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).

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

St. Francisville’s Amazing Grace

St. Francisville’s Amazing Grace
By Anne Butler

graceSt. Francisville is a beautiful little island of English reserve and decorum in the midst of a state filled with Mardi Gras madness and Catholic confessions. It’s not French. It’s not Creole. It’s not Cajun. So it’s no wonder that the early church in St. Francisville proper, claimed by the French and settled under Spanish rule, would actually be Episcopal, Anglican Protestant to the core.
The area’s Anglo settlers in the opening years of the 1800s established extensive agricultural properties, planting first indigo and then cotton and cane. As they prospered, they chafed under what they considered corrupt Spanish rule even after the Louisiana Purchase. In the fall of 1810 they threw out the Spanish and audaciously established an independent republic, which lasted a grand total of 74 days before the area was added to the United States.

By 1827 a number of the St. Francisville area’s most prominent residents, feeling the need for organized religious guidance, came together to draft a resolution to establish an Episcopal church, which would be the second one in the state. Some had been leaders of the West Florida Rebellion; even more were just a generation down from the Revolutionary War, their fathers having participated as Tories supporting the English or fighting for independence with George Washington on the American side, and a few were even Quakers. Now they would all come together as staunch Episcopalians.

“Whereas a number of citizens of the Parish of West Feliciana and State of Louisiana, being desirous to establish a church in connection with the Protestant Episcopal Church of the United States of America, and being desirous to call a clergyman of that denomination of Christians to officiate in said church, have associated themselves together for that purpose; and on the 15th day of March, 1827, at the town of St. Francisville, in said Parish, did organize themselves into an Association for that purpose.”

Grace churchNamed wardens at that meeting were Thomas Butler and William Flower; the vestry was made up of Dr. Ira Smith, Edward H. Barton, Henry Flower, Francis Dabney, Robert Young, Lewis Stirling, John Mulholland, Benjamin Muse House, Levi Blunt and John L. Lobdell. They were assessed $25 for the support of a minister, the name Grace was chosen for the new church, and a committee was appointed to collect subscriptions for buying a suitable property on which to erect a building.

By March 30th the Vestry called the Reverend William R. Bowman of Pennsylvania, age 27 and only recently ordained as a priest, as first rector of Grace Church. He’d come to the area to visit his sister Mary Bowman, who was married to Henry Stirling of Wakefield Plantation, brother of vestry member Lewis Stirling. Rev. Bowman was described in church records as a man of “commanding appearance, pleasing address, a correct reader, an eloquent preacher, and a fine theologian. All of his parishioners speak of him in the highest terms both as an agreeable gentleman and a christian minister.” By December 1828 he had married beautiful young Eliza Pirrie Barrow, pupil of John James Audubon at Oakley, widowed when her first husband supposedly perished of pneumonia contracted when he carried her across a flooded Homochitto River on the way to their elopement honeymoon in Natchez.

Four lots were purchased in April 1828 from Judge Thomas Chinn, first parish judge, for $200, for which he accepted a personal note from Dr. Ira Smith. A contract was entered into with Willis Thornton to “erect, build, and construct a church of brick in good substantial manner, with a solid foundation for such building, the church to be 20 feet in height to the square, walls 18 inches thick, 50 feet long and 38 feet wide, with Vestry room in the rear of brick, balcony in front 18 feet high, the front to be of brick, the remainder of wood…The organ gallery to be finished with plain facing and seats, and after same is completed, which shall be on or before the 25th day of December, 1828, the sum of $3,217 to be paid to said Thornton.”

This simple church of Georgian design was completed and was used by the congregation during the winter of 1828 in spite of not being plastered, painted or ceiled; only a bishop’s visitation in 1830 inspired the faithful to raise funds for its completion. In the early years of settlement, the faithful often moved from one church and denomination to another at will, and in January 1835 Rev. Bowman made this report to a convention in New Orleans: “Owing to the heterogeneous character of this congregation it is difficult to say what number of communicants are really attached to the Protestant Episcopal Church---they do not probably exceed eight or ten; there have been three Baptisms during the present year.”

Rev. Bowman succumbed to a “short but painful attack of congestive fever” in August of that same year. Grace Church would have several rectors over the next few years, with yellow fever rampant and hard times brought about by the depression and panic of 1837. One visiting clergyman was aghast to find “the doors wide open, the windows broken, the organ gone, the few prayer books torn in pieces, playing cards strewed about, and everything looking like sin and desolation.”
Grace Church in St. Francisville, La. But Grace Church once again flourished under the Reverend Daniel Smith Lewis, originally from Massachusetts. Accepting the call to serve in the summer of 1839, within a year and a half he would report “Sunday Scholars 50; Teachers 8…the spiritual prospects of the Parish are encouraging. The attendance on Public Worship is constantly increasing and its happy influence marked and felt among this community. Our church has been greatly improved in the past year…” The church’s first parochial report to the annual convention reported “14 white and 31 colored infant baptisms, 7 white and 21 colored adult baptisms, 2 marriages, 14 funerals, and 14 Episcopal Communicants, 12 white and 2 colored, with 15 communicants belonging to other denominations.”


