This charming Victorian cottage was built by William J. Fort in 1885 to replace the I original house, which was destroyed by fire. William Fort came to the Feliciana country from the Carolinas with skilled servants to erect the first Catalpa. The Forts raised both cotton and sugar. They were successful planters and shared their good fortune with family and friends, almost constantly giving parties and providing entertainment at their home.
The house was elegantly furnished, but the true beauty of this estate was its grounds. A parklike atmosphere was created using exotic plants, flowers, and fruit trees that were developed and nurtured in a large hot house. The extensive garden included a pool, a deer park, shady sitting areas, peacocks, pigeons, and other exotic animals.
Invasion by Union troops during the Civil War destroyed the original house and its grounds. Almost everything edible was foraged by the hungry army. Fort died during this time, but his widow, Sally, held on to the property; she determinedly rebuilt the house almost immediately after it burned. Fortunately much of the furnishings were saved and are still in use today. Other fine pieces were acquired from Rosedown Plantation when it sold in 1956. Sally Bowman Fort was the daughter of Sarah Turnbull of neighboring Rosedown, and James Pirrie Bowman, of nearby Oakley.
Two notable features of this estate are the unusual elliptical alley of moss-draped oaks, a beautiful corridor to the house, and the steadfast ownership (the property remained in the same family since first built). I visited Catalpa in 1985. It was then occupied by Mamie Fort Thompson and Sadie Fort, both great-granddaughters of William J. Fort.
The thirty-acre gardens have been returned to their parklike beauty, with plantings of hydrangeas, azaleas, camellias, and a large variety of trees and plants natural to the area. Though this restructure is not strictly antebellum, Catalpa is one of the most charming of the Louisiana planters’ homes open to visitors. It is about three miles out of St. Francisville and is open daily for tours.
For more information read the attraction listing at the Hotel Monteleone on the Catalpa Plantation.