Tuesday, February 11, 2020

St. Francisville’s Celebration of Rural Life Skills

rural homesteadSt. Francisville’s Celebration of Rural Life Skills
By Anne Butler
The forty-ninth annual Audubon Pilgrimage March 20, 21 and 22, 2020, celebrates a southern spring and artist John James Audubon’s productive stay in the area in 1821. On tour will be several venerable townhouses in St. Francisville’s National Register Historic District, two country houses dating from the 1800s, historic gardens and churches, graveyard tours and hymn singing, Friday candlelight tours, Saturday night soiree and Sunday gospel brunch, and of course lots of bird-related activities.

But one of the most popular features, for both adults and children, has proven to be the Rural Homestead, and it has been that way since the mid-1970s. That’s when the directors of the West Feliciana Historical Society, in a prescient attempt to provide a balanced presentation of parish history, decided to recreate a setting suitable for demonstrating rural life with all its requisite skills and homespun crafts while there were still some folks around who remembered how to do them.

HorseBesides the plantation big houses and the quarters for enslaved workers, there were many small yeoman farmers, both black and white, eking out a hardscrabble existence, clearing small landholdings and erecting rough dwellings either on their own or with the help of a small number of slaves. It is that simple way of life that the Rural Homestead celebrates.

The 1977 pilgrimage brochure explained the intent this way: “The Rural Homestead is a major project of the Historical Society which will…tell the story of rural life in this parish. The landscape is changing rapidly and folkways that lent stability and commonality to those in all walks of rural life are vanishing. Not enough is being said today about the daily life of rural folk and their homely skills, some of them dating from pioneer times. Their story is just as much a part of the storied past as are the white pillars of the Old South…More than a nostalgic look backwards, this effort will create a new awareness as a living historical interpretation…”


cedar shavingAnd so began the Rural Homestead, with simple structures built in the traditional manner by carpenters using time-honored practices passed down through the generations, inside which demonstrations of significant 19th-century skills and crafts provide an understanding of early life in the Felicianas. And it is heartwarming to see third and fourth-generation workers of all ages…Daniels, Harveys, Temples, Ritchies, Lindseys, Metzes and more…carrying on the traditions today.

Corn was an all-important crop in the 19th century, providing sustenance for both people and livestock, and the Homestead’s operational gasoline-powered Gristmill with its original stones shows how dried corn was ground to make cornbread and other staples of country life. In the Kitchen, long the heart of rural life and usually detached from the main abode due to the heat and danger of fire, costumed interpreters churn butter and turn the ground corn into delicious cracklin’ cornbread over a woodburning stove. The Kitchen building, called a single pen structure with front and rear porches, was constructed from old materials salvaged locally, some pieces still bearing the marks of the broad ax and the foot adze used for squaring round logs. The framing follows practices carried over from half-timbered buildings, and the carpenter learned his skills from his grandfather.

grindThe Kitchen is roofed with cypress shingles, as were all the early structures in West Feliciana; they were weather resistant, fire resistant, termite resistant. Making these shingles using a froe to peel them from a cypress log is a dying art. It is demonstrated on site by a member of a family long associated with such practice; he’s the only one left to do so, and he uses a treasured century-old draw knife that’s been used by generations.

Inside the dogtrot Quilters’ Cottage, so named for the open passageway separating the two sections of the structure, may be seen quilters, spinners and weavers, as well as hook rug making and perhaps tatting. Farm wives had to cord cotton or twist wool fibers into thread with a drop spindle before sewing or knitting clothing, bedding, curtains and other decorative fabrics. On the porch there will be a display of brown cotton as well as candle making.

The Commissary, which traditionally served the significant function of storing bulk provisions in barrels, croker sacks, demijohns and large stoneware crocks, will feature basket weaving and a doll maker on the porch, with items such as wooden buckets and birdhouses for sale. This structure also houses modern conveniences like restrooms, and a Clementine Hunter-inspired student art show on Saturday below a wonderful wall-sized Hunter mural.

blacksmithThe Blacksmith Shop recalls the early methods of forging and repairing the all-important farming equipment, horseshoes, wagon wheels and other metals over an open fire. Today, hooks and simple fireplace tools are made, and demonstrations of woodburning are given; some of these items may be purchased.
There’s a board-and-batten crib barn, and other tin-roofed sheds shelter typical farm animals. Visitors can observe how ground was broken for planting prior to the advent of modern mechanical miracles like tractors, when it was done by plow behind well-trained mules.

Many different sizes of cast-iron pots were utilized for all sorts of chores, from cane syrup making to cooking and laundry. Cracklin’s are pig skins being cooked in a big iron pot over an open fire near the lye soap makers, both activities utilizing the rendered lard in which fish is also fried.

Water and soft drinks may be purchased from the refreshment wagon, plate lunches are available 11:30 to 1:30 near conveniently placed picnic tables, and old-time music enlivens the happy conviviality that characterized the frolics of an earlier day as Audubon Pilgrims step into the rural past.

