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.