Cane River Creole National Historical Park | OAKLAND PLANTATION

Main House at Oakland Plantation, Cane River Creole National Historical Park

Main House at Oakland Plantation, Cane River Creole National Historical Park

ADDRESS

4386 Highway 494
Natchez, LA 71456

OPERATING HOURS

Visitors to Oakland Plantation at Cane River Creole National Historical Park are welcome to explore the grounds every day from 9 AM to 3:30 PM. A selection of the historical buildings are open to the public on Wednesdays through Sundays. The Main House, however, is only open on the weekends from 10 AM to 2 PM.

The Oakland Plantation Store is open on Wednesdays through Sundays from 9 AM to 3:30 PM. This is a book and gift store, and you can also pick up park brochures and other information.

All facilities are closed on federal holidays.

Keep in mind that times can always change, so before heading to the park be sure to check out the National Park Service’s official Operating Hours and Seasons web page for Cane River Creole National Historical Park.

VISITING OAKLAND PLANTATION

What exists of Oakland Plantation today is only a fraction of its original size. However, there are still more than a dozen original buildings on the property that are open to the public for self exploration. Gravel and mowed-grass walking paths lead around the grounds from building to building, but you are welcome to walk anywhere you like. It is best to stay out of any tall grass due to the possible presence of snakes, ticks, and other insects.

Park Rangers lead guided tours of the grounds on Wednesdays through Sundays at 9 AM. Meet at the pavilion next to the guest parking lot if you wish to attend. There is no need to register or reserve a spot. Tours of the Main House are self-guided, but a park Ranger is on hand inside to answer any questions you might have.

Park brochures and other information are available at either the pavilion near the parking lot or the Oakland Plantation Store. Also at the pavilion are a few interesting films about Cane River Creole National Historical Park that are shown on demand.

Pavilion at Oakland Plantation, Cane River Creole National Historical Park

Pavilion at Oakland Plantation, Cane River Creole National Historical Park

Interior of the pavilion at Oakland Plantation, Cane River Creole National Historical Park

Interior of the pavilion at Oakland Plantation, Cane River Creole National Historical Park

There is a Cell Phone Tour of Oakland Plantation. When you arrive at a building that is part of the tour, there will be a placard with a phone and tour stop number. Dial the phone number and enter the stop number to listen to a narration about the building’s history.

Cell Phone Audio Tour placard on the Mule Barn at Oakland Plantation in Louisiana

Cell Phone Audio Tour placard on the Mule Barn at Oakland Plantation in Louisiana

For photos and information on each building, see the following web pages here on National Park Planner:

Carpenter Shop

Carriage House

Cook’s Cabin

Corn Crib

Corral Shed

Doctor’s Cottage

Main House

Main House Outbuildings

Mule Barn

Overseer’s House

Pigeonnier

Plantation Store

Slave and Tenant Farmer Cabins

OAKLAND PLANTATION HISTORY

What eventually became Oakland Plantation was originally called Bermuda Plantation. According to Prud’homme family tradition, it was established by Emmanuel Prud’homme in the mid-1780s on land granted to him by the Spanish government. His grandparents emigrated from France and settled in the Natchitoches area in the 1720s, a time when the Louisiana Territory was still part of France (this was much larger than the modern state of Louisiana—it was the land between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains). The family saw the land become Spanish territory when Spain acquired it from the French at the end of the Seven Years War in 1764. Louisiana was reclaimed by France in 1800 as part of a land exchange with Spain (Louisiana Territory for land in Tuscany), and three years later it became part of the United States as a result of the Louisiana Purchase. However, an 1810 United States territorial census is the first written record confirming that the Prud’hommes did indeed live on the land. A Prud’homme descendant lived at Oakland until it was sold to the National Park Service in 1997 for inclusion in Cane River Creole National Historical Park.

Cane River viewed from Oakland Plantation at Cane River Creole National Historical Park

Cane River viewed from Oakland Plantation at Cane River Creole National Historical Park

The original crops grown at Bermuda Plantation were tobacco and indigo. At the time, short-staple (fiber) cotton, the only cotton that would grow in the inland regions of the southern United States, was not a viable crop due to the amount of labor it took to process it. Machines—cotton gins—developed in India for processing long-staple cotton had been around for centuries, but long-staple cotton only grew in the eastern coastal areas, with the most sought after being the high-quality Sea Island Cotton of South Carolina.

