Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Restoring an Antebellum Wonder.

I’ve heard a good deal about the restoration at Lakeport Plantation over time. Have you? Maybe not. I tend to seek out these sort of things, though, so I can share them with you.

I do recall the place being gifted to Arkansas State University back in 2001 by the Sam Epstein Angel family, and that there was a whole lot of work to be done. Turns out, years of work. I mentally made myself a note that someday I’d go see what the hubbub was about and determine for myself if it was as worthy as so many other of the magnificent homes I’ve visited these past few years.

I went on a Saturday morning with my photographer Grav Weldon to chronicle our visit. We did have to wait a bit -- the approach from US 82 is a paved country road, and farm crews were harvesting corn with machinery and loading said corn into bin wagons on the roadway. It wasn’t an especially long stop, though, and it didn’t take much searching to find the signs leading us to the plantation.

The snappy yellow house with its white trim, blue shutters and green ironwork can be seen peeking up over the fields of cotton around it. If you approach on a clear day you can also see the new US 82 bridge rising at angles in the deeper blue sky to the north. The scene is something very old and something very new, 150 years of separation between them.

Across the small parking lot from the plantation house lies a manufactured building, inside which are housed the staff and many of the items explaining the restoration. We met with two ladies, Sarah and Claudine, who were the only people we saw on staff there that day. They both immediately started giving us information about the house and its history, obviously very passionate about the story they have to share. I like that.

We learned a lot of things about the house. While it originates from 1859, the land it’s on has operated as a plantation since the 1831. It’s passed through a few hands but not all that many, starting with the Johnson family. The patriarch, Joel, left behind a wife and five children in Kentucky to forge his own path in the wilds of Arkansas. When he died in 1846, his son Lycurgus became the estate’s administrator, but it took more than ten years to settle everything out. In the end, the property went to Lycurgus and his wife Lydia and it’s believed that’s when Lakeport Plantation saw its first construction.

The plantation went to Lydia when Lycurgus died in 1876, and was administered under her son Theodore and son-in-law Isaac Washington until just before 1900, when it fell to the youngest surviving son, Victor Johnson. Doctor Johnson kept the plantation working and moving for many years until he uprooted the family and moved to Greenville, MS in 1927. At that point, the property went to the Epsteins, who held onto it until its donation.

There’s a whole lot of history there, and it’s so much better shared by Tom DeBlack from Arkansas Tech University (my alma mater), who probably knows more about that plantation than I know about food. I will defer to his greater knowledge, which is so kindly shared both on the Lakeport Plantation website and in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, a resource with much merit that I encourage you to plunder for its repository of grand information.

But I digress.

Sarah took diligent time in making sure we knew about the efforts to restore Lakeport Plantation to its original grandeur. Unlike so many of the other restored Antebellum and Civil War-era homes I have seen over time, this facility is not packed with reproductions and “what ifs” and items unbefitting a museum-quality structure. She shared with us the painstaking diligence that went into each section of the restoration -- which explains why it took more than five years before the facility was opened to the public. It’s not done yet, by the way. There are so many little projects to complete in the home itself, and a series of buildings that will be constructed for classroom purposes as well.

Anyway… we saw many things, including actual nails from the site, a cross-section of roofing shingles and copper gutters that adorn the house, a replica cast iron piece that was mocked-up to go on the house but which weren’t needed because original era cast iron was discovered. I took particular interest in the 14-color process canvas floor coverings being restored by Becky Witsell. They’re currently housed separately. It’s amazing to see just how vibrant they are today. The floor cloths have taken generations of foot traffic yet somehow Witsell’s been able to bring them back and make them ever more vibrant than they already were.

Sarah also pointed out the magnificent ceiling medallions. At the welcome center there are photos of one of the medallions showing its previous condition, painted a funky gold. On entering the plantation house itself, it was one of the first things I noticed, perfectly restored above us.

