By Colin Woodward
The Lakeport house in Lake Village (Chicot County) is the only surviving antebellum Arkansas plantation home along the Mississippi River. It was built around 1859, just before the war, and was recently renovated through the efforts of Arkansas State University, which has made a name for itself through its Heritage Studies program. ASU is also working on on the Johnny Cash boyhood home, which it purchased for about $100,000.
Restoration of historic homes is painstaking by nature. But the people who remade Lakeport were especially dedicated. The paint on the doors, for example, were removed using Q-tips. There is still work to be done, but the house looks terrific. Through some luck, the staff at Lakeport found original paint underneath a shutter that had survived a pressure washing (terrible for historic buildings) some years ago. The original house was painted yellow. From the outside, the Lakeport house looks like new.
Discovering original paint and restoring metalwork was just part of the process. Since there was little existing documentation about Lakeport, the staff had to piece together the building’s construction history one small bit of information at a time. One scrap of paper gave a clue as to the manufacturer of one of the items that was imported from out of state. Because the family that owned the home was obviously wealthy, you would think there’d be a cache of papers in an archive somewhere that discussed life at Lakeport. But no such luck. Our guide at Lakeport did discuss one letter from a tutor who lived with the family just before the war broke out. She was from Ohio and didn’t like her employer’s sympathies toward secession. Her employer in turn, probably thought she was a damned abolitionist.
Surprisingly, the home is free of Victorian ornament. Given Lakeport’s very thin historical paper trail, adding tables, chairs, carpets, and paintings would have involve more guesswork and creativity than actual history. Furnishing the house would also no doubt add expense and clutter.
For a prime specimen of antebellum opulence, Lakeport today is disarmingly understated. The ceilings are high, which gives a sense of space. The rooms breathe. One interesting thing about the high windows is that they open from the bottom. And to keep the place cool, the staff constructed an AC unit that passes cool air though the chimneys, so the modern world doesn’t intrude too much. The HVAC unit is located in one of the buildings in the back. You wouldn’t even notice it unless someone told you.
Another interesting part of the house was the commissary. After slavery, many blacks and whites turned to sharecropping. Many former slaves continued to work the same land they had sweated on before the war. In cotton patch version of the company store, Lakeport had a place where farmers could buy supplies. Planters, being the good capitalists that they were, wanted to keep the money on the plantation.
Outside, the house is surrounded by cotton fields, and you can see the recently constructed Mississippi River bridge. I had never seen a cotton field up close before. And I would love to go back when the fields are blooming white.
Lakeport was, of course, built with money gotten from slavery (and was also built using slave labor). For those who slaved away at Lakeport, the grandeur of the house only reminded them of the great
divide that separated the status of white and black in the Old South. The house remains and the slaves and cotton pickers are long, long gone. Thus, you have to force yourself at times to remember that life was far more romantic from the view of the “Big House” than it was for those who suffered in the fields working their hands bloody under the hot Arkansas sun. Yet, even masters were rarely free of anxiety concerning their workers, their economic situation, threats to their health, and the million other things that people have to deal with. The Civil War might have destroyed the wealth and influence the planter class had in the antebellum era. But the war, thankfully, did not destroy Lakeport.
Lakeport is featuring its first exhibit in the fall. Anyone interested in the antebellum South, or who simply wants to walk through a beautiful historic building, should visit.
Colin Woodward is a historian and archivist. He is the author of Marching Masters, Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War (University of Virginia Press, 2014). He is writing a second book on Johnny Cash.