The Bonfire and Other Secrets from Dr. Laycock’s Goodwood Plantation
[NOTE: After more than 160 years in the possession of only two families, Goodwood Plantation in Baton Rouge has been sold to developer Michael Hogstrom, who plans to preserve and restore the home and build 48 high-end homes on the property]
By Woody Jenkins
As a boy, I was always fascinated by Goodwood Plantation, sitting majestically far back off Goodwood Boulevard, secluded by trees and with its “No Trespassing” signs prominently displayed. I heard that it was haunted, that the owner was a recluse, and that there were bad dogs to keep curious boys away. Yet, it appeared so serene, and I suspected it was full of secrets.
As I grew older and developed a love of history, I read what little there was about Goodwood Plantation. It had apparently never been on tour, and few writers had much to say about it — just that it was built in the early 1850’s by Dr. Samuel Laycock (1811-1884) and was part of a 2,000-acre plantation that he planted in sugar cane. Also, that the plantation had had only two owners — the Laycock family from the 1850’s to 1930 and the Babin family from 1930 on.
In the early 1980’s, my wife and I acquired Great Oaks, the only other antebellum-style home in the Mid-City area, and so I began to feel a kinship and curiosity about Goodwood. Great Oaks was only built in 1950 but it is an exact twin of Richland Plantation built in Norwood in 1820. Great Oaks is surrounded by historic oaks, including one 450 years old.
By studying old maps and courthouse records, I learned that Great Oaks was situated on land that had been part of the Bird Plantation, an 800-acre tract that encompassed all of present-day Melrose and a bit beyond. More importantly, the Bird Plantation was adjacent to the 2,000-acre tract owned by Dr. Samuel Laycock. I wondered what if any connection the Birds and the Laycocks might have had with one another.
In 2005, we began publication of the Central City News, and I spent a good deal of time researching the history of Central. Historian Vicky Carney told me I must meet Dr. Jesse L. Fairchild, Jr., a native of Central who wrote the book, A Historical Sketch of Greenwell Springs, Louisiana, 1850-1950. Dr. Fairchild, a physician who spent most of his career treating patients at Greenwell Springs hospital, was acknowledged to be the expert on the history of the northeast part of East Baton Rouge Parish. I took him to lunch, and we began a friendship that lasted until he passed away Sept. 28, 2011. Once or twice a year we would meet for lunch until his eyes went bad. After he moved to Williamsburg on Government Street, I visited him there. Before he died, he gave me the rights to the other books that he wrote, and he asked that I edit and publish them. He also asked that I reprint his book on Greenwell Springs, all of which I agreed to do.
From Dr. Fairchild, I learned there was indeed a connection between the Bird and Goodwood plantations. The founder of Goodwood, Dr. Samuel G. Laycock, married Adelia Bird. The couple also had a daughter named Adelia. Dr. Laycock died in 1884 and left several heirs. His son Joe lived on at Goodwood Plantation.
Dr. Fairchild’s grandfather, Jesse Marion “Bard” Fairchild (1842-1918) was close to Joe Laycock. In fact, he was so close that he named one of his sons after him — Joseph Laycock Fairchild. Bard Fairchild purchased 700 acres of the Richard Odom plantation on Greenwell Springs Road right outside Baton Rouge. But let Dr. Fairchild tell the story…
“As Mr. Joe was single and without help to care for his livestock, my grandfather often sent his younger sons to help him with the cattle. This included my Uncle Ed, Uncle Eugene, and my father, Jesse Lee “Cap” Fairchild. However, Uncle Ed spent more time with Mr. Joe than any of the others. Mr. Joe conveyed a great deal of history to Uncle Ed and to a lesser degree to my father Cap.”
“The Fairchild connection to the Laycocks ended with the sale of Goodwood to the Babin family. But a great deal happened before that.”
“Mr. Joe lived in the back sector of Goodwood that was the servants’ quarters. The main house was locked to everyone. He had a parrot who was free to fly in and out of these quarters through the open transom over the outside door. The parrot was capable of whistling up the dogs as well, and the poor dogs would gather outside the door, barking and ready to go after the cattle.”
“In one situation, Mr. Joe and my father, along with the parrot, went fishing in the little lake in the northeast corner of the property. They carried a jug of whisky with them. The boat leaked and required bailing out at regular intervals. After an hour or so, little attention had been paid to the water collecting in the bottom of the boat. In fact, it was sinking! Mr. Joe and my father were by that time under the influence and paying little attention. However, the parrot became extremely agitated and flew back to the house, leaving them to their misery. My father often told this story amid great laughter!”
“Uncle Ed said that after selling horses, mules, and cattle, Mr. Joe would head to New Orleans for a few days of relaxation and merriment. Uncle Ed frequently went with him. The first place they headed to was Felix’s Oyster Bar.”
“In the early 1900’s, Mr. Joe dealt with Poncho Vila in Mexico and would sell him horses and mules. He and Vila would spend a few days celebrating at the border. The Mexican bandit and revolutionary gave Mr. Joe a long horsehair braided whip, and Mr. Joe later gave it to my father.”