The house itself is something to see. The front pathway has been restored with hand-cast bricks, but along the sides you can still see the original brickwork, worn but still marking the way. Up the somewhat steep steps to the porch, and the giant door looms. It’s a painted door, by the way, as are the many mantles inside the house, painted with that particular artistry common then (and now, it seems, looking at DIY programs) of faux finishes resembling wood on the doors and marble on some of the mantlepieces.

The front hall itself surprised me. Having been in many older homes like this, I was expecting a greeting stairwell in a hallway that would open up to rooms on either side. The hall at Lakeport Plantation is wide, as if to invite one in to sit inside. Parlors open up to each side, each with its own fireplace and windows looking out onto the cotton fields. There’s very little in these rooms or the hall; the folks who restored the plantation made what I considered to be a very wise decision, to restore back the plantation to its original era and not to clutter it with anything that wouldn’t have been found in 1859.

One thing that is in the house is an antique and unusual square grand piano in its music room. Built in 1869 by the J. A. Gray Company, it spent 60 years housed in the old Epstein Cotton Gin before being dug out and sent to Bradshaw Piano Service in Conway for restoration. In fact, the piano hasn’t been back long; it was returned to the home June 14th of this year. Though it was pretty much forgotten all those years, the keys survived intact -- in fact, just one of the wooden keys needed a new ivory veneer.

We explored the first floor rooms, including a men’s room that was likely a family parlor for less social settings. Past the rooms connected to the front of the hallway, the doors are shorter and have windows overhead that ratchet out for air flow even when the windows are closed.

We ventured upstairs. Here the rooms weren’t painted. The trim is pink in two of the bedrooms including the master. There’s a small nursery from which you can see a small crypt out the window to the gardens. The crypt itself was restored a few years back as part of the project.

The master bedroom was one of the few rooms that actually contained furniture -- a small vanity with towel rack, a fold out desk/dresser and a magnificent four poster bed that actually had springs in it instead of the rope suspension often seen in its era. I really liked that it wasn’t covered with mattress and linens; I could see the bones of the room, of the house, and could really feel what it was all about.

There’s even one room upstairs that’s still down to its original plaster, imagine that. The creases and such from the plastering process 150 years ago is still there and visible to this day.

We went back downstairs and checked out a few more rooms, including the old store. In this shelf-lined room you can read pencil-scrawled inscriptions that tell you where each item was kept and oftentimes how much it cost. There are a selection of bottles contemporary to the property on display, but for the most part it is bare. There’s one section where rice was kept where you can see what inflation does, with penciled-in prices starting at a nickel and working up from there.

The next room back was the coldest -- the former kitchen, a rarity being attached to the main house as it were. There’s still an old weathered butcher block in the center of the room, and an old pre-manufactured iron stove that’s… well, you just need to go there to get the story. I found it neat and impressive.

Out the back where the kitchen wing lies is a gigantic cistern. Years ago this was used for storing rainwater captured in gutters and piped down from the top of the house. It was very large and very deep. It’s not in use now, though, been filled in with sand. Back in the day this would have been the primary water source (far less contaminated with debris and the like than water from the Big Muddy nearby).

We went through the kitchen and out the back to a small porch. There’s an old dairy that is next on the “let’s explore and discover!” list that is still mostly untouched, and to the right of it what’s called The Smokehouse. That’s a magnificent idea. On the place where the original smokehouse stood another building has been erected, but instead of wood and meat there’s electrical and cooling equipment inside. This, to me, is genius. Rather than cut holes in the house and put in a modern (and obtrusive) climate control system, the system was constructed outside in this building and lines were run underground into the house. The vents run up into the attic and down the many fireplaces into each room, keeping the whole house appropriately chilled or heated and cutting the humidity. Genius!

We entered another room off the back porch. This room is believed to have been Dr. Victor Johnson’s office. It’s sparse but decorated with a bench found in the dairy recently. The plasterwork has been repaired and painted throughout except for one small section intentionally left original under the window. It is without a doubt the coldest room in the house.

