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  • Ellen Byron

Those "Ghosts Along the Mississippi..."

My mother, an Italian immigrant, was in love with historic American architecture, and she shared her passion with all of us. We spent family vacations touring sites like Williamsburg and Sturbridge Village. Our library was full of books about everything from 17th century New England saltbox-style homes to 20th century New York City apartment buildings. But there was one book in particular that completely captivated me: her worn copy of Ghosts Along the Mississippi: The Magic of the Old Houses of Louisiana, by Clarence John Laughlin.

In Ghosts Along the Mississippi, McLaughlin uses surrealistic photography and flowery descriptions to catalog, circa 1948, the deteriorating state of Louisiana’s River Road plantation architecture. Because of this book, I developed an obsession with once-grand homes that had either faded or been downright abandoned. When my parents visited me at Tulane University – no accident I ended up there! – we wandered through Plantation and Cajun Country seeking out these relics, as well as restored plantations that offered a vision, both positive and negative, of the past. Post-graduation, I often returned to the area and photographed various buildings that intrigued me.

Historians ask the question, who once lived here? I find myself asking, who lives there now? For example, this manor house with the peeling paint behind the trees - is it still owned by a once-mighty family, or is it now the disintegrating location of some “True Detective”- type psychopath?

If a place is abandoned, I always wonder why. Was this now-forsaken wooden abode once a slave cabin, or did a Cajun family call it home? And what’s the story behind the last person who lived here? Why did they simply walk away and leave the house to be claimed by the elements?

Or this once-stately plantation home now in ruins – what caused the fire that destroyed it? Who lived there then and who owns it now? I took this picture years ago and wonder, was the house ever restored or just laid to waste?

Sometimes I get answers to my questions, but most often I don’t. The abandoned homes can’t tell me their tales. The private homes might not welcome the queries of a nosy writer. And when writers don’t get answers to our questions, we often make up our own… which is how I came to create both the histories and current stories behind the two plantation homes in my book, Plantation Shudders: A Cajun Country Mystery.

I’m curious – is there some present-day historical location in your world that fascinates you? And if you’re from Louisiana and can help me identify the homes in the photos I’ve attached, I would love that!

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