Tuesday, August 27, 2019

St. Francisville’s Rosedown Plantation State Historic Site: Story of Survival

St. Francisville’s Rosedown Plantation State Historic Site: Story of Survival
By Anne Butler


rosedown“Of all the houses in the world it seemed to be the beloved of its own trees and gardens,” said Mississippi-born writer Stark Young when he used Rosedown as a picturesque setting in his acclaimed Civil War novel So Red The Rose, written a full century after Rosedown was built in 1834. That charm and appeal continues unabated today, the house folded in the embrace of 27 surrounding acres of 19th-century gardens and live oaks grown to immense size, and indeed the beauty of the glorious gardens has saved the house itself more than once through the generations.

In 1829 Martha Hilliard Barrow and her husband Daniel Turnbull acquired the Rosedown property from the estate of her father for $60,000; the couple had married in 1828 when Martha was 18 years old and Daniel 28. Here they would erect a stately double-galleried home, all 8,000 square feet of it costing a mere $13,109.20 and completed in just six months, November 1, 1834, to May 1, 1835.
oaksMuch of the labor was performed by slaves during the winter months when planting chores were few. Built of cypress cut from the surrounding woods, the Rosedown house featured Doric columns, double galleries, and a fanlight over the entrance doorway to remind the mistress of her own homeplace, Highland; its style was called transitional Federal Greek Revival. The “workmanship and stile (was) not to be surpassed in the state,” according to the contract with carpenter W. Wright, who had been a contractor for the West Feliciana Railroad, the country’s first standard-gauge line.

The young bride planned a housewarming party for only some thirty guests, but the menu included 6 chickens for chicken salad, 2 turkeys, 2 ducks, 1 ham, 1 tongue, 1 roast mutton, 2 roast chickens, 1 pig, cakes made from 12 dozen eggs, 6 eggs for salad, 16 pints for cream, jelly, blancmange, 23 bananas, 6 pineapples, 2 hogsheads ice, 4 decanters wine, 4 decanters brandy, 2 bottles brandy, 8 bottles champagne, 4 pounds candy fruit, 2 ornamental pound cakes of 12 pounds each, 1 10-pound fruitcake, macaronas, lady fingers, 1 jar grapes, 2 neuga ornaments; “costs 74 dollars, musicians 60 dollars, indeed to induce everything it cost 224 dollars.”

On their lengthy wedding trip through Europe in 1835, Martha fell in love with Versailles and other great landscapes of the Continent and gleaned the inspiration for her own grand gardens. Only such expansive yet orderly grandeur could adequately complement the fine plantation house. Initially five acres of rare shrubs on each side of the avenue, the Rosedown plantings were continually expanded into one of the great gardens of the 19th century and early proving grounds for the exotic flora of the Orient.

camelliaCamellia japonicas, for example, planted at Rosedown as early as the 1830s or ‘40s, were natives of the Orient and Far East, known to thrive in the gardens of Japan and China centuries before they were seen by Europeans. They were initially carried to other lands by missionaries and early medical men, travelling first afoot and then across the seas after trade with the Orient was first opened in the early 1500s by the Portuguese and their infamous Black Ships. Soon trading groups like the East India Companies were formed, dealing in spices, silks, porcelains and other Oriental treasures. It was often the medical officers of these trade companies who first studied the native plants for their medicinal propensities, then introduced the botanical oddities back home.

The gardening journals of Martha Turnbull are a testament to the importance of plantings in early southern life and the amazing variety of not just ornamental but also edible plants she set out…eggplants and tomatoes, turnips, cabbage and lettuce, celery, broccoli, beets and spinach, parsnips, carrots, kale, leeks, potatoes, garlic, onions planted at the full moon, peas, dewberries and raspberries, beans, watermelons, cucumbers and cantaloupe, cauliflower, squash, rutabaga, figs and pears and apples, quince and peaches, plums, artichokes, pineapples in the greenhouse, tobacco and rice.

