Apr 26, 2014 11:57 AM by Ellyn Couvillion
VACHERIE, La. (AP) - The thunderstorm that turned the green grounds of Oak Alley into mud the night before the plantation's arts and crafts festival this spring wasn't the main reason the plantation decided to end the 23-year festival.
But it did help the board of the Oak Alley Foundation, a private trust that maintains the plantation, to make up its mind.
"We had been thinking for years about discontinuing the craft show. It's not part of our mission. Our mission is to educate about Oak Alley," said Debra Mayhew, marketing director for the foundation.
"After what happened at our last craft show, we thought, 'You know, it's time. Mother Nature can do this at any time,'" she said of the recent collision of torrential rains with Oak Alley's spring event on March 29-30.
"It's still hard, still very hard," she said of the foundation giving up the well-known arts and crafts event that was held in the spring and fall.
"Through the years, we've made a lot of friends with our vendors. We feel like we're letting them down and visitors (to the festival), too," Mayhew said.
In early April, the foundation board sent letters to the more than 170 vendors across the country who participated in the craft shows, advising them the event was being canceled.
Ending the biannual arts and crafts festival is a financial sacrifice for Oak Alley. Together, the festivals brought in $65,000 to $70,000 annually, Mayhew said.
The foundation, though, with a new master plan developed this year, believes it will be able to focus on new historical exhibits and features for Oak Alley that will make it an even more attractive tourist destination, she said.
Oak Alley is located on La. 18, across from the Mississippi levee, in Vacherie in St. James Parish, at a point midway between New Orleans and Baton Rouge.
A National Historic Landmark, the plantation, which was opened to the public in 1976, is best known for the double row of giant live oak trees forming the oak alley leading up to the house.
Mayhew's husband, Zeb Mayhew Jr., executive director of the Oak Alley Foundation, is a great-nephew of the last owner of Oak Alley, Josephine Stewart. Stewart created the foundation in her will to manage preservation of the plantation home and more than 20 acres around it.
Oak Alley has always relied on its visitors fees to fund its maintenance and improvements, Laura Mayhew said.
Nine years after Hurricane Katrina brought tourism to the Gulf Coast almost to a halt, the number of visitors to Oak Alley is climbing back up to its pre-Katrina level of about 800 visitors per day, she said.
Last year, there were approximately 213,000 visitors, and so far this year, numbers have been up each month when compared to the same month last year, Mayhew said.
To help with funding in the leaner years, the foundation also raised the entrance fee in phases over the past several years to $20, in part because of new exhibits at Oak Alley.
The newest exhibit, which opened in July, is called "Slavery at Oak Alley" and tells the grim story of the lives of the slaves at the plantation.
Oak Alley historian Vince Yardas and curator of collections Laura Kilcer turned to primary documents, first-hand accounts, many found in the New Orleans Notarial Archives Research Center, and the St. James Parish courthouse, to create authentic replicas of the typical quarters where slaves would have lived and to provide the facts about their difficult lives, Kilcer said.
"There was a hole in our story. Our narrative was incomplete," Kilcer said of the history of the slaves at Oak Alley.
"Oak Alley is a place that immerses visitors in all aspects of its history - it's a place of both beautiful and painful memories," Kilcer said.
For the plantation to give up the labor-intensive crafts festival and "be able to dedicate more time in sharing its history is exciting" she said.
The Oak Alley Plantation Arts and Crafts Festival began 23 years ago. For most of that time, it was offered only in the spring. Then, after Katrina, the foundation began offering a second arts and crafts festival in the fall, around Halloween, that was becoming the more popular of the two, Mayhew said.
Each festival, with a $5 attendance fee, was held over a Saturday and Sunday and attracted more than 10,000 people.
This year, the Arts and Crafts Festival, held in March, turned out to be Oak Alley's last one. But it happened to be an especially memorable one.
For the first time in the history of the festival, heavy rain that fell on the Friday night before the event swamped the grounds. Most vendors had their tents in place before the worst of the storm, Mayhew said.
The next day, employees spread mulch of tree bark on the grass walkways between the rows of vendors to try to help visitors navigating the festival.
The fields where people usually parked were unusable, and the plantation relied on the drivers of 15 school buses to ferry people from a road behind the plantation back and forth from the festival, Mayhew said.
But still people came.
"We actually had over 10,000 visitors," she said.
Mayhew said each of the festivals took at least three months of preparation - time and manpower that can now be turned to other uses.
St. James Parish Council member James Brazan recently asked the parish's economic development office to look into the possibility of continuing the tradition of an arts and crafts festival in the parish at another location.
"It's just sad to see it go, because it brought so many people to the community," Brazan said.
The projects in Oak Alley's master plan include bringing back a flower garden that once bloomed near the plantation home; rebuilding two garÃ§onniÃªres, traditionally homes for the sons of the family, which were once on the grounds; and building a visitor center with its own exhibits.
This year is the 175th anniversary of Oak Alley, and it's expecting to see its 5 millionth visitor sometime in September or October, Mayhew said.
The plantation will know who that person is when that ticket is sold and plans to raise a little hoopla for the occasion, she said.
"In the master plan, we're trying to stay historic to the original 24 acres. We're trying not to have anything here that wouldn't have been here in the 1800s," Mayhew said.
And, as satisfying as it might have been, she said, that would include an arts and crafts festival.