ASHLAND (Later, BELLE HELENE) PLANTATION
Ascension Parish, Louisiana
Duncan Farrar Kenner (1813-1887)
CANE, COTTON, & CREVASSES by Philip Chadwick Foster Smith (1992)
Once the old Linwood Plantation had been divided between the Minors and the Kenners in 1837, Duncan Farrar Kenner set about to turn his part of the land into a showcase.
The youngest child of William and Mary Minor Kenner, Duncan Farrar Kenner had lost his mother when he was but one-and-a-half years old and his father when he was eleven. He had been privately tutored, sent to schools in New Orleans, and then to Miami College, Oxford, Ohio, a short distance northwest of Cincinnati, from which he graduated at the age of eighteen in 1831. For several years thereafter he toured Britain, Ireland, and the Continental Europe, for a time accompanied by his elder sister, Frances Ann, and her English-born husband, George Currie Duncan.
Upon his return to New Orleans, John Slidell,thirty years later became the Confederate States' Commissioner to France, took him into his law firm. From Kenner's experience there sprang his future legal and legislative prominence. But he did not remain long with Slidell, preferring instead to develop and nourish his acreage in Ascension Parish and to become engaged in public service. In 1836, he was elected from the parish to the Louisiana Legislature, and from then until 1869 he continued to serve almost without interruption in both the Sate house and senate.
In the property reshuffling upriver, Duncan took the leading role, It just came naturally. Wrote seventy-seven-year-old Pierce Butler of Natchez to Duncan's great-grandniece, Eleanor Houston Smith in 1950:
"I can recall that old Robin, the colored gardener (at Laurel Hill, where Duncan had been given asylum after his mother's death) ... used to talk about the Kenner boys. One item I remember his saying: "Ef dey was two apples, Marse Duncan he always got the bigges."
The new plantation, separated from the old Linwood, evolved over a period of five or six years, during which time Duncan gradually gained control of his brother George's share. It was made up of the piece of property just below Theophilus P. Minor's new Linwood; the 80 acres called 'Picou tract' below that, which had been sold to George by Jean Louis Picou about 1835 but was held in ommon by George and Duncan in 1838; and the next tract of land down river, bought by Duncan at public sale from the estate of Theodore Segoud in 1843. On 11 March 1844, Duncan Kenner purchased his brother's remaining interest.
George Rappele Kenner evidently had stayed around long enough to commence the breeding of race horses with Duncan, but upon his marriage to the widow Charlotte Jones was sister of Ruhamah Riske, his brother Butler Kenner's wife-she moved to Kentucky.
There, across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, George acquired land from his wife's half brother and bred horses on his own. After 1845, when Texas was admitted to the Union, he sold his Kentucky holdings and relocated-- probably in 1847--on the Caney River, Matagorda County, Texas as a sugar planter. He had barely had time to make a go of the enterprise when he died, childless, in 1852. The last crop from his plantation to be reported was that for the season of 1853-1854, when his estate produced a mere fifty-five hogsheads of sugar.
Duncan Farrar Kenner named his plantation Ashland after the Lexington, Kentucky, home of Henry Clay, as much out of respect for Clay's statesmanship as the result of a convoluted familial connection: Kenner's eldest sister, Martha had married John B. Humphreys, whose aunt-in-law, Mrs. John Brown, was the sister of Clay's wife.
It was truly Duncan Kenner's place. He built the house, he grew the sugar cane, he raised the thoroughbred horses for which the plantation became famous, and he built the eight-furlong racetrack which once highlighted the property. "Beyond question," wrote historian Harnett T. Kane, "he was a man on the rise. While most Creoles and Americans still faced each other with suspicion, Kenner was working with both groups."
He had entree to salons in New Orleans and on the Mississippi that were closed to most Americans; he served often to make peace between burning opponents. More and more he was in contact with the businesslike Michel Doradou Bringier, his tiny wife Aglae' and his daughter Nanine, a clear-eyed, strong-featured girl who took quickly to her new suitor."
Having grown up in an around New Orleans, Kenner had picked up a working knowledge of the French language as a natural course of events; his sojourn in France had perfected his fluency in it to such an extent that he is said to have proposed marriage to Anne Guillelmine Nanine Bringier of l'Hermitage Plantation in her native tongue. They were married on the first of June 1839.
