They named it, somewhat facetiously, Hope Plantation. According to the memories of some of the people who lived near the farm, the only hope for the inmates was the hope of escape - something they tried with regularity.
Gertrude Hebert was one of those who lived near the farm when she was young. She said in a piece in the Attakapas Gazette historical magazine some years ago that "the most chilling and spine-tingling sound" heard in the area was the baying of the bloodhounds used to track down would-be escapees.
She said the baying was also the signal for the plantation's neighbors to rush out and take in any washing that had been hung out to dry, because the prisoners would steal clothing from the lines. They needed to get rid of their black-and-white-striped prison garb and they also wanted to change clothes to confuse the dogs.
Convicts tended crops - mostly sugar cane - and made bricks on Hope Plantation. Photos taken in the early 1900s show a row of barracks-like buildings, a sugar mill, prison bakery, and an infirmary and drug store on the property.
The plantation also was the source of one of the most unusual landmarks on the old U.S. 90, now Highway 182, and a spate of stories that went with it.
Hebert said she thinks the landmark, a large box in a tree, was deposited in its branches during the Flood of 1927, but several others who recall seeing it say it was too high up in the tree to have been put there by the flood.
However it got there, the tree became known locally as "the coffin tree," and folks who used the road regularly remember watching for it. Kids traveling with their folks sometimes had a contest to see who would spot it first. Stories circulated for years that the box was used for convicts who died on the farm. Elaine Oubre of Broussard told me that in the tales her father told "it was definitely a coffin, not just a box."
"It was always very mysterious to me as a young girl," she said.
There was another story that the coffin contained a plantation owner's treasure and that you'd break a bone or go nuts if you tried to get it.
It almost certainly wasn't a coffin and held no riches. It's origin was much less romantic. It was only an old sugar vat that had been placed in the tree about 1927, when a Civilian Conservation Camp was opened nearby.
Several people told me that workers used the metal box as an outdoor shower to cool off during the long, hot summer days.
Hope Plantation was closed as a penal farm in 1931 and sold to private owners. The tank and the tree that it was in were removed when Jeanerette Senior High School was built in the late 1960s.
You can contact Jim Bradshaw at email@example.com or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.