“Uncle Ed said Mr. Joe showed him the front door of Goodwood where a Minié ball was embedded.”
“Mr. Joe told him the Yankees camped in front of the Goodwood house when they occupied Baton Rouge. One day a detachment of soldiers appeared at the door and made a demand of Dr. Laycock. When he refused the demand, a soldier shot a Minié ball toward Dr. Laycock which landed in the door. Dr. Laycock fired back and angrily told the soldier to tell his commanding officer that he was a friend of Abraham Lincoln. There was no further problem. Mr. Joe refused to allow the Minié ball to be removed.”
“The Goodwood home was one of the first houses in Baton Rouge to have running water. Lead-lined cisterns were built in the attic to provide pressure for the running water. The pipes and gutters were also made of lead. One wonders if this amount of lead in the water may have resulting in chronic lead poisoning to the occupants. The lead was sold to the U.S. government for a large sum during World War I.”
“At the time Mr. Joe sold the property to the Babins, which must have been around 1930, there were a number of strange events. From these stories, as a physician, I suspect that Mr. Joe’s behavior and eccentricities could well be traced to lead poisoning. His relationship with his family was apparently distant and not good.”
“As the property was about to be sold, he resisted giving any furniture or household items to members of his family. On the contrary, according to Uncle Ed, Mr. Joe was determined to destroy as much of it as possible.”
“Thus began perhaps the most remarkable and unhappy event in the history of Goodwood — the bonfire!”
“Mr. Joe directed my Uncle Ed to assist him in chopping up large, beautiful pieces of antique furniture and tossing them out the second floor windows. They chopped large tester beds, armoires, tables, and chairs. They threw out beautiful paintings, mementoes, and artifacts. Heavy drapes were pulled from the windows.”
“Everything was thrown into the bonfire. Like a scene from a horror movie, the process went on for three days. More than 70 years of possessions of priceless historic and personal value were thrown into the flames. On and on it went. Uncle Ed was sickened but continued to help because he managed to convince Mr. Joe to save a few things.”
“Mr. Joe’s sister Miss Adelia was there for much of the show and wept at what was going on. Mr. Joe was not himself and became more and more cruel. As Mr. Joe was throwing a beautiful, expensive tea set into the flames, Miss Adelia begged him to give it to her. At first, he refused but finally relented and let her get it. She packed it up and was walking past him with it in her arms. Then Mr. Joe stuck out his foot in front of her. She tripped and fell. Much of the tea set was broken but Adelia saved a few pieces which I understand are still in the possession of the Laycocks.”
“A number of other remarkable items were thrown into the fire or saved from the fire as the case may be.”
[Note: The best stories about the bonfire are being saved for Dr. Fairchild’s book. From it, you will learn about Dr. Laycock’s connection to a Bowie knife and the pirate Jean Lafitte and whether Lincoln had a spy in Baton Rouge!]
“Mr. Joe inherited a number of medical instruments from his father that dated back to the 1800’s. Mr. Joe gave some of the instruments to my maternal grandfather, Dr. George W. Mixon. He already had identical ones and gave Dr. Laycock’s to me.”
“After the breakup of the household at Goodwood, there were still a few items, and Mr. Joe told my Uncle Ed that he could have what he could carry in one wagon. My father, Cap Fairchild, came from Greenwell Springs with the wagon and loaded up two surviving tester beds (one large and one for a child), a table, an old armoire that had been used for storage (not a fine piece of furniture) and some farm equipment. Earlier, Mr. Joe had given my grandfather sugar kettles. I grew up sleeping in the large tester bed. We stored some of the furniture in the large barn we had. During a very cold winter, a renter chopped up some of the antiques for firewood, including the child’s tester bed.”
“At the bonfire, Mr. Joe brought out a beautiful case containing matching dueling pistols, which my Uncle Ed thought he planned to throw in the fire. But Mr. Joe opened the box, showed him the pistols, closed the case, and took them back to the house. Uncle Ed didn’t know what happened to the pistols but he thinks Mr. Joe may have buried them on the property although he never saw a suspicious site.”
“According to Uncle Ed, Mr. Joe asked him to accompany him to the bank at the time of the sale to the Babins. A check was presented in payment for the property, but Mr. Joe rejected it and insisted that cash be used. After a day or so, enough cash was accumulated, and the sale was complete. Both Mr. Joe and Uncle Ed counted the money before Mr. Joe signed the papers.”
“After he sold Goodwood, it was rumored that Mr. Joe moved to Slidell. One Sunday my parents and I drove there in hopes of finding him. I was only a child. We inquired about but no one knew of him. Upon Mr. Joe’s death, my Uncle Ed was asked to be a pallbearer but because of age and emotions, he was unable to go.”
There are more stories about Goodwood Plantation and many other things in Dr. Jesse Fairchild’s book, Tales, Stories and Happenings in Baton Rouge and Greenwell Springs, which I plan to publish.