cookingHere along the Lower Mississippi River where more than half of America’s 19th-century millionaires were to be found before the Civil War, Daniel Turnbull acquired additional lands for an extensive cotton operation. His more practical journal of cash crops and work details, preserved in the LSU Department of Archives and Manuscripts, includes such entries as: “Shipped 308 Bales; killed 20 hogs, weather cold; Rosedown gin running, 6 hands digging holes for trees in orchard; teams hauled pork from landing; 6 men cut up and salted hogs, 4 men whipsawing; heavy freeze last night; new smokehouse, new woodhouse; carpenters and 2 men in the swamp getting out timber for new cabins, 2 ox teams hauled the same, 7 hands worked in orchard, 5 men pressed 14 bales in Rosedown gin.” In 1860 a New Orleans newspaper called West Feliciana one of the richest parishes in the state, and among the largest planters were mentioned Daniel Turnbull of Rosedown and William J. Fort of Catalpa.

The Turnbulls’ seven-year-old son James Daniel died in 1843 of yellow fever, and their grown son William, who with his wife Caroline S. Butler had several children, drowned in the river while herding cattle. Their only daughter Sarah, beautiful “National Belle” of 1849, married James Pirrie Bowman, the son of Audubon’s pupil Eliza Pirrie of Oakley. Sarah was the center of brilliant entertainments and social life at Rosedown prior to her marriage, making the rounds of resorts, dancing the night away at fancy dress balls, touring Europe, and excelling at athletics as well. One account, written later by one of her daughters, tells the story of Sarah in attendance at drills at West Point on horseback when an officer dared her to take a hurdle. A fearless equestrienne, she sat erect and replied, “A Southern girl was never known to refuse a dare,” and gracefully leaped the hurdle. The cadets saluted her and the band played Dixie in her honor. It would be her eight daughters, four of them spinsters, who would struggle to maintain Rosedown after the Civil War through some very lean and difficult years.
gardenIn one particularly poignant scene from So Red The Rose, a Confederate cavalryman rides along the 660-foot oak allee from the plantation house based on Rosedown, tipping his hat to each of the marble statues lining the drive, a final farewell to a vanishing way of life. And indeed life would never be the same at Rosedown, and yet the plantation persevered through struggling years of genteel poverty. After 30 years of recording daily experiments and plantings with unlimited labor and funds, the diaries of Mrs. Turnbull dolefully record the disintegration of the gardens into melancholy wildernesses of sedgegrass during the difficult years of the Civil War, while she tried to save them by paying the help with plantation produce and often working by their side.

Wartime diary entries show the determination of Martha Turnbull, who had been mistress of hundreds of slaves, to do whatever it took to save her garden: “Julia one week at 40 cents…Penny and Lancaster 2 days each, $1.60…Penny cleaning front yard, gave her 2 lbs. coffee, 2 lbs. sugar, pint molasses…Ben hawled all leaves from the Avenue…Kitty and children cleaned up with Clabber paying.” The entry of January 1864 reads, “Up to this time, since the Federals landed in May neither field or Garden has been worked.” In January 1869: “Not one speck of ground yet plowed. Hay all over the truck patch & no manure yet hawled…all work that ought to have been in October and November yet to be done…Very cold & damp-deep snow today-can do nothing-no hands yet in garden but John Prenter & he’s worse than nothing.” And times worsened: “August 23…cleaned up my yard entirely by my own hands and now hawling manure and trash from Eliza’s side,” reads one entry in 1872.

