Down Among The Sugar Cane
The Story of Louisiana Sugar Plantations and Their Railroads
Longwood Plantation is located along the Mississippi River at Burtville, Louisiana, nine miles south of Baton Rouge, in East Baton Rouge Parish.
The history of the land that now comprises Longwood Plantation dates back to 1785 when Zacaria Norden received a land grant from the Spanish government. Spain was in control of this area then known as Spanish West Florida.
Between the years 1794 and 1804, a widow, Madame Marianne Decoux, purchased several pieces of property, including that of Norden, and brought them together in what was to become Longwood Plantation. An article in the Baton Rouge Sunday Advocate relates the following story about Madame Decoux choosing a name for the plantation:
Legend says from the long, tall cypress woods that grew near the house, which she, with a fine eye for business, sold the King of Spain, as timber for the spars in the ships of His Majesty’s Fleet. It is equally possible that the name Longwood resulted from loyalty to Napoleon. Napoleon was banished to “Longwood.” The occupants of Louisiana were strong supporters of Napoleon and Madame Decoux, being of French descent, may have selected this name for her plantation in honor of Napoleon.
Madame Decoux, apparently a woman of some ability, saw the wealth other land owners were realizing from this amazing group, sugar cane, and cleared the land to plant it in cane and build a mill. She, too, became a prosperous sugar producer. At her death, her heirs sold the buildings to Joseph Erwin, who had previously established the famous St. Louis Plantation across the river in Iberville Parish.
Longwood Plantation changed hands a number of times, usually at the death of the owner. In 1892, Sabin J. Gianelloni, Sr., began the present holdings by purchasing one-fourth interest in the property. The Gianelloni families were originally from the Island of Corsica where, for centuries, they had been winemakers. Young Gianelloni came to Plaquemine, Louisiana, where he entered business. A man with an inexhaustible supply of energy, fired with ambition, he soon accumulated enough money to purchase this interest in Longwood.
Sabin J. Gianelloni, Sr., married Julie Lefebvre, daughter of Emile Lefebvre, owner of the other three-fourths of the property. Emile Lefebvre died on December 9, 1900. In 1902, Sabin and Julie, pooling his quarter interest with her part of the inheritance of Longwood, bought the remainder of the property from the other heirs and became the sole owners of the 5,500-acre plantation. The ownership of this property has remained with the Gianelloni heirs since that time.
The senior Gianelloni rebuilt the sugar mill, though not as large as many others in the Sugar Belt, grinding 500 tons of cane each twenty-four hours, it was streamlined for efficiency. By applying his talents and competence, Gianelloni soon became a prosperous sugar producer. Gianelloni had three sons, Vivian, Lefebvre, and Sabin, Jr. As each matured, they joined their father in the operation of the plantation and sugar factory until 1925, when mosaic disease practically wiped out the cane fields of Louisiana, and Longwood ceased the cultivation of cane and manufacture of sugar. Sabin Gianelloni, Sr., died in 1934.
The factory resumed operation in 1937 under the management of Sabin Gianelloni, Jr. Gilmore in his Louisiana Sugar Manual of 1938 had this to say about the mill reopening: “This factory resumed operations in 1937, producing syrup only. He developed a new combined open-kettle vacuum process late in 1938 crop which received wide recognition and acceptance.”
Gianelloni, Jr., was a man of many abilities. During the years the mill was idle, he experimented from time to time in making the best syrup that could be produced. Before reopening the mill, he had developed a formula that was near a point of perfection. When the mill became active again, all of the cane ground was brought from outside growers, about seventy-five in number. In the late 1940s, the growers began planting new varieties of cane. Gianelloni was a perfectionist. When he found that these canes would not produce the type of syrup for which he was noted, he again discontinued the operation and disposed of the mill. This occurred in 1952.
The Longwood Plantation Manor House, fronting on the Mississippi River, was built some time after 1803 by Madame Marianne Decoux from cypress lumber cut from the plantation. The original two-story house consisted of four large rooms and two baths, the latter a most unusual feature for the period. Through the years, the house has been remodeled a number of times. One change is the addition of large wings and an outside stairway. After acquiring the property, the senior Gianelloni’s lived there with their three sons and two daughters until the children were grown or resided elsewhere. With the parents’ death, the home remained in the hands of their daughter, Addie Gianelloni Edmonds. The beautifully maintained and restored mansion with family heirlooms was bequeathed to her step-daughter Alma Edmonds Fritchie, who occupies it with her husband and sons.*
*It was later learned that the Longwood Plantation mansion and surrounding 12 acres abutting the mansion was originally offered to Winnifred Gianelloni, the wife of one of the sons, Giles Sabin Gianelloni as her choice preference. However, as Winnifred and Giles had just completed building their new residence in Havana, Cuba – where they resided with their two daughters, Marcelle Tarilton Gianelloni and Mary Ellen Gianelloni, and Giles was in business in Cuba – she graciously declined the offer.
Mrs. Fritchie owns a loving tribute, assembled by her lawyer husband, to her appreciation of the legacy. A quarto volume, handsomely bound in leather with gold tooling, contains enlarged facsimiles of all land transfers and deeds available in records of the State of Louisiana concerning Longwood, dating back to 1785; some are in English, some in Spanish, and others in French, with translations,
Although a setback of the levee in 1928 took part of the frontage, it still remains, according to the Sunday Advocate … “a spacious as well as a stately plantation home taking its place in the ‘grand parade’ of mansions stringing along both sides of the River Road to New Orleans.” It also stated that there are eight bedrooms and deep galleries, both upper and lower. Two spacious hallways, a living room and a dining room, a quaint upstairs sitting room, library, wine cellar and the original floor-to-ceiling windows of many panes are outstanding features. The carefully tended grounds, with a shady, winding driveway leading up to the house, give special attention to plantings appropriate for the estate. Included is a circular brick walk surrounding a sugar kettle fountain.
