The Rip Van Winkle Gardens of Jefferson Island, Louisiana, are 20 acres of garden and forest area surrounding the 1870s home of Joseph Jefferson, an American actor known for his portrayal of Rip Van Winkle in several stage and silent movie productions, and the alleged originator of the famous phrase, “there are no small parts, only small actors.” The Victorian-style mansion with a fourth floor cupola is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The home sits at the highest point of the peninsula’s salt dome at an elevation of 75 feet above sea level, unique for the coastal region. The mansion is furnished with period décor representing American and French empire furniture. The home itself reflects the opulence of French and Southern plantation-style architecture, incorporating Steamboat Gothic and Moorish details.
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The Acadian-style servants’ quarters were built around the same time in 1870 to house Jefferson’s staff. Acadian homes were influenced by the early French settlers of the South, descendants of the Acadians who settled in Quebec and northeast America in the 1600s. In 1925, a cook’s cottage was added to the property by J. Lyles Bayless Sr., who purchased the home and servants’ quarters from Jefferson’s family in 1917. The cook’s cottage was built as living quarters for the cook at the Jefferson Island Salt Mine. Both the servant’s quarters and the cook’s cottage are available for rent by overnight bed and breakfast guests.
The gardens surrounding the Jefferson home and cottages span nearly 20 acres. It was John Lyle Bayless, Jr. who rebuilt the gardens between 1950 and 1980 after selling the salt mine. The gardens include a grove of oak trees more than 500 years old, one of which famously provided shelter for a napping Grover Cleveland, the 22nd and 24th president of the United States. According to legend, the famous pirate Jean Lafitte stashed treasure under the oak trees in the late 1700s. Café Jefferson is an onsite restaurant open for lunch, with a glassed-in porch that offers views of the gardens and Lake Peigneur.
Joseph Jefferson (1829–1905) was an American comedic actor famous for his portrayal of Rip Van Winkle in several theatric and silent film productions. He was among the most famous of all 19th century actors, and is thought to have been the earliest-born actor ever to have appeared on film. In 1869, towards the end of a successful career, Jefferson purchased the land and home on Orange Island in New Iberia, Louisiana, later named Jefferson Island. The “island” is just one of several natural salt domes that dot the shore along the marshy wetlands surrounding the peninsula.
After Jefferson’s death in 1905, the 2,000-acre property was sold to a partnership of J. Lyles Bayless Sr. and two others: Paul Jones, a bourbon distiller from Kentucky, and the maker of Tabasco brand sauce, E. A. McIlhenny. Bayless’ son John Jr. refurbished the surrounding gardens in 1950, and eventually donated the home and adjacent 800 acres to an operating foundation with the mandate to manage the site and keep it open to the public for generations to come. In 1980, a Texaco oil-drilling rig mistakenly pierced into one of the salt mine caverns off the coast of the peninsula. The collapse of the salt cavern created a whirlpool that swallowed a half-acre garden under a glass conservatory, the site’s welcome center, Bayless’ personal retirement home, 65 acres of woodland, the drilling rig, and several trucks. Miraculously, no deaths resulted from the disaster. The island has since been rebuilt, although the once 10-foot-deep freshwater Lake Peigneur is now a 1,300-foot deep salt-water lake.
Ongoing Programs and Education
Tours of the gardens and Joseph Jefferson’s mansion are offered daily. Visitors may watch a brief documentary on the oil drilling disaster and the site’s subsequent recovery. The servants’ quarters and cook’s cottage are rented out to the public for overnight bed and breakfast stays. The home and gardens are available for weddings, corporate events, and meetings.
Rip’s Rookery is a manmade wetlands nesting area located just prior to the entrance of the Jefferson home and Rip Van Winkle Gardens. The site is designed to protect the island’s wading birds from predators. Common birds in the area include egrets, spoonbills, and the occasional thick-billed pelican. Nesting season is from March through July.
5505 Rip Van Winkle Road, New Iberia, LA 70560, Phone: 337-359-8525