Woodlawn Plantation II


Woodlawn Plantation, near Napoleonville, Louisiana, built 1840. Photo taken by the Historic American Buildings Survey, Library of Congress. The house no longer exists.

When William Pugh died on January 3, 1906, at Woodlawn Plantation, outside Napoleonville, Louisiana, he was nearly 95 years old. He had been born on another family plantation in Bertie County, North Carolina, in 1811 and brought to Louisiana by his parents as a child. He completed his education in his native state and gained some work experience in Virginia, then settled for good in the Napoleonville area after marrying for the first time at age 20. With his first wife he had six children, and only one of them, a daughter, survived him, living on until 1919. He married for a second time by age 33 and produced another nine children, four of whom survived him, the longest lived of them, Thomas, dying at age 98 in 1952. He survived even his second wife by nearly 38 years. Five of his fifteen children died in childhood, one as an infant during the infamous hurricane of 1856, when she was swept from his arms by an enormous wave while the family was vacationing at the fashionable resort of Isle Derniere, all of which, including the island upon which it sat, was destroyed. Meanwhile, he acquired and managed several prosperous plantations, served in the Louisiana State Legislature as Speaker of the House and on various local boards, helped construct Napoleonville’s Episcopal Church by supplying the bricks, lumber and labor which made it possible, and brought what remained of his family, slaves and property through the catastrophe of the Civil War and the trials of the decades which followed into the 20th century. 

Here is what is fascinating to me: when William Pugh died in the dead of winter, 1906, his residence at Woodlawn Plantation, already 66 years old and showing its age, was home not only to furniture, memories, and assorted destitute relatives and former slaves, but also to an enormous archive of detailed estate records, personal diaries, letters and even poems, stories and novels in manuscript form left behind by William and various members of his family, much of this material dating back to long before the Civil War. Fortunately for those of us who have come later, the different portions of this enormous archive, both in its original paper and also microfilmed forms, have been safely housed in University Libraries in Texas and Louisiana and are available for researchers to explore. This is a task waiting for anyone who is able and willing to undertake it. Meanwhile,  if you can find a rare copy of it, there is R. Dana Russell’s 1985 ‘The Pughs of Bayou Lafourche’. And Pugh himself in the late 1880’s published a series of reminiscences of life among the planters of Bayou Lafourche in the weekly ‘Louisiana Planter and Sugar Manufacturer’, excerpts from which have been published more recently by ‘The Courier’ of Houma, Louisiana. But, relatively speaking, the William Pugh archive remains largely unexplored and unpublished.

The photo at the top of this page was taken in 1938, only a few years before Woodlawn vanished entirely. It shows a corner of an upstairs bedroom nearly 100 years old when the picture was taken. Migrant laborers were using the house then to sleep in. The little gates on either side of the open French doorway would have come in handy, because the railing of the long balcony beyond had by then rotted entirely away. Other photos show that parts of the house were being used also for hay storage, so perhaps that was the case upstairs as well. Though it might simply have made a comfortable bed. This was one of the original Woodlawn bedrooms dating from 1840. Two side wings built a decade later added a spacious master suite and additional quarters for William Pugh’s rapidly expanding family. 


Woodlawn Plantation


Woodlawn Plantation, near Napoleonville, Louisiana, built 1840, photographed 1938. Historic American Buildings Survey, Library of Congress.


I’ve been thinking about a couple of things during the past day or so: George Washington Cable’s story ‘Jean-ah Poquelin’ (1875), the fourth tale in his ‘Old Creole Days’ collection, and the now vanished plantation house known as Woodlawn, which once stood a few miles south of Napoleonville in Assumption Parish, Louisiana. Somehow the two have become fused in my mind, although Cable’s story is set in about 1805 in an overgrown plantation house outside New Orleans, and Woodlawn was not built until 1840 and in a much more rural location in the state. But both houses are mysterious, Poquelin’s because it revolves around a somewhat spectral secret not revealed until the end of the story, and Woodlawn because it was so unique architecturally for its time and place, and because its decline was so slow and, viewed photographically and in terms of the few extant first hand accounts which have survived, pathetic to an extreme degree. I will leave my readers to explore Cable’s story for themselves and refrain from spoiling the plot. But Woodlawn I can say a few words about.

