On the Friday after we had stayed in New Orleans we headed off to visit the Laura Plantation, crossing over the Mississippi a couple of times along the way
and realised it is not really a very glamorous river round here at all.
We wondered what they were selling here
(it turned out to be cars)
The Laura Plantation has a very good reputation, in that they tell the story of slave ownership ‘warts and all’. In the others we had been to, there was no mention of such things as slaves or there was no detail, mainly because the slaves could not read or write and the people writing the diaries at the time had no wish to say things like, ‘ Well I beat Joseph because he was tardy with my toast’. It was an excellent experience. Our guide was brilliant, being very clever and funny while getting across the reality of life on a sugar cane plantation.
We heard about the Creole family that ran the plantation from the early 1800s. Interestingly, due to the French influence in the area, women could inherit wealth, even if it was socially unacceptable for them to carry out business in public. The plantation was managed by successive (very mean, greedy and, apparently, ugly) women for several generations until it passed to Laura, who hated the place. (the guide said ‘Being greedy makes you mean, being mean makes you ugly and boy did these women end up ugly’)
This is a series of photos that shows Laura throughout her life
This was mean granny
Laura wrote a very detailed diary, which included stories of her grandmother trying to separate mothers and children to sell the mother and also having runaway slaves branded on their face with her initials. My son always says that karma will catch up with you; during the civil war, when the Union army was approaching, most of the family decamped, leaving mean, ugly old granny at the plantation with two loyal slaves. She was both feisty and well on the way to total dementia, so when a union gunboat came along the Mississippi nobody could stop her shouting at them (in Creole French) ‘My father fought alongside Washington in the War of Independence, so you can’t bomb me’ which they did not understand, so they bombed the house and nothing was ever found of her. Of course the relatives were gutted to no longer have a (and I quote)’A mean ugly old demented woman who kept telling them how to run the business and charging them a huge consultation fee to boss them around’ (or something like that).
The house was amazing, having been built by a slave on loan from another plantation. You can tell a Creole house from an American one because they paint them in bright colours and not white (doesn’t show the mould so much!) The houses were built from ‘swamp’ cyprus, which was over a thousand years old, now a vanishingly rare resource. Once the trees get to over 800 years old they will not rot, so they make incredibly long lasting structures. The slaves that built the house could not read nor write (if a slave was found to be doing such a thing they would have their fingers and toes amputated) but the slave who was in charge of the building of this project produced a fine building that has survived the numerous Mississippi floods, fire and still has all its original timbers.
The grandmother’s house has sadly been ripped apart because someone stole all the balconies, as it is no longer legal to fell the swamp cyprus trees and the wood is extremely valuable.
Our guide explained the economics of a sugar planation, where the slaves were a really important asset. If you want to make lots of money, you buy a few slaves and then make sure that they breed a lot. By the time that the estate was sold the slave population had gone from about forty to about four hundred, with the best of them being worth up to a hundred thousand dollars in modern prices. It was notable that the family didn’t grant freedom to any slaves, even when they were blood relatives or had been particularly close to their masters.
There were some slave cabins still surviving, mainly preserved due to the fact that the original Br’er Rabbit were first written down there. (The original stories were in Creole and about ‘Compair Lapin’ and were much too raunchy and violent for children, hence the sanitised Br’er Rabbit English translation.) Even though the huts we looked at had been extended from the originals, the space that each person was given , even for favoured field hands that would have been living so close to the main house, was pitiably small. We were not surprised about that, but we were shocked to hear they the slave cabins were not totally abandoned until the 1970’s. The slaves were given their freedom (rather later that the rest of the USA because the conquering northerners found them rather useful to supply their needs after taking over the plantations) but, where could they go? They spoke French and everyone north spoke English. They ended up staying, being paid the ‘minimum wage’ which meant they were given credit to the company store and ended up more and more in debt. At least their children were educated, although it appears that Louisiana government dragged their heels in all aspects of emancipation.
On a lighter note, I was intrigued to see bananas growing all around the place. You will be pleased for Laura in that she finally managed to sell the place and escape it all. On the way out we met Sally and Ray
a delightfully friendly couple who were about to head off on a cruise around the Caribbean to ensure that Ray actually took some time off work for a change. They were very interested in Camel and it sounded as if Tim had persuaded than that they wanted to buy a Discovery too. We hope that it works out for them, or it could be embarrassing!
