The remaining plantations that line the Mississippi River don’t often change hands, but a sale posted this year means someone may soon be able to purchase a rare piece of Louisiana history for $550,000.
The eight heirs of the family that owns Woodland Plantation, a raised French Creole-style home that stands nearly 200 yards from the river in St. John the Baptist Parish, have decided to sell the home that’s been in their family’s possession since the 1920s.
Built in 1793, the plantation has been called a “historian’s dream.” Not only is it one of only about 30 such properties left in Louisiana, according to the National Park Service, but it also was a key site in one of the biggest slave uprisings in American history.
The property, which has been a major subject in several books on Louisiana history, helped spur the growth of LaPlace, a town about 25 miles upriver from New Orleans.
It also was the birthplace of musician Edward “Kid” Ory, an early jazz pioneer who made some of the first African-American New Orleans jazz recordings and helped shape the sounds of the genre.
“There are plantations that have come on the market in places like St. Charles (Parish), but it’s not often because there’s not a whole lot of them,” real estate agent Tom King said. “I don’t think you can find one with this history. You’re not going to find this kind of place again.”
Originally developed in 1793, the land was turned into a working sugar cane plantation for Manuel Andry, a commandant of the German Coast, a region of early Louisiana settlement in present-day St. Charles, St. John the Baptist and St. James parishes.
According to the book “Creole Trombone: Kid Ory and the Early Years of Jazz” by John McCusker, an Advocate staff photographer, the plantation was first constructed as part of LaPlace, then just a village. At that time, the main house sat on a 1,882-acre farm consisting of cane fields, a multistory sugar mill and various buildings and stables behind the main property.
Today, the 3,982-square-foot house stands on 3.7 acres along what is now La. 628 in LaPlace. It still contains the original solid raised foundation, with hand-hewn, 14-inch square cypress beams, interior walls that have the original plaster and six original fireplaces, along with detailed moldings and porch balusters.
“The bones of that place are amazing,” King said. “It could be a very fantastic place; it really could.”
Those hoping for a move-in-ready home will be disappointed, however. The house, which has been described in real estate listings as in “poor” condition, has been abandoned for more than 10 years, according to some of the property’s remaining heirs.
Shuttered and largely untouched since the last family member moved out in 2004, the house has no electricity or running water and is stained by interior mold spots. In some places, pieces of plaster are peeling off the walls, and wood is rotting.
“Things just went on, and things happened and nothing here moved,” said Oscar “Jay” Ory, son of Hazel Montegut and O.J. Ory and one of the heirs to the plantation. “They just closed the doors and went on.”
On Friday, as Jay Ory examined the plantation and its grounds, along with King and brother Robert “Bobby” Ory, he recalled memories of a home that had been passed down in the family since it was bought by his grandparents, Charles F. Montegut Jr. and his wife, Amanda, in the 1920s.
As a boy, Jay Ory said, he grew up with his mother Hazel nearby, while his grandparents lived in the plantation with his uncle and aunt, Wilton and Dorothy Dufrene. His grandfather taught him the responsibilities of farm life, he recalled, asking him to feed his cows and chickens and come along on early morning horseback rides in the fields.
Montegut “worked overseeing the field all his life,” Jay Ory said, pointing to a spot where his grandfather used to like to sit and relax by a potbellied stove. “People raised their families working on the field.”
His grandmother would cook in what is now a guest house behind the main plantation house, he said, and would bring in extra income for the family by renting out the upstairs to boarders.
The most famous person to come from the plantation, however, wasn’t one of its owners. Kid Ory, the musician who gave a young Louis Armstrong a gig in Ory’s New Orleans Band, was born in a house behind the plantation on Christmas Day 1886, according to McCusker’s book.
Ory — a Creole in the sense that he was French-speaking and of mixed race — was the son of Ozeme Ory, a member of the once slave-owning Ory family of St. John Parish. Kid Ory’s mother, Marie Octavie Devezin, was listed as a mulatto in the 1880 census. She worked as a washerwoman and often watched the plantation owner’s children during the day, when they would play with her kids in the yard, McCusker said.
In 1898, Ozeme’s cousin, a member of another Ory family, bought the plantation, and the poorer Orys found themselves working for the richer ones. As such, Kid Ory’s early years were spent on the plantation, a life McCusker described as a “rough existence filled with harsh labor, long hours and punishing heat,” all for as little as 60 cents a day.
When he wasn’t at the Fourth Ward Colored School in LaPlace, however, Kid Ory learned to play music, including the famous Creole song “Eh La Bas,” which has vestiges that can trace back to folk songs sung on porches in French when Ory was growing up.
McCusker paints a picture of a time when the children of Creoles and plantation owners coexisted peacefully, but there was a time when that peace didn’t exist.
About 75 years before Ory was born, the plantation was one of the locations of what’s been called the 1811 German Coast Uprising, an insurgency of slaves that extended several miles along the Mississippi River in Louisiana.
Involving as many as 500 slaves, the uprising was led by a man named Charles Deslondes and took place on Jan. 6, 1811, near Woodland Plantation, which was then called the Andry Plantation.
During the insurgency, slaves wounded the plantation’s original owner, Andry, and killed his son, Gilbert, according to various accounts, including author Daniel Rasmussen’s book “American Uprising: The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt.”
As they marched from sugar plantations toward New Orleans, the insurgents collected men along the way. They were eventually caught on another plantation, where as many as 100 slaves were said to have been killed, their heads put on poles.
Some accounts say only two members of slave-owning families were killed in the revolt. Albert Thrasher challenges that, saying “it is impossible” to get a truthful count of the casualties.
In his book, “On to New Orleans! Louisiana’s Heroic 1811 Slave Revolt,” Thrasher describes the uprising as a carefully plotted act, the “inevitable outcome of the sharpening struggle” between slaves and masters.
Despite the revolt’s importance, few people know about the role of Woodland Plantation, as the uprising itself remains largely under-reported, according to Leon Waters, who passed on an oral history of the event after hearing stories from his cousin, a River Parishes resident named Clara “Kizzie” Duncan.
As for Jay Ory, he’s just hoping another owner will appreciate the house for its historical value and its potential grandeur, and will be able to better care for it than his family could.
“It’s time to get things moving in one shape or form,” he said. “It should have been done 40 years ago.”