It was built by a newcomer to the Napoleonville area, William Whitmell Pugh, who along with his brothers had grown up along the North Carolina-Virginia border and headed southwest to make their fortunes in first indigo and then sugar. William’s brother Thomas built the even grander house known as Madewood which, in a splendid state of repair even today, stands a bit closer to Napoleonville and has a fine website of its own. Woodlawn was somewhat unique as far as elegant southern mansions went: it had relatively low ceilings; it was not confined to a single colonnaded block, but had graceful one-storey side wings constructed at right angles to the main house a decade after the latter was built; it had an indoor bathroom complete with marble tub more than a decade before the Civil War. According to all accounts, Woodlawn was a very artfully and efficiently run plantation with more than 300 slaves, 100 miles of ditching, 200 acres of pasture, 800 acres of cane and 1500 acres fenced altogether. One had to drive two full miles in order to pass the full length of William Whitmell Pugh’s property, and the area remains quite rural to this day. It is said to have had the first gas lighting ever installed in a private home in Louisiana, but I find that hard to believe. 

The decline of Woodlawn was prolonged and began directly after the Civil War. But even as late as 1938, when a large number of archival photos were taken for the Historic American Buildings Survey, the exterior walls, cement on brick, were a cheerful soft pink with white trim and green blinds, and the interiors were white with vermillion baseboards. The Ionic capitals atop the front columns were of marble, and two of them are said to grace the front entrance to another house outside Napoleonville today. Woodlawn’s bathtub, carved from marble in the form of a Roman sarcophagus, is supposedly in use somewhere else in the neighborhood even now. But the house vanished entirely in 1962. In 1938, when the Historic Buildings Survey was measuring and photographing the building for posterity, it was occupied by migrating workers from the neighboring cane fields who were breaking up the doors for firewood. Pathetic pictures of some of this can be seen on the Library of Congress website. The house looks so bad in those photos, in fact, that one wonders if it was really built to last, and if it was only a century of neglect which caused its demise. And there is disagreement as to whether it was ultimately pulled down or destroyed by fire. But Google Earth will show you that the area where it once stood is still largely unoccupied. The industrious restorer could make it rise again, and that, as they say, would really be something. 

Belles Demoiselles Plantation

Belle Grove Plantation, Iberville Parish, Louisiana, completed 1857. Photograph from the late 1930’s  courtesy of the Historic American Buildings Survey, Library of Congress. 

In the mid 1870’s, George Washington Cable published a series of stories based on early 19th century Creole life in Louisiana in Scribner’s Monthly, a popular literary magazine of the time, and they were collected into a single volume in 1879 under the title ‘Old Creole Days’, one of Cable’s best known works. ‘Belles Demoiselles Plantation’ is the third story in the collection and is quite a memorable tale. 

A white man named de Charleu, the aristocratic descendant of the French Count de Charleu, lives on a large sugar plantation in a splendid house with his charming and musical seven daughters. But his cousin, Injin Charlie, descendant of the old count’s prior relationship with a Choctaw Indian woman, lives in squalor on a large piece of land in the middle of New Orleans, surrounded by the hovels which he leases to others in exchange for a very modest income. Injin Charlie covets the plantation house, Belles Demoiselles, named after De Charleu’s daughters, and when the daughters ask their father for a house in town, he tries to figure out a way to acquire Injin Charlie’s property, which is also on de Charleu ancestral land. Then one day de Charleu discovers to his horror that large sections of the land upon which Belles Demoiselles sits is collapsing into the Mississippi, and his efforts to acquire Injin Charlie’s property become frenzied and desperate. He has not acted quickly enough, however, and returns that same night to Belles Demoiselles with the now compliant Injin Charlie only to behold his splendid plantation house, its windows glowing with light from the evening of singing and dancing in progress within, collapse, along with all seven of his daughters, into the swirling waters of the Mississippi which have come to consume it. Injin Charlie becomes De Charleu’s solicitous caretaker during the latter’s final days in town.

