Monday, December 20, 2010

AT BELMONT PLANTATION…

Saturday evening, we were guests at Belmont Plantation where we joined in a celebration honoring Guy Estes who recently received an M.A. in History from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Guy is the son of Mary Wyche Estes who presently lives at Belmont, a shady Bayou Teche plantation home near New Iberia. Belmont (circa 1765) has been in the Wyche family since 1858 when the old plantation was given to John and Mary Peebles Wyche as a wedding gift from Mary Peebles’ parents. During the early 19th century, the Peebles family owned plantations in several states, including Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky, and in Louisiana where Belmont and Peebles plantations were located.

I hadn’t visited Belmont in several years, and the reunion with the Wyche family and their relatives brought memories of those days when James Wyche, Jr. (now deceased) hosted his evening “Happy Hour” on the long front gallery under the umbrella of huge great-grandfather oaks. After a fire destroyed the original home at Belmont in 1947, the residence was rebuilt of cinder block, maintaining the style of architecture of the original home. Arleen Wyche (also deceased) severely burned her feet when the fire occurred as she went back into the blazing residence to retrieve the family silver. Belmont is a beautifully-appointed home guarded by an old bell tower which housed a bell, the rope of which Frieda, Big Jimmy’s dog, held in her teeth and pulled to ring in the 4th of July.

During Happy Hours, we enjoyed conversations with “Big Jimmy,” (as James Wyche, Jr. was called), his wife Arleen, his sister Julia and his daughter Mary. The gathering always included other drop-ins who were thirsty for drinks and conversation. I recall sipping the strong, sugary mint juleps Big Jimmy had prepared for us while we listened to his passionate rhetoric about the political arena in Louisiana and the U.S. Big Jimmy was also known as the “Letters to the Editor man” because he wrote letters to the editor of The Daily Iberian, treating readers to a conservative’s view of the world. He composed these fiery letters, while wearing a visor that fit tightly on his crew cut, in an old cistern house that he had converted into an office.

Big Jimmy’s political rhetoric wasn’t the only conversation that took place on the old gallery. We often heard anecdotes about the history of Belmont, some of which appeared in articles of the Louisiana Courier. Several 1813 issues of this journal told about the plantation having a water-powered, double mill sugar factory capable of serving two series of kettles and also as a distillery for making rum. Big Jimmy always claimed that this bit of history probably offended some of his teetotaling ancestry, but these facts didn’t deter him from hosting his Happy Hours on the gallery.

Wyche’s great-grandfather Peebles survived the Civil War by gathering up his womenfolk, a handful of possessions, and a few faithful servants and joining a wagon train to Texas. By the time the “late great unpleasantness” had ended, the family had raised two bumper crops of cotton. The women sewed the profits in gold into their petticoats and headed back to Louisiana to pay the taxes on Belmont Plantation. These smuggled gold coins saved the ravaged plantation from being confiscated.

Big Jimmy also recorded the rainfall at Belmont daily for over 40 years for the U.S. Weather Bureau. He used to say that he gauged “God’s rainfall and man’s downfall.” In addition to this weather reporting, he recorded his conservative political views in a self-published book containing his letters to The Daily Iberian and another pamphlet including his memoirs about Belmont Plantation.

Mary Estes, Big Jimmy’s daughter, his son “Little Jimmy,” and his grandson Guy Estes have also published novels, and Mary continues to work on a manuscript that fictionalizes the history of her ancestors and chronicles the Civil War adventures of her family.
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