You could look at the region as a kind of riverside factory zone, an agricultural machine growing sugar cane in loamy fields, then grinding it up, processing the lot and moving product down the Mississippi or over the tracks and highways to sweeten our lives.
In the antebellum days, most planters pared their farms down to the basics, keeping a simple main house for periodic visits and leaving the daily operation to overseers, slave drivers and the slaves who made their riches possible. If the owners had wealth to parade, most of them did that in New Orleans and Europe.
On old maps, their holdings look like long, skinny bristles sprouting along the river from Baton Rouge to New Orleans, a distance of about 85 miles. Go much farther north and the winters get too cold for sugar cane. Above Baton Rouge, cotton was king.
A small number of planters did put their money into grand living quarters within sight of the river or the bayous. People can tour a few that survived the Civil War or that were restored and rescued from the neglect that comes with bankruptcy.
The route for plantation-hopping is called the River Road, although more than one road is involved. The Mississippi meanders too much for just a single byway. And there are plantations to see on either side.
Levees, built in 1919, keep the Mississippi in check, ruining the panorama that undoubtedly inspired a few wealthy planters to build impressive mansions within sight of its muddy currents. Chemical plants and refineries also mar parts of the landscape with raw towers of exposed plumbing and eerie light bulbs. In spots, trailer parks fill the plots where plantation homes used to be.
Visitors trying to pick up that old antebellum vibe must choose their sight lines carefully and absorb the tales spun by house-tour guides who make valiant efforts to evoke the past. The South was genteel and congenial in some aspects, ugly and brutal in others -- overflowing with silk, damask, crystal, gold, mahogany, lace, sweat and blood.
A long time ago, the interpreters might have hidden grim aspects of 18th and 19th century plantation life under a thick coat of varnish, at least when company came. Now the properties that welcome visitors function as windows into Southern living at its most glorious and dreadful. Guides cite research. Some owners encourage archeological digs in the yards, fields and swamps.
In 1841, John Randolph bought his Nottoway Plantation in Iberville Parish. After the house was finished in 1859, he filled it with fine furniture (check out the hand-carved mahogany Chippendale in the dining room), and a family that included his wife and 11 children.
It was the largest plantation house in the South with 64 rooms and 53,000 square feet. Out back were 7,000 acres and 42 other buildings, most of them slave quarters. Those structures are gone.
Guide Lucy Olivier paused between tours of handsome public rooms and private chambers to mention the subtext of antebellum Louisiana.
"Tax records tell us that John Randolph was the largest slave owner in the parish," she said. "He had 176 slaves, 88 males and 88 females between the ages of 15 and 45. Children under 15 weren't taxed."
In the peak years of sugar cane farming, the grounds included a hospital and bathhouse for the slaves, and a meeting hall where they would attend Catholic mass every other Sunday and practice their own religion on alternate weeks. They could have parties in the hall on Saturday nights.
Each slave cabin ("whitewashed and under shade trees," Olivier noted) was built on stilts to protect them from floods. Workers' families all had individual plots of land to grow their own vegetables.
"I'm not trying to tell you that John Randolph was a great humanitarian," Olivier said. "He was a good businessman."
Beginning in 1808, Congress outlawed the importation of slaves, compelling the cleverest businessmen and women along the Mississippi to take good care of the slaves they had. "Those pre-existing slaves were a very expensive commodity," Olivier explained. "You could get $800 to $1,000 for a slave."
After the Civil War, of course, the institution of slavery came to an end. Samuel Eliot Morison in "The Oxford History of the American People" claims that John Randolph somehow profited even more when he had to pay his newly freed workers, "a thing that no Southerner before 1860 would have thought possible."
Nottoway is the sort of be-columned and snowy white plantation favored by the wealthy Anglos and Americans who got into the sugar cane business. It's said that it was the inspiration for the plantation in the movie version of "Gone With the Wind" and that the puddled drapes in the parlor were the prototype for the ones Scarlett O'Hara cut up to fashion a makeshift gown. Drape bottoms formed puddles of velvet on the floor just to show people that the owner could afford the excess material, Olivier said.