Belles Demoiselles Plantation house is fictional, but I have decided to illustrate what it may have been like with the picture above, which is of the now vanished Belle Grove Plantation in Iberville Parish, one of the largest mansions ever built in the ante-bellum South. Completed in 1857 by John Andrews, who owned over 7000 acres and 150 slaves producing more than half a million pounds of sugar a year, it was sold only ten years later in the aftermath of the Civil War, when the southern slave-based agricultural economy collapsed and land in town became much more valuable–one of the background themes of Cable’s short story outlined above. Belle Grove had several subsequent owners, none of whom were rich enough to restore and properly maintain it, and sat empty and abandoned after 1925. A mysterious fire on the night of March 17, 1952 destroyed what remained of the dilapidated house, but fortunately a detailed series of photographs and architectural drawings had been made in the late 1930’s for the Historic American Buildings Survey. These can be viewed today on the website of the Library of Congress. Since first chancing on a photo of it several decades ago, I have been drawn to Belle Grove’s graceful and highly irregular architectural features (it is a far cry from the typical square columned plantation house of the period), and its loss seems particularly tragic. Belle Grove had about 75 rooms, spread over four floors, silver door knobs and even its own jail. It sat on a raised brick platform twelve feet high, to protect it from the flooding waters of the Mississippi. If I could afford to rebuild a southern plantation house that no longer exists today, it would be Belle Grove I would choose. Now that would be a really fine adventure. 

Café des Exilés

Joseph Pennell. ‘Café des Exilés’. Etching on Paper, 1882. Private Collection.

The second story in George Washington Cable’s collection ‘Old Creole Days’ is entitled ‘Café des Exilés’, and is the tale of a half-French, half-Spanish aristocrat who has fallen on hard times and opened a small New Orleans café which specializes in cooling drinks. It is also the daily haunt, and thus its name, of a rather motley assortment of expatriates from other lands. A handful of them form what they call their ‘burial society’, whose purpose is ostensibly to convey the bodies of their deceased fellow exiles, when the time comes, to their native lands and see that they receive proper burial. But there is much mystery to this group and the details of that mystery are essential to the working out of the story, so I won’t spoil the latter here for the reader, who will want to experience the former first hand for himself. A very interesting and extensive treatment of this work from a literary critical point of view can be found in Alice Hall Petry’s ‘A Genius in His Way: the Art of Cable’s Old Creole Days’ (Associated University Presses, 1988), in the chapter entitled ‘Floating in the Clouds of Revery: Love and Intrigue at the Café des Exilés’. My purpose here is not to analyze the story, but to take a quick look at some of Cable’s use of language. But, to encourage my readers to explore it, I will say that ‘Café des Exilés’, in terms especially of its complex and even tricky narrational style, is something of a tour de force. Look closely at it, however, or you might easily miss what I’m talking about.

As for language, I think Cable was a master of descriptive and informative prose used to move a story along, and he’s worth reading just for that. As in his introduction of the café owner’s daughter Pauline, for example: ‘Then the neighbors over the way, sitting about their doors, would by and by softly say, “See, see! there is Pauline!” and all the exiles would rise from their rocking-chairs, take off their hats and stand as men stand in church, while Pauline came out like the moon from a cloud, descended the three steps of the café door, and stood with water and glass, a new Rebecca with her pitcher, before the swarthy wanderer.’

There are some marvelous similes: ‘Such was the Café des Exilés, such its inmates, such its guests, when certain apparently trivial events began to fall around it as germs of blight fall upon corn, and to bring about that end which cometh to all things.’ And: ‘…but the most frequent rendezvous was the Café des Exilés; it was quiet; those Spanish Creoles, however they may afterward cackle, like to lay their plans noiselessly, like a hen in a barn.’

