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Lost Plantation

Lost Plantation: The Rise and Fall of Seven Oaks

Marc R. Matrana
Copyright Date: 2005
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    Lost Plantation
    Book Description:

    Along the fertile banks of the Mississippi River across from New Orleans, planter Camille Zeringue transformed a mediocre colonial plantation into a thriving gem of antebellum sugar production, complete with a columned mansion known as Seven Oaks. Under the moss-strewn oaks, the privileged master nurtured his own family, but enslaved many others. Excelling at agriculture, business, an ambitious canal enterprise, and local politics, Zeringue ascended to the very pinnacle of southern society. But his empire soon came crashing down. After the ravages of the Civil War and a nasty battle with a railroad company the family eventually lost the great estate. Seven Oaks ultimately ended up in the hands of distant railroad executives whose only desire was to rid themselves of this heap of history. Lost Plantation: The Rise and Fall of Seven Oaks tells both of Zeringue's climb to the top and of his legacy's eventual ruin.

    Preservationists and community members abhorred the railroad's indifferent attitude, and the question of the plantation mansion's fate fueled years of fiery, political battles. These hard-fought confrontations ended in 1977 when the exasperated railroad executives sent bulldozers through the decaying house. By analyzing one failed effort, Lost Plantation provides insight into the complex workings of American historical preservation efforts as a whole, while illustrating how southerners deal with their multifaceted past.

    The rise and fall of Seven Oaks is much more than just a local tragedy-it is a glaring example of how any community can be robbed of its history. Now, as parishes around New Orleans recognize the great aesthetic and monetary value of restoring plantation homes and attracting tourism, Jefferson Parish mourns a manor lost.

    Marc R. Matrana, Westwego, Louisiana, is a local historian and preservationist. See the author's site.

    eISBN: 978-1-60473-639-7
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. xi-2)

    The history of Louisiana’s Seven Oaks Plantation is a regional tragedy of great significance, but it is also more. The story of Seven Oaks is an example of what can happen to any community when big business is allowed to trample history and heritage, and when local government forgets its ultimate responsibility to its own citizens.

    Seven Oaks Plantation is a symbol—a symbol of the Old South. The once crumbling mansion and so many like it, from the Gulf to the East Coast, represent an era gone by, a time long ago faded into the past. These glorious structures...

  5. Chapter One Petit Desert
    (pp. 3-13)

    It has been said that “the history of Louisiana flows from the Mississippi River,” and, even from the earliest times, this seems to hold true.¹ The Mississippi was a pinnacle of native civilization, and it was the focal point of early European exploration of the area. It was along this mighty river that in 1682 explorer Rene Robert Cavelier, sieur de La Salle, traveled to survey and explore the region. In April of that year, La Salle claimed the land through which the river flowed, from the Appalachians to the Rockies, in the name of Louis XIV, King of France....

  6. Chapter Two The Zeringues and Their Plantation
    (pp. 14-28)

    Michel Zeringue, grandson of the well-known colonial builder, Michael Zehringer, purchased the Little Desert plantation from his father-in-law, Alexandre Harang, in 1794. The purchase included all the buildings and improvements on the plantation and the canal that had been dug there. Zeringue continued to improve and expand the plantation and farm its lands, cultivating a foundation upon which his son would develop an even greater estate.

    Zeringue’s tenure as plantation owner was not without controversy. The parish court records and New Orleans City Court records are filled with suits filed against and filed by Zeringue. A number of these legal...

  7. Chapter Three The Zeringue Plantation House and Its Grounds
    (pp. 29-44)

    Before the construction of their great mansion, the Zeringues lived in a small master house, which existed at the approximate location of the future residence. An 1823 inventory described this structure as “a master house about sixty feet square having eight rooms including two offices, bricked between posts with front and rear gallery, roofed with shingles.” No known images of this house exist, although it can be seen on maps of the time. With their blossoming success, it soon became apparent to the family that the construction of a more fashionable home, one that would symbolize the family’s own wealth...

  8. Chapter Four Life and Agricultural Production on the Zeringue Plantation
    (pp. 45-59)

    Life on the plantation was good for the Zeringue family. Their plantation, like those of their prosperous neighbors, was for the most part a completely self-sufficient community, over which the family, led by Camille, had near complete dominion. A mid-nineteenth-century Louisiana plantation the size of Seven Oaks was a farm and factory but also encompassed much more. The plantation produced everything from vegetables, fruits, eggs, milk, poultry, and pork to candles, wool, and leather. The surrounding wooded areas provided game for food and furs, wood for fuel and lumber, raw materials for the manufacture of brick, and even shells for...

  9. Chapter Five The Plantation and the Civil War
    (pp. 60-73)

    The Zeringues led a life of great splendor and privilege provided partly by the forced labor of enslaved individuals, and, in 1861, when Louisiana withdrew from the union, the family took up the cause for southern sovereignty. As a business owner who relied on slavery for the prosperity of his plantation, Zeringue willingly helped finance the Confederate cause. During this time, many planters made large personal financial contributions toward the war. Planters like Zeringue believed strongly in southern independence, and sentiment was strong that the South would prevail in any military conflicts with northern states. So strong was this belief...

