Palo Alto Plantation: Part I

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Marie Adrien Persac. ‘Palo Alto Plantation, near Donaldsonville, Louisiana’. Gouache and collage on paper, 17″ x 23″, 1850’s. Private collection. 

Palo Alto Plantation near Donaldsonville, Ascension Parish, is one of the very few Louisiana sugar plantations to have remained in the same family not only since before the Civil War, but from its very beginnings. It took its name, which means ‘tall tree’ in Spanish, from the site of a battle in the Mexican War which took place on May 8, 1846, and in which General Zachary Taylor led the combined militias of Louisiana and Texas. Some speculate that the original owners may have had a relative who took part in this battle, but they may simply have bestowed the name out of patriotism. There was another Palo Alto Plantation, by the way, in Iberville Parish on the west bank of the Mississippi, and among other Spanish names of Louisiana plantations are Buena Vista and Contreras. All three were taken from Mexican War battle sites illustrated in a series of color lithographs published by Carl Nevel in Paris in 1851. 

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Marie Adrien Persac, 1823-1873. French-born Louisiana architect, watercolorist and engraver. 

The Donaldsonville plantation formed part of an original Spanish land grant to Diego Gomez, whence it passed to Gomez’ son-in-law Matias Rodriguez. Pierre Osar Ayraud, who is believed by the family to be the gentleman in white standing at the foot of the stairs in the painting reproduced above, married Rodriguez’s daughter. Though existing records are a bit unclear on this point, Ayraud and his wife, rather than Rodriguez himself, were apparently the builders of the plantation house which still stands today, and they probably also commissioned the painting. As to this latter point, a family tradition exists to the effect that the artist, the French born Marie Adrien Persac (1823-1873), who had come to the area to produce what later became known as ‘Norman’s Chart of the Lower Mississippi River from Natchez to New Orleans’ (published by B.M. Norman, New Orleans, and engraved, printed and hand-colored by J.H. Colton and Co., New York), stayed at Palo Alto as a guest of the Ayrauds and presented them with the gouache of their plantation house in thanks for their hospitality. This may well be only a legend, however, since the same story is told of Persac with regard to his depictions of other properties in the area for which the records are clear that he was in fact paid. In any case, Persac’s gouache of Palo Alto has another distinction which it shares with only one other of his works, Persac’s watercolor of the famous plantation known as Shadows-on-the-Teche: it still hangs inside the plantation house for which it was painted. 

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Palo Alto Plantation House near Donaldsonville, Louisiana. Contemporary photograph. 

Pierre Oscar Ayraud acquired the land on March 13, 1852, as part of the terms of the will of his wife’s father. Then, on February 21, 1860, he mortgaged the land to Jacob Lemann, a prosperous merchant from nearby Donaldsonville whose family was to continue to acquire plantation lands and sugar manufactories long after the Civil War had ruined most other planters. Lemann closed on the mortgage in 1867, and the painting left the house in that year with Pierre’s daughter Mary Lee, who had meanwhile become Mrs. Frederick Landry. Her daughter, also Mary Lee, born 1865 and granddaughter to the builders of Palo Alto, in an odd twist of fate married Arthur A. Lemann Sr., grandson of the same Jacob Lemann who had acquired the plantation from her Ayraud grandparents. In 1914 they moved into the house. The painting, however, remained with Mrs. Frederick Landry, and it did not return to the house which it depicts and where it had originally hung until 1929, when Mrs. Landry died and Mrs. Lemann’s siblings presented it to their sister as a gift. Thus Persac’s painting came full circle. The Lemann family is in possession of painting, house and plantation to this day, and the latter is a thriving 6000 acre sugar, hunting and fishing operation in both Ascension and Iberville parishes. The Palo Alto plantation house is not open to the public, though individuals and groups may arrange to stay at a picturesque lodge built in the 1960’s as a retreat for the family on the property. In another colorful story, the latter is said to have been built with materials taken from one of the hideouts used by the notorious pirate Jean Lafitte. It lies hidden in a serene grove of native oaks and cypresses overlooking Bayou Tomare. 

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