PINE AND OAK ALLEY,
"Gold Dust Wedding"
by Jim Bradshaw
If you follow Hwy. 96 as it winds through the sugar lands to north and east of St. Martinville, you will come upon the remnants of a broad avenue of oak and pine trees that once led to one of the finest plantation homes in Louisiana.
Charles Gerome Durand appeared in this society in the early 1800's. He, or perhaps his parents, brought a fortune from France, and he amassed another one on the sugar plantation he built. It was he who would have 3-miles of oak and pine trees planted that would lead to his mansion, and folks who knew him said he sat up at night trying to devise new ways to outdo his aristocratic neighbors. He usually succeeded, and created a life on his plantation that was as gay and carefree as money could make it.
He traveled in gold-ornamented carriages drawn by horses bedecked in the fanciest of harnesses. His home was ornamented by fine furnishings brought from the continent.
It is said that he gave standing orders that he and his family were to be awakened each morning with delicate sprays of perfume. Liking that so much, he then installed the daily ritual of perfumed baths with fragrant crystals and oils.
There was plenty of family to keep the bath tubs busy. Durand fathered 24 children, 12 by each of his two wives. He is said to have justified his large progeny with the remark, "I could not be unfair to either lady."
When his first wife, Amelie Leblanc, died in December 1845, so goes the tale, the grieving husband swore he would never remarry, and he spent much of his time each day - rain or shine - at her grave side. He placed a statue of himself before the tomb so that he would never be away from it.
But another woman's charms soon erased the sorrow. He was married again within a year, lavishing upon the second Madame Durand, Alida Eloise Verret, the same etravagances he had bestowed on the first.
But all of this was just prelude to the grand gesture for which he is most remembered.
It seems that just after the Civil War, two of the Durand daughters became engaged at the same time: Marie Lucille Heloise Durand to James E. Mouton, and Corinne Marie Philomene Durand to Zachary Fournet. The proud father promised his daughters the most beautiful, elegant, and unusual wedding ever seen in Louisiana.
To fulfill his promise, as the romantic (and perhaps embellished) tale is told, he ordered a million spiders sent from China and sent courier to California to fetch hundreds of pounds of silver and gold dust.
Shortly before the wedding day, the spiders were set loose, and soon had spun millions of yards of delicate webs among the limbs and mosses of the oak and pine trees leading to the mansion. On the morning of the wedding, May 21, 1870, servants armed with bellows filled with silver and gold dust sprayed the cobweb canopy to set it glittering in the sunlight like something from a fairy tale.
Other servants placed elegant carpets beneath the trees, leading to an open-air altar. Tables set between the trees overflowed with rich food and drink, served by as many servants as Durand could muster. Musicians played from hidden spots up and down the avenue.
Two thousand guests attended the marriage ceremony. Toasts, dancing, laughter, and song lasted until dusk, when a steamboat chugged up Bayou Teche to take the newlyweds to New Orleans honeymoons. The crowd shot off fireworks to bid the young couple au revoir. Even the sated folks of Petit Paris were impressed.
The wedding proved to be Durand's last grand gesture. The war had claimed many of his resources. His slaves were freed, his sugar mill seized, his home damaged, much of his wealth and its trappings lost. He died Nov. 26, 1870, just months after the wedding.
During his last months, he sometimes rambled on about money he had hidden somewhere, perhaps beneath the oaks and pines, perhaps somewhere else. He never told where. When he died, one of his sons dug for months beneath the trees, finding nothing.
Over the years, the plantation manor fell into disrepair and eventually tumbled down. The Flood of 1927 washed away what remnants of it were there. Today nothing remains of the grand mansion. The only reminders of Durand's opulent life and death is the mile-long stretch of oak and pine trees he planted.
There is little else there. But, once in a while, in the early morning, when the dew is still bright on the trees and rays of golden sunshine strike them just right, there is a fleeting glimpse down that oak and pine avenue of just what it might have been like that festive day in May, when Charles Durand made his last and grandest gesture!