  10. Chapter Six The Railroad Ruckus
    (pp. 74-79)

    On October 14, 1852, Camille Zeringue granted a right-of-way through his plantation to the New Orleans, Opelousas, and Great Western Railroad with the condition that no station be placed on any of his property. The construction of the railroad lines across the enormous fields commenced, and soon steam engines could be regularly seen charging through the sugarcane. These same lines, which later carried troops to their canal-side camp and played a minor role in the Civil War, caused Zeringue a great deal of frustration in his last days.

    The war left the Louisiana sugar industry badly bruised. The Zeringues, like...

  11. Chapter Seven Pablo Sala and Columbia Gardens
    (pp. 80-87)

    After acquiring the Zeringue plantation, Pablo Sala turned it into Columbia Gardens, a nightclub and pleasure resort. The roadside club was modeled after a similar venue called Whitehall or Suburban Gardens, located in the old de La Barre home on the east bank of the river at Central Avenue. Sala’s role in the day-to-day operations of the resort is difficult to ascertain, but it is clear that his investment was worthwhile. The 1893 opening-day ceremonies were attended by one thousand guests.¹

    Visitors to Columbia Gardens rode a steamboat called the Belle of the Coast from the foot of Canal Street...

  12. Chapter Eight A New War, a New Family
    (pp. 88-99)

    During World War I, the United States army used the large master house at Seven Oaks Plantation as a barracks to house 150 enlisted men. These troops guarded the crucial railroad lines.¹

    The railroad lines were very important to the war effort, and no chances were taken with their protection. Not only did trains transport machinery and supplies, they also transported donkeys and mules. These animals were unloaded at the large railroad wharf and loaded onto ships that transported them overseas. Because these animals were such good carriers, they were a much needed addition to the war effort, and many...

  13. Chapter Nine The Mansion Begins to Fade
    (pp. 100-109)

    After the Stehle family moved from the old plantation house, it was left in the care of the railroad, whose officials had no interest in historic preservation. Railroad executives, busy with the business of running a major transportation industry, abandoned Seven Oaks and left it forgotten. Without inhabitants or caretakers, the house quickly deteriorated. During the late 1950s, preservationists prompted the American Liberty Oil Company, which leased the site of the plantation from the Missouri-Pacific Railroad, to preserve the structure. Sometime in 1957, the oil company, led by President James J. Coleman, invested three thousand dollars in a temporary roof...

  14. Chapter Ten Save Seven Oaks
    (pp. 110-123)

    Through the years, the mansion at Seven Oaks lay abandoned and neglected. During that time, it continued to deteriorate, fading away more rapidly as the years passed. In November 1975, a Westwego city attorney ordered the Texas-Pacific-Missouri-Pacific Railroad to repair the crumbling Seven Oaks mansion or demolish it. This order soon led to a fierce battle between those opposing the demolition of the master house and those who wanted it demolished. Preservation efforts were increased, and many grass-roots efforts began to try to save Seven Oaks from demolition.¹

    In February 1976, the Westwego Board of Aldermen condemned the ruined structure...

  15. Chapter Eleven Life Among the Ruins
    (pp. 124-128)

    After the senseless destruction of the Seven Oaks mansion, one couple took the opportunity to breathe new life into the old house that was no more. By creating a dream home of their own from the rubble that remained of the old plantation house, Dr. Henry Andressen and his wife, Kay, in their own special way, saved the memory of Seven Oaks.

    The Andressens always loved Louisiana history. Even as young sweethearts, they often visited old plantations and studied their history. Kay remembers visiting Seven Oaks before it was torn down. She and Henry would climb through the ruins to...

  16. Chapter Twelve Future of the Past
    (pp. 129-136)

    Dr. Henry and Kay Andressen helped save the memory of the demolished Seven Oaks mansion, preserving what few materials were salvageable from this historic treasure. In many ways their action was a representation of what was happening throughout the South, as a new generation struggled with what to do with the vestiges of its past. Certainly, Seven Oaks and plantations like it represent a faded era—a time of southern success that was fueled by the forced labor of enslaved individuals. These dying mansions and our interaction with them are symbolic in many ways of our own internal struggle with...

  17. Appendix I Chronological Chain of Title and Timeline of Major Events in the History of the Plantation Known as Seven Oaks
    (pp. 137-144)
  18. Appendix II Slaves Owned by Camille Zeringue, as listed in the 1860 United States Census Slave Schedules
    (pp. 145-145)
  19. Appendix III Comparative Data of the Largest Slaveholders in Jefferson Parish
    (pp. 146-148)
  20. Appendix IV Brief Historical Sketch of Zeringue Family in Louisiana
    (pp. 149-154)
  21. Notes
    (pp. 155-169)
  22. Bibliography
    (pp. 170-182)
  23. Index
    (pp. 183-188)