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Rosedown Plantation

Currently, the main house, historic gardens and 13 historic buildings and 371 remaining acres of Rosedown Plantation are preserved as a state historic site by the Office of State Parks. State Parks staff and volunteers conduct tours and programs to illustrate plantation life in the 1800s.

Rosedown Plantation
Photo Credit - Louisiana Office of State Parks


History
Rosedown Plantation is located in the West Feliciana community of St. Francisville along one of the most historic corridors in South Louisiana.

West Feliciana Parish near St. Francisville is largely agrarian in nature, and defined by its proximity to the Mississippi River, which forms its western boundary. The historic presence of the River created deep soil deposits in relatively flat valleys that became, in the days of the cotton boom, extremely productive and valuable. In addition to the natural flats, creeks draining to the River created some expanses of rugged, heavily treed terrain that became profitable as timberland.

Societies in and around St. Francisville at the time that Rosedown Plantation was assembled and constructed were dominated by European, primarily British, settlers who became cotton planters on an enormous scale. Most of the nineteenth century cotton barons of all nationalities had requested and received their plantations through land grants from the Spanish government, the titles to which remained valid after the establishment of the United States government. The parents of Daniel and Martha (Barrow) Turnbull, the original owners of Rosedown, achieved high social status in West Feliciana through their immense cotton operations, and Daniel Turnbull himself was known before the Civil War as one of the richest men in the nation.

The land that became Rosedown Plantation, named for a play that the Turnbulls saw on their honeymoon, was assembled not by Spanish Land Grant, but in a group of seven purchases made by Daniel Turnbull from the 1820s through the 1840s. At its largest, Rosedown Plantation comprised approximately 3,455 acres, the majority of which was planted in cotton.

Daniel and Martha Turnbull began construction on the main house at Rosedown in 1834, completing it by May the following year for a total cost of $13,109.20. The house was constructed by Wendell Wright as a version of the Carolina Tidewater form (known as an extended I-house) with a neoclassical columned facade and double front galleries. Much of the cypress used in the structure was harvested and processed at the Plantation sawmill. Some timber was shipped upriver to Cincinnati for preparation, then sent back down to Rosedown, and some was purchased in Cincinnati. More unusual materials, such as the fireplace marble and the 70 feet of mahogany used for the main staircase, were shipped from the northern states or from overseas.

After completion, the home was furnished with the finest pieces available, most imported from the North and from Europe, by famous cabinetmakers like Crawford Riddle and Anthony Quervelle of Philadelphia and Prudent Mallard of New Orleans. A surprising amount of the furnishings purchased by the Turnbulls remained with the house during the years after the Civil War and many original pieces are still on display at Rosedown.

The formal gardens at Rosedown were begun around the same time as the house. As early as 1836, there are records showing the purchase of camellias, azaleas, and other plants from William Prince & Sons in New York. The gardens were the province of Martha Turnbull throughout her life. The Turnbull’s honeymoon in Europe was planned as a tour of the great formal gardens of France and Italy, and the knowledge of design and horticulture that Martha Turnbull gleaned on this trip formed the basis for her activities at Rosedown. The gardens grew out from the house over a span of several years, to cover approximately 28 acres. In the 19th century, Rosedown was one of the few privately maintained formal gardens in the United States.

Rosedown, unlike many plantations in the Felicianas, remained in original ownership from its construction until 1956. The Turnbulls lived there in prosperity through the 1850s, staying at Rosedown from planting through the harvest, and spending summers in fashionable "spa" towns like Saratoga. By the 1850s, the Turnbulls had built Rosedown into one of the most extensive and prosperous plantations in the area.
The contribution of slave labor to the construction and upkeep of the plantation, as well as agricultural prosperity and wealth accrued by Daniel Turnbull, was immense. During peak years of cotton production, operation of Rosedown utilized as many as 450 slaves.

After Turnbull’s death in 1861, the family saw a steady decline in a way of life that could no longer be supported nor justified. Rosedown and two other Turnbull plantations were severely affected during the war both by the invasion of Northern troops and by the loss of the slave labor workforce. The Turnbull/Bowman family stayed at Rosedown throughout the war, protecting and farming the property as best they could. Troops stripped the home (and owners) of valuables, food, and supplies while the area was occupied by the Federals.

After the peace at Appomattox, the Turnbull/Bowman (Daniel & Martha's daughter married a Bowman) family leased the land they could no longer farm to sharecroppers, rented some land in exchange for labor, and remained in relative poverty at Rosedown. Martha made pension and war claims repeatedly in the years following the war, trying to get some restitution for the crops destroyed and livestock killed or stolen. Neither Martha nor her daughter Sarah was able to ever get more from the government than Martha’s $8 monthly pension.

Martha Turnbull died in September, 1896, leaving her daughter’s family in sole possession of Rosedown. Sarah’s four unmarried daughters, Corrie, Isabel, Sarah and Nina shared Rosedown as a joint inheritance after her death. The property suffered another blow in the 1920s when a boll weevil infestation destroyed the cotton crop in the Felicianas. The sisters survived and kept Rosedown Plantation largely intact, despite the loss of almost all sources of income. The property gradually decayed and the gardens grew up and around it. The sisters’ sources of income included the sales of yard eggs and of cuttings from their grandmother’s garden.

In the 1930s, the sisters decided to open the house to tourists interested in the remnants of the prosperous cotton culture. Because of the Victorian conventions under which they were raised, they lived entirely on the second floor of the house to avoid awkward meetings with paying guests. The sisters made extraordinary sacrifices to hold on to Rosedown, and when Miss Nina, the last surviving sister, died in 1955, there were no bills or mortgages outstanding on the property.

After Miss Nina’s death, Rosedown passed to her nieces and nephews, who decided to try to sell the old plantation whole. In 1956, Catherine Fondren Underwood, herself an enthusiastic amateur horticulturalist, purchased it and began an eight-year historic restoration of the house and formal gardens. The Underwoods returned Rosedown to function as a working cattle farm and restored the old home to its former grandeur.

The emphasis on restoration rather than renovation was applied to the formal gardens as well, which were reconstructed by Ralph Ellis Gunn using Martha Turnbull’s extensive garden diaries. When possible, the same species and varieties were replanted. When plants in Martha’s inventory were discovered to be no longer available, the staff of gardeners would propagate them from plant stock surviving in the gardens. Through this process, the gardens, as well as the house, were returned to their pre-1860s state.

Rosedown Today
Currently, the main house, historic gardens and 13 historic buildings and 371 remaining acres of Rosedown Plantation are preserved as a state historic site by the Office of State Parks. State Parks staff and volunteers conduct tours and programs to illustrate plantation life in the 1800s.

The site is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and closed only on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day and New Year's Day. Guided tours of the main house are provided on the hour beginning at 10 a.m. and concluding with the final tour of the day at 4 p.m. Admission prices are: $10 for adults (age 18 from 61); $8 for senior citizens (age 62 and over); and $4 for students (age 6 through 17). Children, age 5 and under, will be admitted free.