gazeboIn 1874 she initiated a Civil War claim for property confiscated by Union forces in June of 1863, including 300 hogsheads sugar, 600 barrels molasses, 200 mules, 100 horses, 700 head of cattle, 80 wagons, 300 hogs, 6,000 bushels of corn, 50 bales of cotton, 100 barrels of pork, 3000 pounds of salted meat and 20 sacks of coffee. She never received compensation. And yet annual inventories of household items like the one of August 1867 still show remarkable treasures: “24 fingerbowls, 11 flower and 13 dark blue; 24 breakfast forks; 24 dinner forks; 1 asparagus knife; 1 buckwheat knife; 1 custard spoon; 1 gravy spoon; 21 teaspoons; 6 STB coffee spoons; 6 egg spoons; 17 dessert spoons; 17 dinner spoons; 1 cheese knife; 1 cake knife; 2 salt spoons; 1 sugar tongs; 2 butter knives; 12 nut picks; 1 sugar sifter; 23 fruit forks; 24 fruit knives; 1 fish knife; 16 old things in drawer; 6 nut crackers; 1 ham hock; 1 crumb brush…” Census of the labor force and of the animals from the same era, compared with the claim for property confiscated by federal troops, shows the decline: “40 sheep, 2 bulls, 1 old and 1 young, 6 oxen” and “little negroes 105, hands 248, no accounts 12.”
On September 1, 1895, Martha Barrow Turnbull entered her last posting in her garden journal: “My pension came. I had not one dime to pay Emma $2 this month, August or any debt whatever.” Her pension, as a widow of a veteran of the War of 1812, was a monthly check of $8.

Martha Turnbull died at age 87 in 1896, her daughter Sarah, mother of ten, in 1914. The slim Bowman sisters of the next generation, spinsters Corrie, Isabel, Sarah and Nina, inherited the place and all its accompanying responsibilities at the worst possible time, as the boll weevil destroyed the cotton empire upon which the house was built; the parishwide harvest of 1853 had been 24,000 bales, but by the early 1900s only 400 bales of cotton were harvested in West Feliciana. But the sisters did the best they could, selling poultry and cuttings of garden plants, and timidly offering postcards for 25 cents to inquisitive tourists who were allowed in to the house to see only the parlor and dining room.

It would be the gardens that touched the hearts of the Milton Underwoods from Texas when the plantation home and acreage were put up for sale after the last of the Bowman sisters, Miss Nina, died in mid-1955. The detailed gardening diaries of Martha Turnbull span nearly 60 years and prove that she was one of the first to introduce azaleas and camellias to the South beginning in 1836. These records were invaluable restoration tools when oil heiress Catherine Fondren Underwood, after attending a Garden Clubs of America event in Natchez, purchased the property in 1956, her keen eye recognizing the lush beauty of the gardens and haunting dignity of the house even through the creeping undergrowth and peeling plaster.

barnPrior to opening to the public, a meticulous 10-year restoration, overseen by noted New Orleans architects Richard Koch and George Leake and landscape architect Ralph Gunn of Houston who was succeeded by Dr. Neil G. Odenwald, salvaged the house and its unique collection of plantings. A 1930s WPA architect’s survey of Rosedown aided immeasurably in the location of paths, potting shed, conservatory and greenhouse. Century-old sweet olives, cypress, camellias, azaleas, and other flowering shrubs and trees were preserved, and a propagation program regenerated old-fashioned roses, rare hip gardenias with their seed pods glowing like bright orange lanterns, and lace-cap hydrangeas from the original 19th-century stock.

For decades Rosedown was the strong draw for tourism in St. Francisville, nationally recognized, well publicized, admired by preservationists and gardening enthusiasts for its attention to historical accuracy, a generous community partner for the entire area. But after the death of the Underwoods, the house with several thousand surrounding acres was purchased in 1994 for $3.75 million by a most unfortunate owner, who sold the cattle, sold the timber, sold some of the property, removed the marble statues lining the avenue, replaced knowledgeable tour guides with audiotapes and made visitors look through plexiglass rather than entering the rooms at an exorbitant entrance fee which generated tremendous ill will. He divided and sold the enormous Gothic Revival Henry Clay bedroom suite for which an entire wing had been added to one side of the main structure, balanced on the opposite side by a library; Daniel Turnbull purchased the immense set, which had been ordered for use in the White House, after Clay lost his bid for the presidency in 1844. The bed alone was sold to the Dallas Museum of Art for $450,000, matching side chairs went to Houston’s Bayou Bend museum, while the dresser, wash stands, massive armoire and cheval mirror went in different directions. Other purported contents of the house, seemingly everything that wasn’t nailed down, were sold at auction on the grounds, where local preservationists tried to purchase what they could so the items could be returned to Rosedown.

