Heart of Louisiana: Laurel Valley Plantation

Published: Jan. 15, 2014 at 1:53 AM CST|Updated: Jan. 30, 2014 at 5:14 PM CST
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The oldest cabins were built in the 1830s to house the slaves of the Laurel Valley Plantation near Thibodaux.  As many as 135 slaves toiled in the sugarcane fields and lived here, touching these same bare cypress walls.  Time has not erased those memories.

The plantation was owned by Joseph Tucker, a Virginian, who bought more than 50,000 acres of land along Bayou Lafourche.

"And Tucker was able to build Laurel Valley into the No. 1 sugar producer for Lafourche Parish," said history professor Paul Leslie. "He was producing close to 1.5 million pounds of sugar - built a mill in the back."

Leslie, a semi-retired professor at nearby Nicholls State University, has been involved in efforts to preserve the Laurel Valley story and village since the 1970s.

"This is the most intact sugar plantation in the continental United States," Leslie said. "There are about 56 buildings out here. The main house that was owned by Tucker was destroyed during the Civil War. We've got something like 26 shotgun houses, about 12 to 14 Creole cabins."

The 160-year-old sugar mill, built with 366,000 slave-made bricks, shut down in the 1930s. The mill was nearly flattened by Hurricane Betsy in 1965 and is now shrouded in overgrowth. You can easily see the oldest buildings from a highway that cuts through the center of the old plantation village.  The grounds are private property and are off-limits to visitors.

The property is still a working sugarcane farm. The drive along Laurel Valley Road is a short journey back in time. And you can view the history of sugar farming at the restored plantation store at the front of the property.

"This was the general store for the plantation," said Danny Foret, who retired from the oil business and now volunteers at the plantation museum and store. "We'd like them to see the old farm equipment, the old tools and we get them to have an environment of farm life.  We have the animals – turkey, goats, chickens, a pig - and the kids love to feed them."

The farm equipment is mixed with antique household items that tell the story of days gone by.  And a drive down the road to the old village creates another image of the human cost of farming sugarcane on the plantation.