The house at Ashland was built as a wedding present for Nanine, but its architect remains in dispute. Some attribute the design to James Gallier, Sr.; others to Charles Dakin, both well- known practitioners in New Orleans at the time. Construction was completed in 1841.
Their daughter, Frances Rosella Kenner Brent (1849-1928), described Ashland at its prime to race horse historian Harry Worcester Smith in the 1920's:
"The mansion ... was completed in 1841, probably the work of the elder (James) Gallier,and its moldings and center pieces are very handsome. It consists of two stories, built of brick, with spacious galleries on all sides supported by massive (square) columns of the Doric type. A broad hall fifteen feet high runs through the center of the house with (two) large rooms on both sides. One of these, the library, over twenty feet square, was lighted by crystal lamps and was said in olden times to be one of the most beautiful rooms south of the Mason and Dixon line. Ashland Plantation was located in what was known before the War as the 'Upper Coast' of the Mississippi, which lay between New Orleans and Baton Rouge It was in full view from the palatial steamers that used to ply from the Crescent City, near the Delta, to St. Louis. The great mansion still guards the east bank of the Father of Waters, standing not a quarter of a mile from the noble stream."
"Nowhere else in the aristocratic and wealthy South was there greater luxury or more splendid mansions for display than those on both sides of the Mississippi in Louisiana. Ashland, with its wonderful velvet lawn, starred with flowers, was alive with singing birds. Its orchard in season was afloat with blossoms; its gardens reflected the color of another paradise; its refreshing odors sweetened the air and imparted to that delightful spot inexpressible and unforgettable charm. Over, within, and all about in the beautiful home was the spirit of the old South, and those who were drawn there from time to time fell under its bewitching spell."
"There was a training track in back of the mansion, and one evening some guests, after an entertainment given by Mr. and Mrs. Kenner, were driven by their coachman, a stranger to the plantation, on the track from the front gallery of the house rather than onto the highway, and for a long time continued to drive round and round. "
Actually, the track was a considerable distance from the house--about half a mile southeast. It must have been well constructed and well used, because vestiges of its flattened oval shape could still be seen in aerial photographs almost a century after it was originally built. Today it is indistinguishable from its surrounding.
Alongside the main house was an orchard; in front of it a double-banjo-shaped driveway entrance which led down to the levee, the plantation landing, and warehouse; behind it nestled a kitchen building, pigeonnaire and garconniere for use by the rambunctious young gentlemen of the household and their male friends. Some distance off to one side was a stable and coach house; far back into the cane fields stood a much larger stable for the field and sugar mill animals. A plantation office and a double row of some thirty-five cabins for the field hands trailed off into the distance behind the house Other storage sheds, barns, and shelters, including, it is believed, a school and an infirmary, served the needs of the nearly 500 souls who dwelt upon the place at its peak, 473 of them black.
In 1844, Ashland produced 1,156 one-thousand-pound hogsheads of refined sugar. By 1859, Kenner had introduced a vacuum evaporation apparatus in his sugar house; in 1858, with the acquisition of Bowden Plantation, adjacently down river, he came into possession of a second sugar house, this one equipped with a Rillieux refming system, the most advanced technology then available. The last crop harvested before Union occupation of the region,that for the season 1861-1862, made 2,150 hogsheads of sugar, including the production of Bowden.
Throughout the arise of Ashland as a sugar plantation, Duncan Kenner was also devoting great thought and attention to his racing stables. Together with those of his rival, yet cooperating half-uncle, William L. Minor, of nearby Waterloo, Concord in Natchez, Southdown and Hollywood in Terrebonne Parish, they became among the most noteworthy along the river.
Kenner "was much interested in racing, not only before but after the war," wrote Harry Worcester Smith, "and at times, at Ashland, fifty thoroughbred colts were broken during the season. His racing colors were red and red, cap and jacket of the same material.The shade of red was brighter than crimson, more of the shade worn by fox hunters in the pink coats." He became known to horsemen as 'the Red Fox of the South.'
