Historic St. Joseph on River Road in
Vacherie opens doors for tourists

“Family Project" restores plantation

The Advocate - Monday April 18, 2005
The Times Picayune - Sunday April 24, 2005
 
By Marc H. Hunter
Special to The Advocate
 
VACHERIE – Another chapter of Louisiana’s antebellum past is being revealed at a historic River Road sugar-cane plantation along the west bank of the Mississippi River.

The St. Joseph Plantation recently was restored by members of the Waguespack and Simon Families and is open for tours seven days a week.  Built in a Raised Creole style that predates nearby plantations constructed in Greek Revival style. The home stands on brick columns 8 feet tall to protect from flooding.

Built around 1830 by the Scioneaux family using slave labor, the 12,000-square-foot residence features antique furniture-filled rooms that originally were heated by coal-burning fireplaces.  Wide porches overlook the 1,000 acre property that’s still farmed for sugar cane.

The plantation was purchased in a post-civil War sheriff’s sale by Joseph Waguespack and has remained in the extended family, said Joan Boudreaux, general manager and Waguespack’s great-great-great granddaughter.

“This is really a story of a family project,” Boudreaux said during a recent tour.  “A family came together-even second, third and fourth cousins-from as far away as California, Illinois and Tennessee, to save their heritage.  There are 201 family-member stockholders in the company.”

In 1840, Dr. Cazamine Mericq purchased the property from the Scioneaux family, and then sold it to Alexis Ferry and his wife, Josephine, who used dowry money from Gabriel Valcour Aime, Josephine’s father.

Ferry remodeled the home, added four rooms and enclosed the ground floor to create a basement, where the open space had previously sheltered the horse-drawn buggy that Mericq used to visit his rural patients.

Gabriel Valcour Aime was known as the “Louis the XIV of Louisiana” and reputedly was the wealthiest man in the South.  Aime already owned a larger nearby plantation called La Petite Versailles, which burned down around 1920.  Flowers and plants from around the world, including coffee and bananas, were grown in his extensive gardens, which required 30 slaves to maintain, historians have determined.

Another adjoining plantation home, Felicity, was built in 1850 with dowry money for Josephine’s sister, Felicity, when she married Septime Fortier.  Joseph Waguespack bought the 1,200-acre Felicity plantation in 1899 and combined it with St. Joseph in 1901 into the St. Joseph Planting and Manufacturing Co. Ltd.

According to the Live Oak Society of Louisiana, the company has 16 registered live oak trees on its property, some named after family members, with the largest boasting a girth of 23 feet.  Officials estimate the trees are about 300 years old.

Four of the huge live oaks shade the St. Joseph home’s backyard well, and iron syrup kettle 10 feet in width, several week-framed slave quarters, a detached kitchen and the remnants of a narrow gauge railroad that carried sugar cane from the fields.  Doublewide French doors provide cross-ventilation for the home’s 16 rooms and cypress plank floorboards shine from decades of waxing.
            “This plantation has a wonderful history and is still a working sugar-cane plantation,” Boudreaux told a visiting group of St. CharlesParishTourismCenter volunteers.  “With the grace of God and a little help from St. Joseph, the patron saint of Joseph Waguespack, we hope to keep it prosperous for years to come.”
            Joy Roussel, a tourism volunteer from Norco, said she just couldn’t get over how much work it took to restore the once shuttered and empty home.  “I think it’s extraordinary what they’ve done with this place,” Roussel said.  “There is so much history with this-that is what makes it so interesting to me.”

Sylvia Lambert was interested in how the area’s families intertwined over the decades, and said the plantation’s history will help today’s residents unravel their genealogies.

“This means a lot to the community,” Lambert said.  “With so many people these days doing their genealogy-this makes it easier then going to the courthouse.”

The plantation’s most famous son is Henry Hobson Richardson, one of the nation’s premier architects of the 19th century.  He was born at St. Joseph Plantation in 1838. Richardson is renowned for designing the original Marshall Field store in Chicago and the Trinity Church of Boston, referred to by modern architects as being built in the “Richardsonian Romanesque” style.

The home was occupied at various times but was closed in the 1970’s, Boudreaux said.  Two years ago, when family members began renovation, they had to pry shutters off the windows that had been nailed on for Hurricane Betsy in 1965.

All of the rooms feature period furniture.  A square baby grand piano sits in the main hall and a worn desk from 1877 displays a model skeleton and medical instruments-possibly from Mericq’s day.  The large dining table is graced with antique china and bottles of locally produced wine.

The basement’s rooms display kitchen implements and hand tools, including a gift shop and offices for the family-based corporation.  An 1858 “Priestly succession” sale list details household goods, livestock and the values of 35 slaves.

“Charles, 34,” is valued at $1,400.00 while “Old Mike, 75,” was valued at $15.  Further down the list are “21 mules at $100 each,” and a “plow harness” worth $55.

A living link to the plantation’s past was sitting on the shady front porch of a modern replica slave quarter.  Fred Louis, 67, was born at St. Joseph Plantation and lives in one of its houses.  He said doesn’t know if he is descendant of plantation slaves, but he does know his family has been on the property for at least three generations.  “I lived here all my life,” the now retired Louis said.  “They’ve always been real good to me.  I worked on the farm all my life.  Drove a tractor.”

Joan Boudreaux, who appreciates Louis’s help around the place, said that while the plantation was a participant in antebellum slavery, the owners do not wish to hide from its history.  Because Waguespack purchased the plantation after the Civil War, the work force was mainly made up of freed slaves who stayed as paid laborers, she said.

“Some other plantation talk a lot about the antebellum history and their timelines stop there, but our family has been here for 130 years,"  Boudreaux said.  “The timeline for our family had kept going to this day - and we’re proud of that.”

St. Joseph Plantation is an hour’s drive from Baton Rouge and is adjacent to the historic Oak Alley Plantation on La. 18, the Great River Road.  For more information call. (225) 265-4078.