Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Did You Know the San Francisco Plantation is in Louisiana?

The Good Girls multi-stop road trip down the Natchez Trace Parkway ended in Natchez, MS. Since plans called for returning the rental car in New Orleans, Judy and Debi decided to extend their trip and visit the River Parishes of Louisiana, including a swamp tour, some Cajun kitchens, and a few plantations.   

Beautiful Louisiana Bayou
There's beauty in the Louisiana bayou. 

Debi reports: We drove south to Garyville, Louisiana, to visit San Francisco Plantation located on the east bank of the Mississippi River. For those coming from New Orleans, it's about a 45-minute drive west of the city. You might be shocked by the curbside location as the San Francisco Big House stands sandwiched between the current road and levee-- and without a river view. Neither the road nor embankment existed during original construction.

Aerial view, San Francisco Plantation

An aerial views hows the closeness of the road to the house. 


Previously, I had seen San Francisco from a distance, and the extraordinarily colorful house intrigued me. Now, I relished the chance to explore the grounds and interior. Judy and I arrived just in time to capture a quick photo and enter the big house as the clouds burst open.  


Arriving at San Francisco Plantation before the storm.
Clouds about to burst over San Francisco Plantation.

Some folks think the architectural structure looks like a riverboat; in fact, it inspired a novel called "Steamboat Gothic." In my opinion, the house reminded me of Laura Plantation, another nearby, brightly painted Creole-style home; however, Laura is much smaller. San Francisco claims to contain one of the finest antique collections in the country, although none of the furnishings are original to the owners. Sadly, a later purchaser removed the house furniture and inventory, and they perished in a fire. 


The History


We shook off the rain and met our costumed guide in a big hoop skirt at the entrance, actually what was formerly the back door. She began with a brief but tangled history of the property, the house, and the owners. Her narrative brought these characters to life, so much so that I could envision them sitting in the parlor, or the children playing games. 

Our tour guide

To summarize, Elisée Rillieux, a free man of color and a smart visionary, purchased the land in 1827. A speculator, he wanted to establish a sugar plantation but never intended to be a planter himself. Three years later, Elisée sold the estate to Edmond Bozonier Marmillion and his partner Eugène Lartigue for the enormous sum of 100,000 dollars, collecting an estimated $50,000 profit.


According to brochures, Edmond, in debt from day one, immediately began sugar production. Although he became a successful planter of large crops… and continued to acquire slaves and purchase additional swampland, he invested little in modern sugar machinery. However, during the prosperous 1850s, the plantation became a huge economic success. 

Old Photo shows the former front gardens at San Francisco Plantation.
Old Photo shows the former front gardens at San Francisco Plantation. 

Edmond's wife died of tuberculosis in 1843, and over the next twenty years, so did six of his eight children. By 1853, Edmond began to build the mansion that exists today for his two surviving sons, Valsin and Charles. He hired expert builders and purchased twelve highly skilled slaves to convert his extravagant dream into reality. Two years later, Edmond found accomplished artists to carry out an ambitious decoration projectfeaturing intricate hand-painted ceilings, painted door panels, faux marbling, and faux wood graining. 

Photo of Valsin Marmillion on display at San Francisco Plantation.
Photo of Edmond Marmillion on display at San Francisco Plantation. 

Edmond died in 1856, less than one year after construction was complete. The day after Edmond's death, his oldest son Valsin returned from Europe. Instead of arriving at a party, he and his wife Louise heard the sad news. They had no choice but to take over the plantation's management. Valsin, Louise, and their three daughters stayed on and ran the sugar plantation for the next fifteen years. The décor you see on tour is from that antebellum period. 


The unusual name "San Francisco" is believed to be derived from Valsin's comment about the astronomical debt he discovered when taking over the estate. He declared he was sans fruscins or "without a penny in my pocket." The name evolved into St. Frusquin, and in 1879,  the next owner changed it to "San Francisco." The plantation has no connection to the California city. 


The Tour

Exterior of San Francisco Plantation Home.
Arrival at San Francisco Plantation. Note the cisterns.

