A Working History // Laurel Valley

by Rachel Klaus, Co-Features Editor

Nestled two miles below the city of Thibodaux is the South’s largest surviving sugar plantation complex, Laurel Valley. This beautiful southern plantation is the home to animals, and a workplace for local volunteers. Danny Foret has been volunteering at the Laurel Valley Village for almost 15 years. What started out to be a once-a-month job turned into being an everyday job since he retired. He runs the museum, spring and fall festivals and tends to the animals.

“I enjoy it and it gives me something to do,” he says. “This is the kind of place that you can be as busy as you want. Sometimes I am either tied down doing things inside or I am doing stuff outside.”

In the early 1800s, slaves that resided on the plantation built their own homes out of the area’s cypress wood. More than 60 cabins are still standing on the land today. In 1905 it was recorded that there were 150 cabins still standing, but some were lost in hurricanes or have been condemned. Foret says the cabins, and the history of it are why people are so amazed when they come to visit the plantation. In fact, people come from all over the world to visit Laurel Valley.

“I think it is because of its historical significance, he says.

“People like to take a look in to the past and see how things were back in the day. The furthest I think someone has travelled to see the plantation was from Australia. We’ve had people all over the world like China, India, European countries, South America and even Africa.”

Some people like to come and learn about the ghost stories that have been told on the grounds. Most plantations in the South have some kind of supernatural appearance, and Laurel Valley is not any different. “A policeman told me once that he saw a little girl on a bicycle as he was driving through the village and all of a sudden she disappeared right in front of him,” Foret says. “Another person said they saw a prisoner chain gang in striped jump suits cross the road and they disappeared in the cane field. Some people tell me they see people in the windows of the old houses and some see a woman in a rocking chair on the front porch. However, I’ve never seen them, nor have I really looked for them.”

One of Foret’s main jobs is to take care of the animals that reside there. Animals of all types and breeds. Chickens, cats, goats, pigeons, peacocks, guinea pigs, pigs and ducks. There is one animal in particular that he has grown very fond of, a cat named Miss Kitty that he likes to call “My Girl.” Miss Kitty was dropped off a few years ago and has since made the Laurel Valley store her home. She roams the store and front porch everyday while keeping Foret and visitors entertained.

He says while stroking her soft grey fur, “We have had as many as 35 cats that were dropped off here. We were fortunate that we have found a home for all of them. I kept Miss Kitty because she just has something special. She is very sweet and guests love her. Kids come over just to play with her.”

Part of what makes this village so unique is the animals. Some visit just to see all of the animals. What is interesting, however is how the village began to take care of the different varieties of animals. It started when Foret bought 25 chickens nine years ago. Since then locals kept bringing more and more animals for him to take care of. “People just keep dropping the animals off. Almost every animal we have someone has dropped off. I just can’t say no. I feel like I have to take care of them or find a good home for them. ”

Each animal has a name, except for the chickens because there are so many. The pigs are named “Steve,” “Fat Boy” and “Bacon.” Foret says Steve and Fat Boy were once 4-H projects and Bacon was born a house pig. “The owners of Bacon were given an ultimatum. It was either them or the pig. Otherwise they would have to move out of their trailer.”

Before volunteering at Laurel Valley, Foret worked at Texaco for 33 years. He says after he retired he grew tired of fishing. “I retired 15 years ago and I fished the first two years of my retirement. I fished for five days a week and then I got tired of it. I picked up my fishing lines and started volunteering here.”

Laurel Valley became a “village” in 1978. It was incorporated as a non-profit group’s charged with the direct purpose of directing and restoring the grounds. The store/museum was built in 1906 and boasts old farm equipment and other memorabilia from the 19th and 20th centuries. It also features crafts and arts made by locals. Foret even sells his own crafts and art. His photographs are for sale, ranging from $10 to $70. He also built wooden models that remind him of the plantation. Models like pirogues, churches and even an outhouse. His wooden figures he says aren’t for sale, but it flatters him when people ask to buy them.

“Sometimes I have a lot of time on my hands. I like to do things to occupy my time. I built the Laurel Valley Church last summer. It took three months to build. I thought it was neat because it has a unique steeple. The church’s steeple does not have a triangular top; its rectangular instead.”

Other crafts in the store are from local vendors. Earrings, photographs, books, baby bonnets, Cajun signs and old stationary can be purchased. All of the profits made in the store go straight to the upkeep and restoration of the plantation.