Her name was Laura
Across the river in Vacherie, in 1805, a far less opulent plantation now called Laura was built in the Creole style -- relatively small and painted yellow with a few slave cabins out back. A fire in the main house this August destroyed the roof and a lot of the second floor.
So visitors can't tour the house, but realities of plantation life live on in the stories told by the tour guides. The day after the fire was put out, the grounds reopened to the public and tours resumed.
Norman and Sand Marmillion bought the property in 1993 and, thanks to exhaustive detective work reaching all the way to forgotten archives in Paris, have been able to paint a detailed picture of the life and times of the plantation.
The name comes from Laura Locoul Gore, a woman who grew up on the plantation and chronicled its history. The Marmillions published her journal in a book called "Memories of the Old Plantation Home & a Creole Family Album."
"Creole is the culture of Louisiana before it was part of the U.S.," Norman Marmillion said one afternoon during a tour of Laura's 13 acres. "It's a blending of Europeans, west Africans and native Indians into a single culture. Until the 1920s, out here on the river it was what most of the people were."
Marmillion pointed out the physical characteristics of the place that make it so different from lavish Anglo mansions like Nottoway and the nearby showplace plantations of Oak Alley and Evergreen.
The yellow paint on the main house -- built by slaves from Senegal -- signaled that a Creole, French-speaking family lived within. Windows, the veranda and other architectural details show French and West African influences.
All the research dug up by the Marmillions allows tour guides to put visitors into the shoes of family members, slaves and former slaves as they lived on the property over several generations.
"We have so much information here," Marmillion said, "that we're actually able to say, 'At this spot, at this well, this happened.' "
When Laura Locoul was 7 years old, she was playing by the well in question when an old man came up to pump water for his mule. Laura recognized him as a former slave named Philippe and noticed he had the initials V.D.P. branded on his forehead.
She asked him what happened, and he said that one day he had tried to run away, but some men from the plantation caught him and brought him back. Her grandmother then burned her initials on his forehead with the same sort of branding iron plantation workers used on the cattle.
Laura ran into the house and asked her mother how this could be true. "My dear child, I had hoped you would never hear of these cruelties until you were much older," she said. Of the 200 people on the plantation, most would never do such a thing, her mother went on, but there were people Laura knew and loved who were capable of horrible actions -- including her grandmother.
By the time she reached her teens, Laura realized she would inherit the plantation. "In the Creole world, you didn't give the plantation to the oldest son, like they do in other places," Marmillion explained. "You give it to the smartest child."
Laura told her father that she didn't want to take on that burden and become "vicious" like some of the other women in the family. Eventually she moved to St. Louis and lived there the rest of her life.
At one point, 65 years after that sorry encounter at the well, two of Laura's daughters came up to her and said, "We just started reading a good book about plantations in the South. It's called 'Gone With the Wind.' Is this the way your life on the plantation was?"
Telling the story, Marmillion looked mildly amused.
"Laura said, 'Don't turn another page. I'll write it.' And it took her five years to write the pages we found 11 years ago." That was the provenance of "Memories" -- a chronicle about real life on a real plantation without all the hand-kissing and gowns made out of draperies.
A few of Laura's slave cabins remain intact. In the 1870s, a neighbor, Alcee Fortier, would go back there and talk with the Senegalese workers. From the former slaves' folk tales about Compare Lapin, the clever rabbit, and Compare Bouki, the stupid hyena, Fortier published -- in French -- the first stories in print featuring those characters.
In Georgia, Joel Chandler Harris heard similar stories from former slaves and created, a year after Fortier's book came out, "Tales of Uncle Remus," starring the rascally Br'er Rabbit. So Br'er Rabbit first attracted the attention of the outside world via Laura plantation.
For antebellum romance, people go to nearby Oak Alley. Two rows of 300-year-old live oaks line the long drive toward the big-house entrance. There are 14 oaks to a side with low-hanging branches that nearly block the view of a beautifully proportioned structure built in 1839.
Two-story galleries lined with Doric columns surround the brick mansion. Rooms glisten with enameled cypress woodwork, and the long dining room table appears all set to welcome guests.
