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Exploring Art at Whitney Plantation

April 2, 2019 by · Comments Off on Exploring Art at Whitney Plantation 

This article appeared in the February 2019 issue of DeSoto Magazine.

Georges Braque, a famous French artist who helped develop Cubism said, “Art is a wound turned into light.” That quote describes the Whitney Children perfectly: 40 life-sized terracotta statues of enslaved African-American children created by sculptor Woodrow Nash. The haunting boys and girls in ragged clothes are scattered around the grounds of Whitney Plantation, in Wallace, Louisiana. Most are placed in Antioch Baptist Church, the location where guided tours begin. As you move throughout the church, the statues pull at your heart and make you question what they are thinking. If these pieces of art don’t touch your soul, I dare say nothing will. 

Antioch Baptist Church now on Whitney Plantation

The endearing children are the work of Ohio-based sculptor Woodrow Nash, commissioned by Jim Cummings, Whitney Plantation’s owner. Nash, who describes his style as African Nouveau, has a consuming passion for elevating the human spirit. He builds a sense of mystery and charisma into each piece, clearly evident in the Whitney children. 

Whitney Children sitting on a church pew.

When approached while working on the Children of Whitney, Nash said: “I want these pieces to be as genuine to true slave life as possible. This project has been a challenge that I’ve looked forward to for a long time. My pieces will breathe life into the whole plantation.”

Sculptures by Woodrow Nash, the Whitney Children as seen in the Antioch Church.

Whitney Plantation opened in December 2014 as the first plantation museum in Louisiana to focus exclusively on the lives of the slaves, and one of very few in the country. Many of the famous Louisiana River Plantations, like Oak Alley, have finally begun to include slave stories and slave cabins on tours. However, most estates in the Old South continue to focus on the grandeur of the big house and lives of the wealthy landowners. Whitney Plantation portrays the opposite. 

Whitney focuses the point of view on children because the collected oral histories from the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the 1930s came from former slaves. These people were children at the time of emancipation in 1865, so their stories came from their youth. Whitney presents their recollections as told in their own words.

You’ll find some of the statues scattered around the plantation.
Two boys on the porch of a slave cabin.

To accomplish this, each visitor receives a lanyard with a card imprinted with a photo and name associated with an individual sculpture. The flip side of the card contains a brief narrative—in the original dialect and vernacular as told to the WPA. These snippets are among the 2,200 collected by the Federal Writers’ Project during the Great Depression. The museum thus brings the past to life when visitors search for the child on their card, find the replica and make a connection.

John Cummings, a wealthy New Orleans lawyer, bought the plantation property about 16 years ago. Originally German immigrants, the Heidels (also spelled “Haydel”), were the landowners. They grew indigo and then the more profitable sugar cane from 1752 to 1867. Its second owner named it Whitney, after his grandson.

Cummings came to the realization that Americans knew little about the lives of slaves. He developed plans to educate them through visits to the plantation. He spent over $8 million of his own money to establish Whitney, a work still in progress. Especially noteworthy are the church and seven slave cabins, purchased and moved to the site to help tell the story. 

Statue of slave girl inside the Big House.

Guides move tours through the Whitney in a specific order. After leaving the church, visitors encounter The Field of Angels, a circular courtyard, featuring a poignant bronze statue by Rod Moorhead of a black angel holding a baby. The area is dedicated to the 2,200 slave children who died before their third birthdays in St. John the Baptist Parish. 

Statue in the Field of Angles, Whitney Plantation

Further along, a Wall of Honor, similar to war memorial walls, recognizes the 354 people who were enslaved at Whitney. 

Then, the most shocking part of the tour is the memorial to an 1811 slave uprising. Dozens of black, life-sized men’s heads stand on sticks in the ground. This is a brutal display, but unforgettable art. About 500 slaves participated in the uprising with the aim of escaping to New Orleans. Most never made it that far. Many of the captured were killed — and their decapitated heads were put on sticks along the river to terrify others. 

Slave Rebellion Heads at Whitney Plantation

The tour continues toward the slave quarters where guests discover a few more Whitney Children, one sitting on the front porch. Stepping into the cramped cabin provides a perspective on the bare-bones accommodations provided for the slave population. At one time, Whitney had 22 slave cabins, each serving at least two families. Nearby sits the kitchen, the oldest in Louisiana, where typically female slaves toiled over burning fires. 

