By Lowell & Kaye Christie, F47246
Those of us who grew up reading Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind may be saddened to learn that the beloved plantation “Tara,” like Ashley Wilkes and Scarlett O’Hara, was a product of Mitchell’s imagination. Luckily, other historic plantations do exist, and some invite the public to tour the house and/or grounds. We’ll begin with four located in Charles City County, Virginia.
1. Sherwood Forest Plantation National Historic Landmark, Charles City, Virginia
Sherwood Forest has the distinction of being the only private residence in the country to have been owned by two U.S. presidents. William Henry Harrison inherited the plantation but never lived there. He died in 1841, only 30 days into his term as president. His successor, Vice President John Tyler, purchased the plantation and lived there after leaving the White House. The mansion is huge, more than 300 feet long. It’s also notable for the long, skinny ballroom Tyler added that made it possible for him and his guests to dance the Virginia Reel. Now owned by Tyler’s grandson, the house is open for tours.
2. Westover Plantation National Historic Landmark, Charles City, Virginia
Located on the north bank of the James River, Westover was built in the mid-18th century by William Byrd III, whose father is credited as being the founder of Richmond. The house isn’t open to the public, but the surrounding grounds and garden are. Just viewing the overall structure of the house keeps visitors coming. Its steeply pitched roof is flanked by tall chimneys. And two-story wings on both sides of the house seem to go on forever. Another visual highlight is the elaborate doorway, still copied and called the “Westover doorway.”
3. Shirley Plantation National Historic Landmark, Charles City, Virginia
Herein lies the story of 11 generations of one family who, even today, continue to own and operate the plantation. The estate was established soon after the settlement of Jamestown, but construction of the current mansion didn’t start until 1723. By 1738, the main building was finished. Guided tours highlight original family furnishings, portraits, silver, and hand-carved woodwork, as well as the stories of the Hill-Carter family, eyewitnesses to centuries of American history. Included on the self-guided grounds tour are formal gardens and several Colonial outbuildings.
4. Evelynton Plantation, Charles City, Virginia
This site has been home to the Ruffin family since 1847. The family patriarch, Edmund Ruffin, fired the first shot of the Civil War at Fort Sumter. As the site of later Civil War skirmishes, the original house and out-buildings were burned. The current residence was erected two generations later, and dates to the 1930s. The 2,500-acre farm is still family-owned and operated. The house, grounds, and gardens are open for guided tours.
5. Poplar Grove Plantation, Wilmington, North Carolina
Poplar Grove preserves the homestead of a successful farming family, and the outbuildings and crafts are typical of an 1800s-era working community. You’ll tour the big house and tenant farmer’s cabin. You’ll also want to visit the craft shops, as well as learn about basket making and weaving. At the blacksmith’s shop you’ll find out why ordinary nails were so precious.
6. Archibald Smith Plantation, Roswell, Georgia
This plantation was once the home of one of the town’s founding fathers. The structure withstood Civil War battles fought nearly on its doorstep, plus the transformation of the village of Roswell into a metropolitan suburb. Several generations of the Archibald Smith family preserved their belongings there, whether broken or whole, for future generations to ponder. Smith Plantation is now owned by the City of Roswell and is located in Historic Roswell adjacent to the Roswell Municipal complex.
7. Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation Historic Site, Brunswick, Georgia
This plantation offers glimpses of pre-Civil War life, both structurally and through the traditions of many generations of the Dent family. In 1973 the plantation was given to the state for preservation. The museum features silver from the family collection, as well as a scale model of Hofwyl-Broadfield. The guided tour allows visitors to see the home, family heirlooms, and 18th- and 19th-century furniture. A nature trail allows you to stroll from the mansion to the visitors center.
8. Destrehan Plantation, Destrehan, Louisiana
The oldest remaining plantation in the lower Mississippi River Valley, Destrehan is only a short drive from New Orleans. Even back in 1787 builders knew how to build structures able to weather hurricanes. (Fortunately, Destrehan wasn’t damaged by Hurricane Katrina.) On the tour, costumed interpreters relate stories about the Destrehan family and describe architectural features of the plantation. Tours are available daily, except on major holidays.
9. Magnolia Mound Plantation, Baton Rouge Lousiana
Magnolia is a rare example of Creole architecture. The mansion is unusual for its age, restoration, collections, and also because it remains an active part of the community. Magnolia Mound’s furnishings include decorative arts, locally made furniture, and pieces brought over from France. Structures on the tour include the Historic House Museum, Open-Hearth Kitchen, Overseer’s House, Quarter House, and much more.
10. Nottoway Plantation, White Castle, Louisiana
Amid a number of sugarcane fields, Nottoway Plantation overlooks the Mississippi River. It’s certainly one of the largest antebellum plantation houses in the South, with 64 rooms, six interior staircases, and five galleries. Completed in 1859, it features a combination of Greek Revival and Italianate architecture, plus modern innovations such as indoor plumbing and hot and cold running water. The mansion is open daily for guided tours, and also for dinners.
11. Oak Alley Plantation National Historic Landmark, Vacherie, Louisiana
Oak Alley lies along the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. To get there, you’ll drive through a mini-forest of oak trees to a Greek Revival-style home, built by a French Creole sugar planter from New Orleans. Currently Oak Alley offers guided tours, along with bed-and-breakfast accommodations and a Cajun/Creole restaurant.
12. Myrtles Plantation, Francisville, Louisiana
Myrtles Plantation harbors art, history, and a few ghost stories within its 200-year-old walls. On the outside, a 120-foot veranda circles the structure. Inside are Aubusson tapestries, Baccarat crystal chandeliers, and fine antiques. Guided tours include the history, architectural significance, and stories of ghostly mystery.
13. Plantations of Natchez, Mississippi
Finally, a tour of Southern plantations would be incomplete without stopping in Natchez. Many mansions are open year-round, or during the famous Natchez Pilgrimages held three times a year. Among the most famous are Stanton Hall, a stately 1857 structure with double porticoes atop massive white columns, and Longwood, the largest octagonal house in the United States. Check locally for details about tours and hours of operation at the mansions.