Tuesday, December 22, 2020

St. Francisville Says Goodbye and Good Riddance to 2020, Welcome to 2021

St. Francisville Says Goodbye and Good Riddance to 2020, Welcome to 2021
By Anne Butler

audubonWhile we grieve for loved ones lost and celebrate those medical personnel and essential workers who have helped us preserve some semblance of living, we must remember that over the ages civilizations have somehow managed to survive pandemics and other atrocities. As Ashley Sexton Gordon reminded us in In Register magazine’s December issue, in the year 1347 the bubonic plague wiped out some 60% of Europeans, leading Italian writer Boccaccio to mourn that victims “ate lunch with their friends and dinner with their ancestors.” At least, she points out, they didn’t eat their friends, as did guide Alferd Packer, lost in a snowstorm in the San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado in 1874, when he apparently cannibalized the five goldseekers in his starving party. And Smiley Anders’ contributor Marvin Borgmeyer brought up the Middle Ages, when survivors celebrated the end of each pandemic with wine and orgies (“Does anyone know what is planned when this one ends?” he asks).

As the new year opens, with vaccines and continued mitigation measures revealing the light at the end of the terrible tunnel, St. Francisville has much to celebrate and look forward to, for 2021 marks the 200th anniversary of the artist John James Audubon’s inspirational stay in the area. Hired by Lucretia Pirrie, mistress of Oakley Plantation, to tutor her young daughter Eliza for the summer, Audubon arrived at the Mississippi River port of Bayou Sara by steamboat in June of 1821. His arrival marked a pivotal point in his career. The artist who was “bereft at that time of not only funds but incentive” was about to be introduced to the rich flora and fauna of the Felicianas, teeming with birdlife, that would renew his enthusiasm and artistic inspiration to continue on his staggering quest to paint all the birds of this immense fledgling country..

4 L img oakleyThe artist, penniless but rich in talent and dreams, was immediately struck by the beauty of the countryside, as he related in his journal: “The aspect of the country entirely new to us distracted my mind...the rich magnolia covered with its odoriferous blossoms, the holly, the beech, the tall yellow poplar, the hilly ground, even the red clay I looked at with amazement...surrounded once more by thousands of warblers and thrushes, I enjoyed nature.”

He recorded in his journal that the rich lushness of the landscape and flourishing birdlife “all excited my admiration,” and he would find the inspiration to paint dozens of his bird studies while residing at Oakley. The arrangement called for him to be paid $60 a month plus room and board for himself and his young assistant Mason, with half of each day free to collect and paint bird specimens from the surrounding woods, where he certainly must have cut a dashing figure in his long flowing locks, frilly shirts and satin breeches.

To celebrate the 200th anniversary of his arrival in the Felicianas, the West Feliciana Tourist Commission is planning an Audubon Interpretive Trail program, tracing his footsteps as he walked from Bayou Sara to Oakley Plantation, recording the amazing number of structures he would have seen and interacted with that are still standing in St. Francisville. These historic homes and businesses, governmental locations, churches and cemeteries have been preserved due to the area’s abiding sense of place, allowing visitors to experience at least partially what Audubon must have seen during his stay in 1821.

back grace azaelaOf course there is nothing left of the little port city of Bayou Sara, washed away by continual Mississippi River flooding, but atop the bluffs of St. Francisville it is amazing how much is still around...the Catholic cemetery where Oakley’s neighbor rests in peace after Audubon had sat up with his body all night, the structures housing the mercantiles and marketplaces patronized by Audubon and his wife Lucy, the home of Audubon’s acquaintance whose horse he borrowed for a desperate ride to check on his wife Lucy during a yellow fever epidemic, the Episcopal church presided over by his pupil Eliza’s second husband, the sunken roadways and verdant countryside still teeming with birdlife, and of course Oakley Plantation, now a state historic site and popular tourist attraction with a wonderful visitor center full of all-inclusive exhibits bringing to life the early days on this extensive cotton plantation.

A 1937 biography by colorful Louisiana historian/author Stanley Clisby Arthur described Audubon’s aura of mysterious charm: “a gifted artist, quasi-naturalist, sometime dandy, quondam merchant, unkempt wanderer, many-sided human being...A halo of romance surrounds his entire career, and he was generally regarded as mad because of his strange self-absorption, his long hair, tattered garments, and persistence in chasing about the countryside after little birdies.” The good-looking and graceful young Audubon had a decided way with the ladies, played the flute as well as flageolet and violin, danced a mean cotillion, fenced, and was partial to snuff and a liberal helping of early-morning grog.

