Historic Lakeport Plantation celebrates milestone anniversary


Completed in 1859, Lakeport Plantation in Chicot County is now owned and operated by Arkansas State University.

Lakeport Plantation is a grand survivor, rising above Chicot County cotton fields near the Mississippi River. Completed in 1859, the mansion stands intact and restored 163 years later. It ranks as Arkansas’ most impressive antebellum residence.

The handsomely refurbished 17-room home, now marking its 15th anniversary as a visitor attraction, speaks to more than architectural history. On a human level, it testifies to the disparate roles of white plantation owners and their mainly Black workers — slaves until near the end of the Civil War and mostly sharecroppers after.

“The range of perspectives from Lakeport goes beyond what we commonly think of when it comes to a plantation home,” says Ruth O’Loughlin, site director at the Greek Revival property owned and operated by Arkansas State University.

“Oral histories and our research tell a broader story, from early white settlement in the area to enslavement and emancipation.”

O’Loughlin conducts guided tours lasting 60 to 90 minutes through the 8,000-square-foot dwelling. Visitors also can show themselves around, taking advantage of extensive posted information.

Lakeport was established in 1831 by Joel Johnson, who arrived from Kentucky with his family and 23 slaves. According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, his cotton plantation was named for a nearby steamboat landing. When Johnson died in 1846, he owned 3,700 acres of fertile land and 95 slaves.

The oldest of his six sons, Lycurgus Johnson, inherited the largest share of the estate. His finances flourished by the late 1850s, when he began building the two-story Lakeport Plantation. By the time work was finished as the Civil War loomed, his property included 4,400 acres and 155 slaves.

“Visitors in recent years have expressed more interest in the lives of the slaves,” O’Loughlin says. “There are many misconceptions about them. Unfortunately, what we know about their daily lives at Lakeport is very limited. Slaves were considered property, so their stories went unrecorded. They usually were given only a first name. And they were most often illiterate.”

Photographs from the late 19th century show several of Lakeport’s former slaves.

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

Posted in one room is a roster of slaves owned by Lakeport in 1858. Of the 192 persons listed, only seven have a last name. Two are “Big Charlotte Binks” and “Big George Wright” There is a “George Washington.” In a biblical vein, “Moses” turns up three times. Two presumably aged slaves are called “Old Sally” and “Old Tom.” Two youngsters are identified only as “Delilah’s Child.”

The arrival of Union troops in 1864 was a disaster for Lycurgus Johnson and Chicot County’s other plantation owners. Federal soldiers took away Lockport’s mules, horses and cattle. Emancipation brought him the loss of slaves valued at $100,000.

But Lockport carried on. 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 for the services of many of the freedmen who had been his slaves. And he quickly developed a reputation as a fair and honest employer. The local Freedmen’s Bureau agent, generally a foe of the planters, wrote that Johnson was ‘a model man of Chicot County.’”

Photographs from the late 19th century show several of Lakeport’s former slaves. A color photo taken in 2007 depicts a speaker at the dedication ceremony for the plantation’s former Black burial ground.

Before the Civil War, dozens of plantation homes stood near the Mississippi River in the Arkansas Delta. Almost all of them, explains O’Loughlin, “were lost due to fire, neglect, natural disasters and even the changing course of the Mississippi River.”

But Lakeport survived. After Lycurgus Johnson died in 1876, the plantation stayed in the family until his son, Victor, sold it in 1927 to Sam Epstein, an immigrant from Russia.

Epstein’s descendants, who donated the house to Arkansas State University in 2001, still operate Epstein Land Company. The firm owns 13,000 acres of land and a large cotton ginning operation surrounding the historic property, listed in 1974 on the National Register of Historic Places.

A square grand piano is one of the many original 19th-century items on display at Lakeport.

Lakeport’s rooms are furnished with a scattering of original objects and a larger number of replicas. On guided tours, O’Loughlin points out upscale 19th-century items such as 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 in part to show the wealth of the Johnsons. They do require taller ceilings, which helps with the summer heat.”

Another common question brings a disappointing answer from O’Loughlin: “People often ask whether the house is haunted. We don’t believe so.”

Lakeport Plantation, 601 Arkansas 142, Lake Village, is open for self-guided tours ($5) 9 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Monday-Friday. Guided tours ($10; $5 for K-12 students, senior citizens and military) begin on the hour 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-FridayFor more information, visit lakeport.astate.edu or call 870-265-6031.