Here at Ashland for a period of several months in 1845, the famous horse artist Edward Troye painted oil portraits of a number of Kenner's best: Grey Fanny, Grey Medoc, Luda, Music, Britannia, as well as Pat Gallwey being ridden by jockey Chisholm. "Chisholm," according to Smith,"grew too big and heavy to continue riding as a jockey, but remained in the stable as a valued and trusted employee .... "
In 1844, Kenner had been chosen a member of the State's constitutional convention; in 1849/50, his fellow Whigs nominated him for Lieutenant-Governor, an election he lost by a narrow margin; in 1851, he lost a race for the United States Senate; in 1852, he again sat on another State constitutional convention, this time as president. And when the State Assembly adopted the Session resolutions, he became one of the seven Louisiana delegates to the Provisional Congress which met in Montgomery on 4 February 1861 Kenner was a strong advocate of States' Rights and therefore supported secession and Jefferson Davis. During the ensuing War, he continued to represent Louisiana in the Confederate House of Representatives, where he served as chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee.
It was in late July 1862, during an adjournment of one of the sessions, when Kenner barely escaped capture at Ashland during an expeditionary raid by Union forces sent to arrest him.
To all intents and purposes, the Kenners abandoned Ashland for the remainder of the war. The Federals had destroyed or carried off much of beauty there, including all but one of Edward Troye's horse portraits. That one, found much later rolled up, some say in Ashland's attic; others, in an outbuilding on the plantation-- depicted Grey Fanny. This painting, after many years of family ownership, was sold at public auction in New Orleans on 5 November 1988 for $30,000.
In Richmond, Duncan Kenner had been advocating that the South emancipate its slaves of its own accord. In no other way, he felt, could the Confederacy hope to conclude a treaty of alliance with either Britain or France and thereby derive the support which would enable it to keep its independence. It was a radical proposal that was wholly inadmissible to other Confederate leaders when first proposed; only when the tide of war turned visibly against the South could it be entertained.
Late in December 1864, Confederate President Jefferson Davis appointed Kenner minister plenipotentiary with sweeping powers to negotiate a European alliance. In disguise and under the alias of "A. B. Kinglake," he undertook a journey through Union territory to New York and on to Europe, a journey so perilous it might strain the imagination even of a seasoned Hollywood screenwriter.
That Kenner was unable to accomplish his diplomatic mission was through no fault of his own. It simply was too late; the Confederacy was at the brink of defeat, and in early April 1865 it was all over. On 20 June 1865, under amnesty, Duncan Farrar Kenner walked into the U. S. Legation in Paris and swore an oath of allegiance to the United States of America.
The memorandum he filed in connection with the oath stretched a few truths: "He has never held an office or position of any kind under the Federal Government. He took no part in bringing about secession, never was a member of any meeting or convention gotten up for the purpose of inducing the State to secede from the Union He was educated in the South, and had been led to believe that in the double relation of citizen of the United Sates and citizen of Louisiana he owned allegiance first to his native State. Acting under this conviction, when the State of Louisiana seceded he followed her destiny, and was subsequently elected a member of the Richmond Congress. In January he succeeded in passing through the military lines and came to Europe, in the hope of being joined by his family, who are still in Louisiana. Hence his being here at the present time."
His fortune had vanished; so at age fifty-two he was obliged to begin again. It is impossible to say what he managed to salvage of his prewar wealth, but it is known that he still possessed "property estimated over $20,000 in value." Let it be said, however, that by the end of the war a Confederate dollar had so depreciated in value it was worth one-and-a-half cents on the U. S. dollar, if that.
Kenner returned to Louisiana, where he contrived to regain possession of his property. Ashland had been decimated by war, neglect, and decay, and yet, within a few years, despite Reconstruction, Duncan Kenner's financial position began to surpass what it had been before. Among other things, he attempted to restore some measure of the plantation's reputation for horses.
Alexander Mackay-Smith in his book The Race Horses of America ... Portraits and Other Paintings by Edward Troye, quotes a poignant story collected by Henry Worcester Smith.
It says a good deal about Duncan Farrar Kenner as a human being:
"Abe Hawkins, generally called Mr. Kenner's Abe, was one of the stable's best jockey and was renowned throughout the Southern States. He was small, thin, and stammered badly, but was a consummate horseman. After the horses were taken away and the family had left Ashland, Abe decided in 1863 to go North where he could continue riding and earn his living. He succeeded very well, rode and won many races, especially at Saratoga.
