November 18, 2018
Cane River Creole National Historic Park consists of two plantations – Oakland Plantation and Magnolia Plantation – separated by about 10 miles. We visited both. How could we not?
At each location they have nice maps with short descriptions of each building. Each one also has a very informative cell phone tour. If you do the cell phone tour make sure you use the cell phone tour map as the numbering on that map is different from that on the plantation maps. If you can’t get there and just want to hear about the plantations, the cell tour number is 585-421-7340. Stops 1-10 are for Oakland Plantation and stops 11-17 are for Magnolia Plantation. The narrative is extremely well done and very informative.
On our way to Magnolia plantation we passed several cotton fields, most of which had already been harvested. This field had not. In all our travels this is the first time we’ve seen a cotton field ready to harvest. The ranger told us that cotton is related to mallow plants and has big showy blooms earlier in the year. The recent rains had delayed harvest and we saw cotton “balls” all along the sides of the road. The cotton is machine harvested and is rolled into giant round bales. We watched wads of cotton wafting off the ends of the bales as the cotton trucks hauled down the road.
The Oakland Plantation had a mule barn, pigeonnier, carpenter shop, corn crib, doctor’s cottage, overseer’s cottage, slave tenant quarters, store and post office, main house and cook’s cabin.
The Oakland Plantation was founded in 1785 on a Spanish land grant. It was owned by the Prud’homme family from the time it was built until it was sold to the National Park Service along with thousands of artifacts: furniture, linens, dishes, paintings, photos, rugs, tools, and so on. The plantation passed down through generation after generation from the father to the oldest son. Finally there were no more sons and the remaining family members were not able to maintain the plantation financially so they sold it to the NPS. The family took very little when they moved out. This allowed NPS to furnish the house as it would have been when the family lived there. It looks like they may have just stepped outside for a minute.
When you think of a plantation house the antebellum period comes to mind. So when we stepped into the living room, the furnishings and television seemed out of place. But we couldn’t expect the occupants to live in the past, could we?
They have daily Ranger led tours of the “big house” that we highly recommend. Go early and get your name on the list as they are limited to how many they can take inside. There were so many people touring the grounds the morning we were there that the Ranger gathered us and did a morning tour in addition to their usual afternoon tour.
Tobacco and cotton were very labor intensive crops. The laborers on the farm were originally slaves and later tenant farmers. The Spanish treated their slaves somewhat differently than the Americans. The Spanish King’s Black Code of 1686, not to be confused with post-Civil War southern Black Codes, established the condition of slavery and established controls over enslaved people. For example, on the sort of good side, all slaves had to be baptized into the Catholic faith. They even went to the same church at the same time with their masters. If a male slave married a free woman, his children would be free. (On the other hand, if a free male married a slave woman, their children would be slaves.) A married slave couple and their prepubescent children could not be sold separately. On the not so good side, a slave who struck his master could be executed. Slaves could be chained and beaten, but not tortured or mutilated. There were many more rules and they may not have been GREAT rules but at least there were SOME rules.
We attended a very good Ranger talk at the slave/tenant cabin. This cabin was furnished by a long-time volunteer. His sister was the last resident of this cabin and he wanted it furnished the way it was when she lived there. You might ask how that is possible on a plantation that is over 200 years old and the answer is that this plantation and the tenant cabins were still in use in the 1960s! There are photos in the cabin of the sister and her mother.
Tenant farmers were allowed to live for free in the houses on the plantation and “owned” a small percentage of the crop. When the crop was sold, they were paid for their share. However, they were paid in “plantation money” – play money that was ONLY good at the plantation store for the plantation they worked on. Most tenant farmers lived forever in debt to the store. When they had a bad year for crops they borrowed against the next year’s income. This prevented them from moving to seek better work.
The plantation store and post office contains original artifacts. The boots, bottles, thread and such that you see on the shelves were on the shelves when NPS bought the property. It isn’t as fully stocked as it would have been back when the plantation was in full swing but you get a good idea of the types of things that were sold there. Remember, this was the ONLY store that took the tenant farmers’ “plantation money” so it had to stock everything they needed.
The Magnolia Plantation had the plantation store, blacksmith shop, pigeonnier, slave hospital/overseer’s house. Slave/tenant quarters, and gin barn. The “big house” is privately owned so that is not part of the park property and you cannot tour it. We did do a self-guided tour through the first floor of the overseer’s house. Everything else was just there to look at with a few interpretive signs. The plantation store had a few things on the shelves but did not convey the feeling you’d get from the one at Oakland Plantation.
There are two very distinct things to see at Magnolia. First are the brick slave/tenant houses, called “the quarters”. Very few slave cabins were built with bricks. There are eight of these cabins still standing at Magnolia and most housed two families per building. One is set up to show you what it looked like when people lived in it. The picture shows about half of the room that would house an entire family of slaves.
The second item of note is the wooden screw cotton press. When Union Troops came through this area and burned the plantation house and structures (since rebuilt), they totally bypassed this screw press for reasons unknown. It is now housed in a covered barn to protect it and there are diagrams in the plantation store explaining how it worked. We couldn’t quite figure it out though. Maybe a few parts were missing.
And one more item of note – Magnolia plantation made it through the agricultural downturn that was the end for many of the plantations (well, that and being burned to the ground by Union troops). The owner of Magnolia took up raising mules. Mules were the primary animal workers on these plantations and good mules were in demand. Magnolia supplied them. We saw a film in the overseer’s house that’s basically a home video of what life was like on Magnolia Plantation in years gone by. At one point the camera focuses on a sign that says
Home Made Mules
A copy of the sign and many pictures of the plantations can be found on the Park’s Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/pg/canerivercreoleNPS/posts/
Side note: So what the heck is a Pigeonnier? It’s a Pigeon House! They raised pigeons for food. Well, actually, they built nice little houses and supplied food to their starter pigeons. The pigeons liked their little houses and “free” food so much that they didn’t fly away. They lived in their little houses and made more pigeons. The family would periodically take plump, tender young pigeons and eggs out of the little house for their dinner table. The pigeons didn’t seem to catch on.