Most Louisiana plantations boast to having one lovely antebellum home, but Longwood Plantation has two. Shortly after reactivating the factory in 1937, Sabin Gianelloni, Jr., started planning a home he wished to build on the plantation. Of the 5,500 acres of land on Longwood to choose for a location for the building, his choice was a spot about fifty yards from the mill where an old brick building, formerly part of the old sugar house stood.
In a statement taken from a tape made by Sabin, Jr., he said that there was a large, two-story building, 24’ x 72’, built by Madame Marianne Decoux about 1820. It was used as a curing house before centrifugals came into use to spin molasses out of sugar. At that time new sugar was formed into cones and placed on racks in the curing house. As the molasses dripped from the cones, it fell into troughs which led to vats where it was collected. The curing room was equipped to handle 10,000 cones for each drying period.
About the old sugar house, Gianelloni said: “I always had a fascination for that old building with its huge barn-like doors and immense hand-forged iron hinges with a hasp so large we had to buy a jail-type lock to keep it closed. You could go in there on the hottest day and it was always cool and had a pleasant smell. I decided to incorporate parts of this building into my new home”.
The old building had 12’ x 12’ cypress beams thirty-two feet long that had been whip-sawed by hand and there were as solid as the day they were placed there more than a century before. Other cypress lumber came from old slave houses on the plantation, building about 1825. Slate for one side of the roof came from an old turn-of-the century Louisiana Railway and Navigation Railroad Station at Baton Rouge. Those for the other side came from an 1810 building on Tchoupitoulas Street in New Orleans that was being demolished. The floor of the upper part of the curing house was removed, leaving a one-story section with a vaulted ceiling, which was incorporated into the living room. The bricks recovered were used in the floor and interior walls. A wing of the building was kept two-story.
The house, begun in 1939, was three years in building. Labor used in its construction came from the plantation workers when they could be spared from their tasks of cultivating, harvesting, and operating the factory.
No one but S.J. Gianelloni, Jr. would have envisioned the product that would result from this adaptive restoration, completed in 1942. If a magic wand had been waved, it would not be more unique, imaginative or beautiful. The exquisitely landscaped grounds with cypress, pecans, and oak trees, large clumps of banana plants, and a beautiful pond with tropical plants gave the place a tree feeling of serenity.
Sabin J. Gianelloni, Jr., died October 18, 1977. In accordance with his expressed wishes, his ashes were scattered over the grounds of Longwood Plantation, the homeplace he loved so much.
The petite and lovely Elizabeth Gianelloni, wife of Sabin, Jr., continues to live and preside over this charming place of beauty.
The railroad came to Longwood when, on June 13, 1910, Sabin Gianelloni, Sr., ordered a 12-one 0-4-4T 36-inch gauge locomotive from the Davenport Locomotive Works for $2,500. The engine was delivered over the Yazoo and Mississippi Valley Railroad to Longwood Switch, Burtville, Louisiana. Prior to that time, all of the cane was delivered to the mill by mule-drawn carts.
On this same day he also placed an order with the Gregg Company, Hackensack, New Jersey, for ironwork for fifty wood cane cars (wood to be supplied by purchaser). Also ordered were two miles of 25-pound tee rails, and necessary joints and bolts and spikes to secure the rails to the ties. As late as June, 1922, Gianelloni was still adding to his rolling stock; he then ordered twenty additional cane cars.
The Longwood tramroad eventually extended five miles into the cane fields. Gianelloni records do not show when the additional three miles of rails were purchased.
Sabin Gianelloni, Jr., had this to say about Longwood Plantation railroad:
The main line of the Yazoo and Mississippi Valley Railroad ran through our plantation. When I was a small boy my greatest pleasure was watching the trains as they passed. Whenever the engineer saw me watching, he always blew an extra long whistle. This always sent “goose bumps” coursing up and down my spine.
One morning, when I was six years old, my father too me to the mill switch where the Y&MVRR had dropped of a flat car with the locomotive he had ordered two months before. He had not told me we were going to be the owners of a real steam locomotive, fearing my anticipating anxiety would be more than a six-year-old boy could stand. When I first looked up at that shiny, gorgeous engine, it was a case of love at first sight.
By the time I was old enough to take my place at the mill, I knew more about the operation, maintenance for repair of the engine than the men in charge of it. Happily, my father made me supervisor of the roundhouse as part of my responsibilities at the mill. Having just one locomotive, with the factory depending entirely on the railroad for delivery of cane, meant keeping the engine ready to go all the time.
One afternoon during grinding season the engine was brought to the engine house of leaky flues. We killed the fire, shook the grates, and put if over the pit. I looked around at the roundhouse crew and didn’t have the hart to put one of them in that red hot fire box, so I took on the job. I worked for nearly three hours before having her ready for the road the next morning. Thankfully, I never had to do that again.
Gianelloni loved that locomotive. After the mill ceased operations, he kept it stored and in near perfect condition. During the early 1940s, a plantation owner, in desperate need of a locomotive, talked him into selling the engine. The condition of sale was that he would buy it back when the new owner had no further need of it. Unfortunately, the oral agreement was not honored and the engine was scrapped. Gianelloni said, “That was one of the greatest disappointments of my life.”
Down Along the Sugar Cane – The Story of Louisiana Sugar Plantations and their Railroads by W.E. Butler (Moran Publishing Corporation, Baton Rouge, Louisiana), 1980, First Edition.
Inside page Author’s inscription: “To Mary Ellen – Hope this will bring to life pleasant memories of Longwood. W.E. Butler”