LoomAs a 1976 article in the local newspaper said, “Not every door in fabled West Feliciana swung open on silver hinges. Most swung on plain iron hinges, and some even on wooden hinges.” The Rural Homestead was conceived and still is an effort to record vanishing folkways and create a new awareness of the need for preservation and conservation, and it was implemented just in the nick of time to capture the 19th-century practices and skills being passed along by “the collective remnant of the last generation to have known 19th-century rural ways.”

Audubon Pilgrimage tour tickets cover visits to the Rural Homestead, but visitors may purchase a separate ticket just for the Rural Homestead for $3 adults, children 12 and under free. These tickets are only available at the Homestead site. Open Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 9 to 5.

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.

dollsThe 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).

Monday, January 27, 2020

Touch of St. Francisville Travels to New Orleans Museum of Art

Touch of St. Francisville Travels to New Orleans Museum of Art
By Anne Butler

butler-greenwood plantation It is called one of the South’s best preserved formal Victorian parlors, and the New Orleans Museum of Art now has it on permanent exhibit. Moved in its entirety from English Plantation Country in St. Francisville, it is shown not only as a perfect representation of an era in history, but also as a tribute to those skilled craftsmen, both free and enslaved, capable of creating such beauty.
 On a plantation established in the 1790s by her father, the area’s first physician, Harriett Flower Mathews began assembling the room’s elegant furnishing and decorations as clouds of Civil War gathered. The ninth generation of direct descendants occupy the property now, but it was five generations of strong women who preserved the parlor intact.

butler-greenwood plantationIn the 1850s, widowed upon the death of her husband Judge George Mathews of Louisiana’s first Supreme Court, the determined Mrs. Mathews refused to be inconvenienced by the rumblings of war, ordering deliveries from fine merchants across the country: marble mantels from Kent & Fuller in St. Louis in 1855, wall-to-wall floral strip carpeting (53 7/8 yards) with a central medallion made most likely in England from Bayou Sara retailer I. Meyer & Hoffman, 9-foot-tall gilded pier mirrors and silk lambrequin curtains from the New Orleans retailer C. Flint & Jones but no doubt also imported from Europe.

The day before Louisiana seceded from the Union on January 26, 1861, a large order was placed for a sumptuous rosewood parlor suite from Hubbell & Curtis of Bridgeport, Connecticut, beautifully carved in the Rococo Revival style with flowers, fine fabrics, carved scrolls and fruit clusters. Harriett Mathews may well have visited the manufacturing site on visits to her son, who attended Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., as she also patronized a number of early nurseries Up East to order plants and ironwork for landscaping. In all, the parlor would contain a 12-piece set of rosewood furniture including several sofas, several styles of chairs, marble-topped tables, and a fine mahogany etagere beside the pier mirrors and lambrequins held with calla-lily tiebacks.
butler-greenwood plantation
The Mathews family could well afford such grandeur, owning in the 1850s four extensive productive cotton and sugar plantations across the state. But then came wartime troubles. In April of 1861 a letter was received from Hubbell & Curtis, requesting acknowledgment of receipt of the furnishings. “We are aware that troublesome times are come to all parts of our country, and the largest part of the calamity must fall on the manufacturing interest of the country. Our business is nearly ruined. But if our friends who are able will pay us…”

Succeeding generations kept the parlor intact with careful use, in the exact setting and in the original fabric, until the present generation, mindful of how rarely do our children want our old things, began to fret about its future. She didn’t want it divided; she didn’t want it to be auctioned off; she didn’t want it to go to an inappropriate place. Since the property had never been sold outside the original family, the attic remained full of trunks and trunks of original invoices and journals; many records were placed in the Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley collection of histories at LSU, but some were still on site.

Along came the late New Orleans attorney Paul Haygood and his interns from the Classical Institute of the South, doing an inaugural summer study of plantations in the St. Francisville area, where they were incredibly impressed with the sheer volume and quality of preserved material culture as well as the documentation through invoices and correspondence from providing merchants. And working closely with Mel Buchanan, the RosaMary Curator of Decorative Arts and Design at the New Orleans Museum of Art, the perfect solution was found. After all, there had always been close ties between St. Francisville and the Crescent City, with planters and their families travelling by steamboat south to handle business matters, socialize and shop, attend carnival festivities and board ocean-going vessels for trips to the East Coast or Europe.
butler-greenwood plantation
In 2014 a fleet of climate-controlled eighteen-wheelers parked on the front lawns of Butler Greenwood Plantation, while inside, an army of professional fine-art movers made crates for every single piece of the parlor furnishings…carpeting, sofas and chairs, etagere, towering pier mirrors, lambrequins and delicate calla lily tiebacks. This was all carefully transported to the New Orleans Museum of Art in City Park and given a light conservation for an introductory exhibit in October 2015. Now, as of December 20, 2019, it has been opened as a permanent exhibit for all to see.

