Wednesday, November 5, 2008

17,000 Documents in the Attic

The Shadows-on-the-Teche, an antebellum historic house museum property of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, was almost demolished for a parking lot.

Sugarcane planter David Weeks started building the home in 1831 but died before the home was completed. After he died, it was his wife Mary who managed the sugar plantation and its 200+ slaves, located nine hours away and The Shadows' 138 acres that provided the firewood and the year's food for the family and slaves in both locations.

Mary kept meticulous records and saved all invoices and receipts; she even asked people to return letters she sent to them, so historians have all these records.

At one point she had to contend with an overseer whom she wantd to fire. Though a strong person, she had to have her brother come up from New Orleans to fire him, because he " would not be fired by a woman."

However, when Union troops advanced to New Iberia, Gen. Franklin had so much respect for this strong-willed woman that she was allowed to live on the second floor while the troops occupied the first floor. She died at The Shadows in 1863, and the Union troops buried her in the family cemetery on the grounds. When the troops left, they did not burn The Shadows out of respect for Mary.

In 1919, David's great-grandson William Weeks Hall purchased his sister's half for $7500 to save it from demolition. In 1922, he returned from his European art studies and undertook the daunting restoration project. Fortunately, David's wife Mary and other family members were "savers." In the home, some 17,000 invoices, receipts, and letters revealed much about the family and their business.

We have visited other Southern plantations that were more ostentatious than The Shadows, but we have felt a real connection to this plantation home. The feeling is hard to explain, but it seemed as though real people lived in this home, not just entertained in a showpiece.

William also developed the gardens into what some of his guests called his "greatest masterpiece." Guests included numerous artists, writers, and filmakers, such as, Henry Miller, Lyle Saxon, Cecil B. DeMille, Emily Post, D.W. Griffith, and Walt Disney.

This home next door bears a lot of similarity to The Shadows. Until just recently, a distant relative of the original owner of The Shadows lived there. She died at age 101.

William Weeks Hall spent the last years of his life working to find an organization to preserve the Shadows as an historic house museum, and on June 27, 1958, the National Trust for Historic Preservation accepted The Shadows as an historic site. William died the next day.

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