In 1793, when Eli Whitney modified existing gins developed in India so that they could rapidly clean the seeds and other debris from short-staple cotton, the cotton industry in America boomed. Other inventors made improvements, and by 1799, short-staple cotton gins were readily available to farmers. The Prud’hommes were growing some cotton in the 1790s and processing it by hand, but by 1803 they had purchased a cotton gin, and cotton was now their main crop, nearly replacing tobacco and indigo completely. The Prud’hommes were the first to farm cotton on a grand scale west of the Mississippi. This made them one of the wealthiest and most influential families in Louisiana.

Emmanuel died in 1845 and his wife, Catherine, in 1848. In 1850, their youngest son, Pierre Phanor, purchased the Bermuda Plantation, half the slaves, and most of the farming equipment and livestock from his father’s estate. The plantation continued to be prosperous up until the Civil War began. With the Union blockades of the Mississippi River and other southern ports and the occupation of New Orleans and Baton Rouge in 1862, Louisiana cotton became worthless. There was no way to ship it to customers, and what was in storage was being confiscated by victorious Union troops for export north, if it wasn’t burned by the Confederate army first. Because of this, Phanor switched to growing corn to help feed Confederate soldiers. Despite heavy fighting, looting, and destruction of private property by Union troops in Louisiana, no serious damage was done to any of the Prud’homme’s plantation grounds and buildings other than their cotton gin. Contrast this to the neighboring Magnolia Plantation (also part of Cane River Creole National Historical Park) where the Main House and much of the property was destroyed.

The Prud’hommes used slave labor from the start, but with the increase in cotton production, the demand for slaves to pick the high-value crop skyrocketed. Emmanuel started with around two dozen slaves, and at the high point before the Civil War, roughly 160 slaves were working on Oakland Plantation. Slaves were considered property, and property was wealth. On some plantations, the slaves were worth more than the land. Thus, when the Civil War ended and the slaves were finally freed, Southern plantation owners such as the Prud’hommes lost much of their fortune. They now had to figure out a way to get people to work without paying them in cash.

The ex-slaves and poor whites, most of whom knew nothing other than farming, had no money themselves for land, seed, equipment, and draft animals, so starting their own farms was out of the question. The plantation owners, who had to borrow money from northern investors just to stay in business, had very little cash themselves. Thus the profit-sharing systems of sharecropping and tenant farming gained momentum by 1870.

Sharecropping differs from tenant farming in that tenant farmers have money and supplies, just no land, whereas sharecroppers don’t have anything at all. Tenant farmers rent the land; sharecroppers supply the labor while the landowner supplies everything else to raise a crop. Housing, but not food, clothing, and other essential goods, is usually included. Once the harvest is sold, the profits are split, typically 60-40 (60 percent to the landowner) if the landowner provided all supplies and seed and 50-50 if the sharecropper paid for supplies. With either of these systems, workers, usually a family unit, had their own plot of land to farm (40 acres was the standard). At Oakland Plantation, most of the workers were sharecroppers, but there were a few tenant farmers.

Of course, the landowners hated parting with any of the money, so they came up with the idea of the plantation store—the Prud’hommes opened one at Oakland in 1873. With no money and no credit with the town merchants, sharecroppers became a captive consumer base for the store. There were prices for cash purchases and prices for credit purchases, which were typically 20 to 50 percent higher, and the credit price was owed even if the product was paid for the next day. The landowner now sold the sharecroppers everything they needed to live—food, clothing, medicine, etc.—which was paid back from their profits, if there were any. In many cases, the sharecroppers ended up owing money and thus were stuck working another season to pay off their debt. The landowners had essentially figured out a way to keep the former slaves as slaves, and better yet, they added poor whites into the mix. By 1889, an estimated 75 percent of white sharecroppers and nearly 100 percent of black sharecroppers were in debt to their landlords. In defense of the Prud’hommes, nearly all of their sharecroppers made some money at the end of each year (according to the Prud’-hommes’ financial records).

When Phanor died in 1865, his sons Jacques Alphonse and Pierre Emmanuel took over. Once their father’s estate was settled, which took until 1873, they divided the Bermuda Plantation amongst themselves while their sister took the home in Natchitoches. The 893 acres on the west bank of the Cane River were now owned by Alphonse and renamed Oakland Plantation (expanded to 1,200 acres by 1900). Emmanuel controlled the land on the east bank (837 acres), which he now called Atahoe Plantation.

