In 1869, American actor Joseph Jefferson purchased “Orange Island,” as it was known at the time of the purchase, which sat atop a salt dome on Lake Peigneur to use as his winter home and hunting lodge. The “island,” referred to now as Jefferson Island, is not actually an island at all; instead, it is a piece of land formed that sits atop the salt dome. It is one of four salt dome islands in Acadiana, along with Avery Island, Weeks Island, and Cote Blanche.
Jefferson built what he referred to as the Rip Van Winkle House in 1870. He had played the role of Rip Van Winkle in a film adaptation of Washington Irving’s short story by the same name of "Rip Van Winkle;" because of his love for the dramatic arts, he named his beloved plantation home after it. The plantation, which Jefferson called the Bob Acres Plantation after a character from another play that he acted in, "The Revivals," was made up of approximately 3,600 acres. The jewel of the property, the Rip Van Winkle House, was built using cypress wood that was grown in New Iberia, the location of the plantation.
Although plantations of this time were often used as farms for agriculture, Jefferson was not a farmer and did not use his plantation for commerce. Instead, he would host extravagant parties at his beloved Bob Acres Plantation, that included guests such as President Grover Cleveland, who is said to have enjoyed taking naps under the enormous oak trees dotting the plantation.
Joseph Jefferson died in 1905 leaving the Bob Acres Plantation to his heirs. In 1917, the heirs to the plantation sold Jefferson Island and the plantation to John Lyle Bayless, Sr. of Anchorage, Kentucky; Paul Jones, bourbon distiller of Louisville, Kentucky; and E. A. McIlhenny of Avery Island, Louisiana. Son of John Lyle Bayless, Senior, Bayless, Junior, developed gardens around the home in 1950 in honor of Joseph Jefferson, affectionately calling them the Rip Van Winkle Gardens. Bayless sold the salt mines that ran underneath the lake and property and donated the Joseph Jefferson House and 800 acres of gardens to a foundation that would ensure that the grounds would be maintained long after he died.
On November 20, 1980, a Texaco drilling rig pierced one of the giant salt caverns and flooded the entire salt mine. This caused four years of damage to the property, creating a vortex that formed in the lake which swallowed a glass conservatory and garden that Bayless had built, Bayless’s retirement home, the Rip Van Winkle Welcome Center and 65 acres of native woodland. However, four years after this incident, Rip Van Winkle Gardens were up and running again and today are the location of many weddings, private events, tours, and an on site bed and breakfast.