Cognizant of current sensibilities, museum staff made sure that this is a celebration of all segments of society during the antebellum period, including the labor of the enslaved who made many more important contributions than picking cotton…there were skilled craftsmen, knowledgeable horticulturists, blacksmiths, seamstresses and weavers, culinary artists and many more whose talents and hard work provided the backbone and underpinnings for the cotton culture, and who are just now getting their due recognition. In the NOMA parlor exhibit are displayed small iron nails, obviously forged on the place. Examples of the skill of plantation blacksmiths, these tacks were used to secure the strips of carpeting to the cypress floor below, just a tiny reminder that there were contributions both great and small.

“History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived,” said author Maya Angelou, “but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”

For information on hours and fees, look online at www.noma.org.

butler-greenwood plantationLocated 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).

Photos by Rich Johnson

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

West Feliciana’s New Tourism Director Actually An Old Hand

West Feliciana’s New Tourism Director Actually An Old Hand
By Anne Butler
david floydSt. Francisville moves optimistically into the new decade with the hiring of a new Director of Tourism who’s actually an old hand in the industry, having spent over four decades directing some of the state’s iconic attractions.
David Floyd began his lifelong interest in history and preservation as a student at LSU’s Rural Life Museum, then headed up the staff at Kent House in Alexandria, went to Oakley Plantation of the Audubon State Historic Site for some 9 years, ran Vermilionville in Lafayette, and returned to LA State Parks in administration. Then in 1994 he was lured by his revered mentor Steele Burden to serve as director of the Rural Life Museum on property the Burden family had donated to LSU to pay tribute to vintage vernacular architecture and preserve touches of the simple life of early Louisiana.floyd azaela
Besides 41 years guiding and directing museums and historic tour houses, Floyd also poured his heart and soul into resurrecting his own home, found languishing in a Lettsworth cottonfield and moved painstakingly piece by piece (its lumbering trip across the Mississippi River to West Feliciana made the television news more than once) to be reconstructed in Weyanoke and rooted to the site with dependencies and landscaping that would make the late Mr. Burden beam with pride.
It was time for a new chapter; that drive from upper West Feliciana to lower East Baton Rouge was getting longer and longer. Floyd’s wife Marla called his attention to a search underway for a new director of tourism and encouraged him to apply, and so he did.

Laurie Walsh, who had served admirably in that capacity for a number of years, had just resigned to concentrate on her demanding position as St. Francisville’s Main Street director, leaving at a time when the atmosphere was finally becoming conducive to positive growth in tourism, both politically and economically.
laurieFloyd, who began his new part-time job the first of the year, said he was looking forward to working closely with Walsh and the Town of St. Francisville. “She and the Tourist Commission did such a fabulous job,” he commented, "growing that budget from $90,000 to $200,000,” and the town itself is always very generous in promoting the entire parish. St. Francisville continues to have such a healthy combination of residential and commercial structures that give the town a 24-hour presence; young families move in for the good school system and sense of community, and older retirees appreciate the little town’s walkability and easy sense of place, while visitors from far away appreciate the small-town historic charm. With wonderful new restaurants, reinvigorated shops and B&Bs, great new hospital and library, plus lots of fun festivals and creative inspirations, it’s no wonder the local logo is “We Love It Here.”
How, Floyd surmises, do you build on that? The demographics of tourism have shifted over the years, and ecotourism is the big passion today. Younger visitors are interested in gardening, but not necessarily estate gardening. They’re interested in farm-to-table operations, birding, hiking, primitive camping, biking on rural byways. And West Feliciana has all that to offer, and more, with the Tunica Hills and Cat Island and hopefully at some point the projected Tunica Preservation Area.
hiking tunicaBesides, Floyd says, tourism is without borders. Take what West Feliciana has and combine it, say, with Clark Creek waterfalls in Mississippi, or the Jackson/Clinton area, or the New Roads community thanks to the increasingly utilized Audubon Bridge. And perhaps have some anchors of tourism in the hinterlands, maybe in three different directions to augment town shops and restaurants and attractions: the Tunica/Weyanoke area with its unique terrain and recreational opportunities, historic plantations, Angola museum; the Oakley, Mary Ann Brown Preserve, Bluffs area with prospects of a walking/biking interpretive trail, maybe even from the river like the artist Audubon travelled in 1821; and the Laurel Hill area, with the newly donated Lemon House, St. John’s Episcopal, the old Dawson School, a state visitor center, the 24-hour truck stop casino and the old favorite South of the Border restaurant.
Tourism, he says is a wonderful combination of factors, and it certainly is considered economic development, having been the mainstay of the area’s economy for many decades after the waning of agriculture. Parish president Kenny Havard is supportive, seeing the trickle-down impact visitor spending can have on just about every business in the parish. As David Floyd sees it, tourism benefits everybody, and if you do it the right way, “you can have pleasant company and a good quality of life.” What more could you ask...
two kayaksL 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).