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The Formosa Controversy

From Bradish Johnson to John J. Cummings III

 

Historic New Orleans Collection

The main plantation attached to the estate of Marie Azélie Haydel was sold to Bradish Johnson. The old Habitation Haydel became Whitney Plantation when the new owner renamed it after his grandson, Harry Whitney. Bradish Johnson was born in 1811 in the city of New Orleans. His father, William M. Johnson, was then the owner of Magnolia plantation where Bradish was reared. At a later date his father removed to New York and engaged in the distilling business. Bradish Johnson was educated there and graduated at Columbia College. He was later successfully engaged in the distilling business himself. He soon became a millionaire and occupied a very prominent position in New York in commercial and social circles. Shortly before the Civil War he inherited from his brother, William M. Johnson Jr., the Woodland plantation in Plaquemines parish, where he erected the largest sugar mill in the State. After the war he purchased many other plantations in the same parish in addition to the Haydel and Caroll plantations in St. John the Baptist parish.

 

Following the death of Johnson’s wife in 1880, the Whitney plantation was sold to Pierre Edouard St. Martin and Théophile Perret. By that time, it was again thriving, producing 720 hogsheads of sugar. Pierre Edouard St. Martin was born in St. John the Baptist parish in 1842.  His paternal grandfather, Pierre B. Saint-Martin, was a planter and an attorney, who served during a number of years on the bench as judge of the district composed of St. John the Baptist, St. Charles and Jefferson parishes. The most famous case handled by the latter was the trial of the slaves involved in the 1811 uprising on the German Coast. Théophile Perret (1834-1909), Edouard’s half-brother and brother-in-law, lived at Whitney with his wife Mathilde St. Martin. Their daughter, Mathilde Louise Perret (1857-1936) married George Henri Tassin (1851–1929) in 1876. The latter was the plantation’s overseer and his wife operated the plantation store. They also lived in the big house at Whitney plantation. By 1928, the property was totally controlled by Mathilde and her husband. After the retirement of George Henri Tassin, his son George Sidney Tassin became the manager of the plantation.

 

Ownership shifted again in 1946 when Whitney was sold to Alfred Mason Barnes of New Orleans. Its fourteen-room two-story house, built of masonry and cypress, was then described as “one of the most interesting in the entire South” by Charles E. Peterson, senior landscape architect of the United States Department of the Interior. The plantation had at that time 1,200 acres of land in cultivation and large sugar cane crops were harvested and transformed by a co-operative sugarhouse located upriver near Oak Alley plantation. Rice was also cultivated for commercial purposes and enough corn, potatoes and other smaller crops were produced for domestic use along with cattle and poultry. A.M. Barnes kept the name Whitney so far used to designate the plantation and hired Maurice Tassin, the son of George Sidney Tassin, to manage the plantation. Maurice Tassin retired in the early 1970s, because of age and poor health, but had permission from the Barnes to live on the plantation as long as he wished.  At that time, he arranged for the plantation farmland to be leased to local farmers belonging to the Hymel family. He finally moved from Whitney in 1975 and the resident labor force did so around the same time.  This was the real beginning of the downfall of the plantation since maintenance was not performed anymore on any of the buildings and they deteriorated greatly.  The Barnes’ children did not have the same interest in the plantation that their father did and they had no other plan but selling it. Steve Barnes, a grandson of A.M. Barnes, remembers with a bit of anger, members of his family advocating the bulldozing of all the buildings on the site in order to sell it for a better price.

 

In 1990 the plantation was sold to the Formosa Chemicals and Fiber Corporation, which had the intention to build the world’s largest rayon plant on the site. The Company also envisioned buying the nearby Evergreen plantation but had to face local activists concerned, beyond the destruction of historic landmarks, by the negative effects of the rayon plant notably with the “use of local bottomland hardwood in vast quantities, and substantial dioxin pollution from the pulp-bleaching process”. The protest was undertaken by members of the Delta Chapter of the Sierra Club through its Hazardous Waste Committee. The claims of the environmentalists, echoed by the Time Picayune, consisted of three points: a diversified approach to economic development along the River Road Corridor, the recruiting of clean industries, and the consideration of alternative land use and development plans.

 

Formosa apparently came to a compromise when it decided to turn the buildings on Whitney plantation into a museum (The Museum of Louisiana’s Creole Culture) and commissioned a study from the Department of Geography and Anthropology at Louisiana State University. The idea came from anthropologist Jay Edwards and his colleagues at Louisiana State University.  They were introduced to the plantation by Deanna Tassin Schexnayder, the daughter of Maurice Tassin and also an LSU faculty at that time.  They immediately recognized the historic and archeological significance of the buildings at Whitney and conducted research on the property even before it was purchased by Formosa. In 1992, the site was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Meanwhile the rayon business underwent depression, thus encouraging the Formosa Corporation into selling the site to the Cummings family of New Orleans in 1999.

 

 

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