Growing up, I never heard of Laura Plantation; but over the past two decades it has been the buzz of Louisiana’s plantation parade. Hard to believe, but this historical gem has been hidden in plain sight within the cluster of other notorious homes like Oak Alley, St. Joseph, and San Francisco. And having seen nearly every plantation across my home state and many house museums around the world, visiting Laura has been on my list. Last year at a wedding in Houston I met Jay Schexnaydre, one of the managers of Laura Plantation. He encouraged me to visit, promising it would be the best plantation tour I ever had. So that was all the arm twisting I needed. This week I visited and indeed, Laura Plantation is Louisiana’s best house tour.
Having a travelling companion who is similarly interested in historic home tours can be rare. But my friend Graham Gemoets has clamored to visit Laura in excess of a year and was equally enthusiastic when I told him of my chance encounter of Jay Schexnaydre. To say that Graham is a character would be an understatement; I have known him for 20 years. Usually covered in expensive jewelry, he is 6’ 6 but seems every inch of 8 feet—probably due to his extroverted personality. We travel well together and should probably have our own TV show.
We set a day aside from normal French Quarter shenanigans of food, booze, and strippers and rented a car for a day trip. We even discussed seeing a second plantation, perhaps Destrehan, if time permitted.
If you expect a plantation to conjure visions of Scarlett O’Hara descending a sweeping stair, try Nottoway; but for a true culture, architecture, and history enthusiast, Laura Plantation is the hot ticket. Located on the Mississippi River, it was built in 1805 in the traditional Creole colonial manner with a raised brick foundation and briquette-entre-poteaux (brick between posts) construction and is presented to the public with a large percentage of original furnishings. But what makes this home especially unusual is the historical documentation forming the basis of the tour, consisting of not only background from former owner Laura Locoul’s Memoires of the Old Plantation Home but also the French National Archives and Civil War Pension Records.
Nothing is worse than being trapped on a tour while a teenager in a hoopskirt recites lines or a dusty old docent prattles off useless and usually incorrect anecdotes. But Jay, transitioning effortlessly between English with a thick Cajun accent and French, enthusiastically told the stories with empathy and humor, bringing Laura to life with tales including not only the wealthy owners but also their slaves.
The property is also historic for Br’er Rabbit. We all recall from childhood Uncle Remus and Walt Disney’s Song of the South, made famous by Joel Chandler Harris. Br’er Rabbit is a trickster who succeeds by his wit rather than labor. Alcee Fortier, a Professor of Languages at Tulane in the 1870s who grew up near Laura, collected Creole versions of Br’er Rabbit on the plantation.
‘I don’t keer w’at you do wid me, Brer Fox,’ sezee, ‘so you don’t fling me in dat brier-patch. Roas’ me, Brer Fox’ sezee, ‘but don’t fling me in dat brier-patch,’ sezee. Legends of the Old Plantation, 1886, Joel Chandler Harris
Try reading that quickly.
Br’er Rabbit may have represented enslaved Africans who used wit to overcome hardships and for retaliation against white slave owners.
Actually, descendants of some of the originally enslaved families remained on the plantation until 1977. When asked why they remained so long after emancipation Jay answered, “Would you leave home knowing there’s a possibility of never seeing your family members again?”
Graham barked, “YES!”
When the 90 minute tour ended we were speaking to our guide and members of our group were asking questions—though I must say that the presentation was so thorough that even I had few follow up questions. A young lady caught Jay and asked if the family who owned the plantation was related to the Broussard family.
Jay answered, “No way, the Broussards are some of the worst people you’ve ever met!” Then he chuckled and introduced me, proving once again his quick wit.
In the main house, some of the curtain fabrics featured a bee motif; the young woman thought that since the bee is in the logo crest for Broussard’s, a famous restaurant in the French Quarter, that there was an association. Of course, the bee motif was integrated by Napoleon as a symbolic link of the new dynasty to the origins of France. Though now that I think about it, I might have to borrow that crest!
Jay would make a great guest on our show.
Graham and I left Laura satisfied, both agreeing that it was the best tour we ever had. As to finding a second tour, it would be a mistake to follow another with Jay’s. “To paraphrase Lawrence Welk when extolling the beauty of the Finger Lakes,” Graham quipped, “do one now and perhaps you can get two fingers in next time.”