statueHe even tried to evict the little black Rosedown Baptist Church, on property well removed from the main house, given to the congregation way back in time and surrounded by a cemetery. That threat caused outrage in the entire community. Eventually the one-acre church property was purchased by an anonymous local resident and the deed handed over to the rector, the Reverend Lafayette Veal, Jr., a heartwarming recognition that any appreciation of area history and heritage must of necessity include the major contributions of black community members and of the importance of black churches to life through the generations. Rev. Veal, whose father pastored the church before him, recalled the night Rosedown’s new owner came to break the bad news to the congregation: “I was thinking and praying at the same time, ‘What is wrong with this man?’ Then it came to me: Satan is in our midst.”

Maybe it could have been worse. Sotheby’s International Realty had listed the property---2100 acres of woodlands, pasture, gardens and plantation house, with this sales pitch: “Currently maintained as a museum, Rosedown Plantation is well suited for a number of possible uses such as a hunt club, horse or cattle farm, private school, spa/health club, hotel/restaurant or residential development.”

Finally the State of Louisiana stepped in and purchased the house, gardens and close to 400 acres for $5.7 million in November 2000. Today Rosedown, magnificently furnished and now a State Historic Site and National Historic Landmark, represents one of the South’s finest examples of antebellum culture, a picture of life along the River Road during the Cotton Kingdom. Rosedown’s grand gardens remain one of few extant 19th-century gardens in America. Rows of live oaks form a vaulted canopy above the entrance allee, considered one of the most beautiful approaches in the South. On the grounds, a compelling collection of original outbuildings—barn, plantation doctor’s office, milk house, latticed gazebos—provide further understanding of the operations of the early plantation communities, and here Rosedown’s staff periodically demonstrates early plantation skills like down-hearth cooking in the detached kitchen, using actual recipes from the Turnbull family and their descendants.

One of the area’s iconic events, a fall tradition for gardening enthusiasts across the south organized in tribute to the glorious 19th-century gardens still extant in the St. Francisville area, is the Southern Garden Symposium October 18 and 19th, when nationally renowned speakers conduct programs in plantation settings including Rosedown, Afton Villa and historic churches on Friday; a Saturday symposium at Hemingbough features outstanding lectures, autographed gardening books and tools. For information and ticket information, online southerngardensymposium@gmail.com.

hummingbirdsOther fall events drawing visitors to the St. Francisville area include the Feliciana Hummingbird Festival at the National Wildbird Refuge in Tunica on September 15, the Angola Rodeo and Craft Show every Sunday in October, the popular Yellow Leaf Festival in Parker Park on the 27th and 28th of October, and the Myrtles Plantation Halloween Experience weekends throughout October.

Located on US Highway 61 on the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge, LA, and Natchez, MS, the St. Francisville area is a year-round tourist destination. Several splendidly restored plantation homes are open for tours: The Cottage Plantation (weekends), Myrtles Plantation, Greenwood Plantation, plus Catalpa Plantation by reservation; Afton Villa Gardens is open in season. Particularly important to tourism in the area are its two significant state historic sites, Rosedown Plantation (a National Historic Landmark) and Oakley Plantation in the Audubon state site, which offer periodic living-history demonstrations to allow visitors to experience 19th-century plantation life and customs.

The nearby Tunica Hills region offers unmatched recreational activities in its unspoiled wilderness areas—hiking, biking and bicycle racing due to the challenging terrain, birding, photography, hunting. There are unique art galleries plus specialty and antiques shops, many in restored historic structures, and some nice restaurants throughout the St. Francisville area serving everything from ethnic cuisine to seafood and classic Louisiana favorites. For overnight stays, the area offers some of the state’s most popular Bed & Breakfasts, including historic plantations, lakeside clubhouses and beautiful townhouses in St. Francisville’s extensive National Register-listed historic district, and there are also modern motel accommodations for large bus groups.