Our tour began in the food storage room, then the wine cellar, and china pantry. As customary at the time, the kitchen was in an outbuilding. The guide explained that the two cisterns (topped with Moorish domes) on either side of the house collect rainwater used for drinking and washing.  

China Closet, San Francisco Plantation
China Closet

We passed through the billiard room where the men enjoyed the game and moved into the lovely dining room set for a formal dinner. The frescoed ceiling is just a small sample or the extensive artistic work in the upstairs bedrooms.  


Formal Dining Room, San Francisco Plantation
Formal Dining Room table is set for a meal at San Francisco Plantation.

Moving upstairs, we found a large, airy central reception area that ran across the front of the house. The bedrooms feature intricately painted ceilings, heavily carved wood furniture, and beds draped with mosquito netting, surely a necessity in those times. Even some cabinets and wall shades display hand-painted accents. 

Valsin's Bedroom at San Fransico Plantation.
Valsin, the plantation owner's bedroom. 

Charles' Bedroom at San Francisco Plantation.
Charles' bedroom, brother of the owner.

Highlights in the children's bedroom include zebra-wood graining, a cradle, and antique toys. 

Children's Bedroom, San Francisco Plantation Big House.
Children's Bedroom and antique toy riverboat. 

I'd consider the rear loggia, or former front porch, the equivalent of today's family room. A grand double-sided staircase runs across and down this facade of the house. A black-and-white photograph helped me imagine the magnificent panoramic view of the gardens and the Mississippi River before the high levee construction.

Former Formal Gardens, San Francisco Plantation.
Former Formal Gardens at the Big House. 

As we went through the rooms, our guide pointed out the various antique items and the period furniture and shared more stories about the families living there.  


Family Photos, San Francisco Plantation
Family Photos on display,

The restoration of this mansion became a massive project undertaken with the financing of the oil refinery money.  While the unappealing pipes and buildings of the refinery remain nearby, the profits saved this site now considered a National Historic Landmark. I am pleased our guide acknowledged and praised the work of the enslaved on the property. She spoke about their labor and personal life, plantation routines, and rituals. Their original expert construction made the mansion salvageable and worth restoring. We learned the lead carpenter had the highest worth of any slave on the property before the Civil War, valued at $2,000. 

Ruins of San Francisco Plantation House before restoration.
An old black and white photo of San Francisco Plantation House before restoration. 

Beautiful hand-painted ceiling

Hand-painted ceilings in San Francisco Plantation.
Rooms have intricately painted ceilings at San Francisco Plantation. 


Judy and I  planned to visit the original 1840 slave cabin, mainly to see the child-sized sculptures by the famous artist Woodrow Nash. (Read my story on his works at Whitney Plantation here.) However, the rain did not let up, and we did not have umbrellas. 

Slave Cabin and School House at San Francisco Plantation.
The Slave Cabin and School House.


We also missed the schoolhouse dating back to the 1830s. The pictures and texts exhibited at these buildings serve as an introduction to the extensive research on the legacy of San Francisco Plantation. 

Woodrow Nash Sculpture

Adding to the research are over 100 letters Louise wrote to her family in Germany. They were kept and translated, providing historians with accurate information about her Louisiana lifestyle. Seems that by 1859, Valsin and hisyounger brother Charles attempted to sell the estate, but a legal conflict halted their plans. When settled in 1861, it was too late. War and reconstruction prevented the sale for the next fifteen years. Valsin died of tuberculosis in 1871. Charles, who had served in the Confederate Army for four years, helped Louise sustain the estate until he passed away in 1875. Four years later, Louise finally sold the plantation for a mere $50,000, never coming close to maintaining the profitable crops they had before the Civil War. She returned to Germany.



For those interested in what happened to the home after Louise, here's what I found online. 


After the Great Flood in 1927, the Army Corps of Engineers began building the Mississippi River levee system, completed in 1932. The new levee, unfortunately, sacrificed the gracious front yard and gardens. The project would have also claimed the home, but residents lobbied the Louisiana legislature to save as many plantations as possible along the River Road. Fortunately, the Corps was able to curve the levee around San Francisco. 


