“Before My Memory Begins to Fail…”

She wrote with purpose. She was the link between that time and this and as a result felt the responsibility of transcribing her memories.  She had come a long way from that country road along the Mississippi River.  A long way from the home of her ancestors – strong women who had presided over a vast sugar cane empire for almost two centuries.  She was the last of them….and she had to make sure their lives weren’t forgotten.

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There was her great-grandmother Nanette, matriarch of it all – a woman who spent every morning walking the back and forth along the gallery singing the French national anthem as her fingers worked the rosary beads in her hands.  Her husband had come to Louisiana in the early 19th century after fleeing Normandy, France when he killed a man in a duel.  He’d fought with the Spanish against the  British during the Revolutionary War before finding himself in the Louisiana Territory about fifty miles from New Orleans on the right bank of the mighty Mississippi River.

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Nanette Prud’homme Duparc (photo courtesy of Laura Plantation)

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Interior of Maison de Respise (photo courtesy of Alex MacLean and the book Vestiges of Grandeur: Plantations of Louisiana’s River Road by Richard Sexton, Eugene Cizek, and Eugene Darwin Cizek)

In those days, the area was populated by French, Spanish, Native Americas and West Africans – the ethic mix of which would become Creole.  It was here that the family home was built – right in the center of a century old Indian village. It was a raised cottage built on handmade brick piers with full cut cypress framing.  The home sat on high ground about six hundred feet from the river, but was built to last. It was here that a Creole dynasty would be born.

Originally called l’habitation Duparc, the house was around 24,000 feet and it sat on a plantation that was 12,000 acres during its prime.  At the outbreak of the Civil War, the Duparc-Locoul family plantation was worked by 186 descendants of the original West African slaves brought to the area in the early 1700’s.  Even after emancipation, many of these families continued to live at the plantation.  Of the sixty-five slave cabins originally built, only four remain today.

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Nanette would outlive her husband by over fifty years.  It was she who ran the daily operations of the plantation until she “retired” to her Maison de Reprise, built beside the main house in 1829. It still stands today, after years of serving as a retirement home for family matriarchs as well as a hospital during the Civil War.  Like a transplant from a Caribbean island, its shutters, the aqua of the sea, are now closed and the majestic double porch is gone.

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Others would follow Nanette – her daughter, Elizabeth ran the plantation for forty-seven years, seeing it through the Civil War during which Union gunboats sent four cannonball into the house.  It was Elizabeth’s granddaughter Laura who finally sold the plantation in 1891, leaving behind a way of life that was in decline.  She married and moved to St Louis.  Years later she would write down her family history and remembrances of life on what is now called, Laura Plantation, but it would take over sixty years for those words to come to light.

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In the early 1990’s, a husband and wife team, themselves descendants of Creoles, would purchase Laura Plantation, saving it from a slow, painful death.  It was in their search for more information about the plantation that they stumbled upon an old worn black manuscript that contained Laura Locoul Gore’s writings.  Her daughters, with no family of their own, had left the manuscript in the care of a family friend. He held onto it for safe keeping for almost fifteen years before Norman and Sand Marmillion knocked on his door.

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Today Laura Plantation is all that’s left of the Duparc-Locoul family in Louisiana.  A visit there is an escape into a world that is long gone.  The sugar cane fields lie dormant, but the cottage built in 1805 by Guillaume and Nanette Prud’Homme Duparc still stands under the gently swaying pecan and oak trees that surround it.

Faire z’oreilles cochon.

Read more about Laura Plantation in the wonderful book Memories of the Old Plantation Home & A Creole Family Album by Laura Locoul Gore.

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All unmarked photos were taken by the author.

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