For visitor information, call West Feliciana Tourist Commission and West Feliciana Historical Society at 225-6330 o r 225-635-4224, or St. Francisville Main Street at 225-635-3873; online www.stfrancisville.us, www.stfrancisvillefestivals.com, or www.stfrancisville.net (the events calendar gives dates and information on special activities).

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Vibes in the ‘Ville

vibesVibes in the ‘Ville
By Anne Butler

 It was the summer of love, fifty years ago, when a music festival drew 400,000 hippies to a rolling farm in upstate New York to hear the top musicians of the day. Now the popular August festival that was originally called Polos and Pearls, designed to extend shop hours into the cool of the evening even in the heat of summer, steps up the pace with a decidedly funky feel.

Renamed Vibes in the ‘Ville, this year’s event promises lots of fun as it celebrates the 50th anniversary of Woodstock on August 17 from 4 to 7 p.m. in downtown St. Francisville, with shop extended hours and specials, tram transports, plus live music and vendors in Parker Park. A special live tribute performance of Sounds of Woodstock will round out the reminiscing from 7 to 10 p.m .
Temple Design has created spectacular tie-dyed t-shirts, available in most shops, designed to encourage attendees, especially those old enough to remember the first Woodstock, to keep their clothes on! Shoppers have the opportunity to register for door prizes at each shop, and winners’ names will be pulled at Parker Park after 7 p.m.

joeThat first Woodstock, on August 15-18, 1969, at Max Yasgur’s 600-acre dairy farm, proved to be a pivotal moment for popular music and the counterculture generation, marked by “a sense of social harmony, outstanding music, and bohemian behavior,” whatever that might be.

It was also marked by a few births and deaths (one overdose and one poor fan sleeping in a field and run over by a tractor), pouring rain and mud, nudity and traffic jams and wall-to-wall people, but oh, the music! Thirty-two top recording artists: Jimi Hendrix, Richie Havens and Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez, Country Joe McDonald and Santana, John Sebastian, The Grateful Dead, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Joe Cocker, Country Joe and the Fish, The Band, Crosby Stills Nash and Young, Blood Sweat and Tears.

Even Roy Rogers was invited to close the festival with “Happy Trails,” but he declined, and a few groups like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones had other commitments.
They billed the original Woodstock as “An Aquarian Exposition—Three Days of Peace and Music.” Vibes in the ‘Ville will be a single afternoon and evening, with great bargains in all the unique boutique shops and co-ops in St. Francisville’s Historic District and outlying areas, great music in the park, and hopefully no nudity or births or deaths, but you never know… And as the sun dips below the horizon and fireflies flit in the cooling dusk, Roy Rogers will again decline to sing “Happy Trails,” so happy shoppers loaded down with bargain purchases can just hum it to themselves.

docLocated on US Highway 61 on the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge, LA, and Natchez, MS, the St. Francisville area is a year-round tourist destination. Severa; splendidly restored plantation homes are open for tours: The Cottage Plantation (weekends), Myrtles Plantation, Greenwood Plantation, plus Catalpa Plantation by reservation; Afton Villa Gardens is open in season. Particularly important to tourism in the area are its two significant state historic sites, Rosedown Plantation (a National Historic Landmark) and Oakley Plantation in the Audubon state site, which offer periodic living-history demonstrations to allow visitors to experience 19th-century plantation life and customs.

The nearby Tunica Hills region offers unmatched recreational activities in its unspoiled wilderness areas—hiking, biking and bicycle racing due to the challenging terrain, birding, photography, hunting. There are unique art galleries plus specialty and antiques shops, many in restored historic structures, and some nice restaurants throughout the St. Francisville area serving everything from ethnic cuisine to seafood and classic Louisiana favorites. For overnight stays, the area offers some of the state’s most popular Bed & Breakfasts, including historic plantations, lakeside clubhouses and beautiful townhouses in St. Francisville’s extensive National Register-listed historic district, and there are also modern motel accommodations for large bus groups.