At another extreme, I find Cable to be singularly ungifted as a writer of dialogue, to the point where I think he might with tremendous profit have omitted it altogether. He is addicted to a very amateurish depiction of dialect, ranging from simple sentences with pointless misspellings such as: ‘I say, I want to have a private wurd with ye’ to utterly unintelligible lines of almost total nonsense like these: ‘You goth a heap-a thro-vle, Señor’; ‘Was a bee growth a’ the Café des Refugiés; and ‘Mayor Shaughness’–yez-a; was there; boat-a’, which clearly are undecipherable and would easily lead the reader to total despair were they not frequently curtailed in favor of Cable’s tremendous descriptive and thoughtful passages of prose. It’s a strange mix.

If I had to choose one word to describe Cable’s writing, I would say that it is ‘atmospheric’. From the first page of a story he creates an environment which draws the reader in, where he or she feels comfortable and wants to linger in the languid, fragrant and highly enigmatic atmosphere of Cable’s 19th century Creole South. But you have to look beneath the surface to find the real genius. It’s structural. And the edifice Cable builds–quite gleefully, the reader begins to suspect–is intricate in the extreme, but almost completely invisible. 

George Washington Cable

George Washington Cable, c. 1898. Photograph by A.J. Schillare, Library of Congress. 

In university days, en route to or from a quiet corner of the library in which to work, I would often get sidetracked by the countless stacks of books which had nothing at all to do with whatever assignment was at hand. Because so many of those thousands of volumes seemed infinitely more interesting than anything I would be required to examine for a class. Nearly always, however, I would force myself not to linger, though I did occasionally allow myself the sweet pleasure of succumbing to the temptation of abandoning my work and plunging into some random author and his books. One of the many writers I did not give in to, despite the lovely antique volumes of his books which stood before me upon the shelf, was George Washington Cable (1844-1925), whose work focussed on the relationships among whites and blacks and persons of mixed race in the French, Spanish, African and American Louisiana of the pre Civil War and post Civil War periods. I managed to resist George Washington Cable, in fact, for over thirty years, long after such resistance, born of academic necessity, had morphed into mere procrastination and apathy. But then two days ago I downloaded several free volumes of Cable’s works onto my Kindle (a little Thanksgiving Day treat), and within a short twenty-four hour period had managed to move happily through the 1881 novella ‘Madame Delphine’, which Cable had reworked from a short story into a somewhat longer book and which today forms the first tale in the collection ‘Old Creole Days’. It was more or less a delight to read, though I am not uncritical of it.

Madame Delphine herself is a very lovely woman who would have had a comfortable place in New Orleans society had she not had one grandparent who was black. Thus is she condemned to a distinctly marginalized existence in the bigoted society which is her home. But the story revolves around her efforts to conceal her own relationship to her daughter, the child of a notorious but white freebooter of the high seas, and to arrange the girl’s marriage with a white French Creole aristocrat. I loved everything about the writing itself, which is mostly quite fine, except for one thing: Cable’s to me annoying use of what amounts to atrocious spelling of both English and French–his effort to accurately depict the New Orleans patois of the people among whom Madame Delphine lives and who variously employ the different idioms of which they have at best a very shaky grasp. This feature reminds me of nothing so much as Mark Twain’s vast chapters of what to me are so much unintelligible gibberish in books like ‘Tom Sawyer’ and ‘Huckleberry Finn’. I am no denigrator of dialects, by the way. But I believe that the effort to depict them by means of bad spelling of sentences in otherwise standard speech is both artificial and ridiculous. I offer this as a descriptive observation, however, and have no accompanying prescriptive suggestion for a better way to do it. Perhaps there is none. Late 19th century Russian fiction is replete with this phenomenon. I have always attributed it to the effort of highly literate aristocratic writers to reproduce the speech of a peasantry they themselves could not understand or much communicate with. Perhaps, I am tempted to think, for Cable it was the same. Still, I am looking forward to his other works which await.