In 1954,  Mr. and Mrs. Clark Thompson leased the property and opened the mansion to the public. Thankfully, the Thompsons did not make structural changes and preserved the home.


Finally, in 1974, Mrs. Thompson, then widowed, moved out. The ECOL Company, later Marathon Oil, purchased the property. They donated it and seven acres to the San Francisco Plantation Foundation. After scientific analysis of the structure and materials and archival research, the massive restoration began. After two years, the completed project opened for tours. The oil company continues to help defray the enormous cost of maintenance. 


San Francisco Plantation is open for tours most days, but call ahead to verify. Allow for at least two hours when visiting this property.

2646 Hwy. 44 (River Road)

Saint John the Baptist Parish

Garyville, Louisiana 70051-0950

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Natchez Means Money, Mansions, Mounds and More

You have to slow down just to say the name of some cities aloud. Try  Natchez, and you’ll see what I mean. That’s part of the allure of this sultry city along the Mississippi River. Its graceful swaying Spanish moss seduces like a dancer’s swinging hips. Jaws drop at the sight of Antebellum architectural gems and restaurants satisfy with savory southern cuisine oozing with butter. So, do what Natchez is telling you --slow down and indulge. Her history runs deep like the mighty river and spans many cultures. The land was first home to the Natchez Indians, then the French, Spanish and British. The city’s 1716 official founding dates two years before the founding of New Orleans.
Natchez is home to many large and small historic homes.

You’ll find downtown Natchez a few minutes from the last exit of the Natchez Trace Parkway, the road the Good Girls took south from Nashville. (To find out more about historic road, please see our earlier post here) End of The Trace maybe, but not for the journey. Judy and Debi timed the trip to coincide with the Fall Pilgrimage of Homes, a semi-annual event highlighting the city’s rich pre-Civil War splendor. Historic homes, some still privately-owned mansions, open their doors to visitors for special tours. Costumed, knowledgeable guides don’t just let you into these magnificent abodes, but they tell the rich histories of the sites and the families who lived within. 
Drive through history on the Natchez Trace Parkway.
Drive through history on the Natchez Trace Parkway. 

Debi reports: Our first stop became the large Visitor Center a facility that serves as a one-stop venue for Mississippi travel information and tour tickets. Here, we watched an introductory video, browsed the exhibits and gift shop, and then climbed aboard the Hop-On, Hop-Off Bus for an overview. Natchez contains an impressive thirteen National Historic Landmarks and over 1,000 structures on the National Register of Historic Places, many within the walkable downtown. When cotton was king, Natchez was the crown jewel. 

“Natchez was the richest town per capita in the U.S. from about 1820- 1860,” said Mimi Miller, executive director of the Historic Natchez Foundation. Most of the homes in Natchez survived the Civil War, as many residents were northern sympathizers. “Natchez voted against secession,” added Ms. Miller, “so the city was spared.” These buildings remain to tell haunting tales.   

Green Leaves
Green Leaves, a house on the Natchez Fall Pilgrimage.
Green Leaves is much larger than it from the curb. 

Judy and I started the Fall Pilgrimage at Green Leaves, a private residence, where we met the current owner, a descendant of the original owner. This lovely lady guided us through an extraordinary variety of priceless keepsakes that fill the home, including a scrapbook of articles about a group of girls nicknamed the Garter Girls. Their antics reminded me of those in the Ya-Ya Sisterhood movie. 
Our lovely guide, a descendant of the original owners.

Exiting onto Green Leaves’ back porch, we discovered period costumes and were encouraged to try them on. No need to beg; Judy and I didn’t hesitate as we adore dressing up. We delighted in the photo-worthy opportunity and momentarily felt like real Southern belles. 

The Good Girls as Southern Belles.   

Longwood, the largest octagonal house in the U.S., rests in Natchez.
Longwood, the largest octagonal house in the U.S., rests in Natchez. 
The next day we were off to Longwood, an American architectural icon and Natchez grand dame. The massive unfinished octagonal house (largest in the U.S.) with an onion-shaped dome shows its designed-to-impress wealth on the exterior. Only the lower floor was ever completed, due to the onset of the Civil War. A tour highlights the many original pieces and paintings. We admired a rare oil portrait of the owner’s valet, a slave, said to be one of only two slave portraits painted during this period. 