By 1873, Oakland was back to full operation as a cotton plantation, and by the end of the decade Alphonse and his family were able to travel abroad, and all three of the Prud’homme sons attended college at Notre Dame University. The store was up and running, and this brought in a significant amount of revenue for the next twenty years. When a new post office opened in 1877—called the Bermuda Post Office—it was housed in the Oakland Plantation store. This boosted business since it brought people from around the area into the store when they needed postal services—there was no home delivery at the time. The post office continued to operate until 1967.

By the early 1900s, Alphonse gradually moved into retirement and turned over the operation of the plantation to his eldest son, Pierre Phanor II. However, it was not a good time to be a cotton farmer. The boll weevil was making its way east from Texas. Infestation was first reported in Louisiana in 1904, and by the start of World War I, much of the southern cotton crop was in ruins. The crops at Oakland fared better than most, though output was drastically reduced. Even so, the Prud’hommes were able to make improvements to their home, which included adding telephone service and gas lighting.

When Alphonse died in 1919, Phanor II inherited Oakland Plantation. He was the fourth generation to live there. His son, James Alphonse “Phonsie” Prud’homme, took over management of the plantation store in 1923 and was appointed postmaster the next year. He married Lucile Keator in 1924 and moved into the Main House with his parents.

While pre-war cotton prices were up, after the war the cotton market collapsed again due to new synthetic materials, foreign competition, and over production. Black sharecroppers were heading north for better jobs, and the boll weevil was still doing damage. Times were tough for Southern cotton plantations such as Oakland, and the Great Depression was still a decade away.

In the early 1930s, record cotton yields dropped prices to almost nothing, prompting the Roosevelt Administration and state governments to force farmers to destroy portions of their crops and limit the planting of new cotton crops in order to drive prices back up. To supplement their income during the Depression, the Prud’hommes began raising sheep, goats, and cattle, and even opened a four-cabin fishing camp for those wanting a fishing vacation on the Cane River. Phanor II rented boats and Phonsie raised shiners for sale as bait. It wouldn’t be until World War II that cotton farming returned to being profitable.

With the end of World War II, cotton prices soared and the Prud’hommes and other cotton plantation owners were once again able to make a decent living. But times were changing. The sharecropping / tenant farming system of labor was being negatively impacted by the rise of mechanized farming equipment. No longer were large labor forces needed to harvest cotton. By 1959, the last of the sharecroppers at Oakland Plantation had moved away. When Phanor II died in 1948, Phonsie took over the plantation, and it was he who oversaw the modernization of farm.

Phonsie and Lucile’s two sons, Alphonse III and Kenneth, graduated college in the early 1950s and originally moved away, as farming was losing its appeal for the new generation. However, they eventually came back and helped their father with the farming operations while Phonsie managed the store and continued his job as postmaster until he retired in 1962. Alphonse III took over the job for the next four years, then resigned. Like rural areas around the county, people were moving away in droves, which had a big impact on sales at the store and business at the post office. The post office officially closed in July 1967, for rural mail delivery to homes was by then universal throughout the United States. Residents no longer had to travel to the post office to pick up their mail.

Farming rapidly became a losing venture, as did the plantation store. In 1982, Phonsie, who was still working but nearly blind, closed the store. Two years later the Prud’hommes sold their farm equipment and put an end to two centuries of farming.

Alphonse III died of cancer in 1988. Phonsie died at the age of 94 in 1991; Lucile died in 1994. Kenneth had gotten out of the business and moved on, so instead of having Oakland sit empty, the granddaughter of Phonsie and Lucile, Denise Poleman, and her family moved into the Main House. Denise was the daughter of Phonsie and Lucile’s daughter, Vivian Rose. She and her children would be the last two generations of the Prud’homme Family to live at Oakland.

Several years before Denise moved into Oakland, the Prud’hommes had been approached by Bobby Debliex, a member of one of the Natchitoches preservation societies, about selling the plantation to the National Park Service. Oakland was one of the most intact Creole plantations still in existence. The family at first turned down the idea, but realizing that very few family members had any interest in living on the property and spending the money to preserve the buildings, they soon changed their minds. Congress authorized the creation of Cane River Creole National Historical Park in 1994. In 1997 the property was sold to the National Park Service, and the next year the last Prud’homme moved out.

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Last updated on November 30, 2022
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