And I love the photo of him reproduced above. Those 19th century working libraries always fascinate. They seem to have been such airy spacious places, retreats to which you could withdraw for an entire day to think your own thoughts and never be disturbed by the outside world. My favorite feature here: the map of Cuba and the island of Hispaniola hanging from the shelf at top left. Cable must have been working on something wonderful. 

Garden Memories

The scene above is a corner of our lower garden. When I think about the past dozen years, there is so much I would love to re-experience, and I would jump at the chance, were it miraculously given. But there is one thing I don’t think I could ever accomplish again, or even want to attempt: the construction of all the many terraces and steps and planting areas which have formed the basis of our large and very steep hillside garden. We had lived in the house for at least a year before we had so much as opened the gate which leads to the bottom two thirds of the yard, so dense was the wild vegetation which lay below. And it took a year for us to clear that lower area, a year during which I would often close my eyes at night and see not darkness, but bright green blackberry vines; a year when I contracted what the doctor I eventually consulted told me was the worst case of poison oak rash she had ever seen; a year which ended with us hiring a crew of laborers to complete the clearing and haul away the enormous piles of brush which had stood between us and the garden of our dreams. Then came the countless deliveries of lumber and concrete blocks and 50 lb. bags of sand and decorative pavers which made it possible for us to civilize the wasteland, make it accessible for easy visitation and prepare planting spots for the hundreds of wonderful plants to be adopted. I was quite a bit younger then and remember finding it all quite entertaining. But today I would want to skip the arduous work of construction and proceed directly to the adoption of the plants themselves and the placing of each one in its permanent home. Because we had more fun doing all that than I could ever say. I think about those days often.

The square patio shown in the photo is an area that had to be built up about eight feet from its base at the bottom left. A child’s playhouse had stood for decades on the spot, but by the time we arrived it had rotted down to nothing but its foundations, which we then replaced. That’s a variegated rhododendron at bottom center, with a white-flowered cistus in front of it: the adoptions of both these plants, as with all the many others, are connected with very happy and entirely specific memories of their own. Since this picture was taken in July 2009, the tiny Peruvean Cantua buxifolias in the rectangular planter center left have grown so large that today they would entirely obscure your view of the blue porcelain pots, if you were to stand where I did when the picture was taken. The large ice plant which hangs down over the patio eventually died out, and has been replaced by some very happy winter-flowering hellebores. Whenever I go down there, I stand for awhile scratching my head, incredulous that we actually made it happen. But always I’m so glad we did. 


Hudson River Valley Thanksgiving

The view of the Hudson River Valley shown above was taken from near Hyde Park, New York, looking northwest over the river toward the Catskill Mountains. This is the heartland of the Dutch colonial experience in North America. Today the area is home to great historic estates such as the Roosevelts’ Springwood and the Vanderbilt mansion, both at Hyde Park, and the Astors’ Ferncliff at Rhinebeck. But in the mid 17th century the valley of the Hudson (in those pre-British days known as the North River, or Noordrivier in Dutch) was represented, in terms of Europeans, by only a few handfuls of scattered farmers and by small numbers of soldiers manning some remote and primitive forts. I know of no Dutch colonial equivalent for the New England tradition of Thanksgiving, but the recipe that follows is my own contribution to the dessert course of a Hudson River Valley holiday feast. It’s perfect for the season, when the applesauce has been made and stored away, and when the aromas of spices and baking pastry should cheer even the crispest and hardiest of Hudson River Valley days.

Dutch Cream Cheese and Applesauce Pie

2 eight ounce packages of cream cheese, softened
3/4 cup sugar
3 eggs
1/3 cup flour
1 cup gravenstein applesauce
1/4 cup heavy cream
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
salt to taste 

Combine all ingredients in large bowl until smooth, pour into unbaked pie shell and bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit until set, about 45 minutes, but be careful not to burn the pastry. Cool completely. Serve with unsweetened whipped cream and a sweet compote made from stewed fruits such as prunes, apricots, etc.