For visitor information, call West Feliciana Tourist Commission and West Feliciana Historical Society at 225-6330 or 225-635-4224, or St. Francisville Main Street at 225-635-3873; online www.stfrancisvillefestivals.com, www.stfrancisville.net or www.stfrancisville.us (the events calendar gives dates and information on special activities).

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Oakley Plantation inspired artist J.J. Audubon to Greatness

Oakley Plantation inspired artist J.J. Audubon to Greatness
By Anne Butler
oakley 0467Established on a 1799 Spanish land grant of 600 acres to Ruffin Gray, Oakley Plantation is fascinating in its own right, not just because of its close associations with artist John James Audubon, who in 1821 was hired to tutor the 15-year-old daughter of the plantation in dancing, music, drawing, math and French, plus domestic skills like hair plaiting.
Gray’s wife Lucretia Alston was the daughter of John Alston. who had obtained large land grants from the British near Natchez. When the Spanish governor of Louisiana ousted the English, Alston led an unsuccessful revolt in 1781 and then fled for his life. Sending his wife and three small children overland to safety, Alston was captured and imprisoned. His wife was killed when her horse fell during the flight, but the children were hidden in a one-room cabin on a friend’s Pointe Coupee plantation, cared for by a faithful family retainer named Mammy Patt. At least that’s the family tradition, and in John Alston’s will there is grateful mention of Mammy Patt; other versions place Lucretia in a convent school in New Orleans until her father’s release.

koakleyThe Oakley house was planned as a simple, sensible structure of colonial architectural style as adapted to the southern climate; originally it had divided Spanish-style steps to the raised front gallery and predated the grand Greek Revival architecture of the mid-19th century. It was a splendid West Indies-style three-story-plus-attic structure, with double galleries shaded by jalousies to block the harsh hot sunlight while permitting cool breezes to blow through the rooms, all of which opened to the outside. Exterior stairways and an interior one on a back gallery long enclosed have such narrow treads that one resident family member called Oakley “a house for warm weather and little feet.”

Lots of live oaks were planted to eventually provide the shade which would make Louisiana summers bearable. But Ruffin Gray would not live to see the fruits of his labor. He died within a year, and in 1801 his widow married millwright James Pirrie of Scottish descent and moved into the Oakley house when it was completed.

It was the focal point of a plantation that was well established by the time Irish-born traveler Fortescue Cuming visited the area in 1809. In his travelogue “Sketches of a Tour to the Western Country,” Cuming records a visit to the Pirries’ fine plantation, with a hundred slaves “and the best garden I had yet seen in this country.” He was somewhat less enthralled by local culinary practices, finding gumbo “a most awkward dish for a stranger,” the okra making it “so ropy and slimy as to make it difficult with either knife, spoon or fork, to carry it to the mouth, without the plate and mouth being connected by a long string.”
oakley 0597By 1824, records show that the Pirries had 5,656 acres planted in cotton and owned 106 slaves. They could well afford to hire a live-in tutor for daughter Eliza. Feliciana planters and their families often travelled by steamboat to New Orleans--on business to check with cotton factors about the sale of crops, or for social events and carnival season, or purely for pleasure and shopping. It was on such a trip to the Crescent City that Lucretia Alston Pirrie came into contact with the struggling artist Audubon and offered him temporary employment at Oakley as tutor for young Eliza.

Like all early plantations, Oakley is illustrative of the interconnections of homes and families. Audubon’s pupil Eliza Pirrie would marry three times. Her first marriage was an 1823 elopement, encouraged by secret romantic correspondences like the following, written on May 7, 1823: “My dear Eliza, The situation in which we are both placed is a sufficient apology for my adopting this method of making a communication to you ...I have borne with much patience the many and constant attempts, and apparent incessant watchfulness, to prevent any intercourse between us...You know Eliza there is but one way of avoiding and defeating this opposition—Your own feelings are the best prompting, in your making a decision on that point. It becomes necessary that we should throw away all reserve in our feelings, and embrace every and any opportunity that offers, for a safe conveyance of our feelings...A Few words would be gratefully received by one whose heart and its affections are, Truly thine, Rob. H. Barrow.”