One day at Saratoga Abe saw in the race paddock a gentleman whom he recognized as coming from New Orleans and a friend of Mr. Kenner's. He sought out an opportunity of speaking to him and said:--
"I know, Sir, you are from New Orleans and are acquainted with Mr. Duncan Kenner I hear he has gone back there. Do you ever see Him?"
"Yes," the gentleman replied, "I see him rather often."
Then Abe said, "When you see Marse Duncan, will you please give him a message from me. Tell him I have ridden a great many races here in the North and have made right smart of money. It is all in the bank and it is his if he wants it, because I am just as much his servant as I ever was."
The gentleman returned to New Orleans, met Mr. Kenner, and gave him Abe's message.
Mr. Kenner said "Are you going back to Saratoga?"
"Yes I am," the gentleman replied.
Mr. Kenner said, "Then look up Abe and tell him I thank him very much for his offer; that I do not need the money; and add that my plantation has been restored to me and that Ashland is as much his home now as it ever was, and when he wishes to return there he will be welcome."
Sometimes later Abe's health failed and he returned to Ashland to die of consumption and lies in a brick tomb under a beautiful live-oak tree standing near the training track on which the faithful colored jockey used to gallop the Ashland cracks who made turf history carrying the 'red on red'.
"Shortly after receiving Abe's message," wrote Mackay-Smith, "Kenner shipped his horses to Saratoga and resumed racing there. In his honor, in 1870, the Kenner Stakes were first run and continued until 1945." He also served as President of the Louisiana Jockey Club.
In 1877, he was also instrumental in organizing the Sugar Planters' Association and in 1885 the Sugar Experiment Station. He not only served as president of both these but also of the Louisiana Sugar Company, the New Orleans Gas Company, and the Crescent Cotton Seed Oil Company. He served on the Louisiana Levee Board, was appointed to the United States Tariff Commission by President Chester Alan Arthur in 1882, and in 1884-1885 chaired the building committee for the New Orleans Cotton Exposition.
During his last days, Kenner retired to his New Orleans townhouse at 237 Carondelet Street, leaving the management of Ashland to his son-in-law, Brigadier General Joseph Lancaster Brent.
Duncan Farrar Kenner died suddenly, at age seventy-four, on the morning of 3 July 1887. In March 1889, Ashland and his adjacent Bowden Plantation were sold at auction to John Reuss, a native of Germany, who had established the small agricultural village of Hohen Solms on the opposite side of the river. Together with his lands there, they became the "Belle Helene Sugar Planting Company, Limited," the name 'Helene' having been selected in honor of his infant granddaughter.
The sugar fields, not the Ashland house, had dictated the purchase, yet only twenty to twenty-five years later most of those fields had been sold off in small plots to truck farmers.
Today, the property surrounding the house is only 125 acres, a mere five percent of what it once had been.
They are owned by Reuss's three great-grandsons and his great-great niece, members of the Hayward family. Small oil wells and massive petrochemical plants now ring the house and sit atop most of the original cane fields.
From about 1900 to 1920, Reuss's nephew, who acted as the plantation's overseer, dwelt in the house, after which it went into a period of major decline. From 1946 until 1965, however, various members of the Hayward family undertook spasmodic restoration work; meanwhile, in 1959, teenagers in search of 'antebellum treasure' broke into the house, destroyed all eight Italian marble mantelpieces, and subjected the rest of the place to a spree of wanton vandalism. After that, a caretaker lived on the grounds continuously for twenty-five years until his death in 1984. In 1980, sufficient funds were raised to replace a leaking roof that threatened to complete the process of the house's gradual demise.
Over the years, Ashland-Belle Helene has been a setting for a number of motion pictures. To a certain extent, the decrepit look of the house is a result of Hollywood "makeup" which has simply failed to wear off, but it has major structural problems as well, problems vastly compounded by the present owners' inability to agree upon a course of action for its preservation. Under those circumstances, its future looks bleak and threatening.
With very few exceptions, the words written,almost fifty years ago, by Hamet T. Kane apply to Ashland as much today as they did then: "Ashland," he wrote, "sits empty and forgotten. Oil derricks dot the adjoining fields, and the chug of the drillers rises over the silences. A few outbuildings huddle forlornly among their weeds. Weather stained, untended the parade of the tall pillars has taken on a dingy tone, and the floors of the great galleries are collapsing at the comers. Yet from a distance the old place retains solid majesty and an air of pride. There is a bit of the Kenner still about it."
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