Oil painting and the beloved valet at Longwood.
Oil painting and the beloved valet at Longwood. 

Unfinished construction at Longwood.
Unfinished construction at Longwood.

Workers constructed Longwood’s exterior using a million bricks made onsite, but when the war broke out, they abandon their crafts to return north. You can still see their tools and uncrated materials. The owner’s slaves finished the basement rooms, so the family had a place to live. 

Longwood's central rotunda area in the basement living quarters.
Longwood's central rotunda area in the basement living quarters. 

After touring the family quarters, the guide led us up the stairs where we found a stark contrast. The bare bones of wooden framing surrounded us like a skeleton, and the unfinished cupola teetered high above. It’s a chilling sight that makes you realize even someone as wealthy planter Haller Nutt lost nearly everything. They say he died of a broken heart in 1864 while living downstairs in the nine rooms of the thirty-two rooms planned for the house. 
Interior of theUnfinished Cupola at Longwood, Natchez, MS.
Unfinished Cupola at Longwood, Natchez, MS. 

FYI: Ghost hunters are attracted to Longwood, as the guides claim the house is quite haunted. 
Parting shot from a Longwood porch. 

Stanton Hall
A side view of Stanton Hall in Natchez.
A side view of Stanton Hall in Natchez.
Greek Revival Stanton Hall, built in the 1850s by a cotton merchant, remains one of the most opulent antebellum mansions to survive. This home takes up the entire block, but the builder, Dr. Frederick Stanton, paid a mere $83,000 for the construction. It flaunts Carrera marble mantles, mahogany doors 2 1/2 inches thick, gasoliers from France, and Italian sculpture, and feels incredibly spacious. The upstairs hall caught my eye with wallpaper by Zuber, panoramic scenes created from woodblocks. In case you think you might like to install some, think again. Zuber scenics can cost from $3,500 to $30,000 for an entire scene.

Upstairs hall in Stanton Hall features Zuber scenic wallpaper.
Upstairs hall in Stanton Hall features Zuber scenic wallpaper.

The house was initially called Belfast, and for a brief time, the mansion functioned as Stanton College for young ladies; hence the name changed to Stanton Hall. Today the property is owned and maintained by the Pilgrimage Garden Club, an influential group of ladies. 

The Carriage House restaurant also sits on the property, and I recommend the juicy and delicious fried chicken for lunch. 

Rosalie Mansion
Rosalie Mansion overlooks the Mississippi River.
Rosalie Mansion overlooks the Mississippi River. 
The last home we had time for on our Pilgrimage was Rosalie Mansion, built with red bricks in 1823. Many residents call her Our Lady on the Bluffs because the house overlooks a heavenly view of the river on the site of former Fort Rosalie. During the Civil War, the home and grounds acted as the Union Army headquarters for the Natchez area. The owner left to manage his cotton fields, but his wife and daughter remained in residence along with the soldiers. Another example of extraordinary history in Natchez. 

Lodging at Monmouth Historic Inn and Gardens
The tree-shrouded main building at Monmouth Historic Inn, Natchez.
The tree-shrouded main building at Monmouth Historic Inn, Natchez. 

Judy and I spent our nights at the Monmouth Historic Inn, a gorgeous property with 26-acres of bucolic grounds. Overnight guests feel the colonial ambiance of the mansion, yet stay in period-looking cottages with all the modern amenities. It’s absolute perfection! In the mornings, we wandered through the gardens and fueled up with the southern breakfast served to guests in a building constructed over the old stables. The stuffed French toast should receive awards.
Gorgeous ground at the Monmouth Historic Inn. 
Monmouth’s famed bartender, Roosevelt Owens, mixes up what’s been called ‘the best mint julep in the South’ guaranteed to evoke good moods. Even if you don’t overnight there, drop by for an afternoon cocktail. Better yet, stay and dine at elegant Restaurant 1818, formerly the Men’s and Ladies’ parlors in the main mansion house. 

