Palo Alto Plantation
Palo Alto Plantation is a Louisiana historical landmark rich in history and architectural beauty. In 1977, the home was listed on the US Department of Interior National Register of Historic Places. This beautifully preserved old plantation home is south of Donaldsonville and is set on the bank of Bayou Lafourche. On the left of the home is a huge oak tree that is registered under entry 550 with The Louisiana Live Oak Tree Society. It is estimated to be over two hundred and fifty years old. In front of the home is a cast iron dog statute that was brought from the Lemann family home on St. Charles Street in New Orleans.
The design of the home is most often referred to as an “Anglo Creole type Louisiana plantation cottage decorated in Greek revival style. A double stairway leads to the single gallery, which is fronted by a wooden balustrade of white and green and double gates. There are six square, wooden columns supporting the front gallery and roof. Four sets of French doors with green board shutters flank the main entrance. The large main door is surrounded by twenty small, octagonal, hand blown window panes as old as the structure itself. The entire door unit and structure is surrounded by a Greek key “Architrave”. This surround has shoulders, tapped plasters and a pediment cornice. The four lateral doors are double-leaf, each set with ten lights and topped with six-light transoms and simplified Greek key architraves. The main center hall and four main rooms are dressed with original plaster ceiling medallions and plaster crown moldings. The interior doors on the ground floor all have double doors, each set with ten lights and a transom. “ The overall design of the building, its façade and specifically the twenty hand blown octagonal window panes is a James Dakin exclusive signature of the famous architect. James H. Dakin is best known as the architect of the Old Louisiana State Capitol, old Bank of Louisville, Bocage Plantation, Louisiana State Arsenal, St. Patrick’s Church, Palo Alto Plantation, and many more famous buildings. (See Library of Congress, James H. Collection, New Orleans Library, James Dakin papers at Tulane University,“ James Dakin, Architect, His Career in New York and in the South”, “Lemann Family” and Wikipedia)
The earliest recording of ownership of the land shows that a Diego Gomez obtained it from a Spanish land grant. Mathias Rodriguez purchased the land from Gomez. In 1852 or 1853, Pierre Oscar Ayraud, who had married Rosalie Rodriguez, purchased the land of Palo Alto from his father-in-law, Mathias Rodriguez. The house had been completed before 1850, but the exact date is not known and it is not known whether it was built by Ayraud or Rodriguez. It may have been built as a wedding gift to Rosalie, but it may also have been built by Ayraud before the title of the ownership of the land was transferred to his name.
In 1867, the house, property and farming operation was one entity and was sold to Jacob Lemann, a German immigrant who at his death owned thirteen plantations and a thriving business in the town of Donaldsonville. Later his grandson, Arthur Lemann, Sr., married Mary Lee Landry, a granddaughter of Ayraud. During Arthur Sr.’s lifetime, the plantation (farm acreage) was partitioned from the home and its surrounding acres. The operating farm and land became Palo Alto Plantation Inc. Arthur, Sr. purchased the home and the home site. Since then, the ownership of the home has belonged to one of his descendents. Thus to these descendents the home has always been in their family. Arthur, Jr. purchased the home in 1947 from his father’s estate. Arthur, Jr. and his wife, Camille Ker Lemann, had eight children. In 2012, the youngest son, Peter Thomas Lemann, purchased the home. Today, the name Palo Alto Plantation refers to the home and Palo Alto Plantation Inc. refers to the farming operation. Inside the plantation home are original photos of Pierre Oscar Ayraud and Jacob Lemann. These two patriarchs share common descendants and their photos hang next to each other in a place of honor inside the home.
There are two theories on where the name Palo Alto comes from. One theory is Palo Alto, which means “tall trees” in Spanish, came from the Rodriguez / Gomez era. The more logical, accepted theory is that the name Palo Alto commemorates a famous battle in the Mexican War, May 8, 1846. Donaldsonville had a large delegation of soldiers participate in this battle under General Taylor’s command. (US Library of Congress, and Sydney Marchand’s “Story of Ascension Parish”).
“Palo Alto Plantation located about four miles south of Donaldsonville, and just west of Bayou Lafourche figured in a Civil War battle, known as the “Battle of Koch’s Plantation”. In the fall of 1862, confederate troops quartered in the sugarhouses of the two plantations, skirmished with the Union forces marching south from Donaldsonville to Thibodaux. The advancing Union army lost 465 men.” The battle was part of a campaign entitled “Taylor’s Operations in West Louisiana”. This battle was extremely important in the Civil War as this Confederate States Army victory left the confederates in control of much of the interior of the Acadiana region. Many generals and troops were present at Palo Alto Plantation during the battle. (National Park Service – US Department of the Interior)
River Acadian planters also aided the Confederate army by operating an underground railroad that smuggled needed supplies and troops into rebel territory. Information regarding the “railroad” is fragmentary, but it apparently operated along the eastern and southern fringes of the Atchafalaya Basin –and began at Oscar Ayraud’s plantation (Palo Alto) near Donaldsonville. (“Acadian to Cajun Transformation of a People 1803 – 1877”)
Due to the age and large amount of history on the plantation, the battle of Koch’s plantation, and the gold reales (coins) treasure found next door at St. Emma Plantation by Rodney Pike in 1998, Palo Alto has become a favorite spot for metal detectors where many Civil War artifacts and coins have been found.
Palo Alto’s history is intriguing. Whether questioning who commissioned the building of the home, the derivation of its name, the designer of the home, the date the home was built, or the age of the Palo Alto oak tree, one is left with many unanswered questions. There is also another most mysterious aspect, the paranormal activities, i.e. the ghosts!!! The plantation and grounds of Palo Alto have been described as having the most paranormal activity ever experienced and recorded by the Paranormal Society of New Orleans and by Detective Dee Dee DiBenedetto, LA State Licensed PI who specializes in historical research. At this writing a paranormal documentary is being filmed at the plantation home.