Historic Lakeport Plantation survives 163 years

LAKE PORT PLANTATION – Arkansas’ most impressive pre-war house can now be visited in two different ways, depending on visitors’ preferences. This good news stems mainly from the precautions taken because of covid-19.

When Lakeport Plantation opened to the public in 2007, it was mandatory to take a 1.5-hour guided tour. It was more time than some travelers wanted to spend in this secluded location overlooking the cotton fields of Chicot County – and perhaps more historical details than they wanted to hear.

Pandemic concerns about escorting multiple nearby visitors have led to the self-guided option, which also costs less than being shown. Guests traveling alone can go at their own pace, spending as much time as they want in the 17-bedroom house while getting plenty of facts from the many information boards. Guided tours are always offered, starting on the hour during opening hours.

Lakeport was completed in 1859 at the dawn of the Civil War. It is now owned and operated by Arkansas State University, which carried out the extensive restoration work. Along with architectural history, a tour tackles the disparate lives of white plantation owners and their mostly black workers, who were slaves until the end of the war and mostly sharecroppers thereafter.

“Lakeport’s range of prospects goes beyond what we typically think of when it comes to a plantation home,” says Ruth O’Loughlin, site manager for the property. “Oral histories and our research tell a larger story, from early white settlements in the region to slavery and emancipation.”

Lakeport was established in 1831 near the Mississippi River by Joel Johnson, who arrived from Kentucky with his family and 23 slaves. When Johnson died in 1846, he owned 3,700 acres of fertile land and 95 slaves.

A 19th century grand piano can be seen in Lakeport. (Special for the Democrat-Gazette/Marcia Schnedler) Lycurgus Johnson, the eldest of his six sons, inherited most of the estate. His finances boomed in the late 1850s when he began building the 8,000 square foot house. By the time the work was completed, his property included 4,400 acres and 155 slaves.

“Visitors in recent years have shown more interest in slave life,” O’Loughlin said. “There are a lot of misconceptions about them. Unfortunately, what we know of their daily lives in Lakeport is very limited. Slaves were considered property, so their stories weren’t recorded. They weren’t given usually just a first name. And they were mostly illiterate.”

O’Loughlin and his colleagues continue their efforts “to improve our information about slaves. When the exhibits were installed, we worked to include as much as possible of what we knew at the time. We have oral histories of sharecroppers and of descendants of slaves.”

A list of slaves owned by Lakeport in 1858 is displayed in one room. Of the 192 people listed, only seven have a surname. Two are “Big Charlotte Binks” and “Big George Wright”. There is a “George Washington”. In a biblical vein, “Moses” appears three times. Two presumably elderly slaves are referred to as “Old Sally” and “Old Tom”. Two youths are identified only as “Delilah’s child”.

The arrival of Union troops in 1864 was a disaster for plantation owners in Chicot County. Federal soldiers confiscated Lakeport’s mules, horses, and cattle. Emancipation cost Johnson the loss of slaves worth $100,000.

But Lakeport continued. As the Encyclopedia of Arkansas reports, “While many of his neighbors sank into economic ruin and despair, Johnson survived and even prospered. He was able to negotiate the services of many freedmen who had been his slaves. And he quickly developed a reputation as a fair and honest employer.”

Photographs from the late 19th century show several former Lakeport slaves. A color photo taken in 2007 shows a speaker at the dedication ceremony of the plantation’s former Black Cemetery, which searches had located.

Photo The Lakeport owners’ children received dolls and other toys. (Special for the Democrat-Gazette/Marcia Schnedler) Prior to the Civil War, dozens of plantation homes stood in the Arkansas Delta lowlands. Almost all of them, O’Loughlin says, “have been lost to fire, neglect, natural disasters, and even the changing course of the Mississippi River.”

But not Lakeport. After Lycurgus Johnson’s death in 1876, the plantation remained in the family until his son Victor sold it in 1927 to Sam Epstein, an immigrant from Russia.

His descendants, who donated the house to Arkansas State University in 2001, still operate Epstein Land Co. The company owns 13,000 acres of land and a large cotton ginning operation around the house, listed in 1974 on the National Register of Historic Places.

Lakeport comes with a scattering of original items and a larger number of replicas. On guided tours, O’Loughlin points out high-end 19th-century artifacts like a square grand piano, silver ice tongs, and a pair of opera glasses.

She says “the most common questions we get on tours are about the doors. They are nearly 11 feet tall, a rarity. The scale of the doors and windows was partly to show the Johnsons’ wealth. They require higher ceilings, which helps combat the summer heat.”

Another common question gets a disappointing answer: “People often ask if the house is haunted. We don’t believe it.”

Lakeport Plantation

  • Address: 601 Arkansas 142, Lake Village
  • Hours: Open for self-guided tours from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Monday to Friday. Guided tours start from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Monday to Friday.
  • Admission: Guided tours are $10 ($5 for K-12, seniors, and military). Self-guided tours cost $5.
  • Information: lakeport.astate.edu; (870) 265-6031

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