Understanding agricultural history through site-based research

When the Uncle Sam Plantation project team headed to Baton Rouge and the Louisiana River Road plantations to do site-based research, the last thing we expected to contend with was severe winter weather. I viewed the trip as a chance to get a break from Iowa winter to immerse ourselves in the much-warmer environment of Louisiana and to see sugar plantations first hand. The average January high in Baton Rouge is 61 degrees, and the average low is 41, after all.

How cold was it? The fountain at Houmas Plantation provides a hint.

What arrived in Louisiana just after our team, however, was record cold and ice. Our first museum visit to the outdoor section of the LSU Rural Life Museum had us measuring slave dwellings and sugar house buildings with thickly gloved hands as the temperature dropped to almost freezing. And our afternoon in the Special Collections library at LSU was cut short when the librarians informed us campus would be closing early due to an impending ice storm.

When the weather gets cold, take the research inside! Prof. Sarah Purcell examines Uncle Sam Plantation records with Rachel Swoap (’19) in the LSU Special Collections room (also pictured: Sam Nakahira (’19) and Zachary Segall (’18)).

Freezing rain and sleet hit Baton Rouge, and Wednesday, January 17, brought record cold temperatures to Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Interstates, restaurants, museums, libraries, and just about everything else was closed. Our field research came to a halt, and we spent much of the day reading and having lively debates about the structure of our digital project in the chilly lobby of our hotel. Luckily, our Iowa cold-weather skills came in handy, and we were able to get back out on the roads the following day to have very fruitful visits to plantations and museums along the River Road.

Far from introducing feelings of failure, however, the ice and cold brought us a new perspective on what we are studying: sugar plantations and the people who lived and worked on them. Amanda Feller has written about off-campus study and research experiences that “study away is special and unique…Being in a new environment means to engage that environment with all the senses” (p. 53). The bracingly cold weather engaged our senses in unexpected, but ultimately productive, ways.

One of the foremost scholars of nineteenth-century sugar production in Louisiana, Richard Follett, has examined how the threat of frost and the remote chances of freezing weather affected sugar culture in the region. Follett’s book The Sugar Masters reminds us that even though sugar cultivation was immensely profitable and gave rise to a brutal and efficient plantation system in southern Louisiana, sugar cultivation there could never match production in the Caribbean because of the threat of cold weather—however rare it was—differentiated Louisiana from constantly warmer Caribbean islands (Follett, pp. 10-11). Ribbon cane, introduced in 1817, became popular in Louisiana because of its greater degree of frost resistance (Follett, p. 22). But the kind of ice we experienced on our site visits would have represented a serious disruption to the January planting season, no matter the variety of sugar cane invested in by planters.

The sugar cane plant (Source: Wikimedia Commons).
Rachel Swoap (’19) examines the sharp-edged leaves of a dried sugar cane plant at Oak Alley Plantation (also pictured: Sam Nakahira (’19) and Prof. Sarah Purcell).

Ironically, being stuck in our hotel in Baton Rouge gave our team an appreciation for the precarity and risk inherent in Louisiana sugar cultivation. It also added to the team’s ability to imagine the hardships faced by enslaved workers who toiled outside year round in Louisiana.

Going to Louisiana and experiencing the unusual freeze was unexpectedly enlightening. Adapting to extreme weather made the agricultural and social history come alive.

Works Cited

Amanda E. Feller, “Where Experience Meets Transformation: Pedagogy and Study Away,” in Putting the Local in Global Education, ed. Neal W. Sobania (Sterling, VA: Stylus, 2015).

Richard Follett, The Sugar Masters: Planters and Slaves in Louisiana’s Cane World, 1820-1860 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2007),

Author: Sarah Purcell

Sarah Purcell, L.F. Parker Professor of History, graduated from Grinnell with a B.A. in history in 1992. She went on to earn an A.M. (1993) and a Ph.D. (1997) from Brown University. She joined the faculty of Grinnell in 2000 after teaching at Central Michigan University. Ms. Purcell’s research interests include: the Early National, Antebellum, and Civil War periods; popular culture and political culture; gender history; and military history. She is author of Sealed with Blood: War, Sacrifice, and Memory in Revolutionary America, published by the University of Pennsylvania Press, and Eyewitness History: The Early American Republic. She is co-author of The Encyclopedia of Battles in North America, 1517-1915 (which won a 2000 Best of Reference award from the New York Public Library) and Critical Lives: The Life and Work of Eleanor Roosevelt. She is currently working on a new book, Spectacle of Grief: The Politics of Mourning and the U.S. Civil War.

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