Oakley Plantation History
by Elizabeth Dart


On that June day in 1821 when John James Audubon walked from the Bayou Sara Landing, he approached Oakley just as Audubon Pilgrimage visitors do today and the house he saw was much the same as the one you are seeing.

In 1821, Oakley was at its finest. It was built by James and Lucy Pirrie on a Spanish Land Grant Lucy inherited from her first husband. James Pirrie was a Scots millwright who could very well have designed and built this remarkable structure.

The design came from the Caribbean or from coastal North Carolina where Pirrie might have traveled before coming here. It is a house like no other.

The Pirries brought Audubon here to teach their daughter Eliza the social graces a young lady of her time and station required, leaving his afternoons free to roam the woodlands for the birds he would paint. Eliza at the time was almost 16 years old; a few years later she would disappoint her parents by eloping with a young man they disapproved of. He caught a cold and died six weeks after their marriage. Their son, named Robert Hilliard Barrow for his father, later owned Rosale. Eliza's cousin Lewis Stirling built Wakefield. Eliza's second husband was the first rector of Grace Church. In this small cotton kingdom, few things ran unmingled! Eliza married a third time, and died of childbed fever in 1851. Her daughter, Isabelle Bowman, wanted nothing more than to live at Oakley with her own family, but during the Civil War, while her husband was off fighting for the confederacy, she was forced by the times to return to New Orleans. Though the Matthews' family returned to Oakley, they could not stay its slow descent into virtual ruin. In 1946, it was purchased by the State of Louisiana and returned, as much as possible, to the house known.

House Description

In 1821, the use the small room now used as an entry and display area is puzzling. The supposition is that it was the breakfast room because of the warming oven built into the wall and the fact that the fireplace was once much larger.

The only firm fact is that the Pirries had a "breakfast table". Breakfast in those days was not a communal meal; people arose early or late depending on their duties about the plantation. A house servant kept food warm, and served it as needed.

The dining room was furnished by the DAR in Federal style the Pirries fancied. Bountiful meals were served both to those who lived here and to a constant parade of visitors. Most of the food came from the plantation, and long before Oakley was built, a visitor said that Pirrie had the finest garden he had seen in his travels. When Audubon was here, Pirrie employed an Indian hunter to supplement with wild game the usual plantation fare of pork bought from the flatboats tied up at the Landing. Fine wines and good whiskey came from New Orleans. While Oakley was being built, Lucy Pirrie ordered fiddle back silver tablespoons to be sent up as well. King Cotton saw that his retainers lived well.

The little cabinet room off the second floor loggia is called Audubon's room, but we are not certain he and his pupil-assistant Joseph mason would have been given such choice quarters. As a person Audubon was difficult. He could be charming, but he was thin-skinned and quick to take offense. He had failed in business and his wife Lucy Bakewell had been forced to take over the financial care of the family by teaching. Still, this remarkable woman believed in her husband and in his dream of painting all the birds in America. Here at Oakley, Audubon perfected his art, but not his nature. He quarreled with Mrs. Pirrie and was dismissed. His writing, therefore, about Oakley and its folk, reflect his hurt pride.

The Pirries called this room "the Hall Room"rather than parlor. They meant "hall" as in "meeting hall" because in this room all the social activities of the family took place.

Here Audubon taught Eliza to play the pianoforte, and because the furniture was kept against the walls and pulled out only when needed, there was enough space to teach her the intricate steps of quadrilles and other stately dances of the time.

Potraits are of Eliza as she was when Audubon's pupil; Lucy Pirrie painted by Jouett about the same time; and Mary Ann Gray, Eliza's half-sister. Mary Ann, her husband Jedediah Smith and their two young daughters were living at Oakley in 1821. Audubon noted in his Journal that also in the house at the time was an English born seamstress and Miss Throgmorton, who was either a governess or a guest. A busy "HALL".

The Pirries used this room (Library)when the noisy conviviality of the Hall called for a quiet retreat. They called it "the Parlor" which meant it was a place where a quiet conversation could be had.

Into this room James Pirrie could retire with the Governor of Louisiana, who visited here while Audubon was in residence, and where he could go over his affairs with John Clay, who was his factor, or man of business, in New Orleans.

Fittingly, James Pirrie's portrait, also attributed to Jouitt, presides over the mantle.

Morning Room This small room was Lucy Pirrie's domain. Here, in the wall safe, she kept her medicines for her ailing slaves, who came up from the quarter for treatment.

The duties of plantation mistresses were many and unending. She must order meals, parcel out food for slaves and see that it was cooked, see that the 12 spinning wheels and two looms were kept working making clothes for the slaves, and run a house that was kept working making clothes for the slaves, and run a house that was always full of hungry people. Everything had to be under lock and key; she wore a heavy ring of keys at all times.

Her granddaughters used to laugh and say that when Grandma died, if you jangled her keys she would come back to life. The portraits are of Robert H. Barrow, Jr.., and William Robert Bowman and Eliza as a sadder and wiser woman.

Third Floor Landing Throughout a tour of Oakley, much is said of visitors and the more-or-less permanent residents.

When Audubon was here, there were 11 people to bed down. Where did they sleep? The Pirries had six beds, one couch, and one mattress tick. There were five rooms which could be used for sleeping. There could not have been much privacy.

It is doubtful that anyone had a room to himself, much less a bed. Privacy, in 1821, was not at issue.

Master BedroomThis room had in it two bedsteads with carved posts. The other beds throughout the third floor were plainer and easily carried to different locations.

Oakley has few of its original furnishings, but one armoire is one. It was found a few years back in the barn, and was beautifully restored with a gift to Oakley from Eliza Pirrie's great-great-granddaughter.

The closets are original; one contains a tiny set of stairs to the attic.

Smaller BedroomWe fancy that Mary Ann and Jed Smith had this bedroom, probably with trundle beds for their daughters Sarah and Kate.

Eliza died in this other small bedroom; it might have always been hers, but we doubt if she had it to herself.

The louvered Gallery is climate control Caribbean style.

The louvers let in air and keep out sun; the cove ceiling forces the breeze up and then down.

In hot weather, the entire family slept out here, the beds swathed in mosquito netting and the chamber pot at the ready.

Oakley Plantation is owned by the State of Louisiana and is open to tours.

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