalier was to manufacture the candles which he later exported to France or sold in the colony. The main house, whose every window was glassed, was elevated from the ground, and leading to the main entrance was an imposing flight of steps which gave the edifice an imposing appearance. Montplaisir must have been truly a marvel for its day, not only on account of its architecture but also on account of its interior decorations and the beauty of the furniture that embellished it. In the letters that he wrote to France about his new home, the Chevalier was always most enthusiastic. Everything used in its construction and furnishing, with the exception of brick and lumber, had been imported from France, and the numerous invoices which still exist show that he was unsparing in making it the finest home in the colony.