Bartender Roosevelt Owens serves one of his famous mint juleps.
Bartender Roosevelt Owens serves one of his famous mint juleps. 
Our meal at Restaurant 1818 began with a renowned southern specialty, fried green tomatoes. My entrée choice followed, a mouth-watering petite filet with garlic mashed potatoes and spinach. For dessert, we shared the Chocolate Decadence with chocolate-covered strawberries and strawberry sauce and a white chocolate bread pudding with bourbon praline sauce. Needless to say, Judy and I went to bed mighty happy. 

Dining in the Restaurant 1818, Monmouth Historic Inn.
Dining in the Restaurant 1818, Monmouth Historic Inn. 

William Johnson House
Wm Johnson House

Exploring majestic old homes was not the only item on our itinerary. We found the William Johnson House, operated by the National Park Service, told perhaps an even more fascinating tale than the mansions. Johnson was a free man of color in pre-war days and quite the entrepreneur. He became known as the “Barber of Natchez,” acquired several buildings in the city and approximately 2,000 acres of land south of town. Johnson himself owned several slaves. He gained the respect of leading citizens, some of whom he loaned money, and local papers eulogized him after his untimely and death surrounded by strange circumstances. 

William Johnson kept a diary from 1835 until he died in 1851. The journal is the most detailed personal narrative authored by an African American during the antebellum era. Today it is viewed and valued as an extraordinary record of social, economic, and political life, especially seen through the eyes of a free man of color. 
A second floor bedroom at the William Johnson House.
A second floor bedroom at the William Johnson House.

The William Johnson homesite includes a small museum on the first floor and a second-floor filled with period furniture. The rooms are small, yet the narrow 3-story building housed his extended family and ten children. The kitchen and slave quarters would have been in the back yard.

Grand Village and Old City Cemetery
We drove over to see the Grand Village of the Natchez Indians, a 128-acre site, featuring three prehistoric Native American mounds, a reconstructed Natchez Indian house, and another museum. Two of the sacred hills, the Great Sun’s Mound and the Temple Mound, have been excavated and rebuilt to their original sizes and shapes. Original construction started about 1200 CE by members of the prehistoric Plaquemine culture. 
Natchez Pottery at the Grand Village, Natchez.
Natchez Pottery on display at the Grand Village.. 

A third mound, called the Abandoned Mound, has been only partially excavated, but no plans exist for further digging investigations. 

We transitioned from Indian graves to the Natchez City Cemetery, one of those old cemeteries with tree-lined acres filled with poignant statuary and aged tombstones. Look for ‘The Turning Angel,’ a monument to the victims of a tragic explosion, and return at night. When cars drive by on Cemetery Road, their headlights shine upon the monument, and the angel's head appears to turn. Rather eerie. 
The Turning Angel, Old City Cemetery, Natchez.
The Turning Angel, Old City Cemetery, Natchez. 

Stunning sunsets at Natchez Under-the-Hill.
Stunning sunsets at Natchez Under-the-Hill. 
You can’t leave this Mississippi port city until you’ve gone down by the river’s edge. Natchez Under-the-Hill attracts a crowd to a row of riverfront restaurants and shops far tamer than the brothels, taverns, and gambling halls that stood there 200 years ago. Locals and tourists alike sip drinks at the famous Under-the-Hill Saloon. This area radiates a fun, lively atmosphere and becomes especially popular at sunset. Riverboat cruises also dock here, so you can get an eyeful of a replica paddleboat or newer cruise boat. 

Cruise boat docked in the Natchez Under the Hill area.
Cruise boat docked in the Natchez Under the Hill area. 

Naturally, we didn’t get to see everything, like Melrose, another National Park site, but we did grasp the glory and grandeur of an Old South lifestyle. Natchez stole my heart, and I am eager to return. 

Up coming Events

Natchez is still planning a Fall 2020 Pilgrimage following the coronavirus lockdown, but be sure to check the website. Another popular fall event, the annual Balloon Festival, is scheduled for October 16-18, 2020. 

The Good Girls want to sincerely thank Visit Natchez for all the help and support they provided us during our visit.