A century ago, traveling down the Mississippi River, your eyes would be greeted by one of the greatest spectacles ever produced on American soil.
As described in Harnett T. Kane’s book, Plantation Parade, “From the winding river, the plantations spread outward like the spokes of a fan, in a procession of peculiar grandeur…The tall residences soared above their surroundings…Each house was flanked by smaller reproductions…buildings for visitors, for branches of the family, and for the bachelors. Framing it all was the near-tropic vegetation of Louisiana: explosions of foliage; bushes startling in size and coloration…”
The plantations ruled the river, and none more so than Nottoway. When it was completed in 1859, storm clouds were already beginning to darken the Mason-Dixon line. Built by sugar titan, John Hampden Randolph, it was one of the last great plantation structures to emerge before the outbreak of the Civil War, and the final word on plantation opulence.
Born to a wealthy Virginian planter and raised in Mississippi, young Randolph’s early life was one of privilege. The senior Randolph enlisted the painter, John James Audobon, to instruct his children. From the famous naturalist, Randolph and his brother learned waltzes, cotillion steps, and also how to duel.
Randolph eventually married Emily Jane Liddell, whose wealthy cotton-farming family bestowed upon the newlyweds a dowry of 20 slaves and $20,000. Ambitious young Randolph saw his future in Louisiana’s lucrative sugar industry. By borrowing from his father-in-law and mortgaging his property, slaves, and facilities, he was able to scrap together the enormous capital necessary to enter into sugar production. With each successful crop, he bought more land. He also produced more daughters. Of the 11 children Emily gave him, eight were girls. As Randolph’s wealth grew, his girls blossomed and prepared to make their debut into society; some more suitable home was needed.
Randolph asked the architects of New Orleans to submit as many designs as they could think up. In the end, 13 plans were proposed, but Henry Howard ultimately won the day with his plan for an opulent 50-room Greek Revival. Its crowning jewel was its massive oval ballroom, running the length of the house and painted entirely white, in order to display the parading Randolph beauties to their best advantage.
A letter to the Randolphs from 1859 states, “By this time, I suppose your family are quietly lodged in your New Home…the House being large enough I understand to accommodate the whole generation.” Nottoway’s theatrical magnificence has more in common with Hollywood’s blockbuster version of the antebellum South than its more modest reality. Said to be one of the first places in the South to have indoor bathrooms and slate roofing, no expense was spared in the construction. Sweeping up to the front entrance, a double staircase allowed for the separate and modest entrance of the ladies and the gentleman; a foot scraper identifies the gentlemen’s proper side. Doors were ornamented with porcelain doorknobs and matching key pieces, each painted in a profusion of colors; roses, magnolias, and lilies. The house boasted 200 windows, 6 stairways, and 12 mantels. A ten-pin bowling alley was built in the basement for the children. House slaves were summoned by a row of 15 bells, each with a tone specific to a different room of the house. Chandeliers carved into the shapes of pagan gods grinned down on hoop-skirted and mustachioed visitors.
The marriages of seven of the eight Randolph daughters took place in the white ballroom. Given their lofty place in Southern society, the girls could afford to be choosey in courtship, and stories circulated about their various beaux. One young hopeful—whose persistence was as marked as his buck teeth—so wore down the patience of his pretty quarry, that she eventually sicked the dogs on him.
The Randolph’s peaceful occupation of their new home was short lived. As Union gunboats made their way down the Mississippi, they directed their arsenal at the plantations lining the river. Nottoway was not excluded from this and was hit by shrapnel, causing the Randolph family to flee to the basement in terror, while others took to the sugar fields. Two of Nottoway’s pillars were damaged, but further harassment was avoided when a Union officer, remembering his stay as a guest of Nottoway, called off the guns.
When war broke out, Randolph departed for Texas with 200 of his slaves, pursuing cotton interests there. While in Texas, he made a promise to his transported slaves; their safe return to Louisiana, should they be freed by the end of the war. It was a promise he made good on, despite large financial offers made by a Cuban interest in his human “property.” Upon their return to Louisiana, the slaves talked about nights spent in tents on the Texan plains, listening to the sounds of prowling wolves.
Another tale persists regarding Randoph and the owner of nearby Belle Grove Plantation, John Andrews. Both men were Virginians, and a friendly competition emerged between the two regarding their respective plantations. While each kept an eye on the progress of the other, as Kane puts it,“a contest went on for several years—wing to match wing, section to outdo section.” Nottoway has escaped Belle Grove’s sadder fate— to suffer at the hands of nature, man, and, ultimately, mysterious fire.
The Randolph family lived at Nottoway through the 1880s, as the splendor of their prewar years dimmed. In 1889, the property was sold at auction for $100,000. Personally shuttering each of Nottoway’s 200 windows, Mrs. Randolph “walked through the white ballroom, her black dress throwing a shadow over the pale floor,” as she descended the curved stairway for the last time.
Today the plantation is open for tours and events for anyone looking to have a grand affair in a lush, if slightly uncomfortable, setting.