A slave cabin at Whitney Plantation for hold two families.

Last stop is the French-Creole-style Big House built in the late 18th century. A few children worked in the house along with other servants. Therefore, another statue of a little girl rests there, in opposition to the fine antique furnishings and artworks. Guides use her to talk about the lives of the house slaves, the long hours they kept and the pallets where they slept on the floor. By the end of the tour, most visitors fall silent. Whitney is an attention-grabbing and moving place. 

Whitney Plantation Kitchen is the oldest kitchen in Louisiana.

Plantation owner Jim Cummings said, “You can’t rewrite history but you can right many of the wrongs—primarily with education.” Whitney Plantation makes significant strides in that direction. 

The Big House on Whitney Plantation

If you go: Whitney Plantation is about 32 miles from the New Orleans airport, 5099 Highway 18, Wallace, Louisiana. (225) 265-3300. Open daily 9:30 a.m to 4:30 p.m. Closed Tuesdays and major holidays. Tours are on the hour from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Advance reservations are recommended. Tours cost $22; $15 for students with ID, military, those age 65 and older; free for children under age 12. They are 90 minutes, all on foot and mostly on gravel paths. Those with special needs should call in advance. www.whitneyplantation.com. Whitney Plantation is a member of the New Orleans Plantation Country group: visitnopc.com.

Birthplace of the Model T: Ford Piquette Plant

July 20, 2013 by · Comments Off on Birthplace of the Model T: Ford Piquette Plant 

Yesterday television and media sources reported a sad tale about the city of Detroit facing bankruptcy. The news made me reflect on a visit,  and specifically to a place in Detroit that profoundly impressed me.  The Piquette Plant continues to stand out as one of those magical ah-ha moments.

So, to honor the Motor City, I offer a revised story, similar to the one  I wrote for Automotive Traveler back in 2011.  I sincerely hope the Piquette Plant will continue to thrive as a museum, even as the city around it struggles.

 My Visit to the Piquette Plant

The Ford Piquette Plant, Detroit

The Ford Piquette Plant, Detroit

Experiencing emotional consciousness from global wonders should come as no surprise for me, a seasoned traveler. Places like the Tower of London are so steeped in history, you cannot help but literally feel the presence of the past.  But, I was caught quite off guard by the tingling sensations that overwhelmed me as I stepped in to the historic Ford Piquette Avenue Plant in Detroit. You see, I wasn’t expecting the place to be much more than just another old brick building packed with vintage cars.

Henry Ford 1919

As I entered the factory from a secured rear parking lot, the original wooden stairs suddenly came alive—they creaked and groaned and I swear I could hear the footsteps of America’s automotive pioneers. Henry Ford, John and Horace Dodge, Harvey Firestone, Earl and George Holley, William Durant and Walter Flanders trod here. Mr. Ford’s gossamer ingenuity hung in the air making me wonder if perhaps he is a ghost.

The three-story wood and brick factory resides in a semi-abandoned section of Detroit. Still, 411 Piquette Avenue is National Historic Landmark and home of the Experimental Room where Henry Ford and his team designed the Model T. The corner lot remains one of the 100th most significant industrial sites in the 20th century.

 

In 1904, Henry Ford began his third attempt at automobile production here –his first Ford Motor Company factory. By early January 1907, Mr. Ford had the corner of the third floor walled-off for use as his dream-team’s brain storming emporium. Here, R&D projects thrived, like race-car driver Spyder Huff’s work on the fly wheel magneto. This important innovation delivered high voltage energy to fire spark plugs. Ford was unrelenting toward his goal of producing a simple, affordable “universal car” that could be easily mass produced.

 

The “T” was jointly designed in 1908 by Henry Ford, C. Harold Wills and Joseph Galamb at the Piquette Plant. The early black painted models were assembled at stations, with workers and parts moving around the factory as the car came together. Completed vehicles were taken down from the second floor by elevator, test driven on the streets around the Plant and parked in the courtyard where engines were fine-tuned. After passing final inspection the “T’s” were driven to the shipping room at the rear of the building, cleaned and provided with tags and then placed on the railroad freight platform to await shipment.