In 1820, following a string of failed business ventures, he set out for New Orleans aboard a flatboat with only his gun, flute, violin, bird books, portfolios of his own drawings, chalks, watercolors, drawing papers in a tin box, and a dog-eared journal. As he wrote in his journal, “Without any Money My Talents are to be My support and my Enthusiasm my Guide in My Difficulties.” He earned a meager living painting portraits and giving lessons in drawing, dancing and more scholastic subjects, but by the following year Audubon was established at Oakley Plantation near St. Francisville and well on his way to accomplishing his dream.

egret frame cypressAudubon would spend only four months at Oakley, but managed to produce at least 32 of his bird paintings there and upwards of 70 in the area, from the Tunica Swamp to Little Bayou Sara, Beech Woods and Sleepy Hollow Woods, Beech Grove, and Thompson Creek. He did more of his bird studies in Louisiana than in any other state, and often referred to it as his favorite part of the country. He would mourn his departure from “the sweet Woods around us, to leave them was painfull, for in them We allways enjoyed Peace and the sweetest pleasures of admiring the greatest of the Creator in all his Unrivalled Works.”

In 1826 the artist started for Europe in search of a publisher; he had 240 bird drawings and $1700 his wife had saved from her earnings. He went first to England, then to Scotland with his “Birds of America,” and there the William H. Lizars Company of Edinburgh etched on copper plates the first ten drawings. After difficulties caused by colorists delaying production by going on strike in Scotland, Audubon took his drawings to the London company of Robert Havell and Son. It took eleven years to complete the copper plates of all, first run off in black and white, then hand colored to exactly match the original drawings, all under the supervision of Audubon. The original prints of “The Birds of America” measured 39½” by 29½” and were known as the Elephant Folio because of the size, bound in sets of four books; just under 200 complete bound sets were made up, sold by subscriptions costing $1000, and they represented 1065 lifesized birds. One of these original sets is in the rare book collection at LSU’s Hill Memorial Library.

Audubon died in January of 1851 in New York at the age of 66, some 30 years after his summer at Oakley set him on the road to recognition as one of the greatest bird artists and naturalists of all time, his bird studies characterized as “the greatest monument erected by art to nature.” As he would write in his journal on March 1, 1828, “The reason why my works pleased was because they are all exact copies of the works of God, who is the Great Architect and Perfect Artist—nature, indifferently copied, is far superior to the best idealities.”
And in the year 2021, the St. Francisville area will celebrate the colorful artist, his amazing bird studies, and hopefully the end of a devastating global pandemic. This might be a good year to give gift certificates from struggling small businesses in the St. Francisville area...the restaurants, overnight accommodations, gift shops and mercantiles, antiques co-ops, bookstores, art galleries, museums, historic tours, boutiques and all the other little indie businesses that have suffered from closures and limitations to keep customers safe.

pair roseate spoonbillLocated 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 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; note that Clark Creek Natural Area with its waterfalls just across the Mississippi state line will not reopen until spring, but other fine options for hiking include Cat Island National Wildlife Refuge, Mary Ann Brown Nature Preseve, and the West Feliciana Parish Sports Park. 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 St. Francisville Main Street at 225-635-3688 or West Feliciana Tourist Commission and West Feliciana Historical Society at 225-6330 or 225-635-4224; online www.stfrancisvillefestivals.com or www.stfrancisville.net.

Monday, November 16, 2020

Covid Christmas in St. Francisville:

Covid Christmas in St. Francisville:
Six Feet Y’all
By Anne Butler
           
cic 2020For decades, St. Francisville’s wonderful Christmas in the Country celebration has drawn excited crowds to escape mall madness and celebrate a safe small-town holiday the first weekend in December. Its historic charm shone as tiny white lights climbed Victorian gallery posts to turn this little rivertown into a magical venue, its lavishly decorated shop windows filled with alluring gift possibilities and a delightful parade lending its theme to the whole shebang…Walking in a Winter Wonderland, or Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, or something equally upbeat.

Not this year. Pandemic issues have upended the whole celebration, but the resourceful sponsors have figured out innovative ways to ensure the safety of guests, even if it means unseating Santa from his comfy inside throne for outside photo ops with children and a special spaced-out parade marching to the theme of “Six Feet Y’all.”

Events kick off Friday evening, December 4, as retiring longtime mayor Billy D’Aquilla hosts his last lighting of the town Christmas tree at the St. Francisville town hall, complete with fireworks, the United Methodist Church Children’s Choir performing on the front porch (5:30) and a Welcome Walk-Thru. The First Baptist Church puts on a Drive-through Live Nativity at its location at the intersection of US 61 and LA 10 from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Private homes throughout the National Register-listed Historic District on Ferdinand and Royal Streets encourage peeping Toms to peer through windows to admire Christmas decorations inside; signs designate homes participating in what’s called “Peep into our Holiday Homes” on Friday and Saturday nights from 6:30 to 8.