We found a campsite near Baton Rouge with teeny tiny pitches, just about managing to pitch the Tentipi and hoping the winds didn’t get too high
and holed up there to recover from the excesses of New Orleans spending a pretty lazy day, although we met some very interesting people.
Dusty is a retired soldier and is currently about about a quarter of the way through a project to raise awareness of wounded soldiers (the Wounded Warrior Project) and is aiming to walk a hundred miles in every state. That is a total of five thousand miles, should he manage to complete it, and I suspect that he will. He was a lovely guy, who was charmingly embarrassed when we gave him some dollars towards the cause.
We met Michael, a graduate in biological sciences and some kind of law, who is currently working driving fork lift trucks and will soon have paid off his student loans, despite not working in his graduate field. He was a very articulate guy, who had a clear understanding of global warming and the need for renewable energy. He also felt that it was very important that he should carry a loaded weapon in his car to protect his family from the bad guys. He had the most delightful family and we really enjoyed talking to him.
As we were packing up we met this guy, who came to ask about the tent. He used to work in asbestos removal and is now retired with an online business. I asked what kind and he said ‘providing male enhancement products’. When I raised my eyebrows, he said ‘Well, you brought it up!’, to which Tim said, ‘Isn’t that the point?’ which was pretty sharp, considering it was still the morning. The guy took it in good spirit and wished us well.
We drove on to Houston, through mile after mile of Louisiana swamp. The road was both dull and, at the same time, impressive. A very large proportion of it had to be raised up on pilings and it must have been a major feat of engineering to stop the whole structure from sinking into the incredibly deep silt that covers the whole of the area. It was surprising to see how similar the south east of Texas was, with not a cowboy in sight. We wanted to visit the Johnson Space Centre and when we eventually pulled up at the only campground I could find near it that would allow tents, the office was closed it looked distinctly unfriendly and the facilities were pretty rank. Blow it, we thought and went off to find a cheap hotel, which had quite a nice pub near it. Yeh! The next day we got to the space centre just after it opened and had a wonderful time. We had previously been to the one down at Cape Kennedy (Canaveral to us oldies) and been totally entranced and overexcited to see the rockets there and were thinking this would be a poor second best. Nope, it was outstanding.
The displays were attractive and informative. Just seeing how the international space station has been built up over the years was quite something. We went in a mock up of good old Skylab, (complete with rather creepy looking mannequins)
We saw space bedrooms
and space toilets
(you will be relieved to know that you get your own funnel!)
and space robots
This one seemed to both have a bust and been goosed
I watched a nice young teacher give a lesson over the internet to a really interested kindergarten group in Indiana and watching their faces as she played a rocket launch for them was delightful.
and we saw the first ever space shuttle
Ok it was the actual prop that was used for the first series of Star Trek. How cool was that?
We went on the tram tour (OK, it was bucketing down and we got soaked, but at least it was warm) where they took us around the whole massive complex and they showed us the mission control room,
the one we saw when they first went to the moon and when it all went pair shaped for Apollo 13, yep this was the Houston when they heard ‘Houston, we have a problem’. We sat in the actual seats where all the relatives and presidents and prime ministers and royalty had sat to watch the Apollo main events. There is a mirror there, just ove the water fountain
which was presented by the Apollo 13 crew, which came from the actual spacecraft and inscribed with words to the effect of ‘ This is who saved us’ so that all the mission control guys were thanked every time they went for a drink of water.
They then took us to see the place where they train astronauts to use the international space station. We also saw a life-sized model of the Orion capsule, which could be taking astronauts to Mars in a few years time
We saw another Saturn five (the one that put the Apollo spacecraft up)
which still takes my breath away (at least I didn’t back into another open jawed overawed person this time)
We were impressed by the life-sized model of the space shuttle piggybacked on its Jumbo jet
and as we were looking around it, Tim pointed out that the first flight by the Wright brothers had been about the same as the length of the Jumbo’s wing
It was a real high spot, pure nerdy heaven, and (almost) worth staying in an hotel where we found someone else’s hair in the bathroom. (Yuk!) (weird how much more fussy I am about hotels than campgrounds) We were annoyed not to be able to camp, initially, but looking out of the cheap and grotty place at the hammering rain, we were pretty relieved not to have to do a really wet strike.