And so, despite parental objections, Eliza eloped with her dashing 28-year-old cousin Robert Hilliard Barrow of Greenwood Plantation, who would not live to see 29; he contracted pneumonia, supposedly while carrying his young bride across the flooded Homochitto Bayou on their honeymoon, and died six weeks later; born posthumously, his son would carry on his name. Eliza’s last marriage was to an attorney disparaged by her friends as “a trifling sponge,” lured away by the Mexican War and the 1849 Gold Rush, and not even present when she died of childbed fever in 1851.

oakley studentsIt was Eliza’s second marriage in 1828, to the eminently respectable first rector of Grace Episcopal Church, which produced the descendants who were still struggling to keep both Rosedown and Oakley Plantations going into the 20th century. Her son James Pirrie Bowman married the beautiful Sarah Turnbull of Rosedown where they made their home and had a large family which included eight daughters, and Eliza’s daughter Isabelle Bowman married William Wilson Matthews and remained at Oakley.

It was in 1947 when a few determined dowagers of West Feliciana, namely the Misses Mamie and Sarah Butler along with Mrs. James Leake Stirling of the Alexander Stirling Chapter of the DAR, persuaded the state of Louisiana to purchase Oakley. Courtly longtime state representative Davis Folkes, called the Dean of the Legislature, pushed it through. The property was in dire need of attention, but its historic connections with Audubon cried out for preservation as a state property accessible to the travelling public.

There was no running water or electricity inside when the state acquired the house and 100 acres of land for $10,000 from the unmarried grandchildren of Eliza Pirrie through her daughter Isabelle. The last resident heirs, Ida and Lucy Matthews, had done the best they could, but massive restoration work was required. Garden clubs, Colonial Dames, Daughters of the American Revolution and other groups as well as interested individuals generously provided help with furnishings and landscaping.

oakley stairsMrs. Stirling served as the first curator, but longstanding disputes over park management led to her resignation at a time when the state auctioned off many of the home’s contents, property of the original Pirrie and Matthews generations, at very little profit. The Division of Administration noted the two auctions brought in little more than $1,000 for some 36 items of furniture. A half-tester bed went for $15, an armoire for $15.50, a piano for $25, a sideboard $15, 5 Eastlake chairs $26.25, and an entire bedroom suite of mahogany furniture including a tester bed for $186. A rocking chair was eventually sold for 50 cents.

Popular today as the central focus of the Audubon State Historic Site for more than half a century, Oakley has been beautifully restored and carefully furnished in the late Federal style of 1790-1830, reflecting the appearance of the home when Audubon was in residence. On the ground level is the brick-floored dining room, the second floor was the main living space with central parlor, and bedrooms took up the third floor.
Oakley was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. The West Feliciana Historical Society sponsors an Audubon Pilgrimage celebrating the artist’s stay, and Oakley is always a popular part of this annual event, with visitors especially appreciating seeing the tiny bedroom where Audubon himself slept and worked during his summer sojourn in what he called his ornithological paradise, a significant period that altered the course of his life.

Within its hundred wooded acres are the detached plantation kitchen reconstructed on original foundations around the early chimney and containing a weaving room and wash room; a barn full of horse-drawn vehicles and farm implements; and several rustic slave cabins. These dependencies are periodically utilized to augment the house tour with demonstrations of old-time practical skills and fascinating living-history events, many catering to school groups. Oakley also has a picnic pavilion, hiking trails and extremely interesting visitor center/museum.

oakley supermarket 0608Old houses are bottomless pits, and there’s never enough funding for preservation. A lengthy lead-abatement project and general sprucing up have recently been completed at Oakley, but the current goal of the state parks hierarchy is for all state sites to be self-supporting, not entirely unreasonable but perhaps not entirely realistic either for some sites. Private-public partnerships are being explored in hopes cooperative endeavors might help.

