For the rest of his days, he sat in the tavern and smoked his pipe and told tales of the old days. Washington Irving, 1819.
And so ends the tale of Rip Van Winkle, who slept for 20 years. But the continuation of this story starting almost a half century later in Louisiana is far more mystifying. Outside of New Iberia, Louisiana, the tourist is drawn to the 3,600 acres of gardens dubbed Rip Van Winkle Gardens. The fact that we serendipitously stumbled across these gardens made the place even more magical. After passing the sign, we, intrigued, turned around and went back to the entrance.
Our tour started at the big house led by a proudly self-acclaimed Cajun docent. The story goes that Joseph Jefferson, a third generation actor, struggled in his career until he read the Rip Van Winkle story. He crafted a play in which he starred and his career took off. For over 40 years, he performed the play over 4500 times, on stage and in silent movies; 190 performances were in London. With his financial success, he acquired four houses for his family, including this one in Louisiana that he had built as their winter home atop a salt dome on Orange Island which he renamed Jefferson Island.
The mansion, now listed on the National Register of Historical Places, was completed in 1870. It features 22 rooms and a fourth story cupola.The island and mansion are both the subject of intriguing rumors. Somewhere on the island, supposedly, there exists buried treasure left behind by Louisiana’s most infamous pirate/privateer, Jean Lafitte. As for the mansion, numerous people report that it is haunted by unknown entities.
Twelve years after his death, Jefferson’s children sold the property in 1917 to John Lyle Bayless who learned of the property through his friend E. A. Mclhenny of Avery Island, maker of Tabasco@ Sauce. Bayless and his wife refurbished the house, turned it into their home featuring American and French Empire furnishings, covered the walls in silk wallpaper, collected a multitude of china patterns, and entertained extensively. Some of the paintings hanging on the walls were painted by Jefferson himself.
Their son, Jack Bayless Jr, inherited the place in the late 1950s. He was most interested in the grounds where he developed spectacular gardens around the magnificent live oak trees. He created a foundation to support the house and gardens in perpetuity and built himself a small home on the edge of Lake Peigneur.
On November 20, 1980, an oil drilling rig pierced one of the giant caverns of the Diamond Crystal Salt Company, flooding the mine. In three hours, the vortex swallowed the lake, 65 acres of native wood land and Bayless’ new home. A drilling rig, several barges loaded with trucks and rock salt, boats and equipment also vanished in the expanded lake. Miraculously, no lives were lost that day. It took four years for the island to recover from the damage.
Managers of the Foundation absconded with Bayless funds and he was forced to sell the property. Today, landscaper Mike Richard, proprietor of Live Oaks Gardens, Ltd, now owns and maintains the gardens and house to their original beauty. As from the beginning, the stars of the Rip Van Winkle gardens are the massive oak trees, some over 350 years old. Grover Cleveland was a friend of the actor and loved to visit him in Louisiana. One of these massive trees on the property is labeled as the Cleveland Oak, the president’s favorite place to nap. The spectacular floras of the gardens provide home to numerous birds including spoonbills, peacocks, egrets and herons.
Also on the property is Cafe Jefferson, situated on the edge of Lake Peigneur. From this site, visitors can see the chimney of the Bayless sunken home. Here, the chefs work to preserve the heritage of Cajun cooking. Bob chose a plate of crawfish étouffée and I, a creamy seafood bisque, delicious but super rich.