Parker ParkBe sure to drive through the West Feliciana Parish Hospital’s lighting display from Burnett Road to Commerce St. and enjoy cookies and cocoa; this will be a popular drive-through all month.  Also on Friday, from 7:30 to 9 p.m., Hemingbough hosts the Holiday Brass concert featuring the Baton Rouge Symphony.
Saturday, December 5, Anytime Fitness underscores its understanding that fitness bolsters both mental and physical health, especially in this time of Covid19, by sponsoring 5K and Fun Run races. Benefitting Cancer Services, Christmas on the Run begins at Town Hall on Ferdinand Street, 8 and 8:30 a.m. In downtown Parker Park, live music and interesting vendors will be onsite both Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; over 50 unique artists and vendors sell woodworks, jewelry, bath products, paintings, food and much more.

Santa in the Park is the new outdoor event on Saturday, December 5, at 11 a.m. Featuring opportunities to take pictures with Santa in a fun socially distanced way, this event has been moved by the sponsoring non-profit Women’s Service League to the expansive West Feliciana Sports Park just off US Highway 61 at the north end of St. Francisville and will also feature the West Feliciana High band and cheerleaders plus theater students performing. Advance tickets are available online at www.wslwestfel.com or Facebook:WSLofWestFel; refunds will not be made if bad weather cancels this event. Bring your own picnic foods, lawn chairs or blankets.

bandThere will be book signings for the new Soul of St. Francisville volume, full of fascinating history of iconic faces and places plus beautiful portraiture, at the West Feliciana Historical Society museum on Ferdinand Street on Saturday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and at The Conundrum bookstore Sunday from 11 to 1.

Saturday evening from 6 to 8 p.m., Audubon State Historic Site hosts its annual tribute to 1815 called A Jane Austin Christmas with wassail, straight-out-of-the-woods seasonal decorations, period music and vintage dancing by beautifully costumed re-enactors; Oakley House, where artist John James Audubon painted so many of his bird studies in 1821, never looks lovelier than by candlelight. A Community Sing-Along raises voices and spirits at the St. Francisville United Methodist Church on Royal Street from 6 to 7.


Sunday, December 6, the Women’s Service League is calling its ever-popular parade through downtown St. Francisville “Six Feet Y’all” in recognition of the Covid19 mandate for safe social distancing. Starting at 2 p.m., the parade features floats, marching groups and local politicians flinging lots of candy, with special adaptations in consideration of the peculiar circumstances required this year for the safety of parade participants and spectators. Live music will be presented in Parker Park before the parade, featuring the Fugitive Poets noon to 2 and Nancy Roppolo & Day Trip 2 to 4.

town hallBut the big draw this weekend is the wonderful array of shopping opportunities in St. Francisville. There are co-ops bursting at the seams with antiques and one-of-a-kind collectibles, plus art galleries, specialty boutiques, ladies’ fashions, home d├ęcor and gift shops, ice cream parlors and candy shoppes, a bookstore, candles and crafts, fine jewelers and more. Many of these are located in charming repurposed historic structures, some of which were private cottages and others carrying on the tradition of several centuries as mercantiles.

All of the shops are ramping up their appeal for Christmas in the Country, with exquisite seasonal decorations, refreshments, music, and lots of special sales. There’s also the fun “Find Me If You Can, I’m the Gingerbread Man” hunt with prizes; cards and directions are available at the West Feliciana Historical Society Museum and Visitor Center as well as the West Feliciana Parish Library, with Sunday noon at Town Hall turn-in card time. An additional incentive to Shop Small Y’All is the offer of a designer tote bag with purchase of $200 at each shop.

Located on US Highway 61 on the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge, LA, andNatchez, MS, the St. Francisville area is a year-round tourist destination.  Several splendidly restored plantation homes are open for tours: The 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.

childrenThe 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 St. Francisville Main Street at 225-635-3688 or West Feliciana Tourist Commission and West Feliciana Historical Society at 225-6330 or 225-635-4224; online www.stfrancisvillefestivals.comor www.stfrancisville.net.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

St. Francisville: Soothing to the Soul

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St. Francisville: Soothing to the Soul

By Anne Butler, Images by Darrell Chitty

 

D. Chitty            They come from every direction…from north or south along crowded US Highway 61, from the east via LA Highway 10, from the west across the new Audubon Bridge over the Mississippi River…and once they cross that parish line into West Feliciana, there is a collective audible sigh. Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhh!