Oakley’s sister state historic site, Rosedown Plantation, has higher head counts of visitors, being closer to town within easy reach of bus tours full of steamboat passengers, and has also leased unused fields for row-crop farming. Rosedown is open daily except holidays; Oakley, at one point in danger of being closed completely, is now open only five days weekly.

Possibilities being discussed for enhancing Oakley’s appeal include an on-site micro-distillery (in a non-historic storage building) that might convince Mississippi River boat tours to include the place on itineraries as passengers disembark to explore the historic Felicianas. Would this be appropriate? Audubon, of course, was not a drinker other than his morning grog, but recall his observation of Squire Pirrie as “when sober, a good man,” and he also records an occasion when he was awakened to accompany Mrs. Pirrie to the home of a dying neighbor: “We went, but arrived rather late, for Mr. James O’Connor was dead. I had the displeasure of keeping his body’s company the remainder of the night...the poor man had drunk himself literally into an everlasting sleep; peace to his soul.” Ever the artist, Audubon continued, “I made a good sketch of his head...”

Perhaps straight history is no longer sufficient to command the interest of tourists, so that plantations must now become commercial resorts embellished with restaurants and spirits, even thousands of inmates at the former plantation now serving as the state penitentiary which has become the most unlikely of tourist attractions. But there are also properties of such incredible historic significance that care must be taken not to detract from what they have to teach us.

galaHighlight of the summer social season in St. Francisville is the seventh annual Wags & Whiskers Gala at Hemingbough on Saturday, July 27, 2019, from 6 to 9 p.m. This is the West Feliciana Animal Humane Society’s primary fundraiser for the local animal shelter, offering finger foods and cash bar, dancing to the Delta Drifters, silent auction, bargains on gift cards and wine, kissing booth, and a parade of prospective pets from the shelter. Tickets are available at bontempstix.com or at the Bank of St. Francisville.

The James L. “Bo” Bryant Animal Shelter opened in 2012 and is as close to no-kill as you can get. The dedicated volunteers and staff have cared for a total of 2,055 dogs and cats (plus the occasional horse or pig) since computerized record-keeping began in 2014, and of that number, permanent homes were found for 1,573, over 90%. Many lost pets are reunited with owners, sometimes years later thanks to implanted chips. The shelter also has some crackerjack volunteer photographers, whose appealing portraits led a California couple to adopt homely hounddog Ole Red and fly all the way to Louisiana to get him. And then there is Rowdy, Catahoula mix turned school therapy dog and unlikely current “cover girl” for the “Dog Days of Summer” issue of Baton Rouge’s social commentator In-Register magazine!

ameilaLocated on US Highway 61 on the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge, LA, and Natchez, MS, the St. Francisville area is a year-round tourist destination. Severa; splendidly restored plantation homes are open for tours: The Cottage Plantation (weekends), Myrtles Plantation, Greenwood Plantation, plus Catalpa Plantation by reservation; Afton Villa Gardens is open in season. Particularly important to tourism in the area are its two significant state historic sites, Rosedown Plantation (a National Historic Landmark) and Oakley Plantation in the Audubon state site, which offer periodic living-history demonstrations to allow visitors to experience 19th-century plantation life and customs.

batmanThe nearby Tunica Hills region offers unmatched recreational activities in its unspoiled wilderness areas—hiking, biking and bicycle racing due to the challenging terrain, birding, photography, hunting. There are unique art galleries plus specialty and antiques shops, many in restored historic structures, and some nice restaurants throughout the St. Francisville area serving everything from ethnic cuisine to seafood and classic Louisiana favorites. For overnight stays, the area offers some of the state’s most popular Bed & Breakfasts, including historic plantations, lakeside clubhouses and beautiful townhouses in St. Francisville’s extensive National Register-listed historic district, and there are also modern motel accommodations for large bus groups.

For visitor information, call West Feliciana Tourist Commission and West Feliciana Historical Society at 225-6330 or 225-635-4224, or St. Francisville Main Street at 225-635-3873; online www.stfrancisvillefestivals.com, www.stfrancisville.net or www.stfrancisville.us (the events calendar gives dates and information on special activities).