"The owners held elaborate dinner parties, but that was the extent of the social life around here at the time," said tour guide Mary Jane Redell. She wore a ruffled blouse with puffy sleeves and a maroon hoop skirt.
Jacques Telesphore Roman, the original owner of Oak Alley, loved the countryside. His wife, Celina, preferred the social whirl of New Orleans. For that reason, they kept a townhouse in the French Quarter. Celina, therefore, made frequent commutes by riverboat up and down the Mississippi, probably alongside barges loaded with sugar cane.
All those long, narrow plantations -- many farmed by tenant farmers even today -- required river frontage so they could ship product down to the New Orleans port and receive supplies from Crescent City.
In a hallway, Redell pointed to a framed copy of an 1858 map showing all the properties bristling westward and eastward from the riverbanks. She gestured toward the snakelike image of the Mississippi.
"I just think of this as a big ol' Interstate," she declared. "It would take a day to get from New Orleans to here."
With 1,260 acres, Oak Alley Plantation was relatively small. Evergreen Plantation, another neighboring property, also looked puny with its 2,000 acres. But today it stands as the best example of the way a working Anglo-style plantation really looked.
Two facing ranks of 22 slave cabins still stand, shaded by two neat rows of live oaks, 100 trees in all.
"We know they grew in the soil and soot that washed down the river from the north," said Evergreen Director Jane Boddie during a tour through the slave shack neighborhood. "You can't grow a tree in pure Louisiana soil, and we sure have tried."
Whitewashed outbuildings -- separate quarters for the plantation owner's sons, a privy, small cabins called pigeonniers and the kitchen building -- all demonstrate the pattern of daily routines, while the main house is a graceful model of Greek Revival elegance with precisely trimmed hedges in the French garden and a modest number of rooms. Basically, the house is just one room wide with living quarters spilling out to the surrounding veranda.
In 1721, Evergreen started as a vegetable farm tended by German immigrants. Over the decades, the property changed hands. Eventually, in the 1830s, Pierre Clidamant Becnel shaped the plantation and remodeled the house, changing it from Creole style to Greek Revival, even though everything else about Evergreen remained French.
After the place nearly fell into total ruin in the 1930s, oil heiress and architecture buff Matilda Gray bought Evergreen and had it restored to the way it looked during the years of Pierre Becnel.
After Mrs. Gray died in 1971, her niece, Matilda Gray Stream, acquired the property and has maintained it as a home, important archeological site and tourist attraction.
"These buildings have to pay for themselves," Boddie said. "Tourism is saving important properties along the River Road. Visitors can come here and see how the people lived, stay all day, go on both tours (a swamp tour, as well as a plantation tour), eat lunch, or just go sit under a live oak tree. It's a very unusual experience."
For my last stop in the lower River Road region, I took a detour to Madewood Plantation in Napoleonville on Bayou Lafourche. Just before dark, the cane fields loomed in tall shadows close to Louisiana Highway 308, making nearby clusters of suburban-style ranch homes look incongruous.
Madewood's main house was stunning, an imposing Greek Revival wonder that began to rise in 1848 and took eight years to complete. Its columns appear thicker than those of other mansions along the plantation routes. It gleamed in the waning sunlight and implied that its former occupants were people of considerable substance.
By reputation and the extensive press Madewood receives in the food and shelter magazines, I knew I would find polished hardwood floors inside, plus canopied beds, complicated chandeliers, lovingly carved armoires and sumptuous meals. Madewood has become an inn, and it wins all sorts of hospitality awards.
But it was getting late, I was feeling haggard and lacking the proper finery. I had people to see in New Orleans and a 75-mile drive to get there.
Too many plantations in too short a time can be fascinating but tiring. There are some historical artifacts that can't be ignored but inevitably tear at the soul, no matter how lovely they may be.
If you go
More details are available from the Baton Rouge Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, (800) 527-6843; fax (225) 346-1253; www.visitbatonrouge.com.
Or contact the Louisiana Office of Tourism, 1051 N. 3d St., Baton Rouge, La. 70802-9291; (225) 342-8119; www.crt.state.la.us.