Laurel Valley was built around 1790 by Frenchman Etienne Boudreaux who farmed in the front of the property, close to where the store is located today. In 1832, the Boudreaux’s sold their land to Joseph Tucker who expanded the plantation to 3,200 acres. Tucker built the sugar mill and introduced slave labor. After the Civil War, the plantation was passed down to Burch Wormald. Wormold, a New Orleans native, expanded the sugar mill and built a dummy railroad system to help with the sugar harvest.

“It is interesting to find out how many owners a plantation can have over time,” he says. “I did not really know all that much about the history until I started volunteering here.”

After the ownership passed to Frank Baker and J. Wilson Lapine, the plantation really began to boom. The men purchased the plantation and expanded the operation to include processing up to four million pounds of sugar.

“Mais, that was a lot of sugar,” he says with a chuckle.

Gerald Thibodeaux is another volunteer for the village. He says the uniqueness of the plantation is the rich history it possesses. “Thibodaux’s economy at one time was solely made up of sugar revenue,” Thibodeaux says. “To help keep up a plantation such as this one is a real treat because you can almost imagine what Thibodaux looked like before it became what it is today.”

Thibodeaux enjoys telling tourists about the history of the village and how it came about. “It amazes me how many people from around here come to take pictures, but not really know much about it. I really learned a lot from Danny. He really did his homework when he signed up.”

Every spring and fall Laurel Valley hosts a festival. The spring festival will have local craft vendors to sell their items. The festivals are a way to get the public out to see its beauty. It is also a chance for the Village to reach out into the community, and receive more donors. Although this weekend calls for a 90 percent chance of rain, Foret says the festival will happen rain or shine.

“We are telling all the vendors to just watch the weather. There is a possibility that they will cancel their booth because of the weather, if that is the case we will miss out on one of our biggest fundraisers. If the weather is bad we will cancel, but not reschedule. We will just wait until the fall,” Foret says.

Laurel Valley has also been the site for 12 films over the years. The oldest being from 1987 to the latest, 2013. The most popular movies filmed at this historic place are Ray and The Butler. Ray is a story about the life of Ray Charles. The Butler tells the story of a butler that has served eight presidents over three decades. The first movie ever filmed there was Three on a Match.

As far as Foret is concerned, there have been multiple times where he has had to shut down the store for movies being filmed. “I don’t mind shutting the store down because I know it is a good way for the village to get on the map. Every time there is a film here we get recognition. We may not always get paid for it, but we get acknowledged for hosting the film crew. It is really neat to see those films on screen and knowing they were filmed right outside this door.”

As he sips on his can of Sprite, he begins to tell the story of a couple that came to visit from France. “There was young couple that came here from France. They were telling me about the Cigarettes and Nylons movie. It is a French movie that was made here, and I had never seen it. But anyway, they were trying to explain how neat it was that they were standing right in the spot where a certain scene was shot. It was almost like they came here just to stand in this very spot.”

Foret thinks it is interesting how a once French-speaking area was a place for a French film. Cigarettes and Nylons came out in 2009, and is about American GI’s bringing home French wives.

Laurel Valley is a popular place for locals to take pictures, according to Foret. People know this area as a colorful scene for taking engagement pictures, senior pictures, etc. “People always come with a camera to take pictures. I do not blame them because this is such a beautiful place. I really enjoy taking photographs here myself. I consider myself a photograph hobbyist,” he says with a smile.

Foret has many of his photos for sale in the store and has even entered some of them in a local photography contest. He says he always seems to get second place, never first. He says he won’t stop trying, however. While holding up a serene picture of a pirogue, he says, “I took this photo at my son’s wedding. I just thought it was the most calming thing to look at. I entered it in the contest just because, and I ended up placing. Never did I think I would have a hobby taking pictures.”

At the end of the day, Foret locks the store up and returns home to his wife of almost 50 years. Like most married couples, he goes home to tell her about his day. His day mostly consists of taking care of the animals, but also interacting with the visitors. “She likes hearing how my day went. She was really supportive when I told her I wanted to volunteer here. She thinks it is important to our culture down here. I think she is supportive because I don’t smell like fish when I come home,” he says with a loud laugh.

Laurel Valley is another home to Foret. Perhaps it is the reason he continues to smile on his way to open the store, or it could be “My Girl” waiting for him. Whatever the reason is, he will always have a story to tell when he arrives home everyday.