Inside the Piquette Plant

 

Prior to 1907 all parts used at Piquette were out-sourced, such as the Dodge Brothers’ (original shareholders) engines and transmissions, while Earl and George Holley supplied carburetors and Harvey Firestone delivered the tires.  Eight different models were produced between 1904 and 1920: the B, C, F, K, N, R, S, but it was the1908 Model T that put everyday drivers around the world behind the wheel.

 

Of the 15 million Model T’s eventually made, the first 12,000, produced at the astounding rate of 175 vehicles per day were built at the Piquette plant. In the factory’s early years, cars took eight to twelve hours to assemble—prompting experimentation with faster assembly lines. Instead of having workers move from car to car to do their work, Ford used a rope to pull the car frame on wheels past the workers as they attached their assigned parts.

 Move to Highland Park

This process continued until 1910 when the company moved out of the overcrowded Piquette Palant to the Highland Park Plant and began the more sophisticated moving assembly line work. By 1913, this innovative approach dropped the time needed to construct a Model T down to twelve minutes. Wow, four cars produced in under an hour!

 

The Studebaker Corporation bought ownership of the Piquette property in 1911 and over the years multiple owners used the building. Amazingly, little changed from the landmark 1904-1910 Ford production days, which is itself a marvel. Visitors can easily slip back in time to envision sweating workers riveting parts, men contorting into awkward positions to screw bolts and others inhaling fumes while painting the vehicles.

 

They meander displays of  vintage cars arranged within the naturally sunlight space, some in restored condition and others well-used. The building includes 355 towering windows—most with original glass. Thick wooden columns and beams graced with the patina of peeling paint and exposed pipes adds to the authenticity of old work arena.

 

 

Imagine riding in “Miss Elizabeth,” a 1909 Ford Victorian red beauty or as the chaperone in the whimsical 1911 “Mother-in-law’s T” with a rear seat to observe the dating couple. Take in the intriguing cleverness—such as a 1922 Model T’s snowmobile adaption–a chassis with skis replacing the front wheels and chains on the rear tires. Best part, the car could be converted back to regular use in non-snowy months.

"Miss Elizabeth"

“Miss Elizabeth”

 

 

A Model T Snow Mobile

**********

If you are even slightly interested in America’s automotive history, then the Ford Piquette Avenue Plant–Detroit’s only pioneer automobile factory–is a definite must for your bucket list.

If you go:

A visit to the birthplace of the Model T begins with a short video to familiarize visitors with Detroit in the early 1900’s. The worthwhile film explains the creation of the Ford automobile company. Tour guides are extremely knowledgeable.

 

Riding in a Model T at Greenfield Village

Riding in a Model T at Greenfield Village

UPDATE 6/16/2011  PIQUETTE AVENUE PLANT JOINS NATIONAL PARKS SERVICE PASSPORT STAMP PROGRAM

The Piquette Avenue plant is pleased to announce that it has joined with 20 other automotive related sites as partners, working with and through the MotorCities Automotive Heritage Area, in the National Parks Service Passport Stamp program.

The Passport Stamp program is a national program to feature historic sites that define the American heritage, including the National Parks, National Historic Landmarks, and other related venues. Proceeds from the passport stamp program are donated to help protect, interpret, and preserve these historic landmarks. The MotorCities coordinated effort in south and southeast Michigan is promoting automotive related tourism and other visitation to the participating partners agencies, including the Ford Piquette Avenue Plant.

 

 

Texas Hill Country: Fredericksburg

August 6, 2012 by · Comments Off on Texas Hill Country: Fredericksburg 

Texas Hill Country: Fredericksburg

as featured in

Automotive Traveler Magazine: Vol 3 Iss 5 Page 16

A beer at the bar in Luckenbach, Texas.

A beer at the bar in Luckenbach, Texas.

Tank-of-Gas Adventure: Texas Hill Country.

Food festivals and markets year round plus local wines and bier… Good thing historic Fredericksburg offers plenty of

 

To read this feature in magazine format please click the link below:

http://www.automotivetraveler.com/magazine/viewer.php?path=vol_3/iss_5&page=16

 

 


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