The tour of the house all but complete, Sarah took us out to look at the exterior. Grav was taking photos of the ironwork on the porches when she mentioned to me about the bees. Yes, bees. This immediately put Grav on defense -- he hates bees -- but my curiosity was piqued.

Sarah showed us the tree where the bees had been making their home for generations (human generations, at that), a bowed out old cedar to the northeast of the house. There they were, hundreds of bees quietly humming in the afternoon heat. They didn’t bother us and we didn’t bother them.

We knew it was time to go, and were kind of surprised when we found we’d been at the plantation for nearly four hours. Besides, Grav and I had been given an idea whilst we were there, and we wanted to go check it out.

After making our salutations, we headed back over the Greenville bridge and connected in with Highway 1, headed for Old Washington. Sarah had sketched us out a rough map of where we were supposed to go, but I believe we accidentally left it behind because I could not for the life of me find it in my bag.

We’d progressed quite a place, egging each other on to go a little further, the whole “we’ve come this far, why stop now?” argument slowly losing traction. We knew we were in Washington County but there was no indication that we were anywhere near where we needed to be. Finally, our frustration convinced us to pull into a small RV park with a sign advertising “Bait and Thangs.” We weren’t sure what “thangs” were going to be in there (but later found out “thangs” are beverages and Little Debbie snack cakes) but it was a place to turn around.

There was just something, though -- the cypress, maybe, an old bridge… we pulled on through and turned left and drove along the river. And there, not a quarter mile past the RV park, was an old quiet red brick lady staring out cock-eyed over Lake Washington, an old ox-bow off the Mississippi. She’d seen a lot of wear. This, my friends, was Mount Holly Plantation.

We know some about her -- that she was built around 1855, contemporary to Lakeport Plantation, and that she was probably built for Margaret Johnson Erwin, who was Lycurgus Johnson's first cousin. We know that a gentleman bought the property years ago with plans to turn it into a B&B. But what we saw was sad and shocking. Though the exterior brick was mostly fine, many of the windows are missing, the structure is corroded and covered with webs and flora, and it stinks. I mean, it really stinks. We walked by some places where the windows were broken (and one where a door was standing wide open) and could smell the filth. Our guess -- teenagers who’d found some place interesting to hang. A shame.

Grav and I want to find out more about Mount Holly. I think everyone really does. The floor plan seems similar to Lakeport Plantation and out back towards Highway 1 there’s a grand alley of old oaks still standing. It’d be nice to see this plantation taken on as a project like Lakeport and hopefully restored to its beauty.

You can find Lakeport Plantation south of Highway 82. Turn south when you see the sign for The Cowpen and take State Highway 142 two miles south. You’ll see the sign that points to the gravel road on the left; more likely, you’ll see the yellow house from the road and follow your common sense. Check out the website. There are tours Monday through Friday at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., and also Saturdays through the first week of September. Admission is five dollars. It’s a deal. (870) 265-6031.

More interesting Lake Village area stops:
Breakfast: JJ’s Lakeside CafĂ©. If you like a good veggie omelet, give the Bean Boy Omelet a try. Watch out for the jalapenos -- they’re almost as hot as the boiling-hot coffee.
Lunch: Rhoda’s Famous Hot Tamales. Get three, six, or twelve -- heck, take a coffee can full home with you for later. Smooth, meaty, slightly spicy tamales made from beef and chicken and a lot of chicken fat. Won’t do any favors for your waist, but you’re not in Lake Village to diet.
Dinner: The Cowpen. The steaks are highly touted, but we found the best deal on the menu to be the Chip & Dip - large portions of Rotel cheese dip, grilled-onion flavored bean dip and cumin-laced salsa served up with freshly deep fried tortilla chips for just $6.95 and more than you could make a meal on.

And of course, check out the new US 82 Highway Bridge.

* Watch Kat's segment about this article from her August 12th appearance on KARK Today at Noon by following this link. *

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