Survey unearths sugar mill, plantation

History enthusiasts and archaeology buffs got a chance to step back in time Saturday while visiting the site of the old Chatsworth Plantation Sugar Mill just off La. 30 in East Baton Rouge Parish.

The site visit was part of Chatsworth Archaeological Field Day, hosted by LSU Rural Life Museum and Pinnacle Entertainment, which operates nearby L’Auberge Casino and Hotel Baton Rouge, the owner of part of the land where the old Chatsworth Plantation used to sit.

The ancient site sits near La. 30 and Gardere Lane, in the shadows of the luxurious casino and hotel.

Rural Life Museum archaeologists and technicians are excavating the site as part of a cultural resource survey that Pinnacle Entertainment asked the museum to perform, said David Floyd, director of the LSU Rural Life Museum.

State and federal law dictates that any company wishing to develop land near the Mississippi River or in the vicinity of a historical site must complete such a survey, Floyd said.

Museum officials wanted to host the Field Day to help inform the public about the site and give Baton Rouge residents an opportunity to see it for themselves, Floyd said.

“In the museum business, this is what we do,” Floyd said. “Interpretation (of artifacts) is what it’s all about.”

Rural Life Museum officials are planning to hold a similar archaeological field day in the fall for Longwood Plantation, another nearby sugar mill plantation site, Floyd said. Officials also will set up exhibits about Chatsworth at the Rural Life Museum and in L’Auberge’s facility.

Sightseers met museum officials Saturday in the parking lot of L’Auberge before riding by van to the Chatsworth location.

Archaeologists then guided the visitors around the excavation site, showing them the little that remains of the plantation.

Only bricks from the foundation are left, as well as remnants of chimneys and a tin shed.

Dennis Jones, the Rural Life Museum’s principal investigator for the project, gave visitors a brief history of the two-story brick plantation house.

Its design was based on the Chatsworth House in England, for which it was named, Jones said.

“At one time, it was a very grand structure,” Jones told a small crowd.

Francis Gardere bought the plantation in 1865, Jones said. It was mostly abandoned by the 1920s after a mosaic virus ruined the sugar cane.

Some of the land was still leased for agriculture, but the main plantation house was torn down in the 1930s to build the levee.

“It wasn’t so grand by then,” Jones said.

Jules Haigler, a lab and field archaeological technician with the Rural Life Museum, spoke in detail about the lengthy sugar cane harvesting process.

Haigler pointed out an area where dried cane was brought so it could be burned.

He also showed the tourists a spot where slave cabins sat many decades ago.

“Imagine a whole bunch of slave cabins back there,” he said.

Haigler, who dressed like Hollywood archeologist Indiana Jones for the Field Day, said he and other crew members had been digging at the site since February.

He said they had to cut through high foliage that covered most of the grounds.

“You could not see where you were going,” he said. “There were snakes everywhere.”

Benny and Janis Hernandez, of Gonzales, spent their morning wandering about the ruins of a chimney from the plantation and other parts of the excavation site.

Janis Hernandez said anything involving history intrigues her, which is why they decided to take the tour after hearing about it on a TV station.

“How often do you get to go to an archaeological dig?” Janis Hernandez said.

Lauren and Shane Poche brought their 1-year-old daughter, Olivia, to take in the history of Chatsworth and see its ancient artifacts.

Lauren Poche, who is from Gettysburg, Pa., is an archaeologist with URS Corp., an engineering company based in Baton Rouge.

She also earned her master’s in history from Southeastern Louisiana University, writing many papers on old sugar mills.

Poche said she wanted a chance to go out and see an excavation of a historical site in Baton Rouge.

“It’s neat to actually see a large-scale sugar mill excavated,” Poche said.