While the history of Oak Alley Plantation begins with the Jacques Telesphore Roman family, it is the legacy of Mrs. Josephine Armstrong Stewart which keeps the iconic Oak Alley Plantation open to the public today. October 3rd is the anniversary of Mrs. Stewart's passing, and we take this day to celebrate her wonderful life and the precious gift of Oak Alley that she has left for all of us to enjoy.
Maria Josephine Armstrong was born in 1879 in Austin, Texas, and raised on the famous Armstrong Ranch, where her passion for cattle ranching and the ranching lifestyle began. Her father was John B. Armstrong, III, a famous Texas lawman. Josephine met and fell in love with cotton broker Andrew Stewart, whom she married on April 18, 1906 at St. Marks Episcopal Church in San Antonio, Texas. Following a European honeymoon, they settled in New Orleans, Louisiana, where Andrew’s office was located. On a trip up the Mississippi River, Mrs. Stewart spotted an amazing avenue of live oaks leading to a declining antebellum mansion. This was her first glimpse of her future home, Oak Alley Plantation. The open land and grand mansion offered Josephine a dream location for her own cattle ranch and in 1925, she and Andrew purchased the plantation for $50,000 and spent $60,000 in renovations to return it to its former glory. Andrew and Josephine’s restoration of Oak Alley Plantation is one of the finest examples of adaptive restoration in the River Region. While restoring the “Big House,” the Stewarts are believed to have lived what serves today as the Ticket Booth and Oak Alley Foundation office. Once the “Big House” was restored to a livable condition, the Stewarts made it their residence. Josephine, or "Aunt Tita" as she was affectionately referred, was well-known for her cordiality, as well as for her love for her beautiful plantation. Area residents were often invited over to visit or have tea and neighboring children often freely explored the grounds, to the delight of Mrs. Stewart. Josephine annually hosted all the seniors from all the area high schools, and regularly invited music clubs, garden clubs, and 4-H clubs to the plantation. She eventually opened her private home to the public for tours. Josephine loved the outdoors, had a great passion for gardening (roses in particular) and riding horses on the grounds of her beloved plantation. She also enjoyed swimming and had an indoor swimming pool built by moving together two chicken coops that were located on the grounds. This one-of-a-kind indoor pool still exists today, resting just outside of the historic grounds in the private residence area. Although sugar cane was the primary plantation crop in south Louisiana, the mosaic virus wiped out the sugar cane crops in the area in the early 1900s. Josephine, coming from a cattle ranching family, decided, along with her husband, to operate Oak Alley primarily as a cattle ranch. It wasn't’t until the 1960’s that sugar cane was introduced back to Oak Alley. It was at that time that Josephine entered into a lease agreement with M. Rodrigue & Sons to develop the plantation’s farmland into a thriving sugar cane crop. Following her husband Andrew’s passing in 1946, Josephine was more determined than ever to share Oak Alley Plantation with the community. While continuing to keep her home open to neighbors, relatives and students, Mrs. Stewart began formulating a plan to assure that Oak Alley would remain open for generations to come. The Stewarts had no children, and Josephine was concerned about the fate of the plantation. She created the non-profit Oak Alley Foundation and appointed relatives and close friends to the Board of Trustees to oversee the home and 25 acres of historic grounds. Josephine named her nephew Zeb Mayhew, Sr. as chairman of the board, and pledged him to oversee the upkeep of the home, thus beginning the Mayhew era at Oak Alley Plantation. It is Josephine’s great nephew and Zeb Sr.’s son, Zeb Mayhew Jr. that has served as Executive Director of Oak Alley Foundation for the past 37 years. Three generations of the Mayhew family, direct descendants of Josephine Stewart, are still actively involved with Oak Alley as we know it today! Mrs. Josephine Armstrong Stewart passed away on October 3rd, 1972 at 7:30am. All clocks in the house are stopped at that time to honor her memory. On October 3rd we pause for a moment to remember her, and to be grateful for the foresight she had to create the Oak Alley Foundation, which keeps our beautiful antebellum mansion and historic grounds safe, well-cared-for, and open to the public.