            What is it that makes St. Francisville and West Feliciana so soothing to the soul, a respite from the hustle and bustle of our hurried harried modern lifestyle? It is now, and always has been, a sanctuary, and not in the current politicized immigration sense. Somehow it has managed to strike the right balance between preservation and progress, preserving significant pieces of the past while providing modern-day comforts and services. Someone recalled that as children in pre-bridge days, when the ferry docked at the foot of the St. Francisville hill they pretended it was a time machine, because it was like going back in time, with the extended branches of the ancient live oaks welcoming as if into the arms of loving grandparents.

            History, after all, is something to learn from and build upon; the lessons of the past---both good and bad---show us where we came from and where we have the potential to go. And so, amidst the wonderful array of carefully preserved historic homes and churches and scenic unspoiled wilderness areas, there are also modern medical facilities and libraries, top school system and a new inclusiveness that celebrates the cultural contributions of every level of society. The natural beauties of the landscape that so excited artist John James Audubon 200 years ago continue to inspire creative souls into the 21st century, and joyful festivals and concerts show off the talents of today’s crop of artists, musicians, writers, crafters, chefs and other gifted residents.

Jeff and Joe            A Facebook request drew insightful comments from a wide variety of St. Francisville lovers---those born and bred here who never left, whose bloodlines run as deep and strong as the roots of those majestic live oaks; those who couldn’t wait to leave, but found themselves inevitably drawn back home; and those who came to visit and simply never left. And there were three main themes as to why St. Francisville’s logo “We Love It Here” is so fitting. First, the rolling hills and deep hollows, the verdant pastoral reaches, the mighty river and bountiful blossoms in well-tended gardens with always the scent of sweet olive or some other old fragrance perfuming the air, the terrain unlike any other in flat swampy south Louisiana (as one said, when you live in the swamp, West Feliciana seems like mountains).

            Second, the charm of St. Francisville’s streetscape with restored 19th-century homes and churches, giving a sense of place, and yes, it’s a small town but in a good way, with a beautiful sense of grace that soothes the mind and soul, free of too much glitz and commercialism. And third and perhaps most important, the people, warm and welcoming with an unmatched sense of community and heritage and hospitality, where one can sit peacefully on the gallery and listen to the stories and watch the night fall as fireflies flit through the live oaks. Essentially, as one said, it’s a beautiful state of mind, where neighbors show care and concern, and the sky is full of stars and you can actually hear the night sounds. What it is, to most who live here, is home, a lasting tribute to the generations who have struggled to protect and honor and cherish its resources, residents and rich history.

 Boat           Can this feeling be captured in a book? You bet it can, and it has, in the newly released book called The Soul of St. Francisville by two who earlier collaborated on the initial volume, Spirit of St. Francisville. Anne Butler is the author of more than twenty books, whose passion is the preservation of Louisiana history and culture, and who feels a real sense of urgency in getting all this preserved in one permanent volume. Award-winning artist Darrell Chitty is a real Renaissance man whose never-ending quest for new knowledge and techniques leads him into the future of art as well as into the past. This book is a showcase of his varied talents; some portraits you’d swear were Old Masters and some have been executed in the most modern of art forms. And yes, they both have discerning and loving eyes that certainly can see into the depths of the soul.

            The Soul of St. Francisville will be introduced at Hemingbough on Thursday, November 19, from 5 to 7 p.m. for a book signing and portrait reveal. The text of the book contains fascinating in-depth history and the compelling images perfectly capture scenes of St. Francisville’s smalltown charm…morning coffee at the café before work, catching the schoolbus on Royal St., sharing woodsman’s skills and love of nature with grandchildren, all illuminated by a magical light filtering through the Spanish moss hanging from the ancient live oaks.

            While many fall gatherings have been cancelled due to the pandemic, The Myrtles hosts the St. Francisville Food and Wine Festival on Sunday, November 15, featuring celebrated chefs, creative dishes, craft cocktails and fine wines as well as lawn games. Tickets may be obtained through bontempstix.com.

 D Chitty      Located on US Highway 61 on the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge, LA, andNatchez, MS, the St. Francisville area is a year-round tourist destination; check locally for coronavirus mitigation requirements, please. 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 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. While Clark Creek Nature Preserve remains closed to the public until after the first of the year, according to the Mississippi Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, there are wonderful hiking trails at the Mary Ann Brown Preserve and Audubon State Historic Site, at the West Feliciana Parish Sports Park, and also in the Cat Island National Wildlife Refuge (be sure to visit the Big Tree) and the Tunica Hills Wildlife Management Area that are open. 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.stfrancisville.us, www.stfrancisvillefestivals.com, or www.stfrancisville.net(the events calendar gives dates and information on special activities).