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    Published 4-16-2020

    When most people think Louisiana plantations, cotton is what comes to mind. However another crop, sugar cane, was a staple. West Baton Rouge Museum tells the story of Louisiana's sugar cane industry. A trip through the museum and its many historical buildings that make up its campus is a tour through time. It gives a glimpse of life back through the years for 300 years from the Antebellum though the struggle for Civil Rights.


    Let's start in front and enter the main building. This was the site of the parish's third courthouse. The marker is on the border of the footings of the old courthouse built in 1882. The museum began as a library placed in the record vault of the courthouse in 1972. Determined locals refused to let the historic building be destroyed. Today, it is a treasure trove of the stories of the people of West Baton Rouge Parish.

    Before you enter, there is an interesting artifact out front. The flagpole base is a gear from the Cinclare Mill built in 1870.


    Inside the main building, there is more than sugar cane history. You review 300 years of life in West Baton Rouge Parish. The front sections of the museum take you to meet the indigenous people and the first explorers. It begins with the people of the Plaquemines Culture around 1200 to 1400 AD. The artifacts and information move on to the various tribes of Choctaw who first encountered European explorers like DeSoto, LaSalle, and Iberville.

    It tells the story of those who came to West Baton Rouge Parish; some willingly, others by force or circumstances beyond their control. The earliest French were the trappers. Latter French settlers arrived. The area passed into Spanish hands at the end of the French and Indian War in 1763.The Spanish awarded land grants to those who would protect the levee on the Mississippi River, clear the land, and plant crops for ten years. Then the land became theirs. Acadians exiled from their homeland in Canada took advantage of that offer to start a new life. Most of the land grants were a narrow portion on the river extending outward from the river.

    The land was alluvial and fertile. Traders brought enslaved people mostly from West Africa to work this land. Under French rule these enslaved people had some tiny protection in the Black Code but it was pretty much unenforceable.

    The exhibits take you through the Civil War years and freedom for the enslaved people and on to the modern times.

    The gallery in the rear shows not only sugar cane manufacture and video but the people and stoies that are part of the museum. It's a great introduction. The video is shown in a room created with tin from one of the last local sugar cane mills, Cinclare. Sugar cane production is a 24 hour production during the season. There are items like timecards from the pre computer age when workers punched an actual card.

    You'll see a 22 foot model of a mechanical sugar mill built in 1904. There is an exhibit called From Field to Factory which tells sugar history through the industrial revolution. Sugar Stories are audio recordings of local residents.

    One interesting exhibit relates to Norbert Rillieux, who invented chemical engineering.  His Multiple Effect Evaporator under Vacuum which he patented in 1846 has been considered by experts to be as revolutionizing to the sugar industry as Eli Whitney’s cotton gin was to the processing of cotton.

    Rillieux was born in New Orleans in 1806, the son of Vincent Rillieux, a French Creole, and Constance Vivant, “a free woman of color.” He was educated in Paris. The problem was Louisiana did not want to recognize a "man of color" so he was not widely recognized although his work was highly prized. Ironically, one of his biggest supporters was Judah P. Benjamin,  a Jewish native of New Orleans who later became the secretary of state of the Confederacy under Jefferson Davis. Rillieux later moved back to Paris

    There are other galleries hosting the changing exhibits from regional art to historic exhibits.

    Aillet House

    Visiting the Aillet House, you step into the home of a middle class Louisiana French Creole family. It was originally the home of Arcadian sugar plantation owner, Jean Dorville Landry.  Later it was in the possession of the Aillet family for over 100 years. This home represents Louisiana’s earliest 1830s French Creole architectural tradition. The owners would have had about 30 slaves.

    The house is furnished as if the family still lived there. The gorgeous bed was made in New Orleans. Much of the furnishing is handmade probably by fine craftsmen who were free people of color. Mosquito netting was an important item. Porches are important in Louisiana because of the hot humid climate. Even the porch had hooks where the netting was fastened.

    Arbroth Store

    This general store reflects life through the years between the two world wars. Built in the 1880s, this plantation store was originally used as a grocery store and post office at Arbroth Plantation before closing in the 1980s. During the era of reconstruction and sharecropping, workers were paid in script that they could only use in the plantation store. It was convenient as the owners of the plantation often owned the store and could set the prices.
    Reed House

    Reed Shotgun House was built by Joe Reed, owner of a small cattle ranch, around 1938 for one of his workers who lived there until about 1945.

    For those not familiar with the style and name, it's a small house about the width of one room with no hall. Since it was popular in Louisiana before the time of indoor bathrooms, you just walked from one room directly to the next. I lived in several as a child before I realized the lack of privacy this created. As indoor plumbing become common, bathrooms were usually built in the rear often a converted porch. The name comes from the fact that the front and rear door were lined up so that if you fired a shotgun with both doors open you would not hit anything in the house.


    The barn is filled with the machinery and tractors used on early plantations. In 1900 there were 16 sugar mills; by 1976 only two remained. Much of this machinery is here.

    Allendale Plantation Cabins

    There's the three Allendale Plantation Cabins that tell the story of the sugar cane workers from slavery through Civil Rights era. Allendale Plantation belonged to Henry Watkins Allen, the last Confederate governor of Louisiana elected in 1863. Allen fled to Mexico in 1865, and died there in 1866.

    The cabins were originally built before the Civil War to house the slaves of Henry Watkins Allen, the last Confederate governor of Louisiana and for whom Port Allen was named.

    Slave Cabin

    The earliest is a slave family cabin built around 1850. The slave cabin had only the barest necessities. Between four to twelve people would have lived in this small space. Bedding was rolled up in the day time to make room for daily activities. Slaves that were brought here were usually skilled to perform the work necessary on a plantation which was actually a small self sufficient town.

    There are oral stories you can hear that were done by the Federal Writers Project during the depression. Former slaves were interviewed about their life as an enslaved person.

    Reconstruction Era Cabin

    The freedman’s family cabin was built around 1870. During Reconstruction workers were still needed. Growing sugar was labor intensive industry and at the time of the Civil War, almost half of the population of Louisiana were slaves.  After the war many found themselves still working on the same plantation doing the tasks they knew but this time at least getting paid or working as a sharecropper.

    Civil Rights Era Cabin

    The Civil Rights Era Cabin is a 20th century Civil Rights field worker’s cabin dated 1960. This one is simple but there is electricity and a radio. There is a video machine telling of various legal issues and what was happening during that time.

    Juke Joint

    One of my favorites is the Juke Joint. It tells the story of how exhausted workers let off steam with music and drink. The Blues had a big history here. Across the river in Baton Rouge they had Blue Laws where all bars closed at midnight on Saturday and you were allowed to get a drink. People crossed the river to West Baton Rouge Parish where things were livelier and bars didn't close down. The Neal family, Ernie K-Doe, and other Louisiana singers are memorialized here.  Henry Gray who passed away recently played his last concert here.

    This isn’t one of those look but don’t touch museums. It's living and has real musicians playing the juke joint periodically. On certain Sundays they have various music festivals like County Music and Cajun Music.

    Cane Grinder

     A mule driven cane grinder and a planting of actual sugar cane sits on the side lot.

    For more info: https://westbatonrougemuseum.org/





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