If your image of plantations comes strictly from repeated viewings of Gone With the Wind, you may well be disappointed when you go plantation hopping. That particular Tara was a Hollywood creation. That said, you can get reasonably close visiting this picturesque area; imagine life as it was when these were working plantations -- for better and worse.

Plantation houses, at least the existing ones that you can tour, are mostly humble in scale (they got grander after 1850, which most of these predate). The Creole style tends to be a low-slung, simple affair; the showier American style is closer to classic antebellum grandeur. Nevertheless, they're smaller than you might think, even cramped compared with the lavish mansions of turn-of-the-20th-century oil barons and today's nouveau riche. If your fantasies would be dashed without pillars and porticos, stick to Destrehan, San Francisco, Oak Alley, and Madewood. 

The early planters of Louisiana were rugged frontier people. As they spread out along the Mississippi from New Orleans, they energetically cleared vast swamplands, to create unhindered waterways for transporting indigo and other cash crops. Rough flatboats moving produce to market could be capsized by rapids, snags, sandbars, and floating debris, or captured by river pirates. If they made it to New Orleans, these farming men (and a few extraordinary women) collected their pay and then went on wild drinking, gambling, and brawling sprees -- earning them a reputation as barbarians among the French Quarter Creoles.

By the 1800s, Louisiana planters (and their slaves) had introduced large-scale farming, and brought more and more acres under cultivation. King cotton, rice, and sugar cane arrived on the scene around this time, bringing huge monetary returns. But natural dangers, a hurricane or swift change in the capricious Mississippi's course, could wipe out entire plantations and fortunes with little warning.

The Riverboats -- After 1812, the planters turned to speedier and safer new steamboats to transport their crops to the market. When the first steamboat (the New Orleans, built in Pittsburgh) chugged downriver belching sooty smoke, it was so dirty, dangerous, and potentially explosive that it was dubbed a "floating volcano."

Over a 30-year period, however, vast improvements were made, and the steamboats came to be viewed as veritable floating pleasure palaces. Moving goods to market may have (literally) floated the boat, but the lavish staterooms and ornate "grand salons" put a whole new face on river travel. Family and slaves could now take the trip in comfort, set up dual residences, and spend the social season and winters in elegant New Orleans town houses. Also, it became possible to ship fine furnishings upriver to plantation homes, creating a more elegant lifestyle amid the fields.

The riverboats had a darker side, however. The boats were the realm of some cunning and colorful characters: the riverboat gambler and "confidence" (or "con") man. Huge fortunes were won from, and lost to, these silver-tongued professional gamers and crooks, and no doubt a few deeds to plantations changed hands at the table on a river steamboat.

Building the Plantation Houses -- During this period of prosperity, from the 1820s until the beginning of the Civil War, most of the impressive plantation homes were built, as were many grand town houses in cities like New Orleans and Natchez.

The plantation home was the focal point of a self-sustaining community and generally was located near the riverfront; most were modest, but some had wide, oak-lined avenues leading from its entrance to a wharf. On either side of the avenue would frequently be garçonnières (small houses, sometimes used to give adolescent sons and their friends privacy or as guesthouses). The kitchen was often behind the main house, separated from the house because of fire danger; close by was the overseer's office. Some plantations had pigeon houses or dovecotes -- and all had the inevitable slave quarters, in twin lines along the lane to the crops or across the fields and out of sight. The first houses were simple "raised cottages," with long, sloping roofs; cement-covered brick walls on the ground floor; and wood-and-brick (brick between posts) construction in the living quarters on the second floor. Influenced by West Indian styles, these colonial structures suited the sultry Louisiana climate and swampy building sites and made use of native materials.

In the 1820s, homes that combined traces of the West Indian style with some Greek Revival and Georgian influences -- a style that has been dubbed Louisiana Classic -- began to appear. Large, rounded columns and wide galleries usually surrounded the main body of the house, and the roof was dormered. Inside, two rooms flanked a wide central hall. They had few imported interior details like fireplace mantels, and they were constructed of native materials, such as local cypress and bricks of river clay, sealed with cement.

Grand & Grander -- By the 1850s, many planters were quite prosperous, and their homes became more grandiose and much larger -- some with 30 to 40 rooms. Many embraced extravagant Victorian architecture and gave it a unique Louisiana flavor; others borrowed features from northern Italian villas, and some followed Gothic lines (notably the fantastic San Francisco plantation, sometimes called "steamboat Gothic"). Planters and their families traveled to Europe during this period, and brought back ornate furnishings and skilled artisans (until Louisiana artisans such as Mallard and Seignouret developed skills that rivaled the Europeans). Glittering crystal chandeliers and faux marbre (false marble) mantels appeared.

Families and social life grew -- and so did houses and egos. The Madewood house on Bayou Lafourche was built for no other reason than to outshine Woodlawn, the beautiful home of the builder's brother (unfortunately, not open to the public).

The planters' enormous wealth stemmed from an economy based on human servitude. The injustice and frequent cruelty of slavery, however, were the seeds of its own demise. After the Civil War, emancipation had an inestimable effect on Southern plantations. Farming became impossible without that large, cheap labor base. During Reconstruction, lands were often confiscated and turned over intact to people who later proved unable to run the large-scale operations; many were broken up into smaller, more manageable farms. Increasing international competition began to erode the cotton and sugar markets. The culture represented by the few houses that remain today emerged and died away in a span of less than 100 years.

The Plantation Houses Today -- Where dozens of grand homes once dotted the landscape along and around the river, relatively few remain. Several that survived the Civil War fell victim to fires, floods, or industrial development. Others, too costly to be maintained, have been left to the ravages of dampness and decay. A few, however, have been saved, preserved, and upgraded with plumbing and electricity. Most of the old houses are private residences, but some are open to visitors, the admission fees supplementing upkeep.

Tours of plantations are a hit-or-miss affair -- much depends on your guide. If you visit several, you'll begin to hear many of the same facts about plantation life after a while, sometimes as infill for missing or boring history.