Its members were instrumental in forming a recognized Diocese in Louisiana and naming Leonidas Polk its bishop. Polk would serve for 23 years, until he resigned his duties to become the Fighting Bishop of the Confederacy. Beloved by his men, not so much by officers with more military experience, he was killed in the Battle of Pine Mountain in Georgia in 1864.

By 1845 there were 26 communicants. Rev. Lewis was not only responsible for several mission churches, St. Mary’s in the Weyanoke community and St. John’s at Laurel Hill, but also for several colored congregations of slaves on Troy and (Butler) Greenwood Plantations. He also was more or less in charge of St. Francisville schools, though they were not strictly parochial. For all this, Dr. Lewis received a salary of $1,200 a year.
In June of 1858 Bishop Leonidas Polk laid the cornerstone for a fine new church, Gothic in design with an off-center bell tower, “simple, chaste and dignified,” built directly in front of the site of the first structure but on greatly expanded grounds. Some of the added lots were acquired over the years from a family of Chews, called “free men of color.” The church was built of brick by Charles Nevitt Gibbons in a style reminiscent of English country churches remembered from his childhood. Gibbons had come to St. Francisville with his friend Robert Wickliffe, who would become the state’s sixteenth governor. An expert woodcarver, Gibbons produced all of Grace’s interior woodwork and also supervised the erection of the nearby Catholic Church. When he died an insolvent boarder in a Bayou Sara hotel in 1881, his estate, besides land sold for debts, listed “a lot of old books, a square, 2 old wrenches, a dozen assorted planes, a tri-square, 2 compasses, 1 chisel, a slate, and a small box of paints.”

day the war stoppedIn Grace Church exceptional early American leaded stained glass windows filter the sunlight across carved faux bois oak pews, while the top of the altar window and the rose window above the entrance door are European stained glass. In the south transept by the organ is a door with four red Bohemian glass panels, supposedly purchased at a later date with a gift from a “repentant Union Naval gunman” who helped shell the town during the Civil War.

Live oaks were planted in the church yard from the plantation of Mrs. Harriet Flower Mathews in 1855, making the cemetery a peaceful resting spot for generations of worshipers, and in that year it was partially enclosed by a wrought and cast-iron fence. Among the earliest of burials in the 1840s was that of baby Edward Baldwin, whose cause of death, no doubt a common one in those days of runaway horses and rutted roads and open carriages, was recorded as “flung from buggy.” Mrs. Mathews also gave the exceptional Pilcher pipe organ built into the south transcept in memory of her husband, Louisiana Supreme Court justice Judge George Mathews; shipped downriver from St. Louis in 1858, it is the oldest two-manual tracker-action organ still in use in the country. Playing this organ is not for the fainthearted nor the feeble, and at one point it had to be manually operated by hand bellows pumped by the sexton, who often fell asleep at the post, causing the organist to have to dismount from her bench to arouse him.

The church was completed by Easter Sunday of 1860. And then came the Civil War.
In the late summer of 1862, in retaliation for Confederate guerilla attacks, the Union gunboat Essex burned all houses and the markethouse along the levee in Bayou Sara, and St. Francisville suffered bombardments as well, with U.S. Naval records calling the town “a perfect hotbed of secession…the constant resort of Confederates.”

The following year, the bloody Siege of Port Hudson was pitting 30,000 Union troops against 6,800 weary Confederates fighting over the all-important control of traffic on the Mississippi River. Admiral David Farragut attempted to run the blockade at Port Hudson, but of his seven ships, only his flagship and the USS Albatross passed upriver safely, The Albatross was patrolling the Mississippi River off Bayou Sara just below St. Francisville when a shot rang out from the captain’s stateroom. It was 4:15 p.m. on June 11, and the vessel’s commander, John Elliot Hart of Schenectady, New York, had shot himself.

Day the War StoppedCommander Hart was a Mason. Living near the river were several helpful brothers named White who were also Masons; and in St. Francisville was Feliciana Lodge No. 31 F&AM, the second oldest Masonic Lodge in the state. Its senior warden, William Walter Leake, a captain in the First Louisiana Cavalry, was at home on furlough. It would be his duty, he felt, to afford a decent burial to a fellow Mason and fellow military officer, regardless of politics. And so the war stopped, if only for a few mournful moments, and Commander Hart was laid to rest in the cemetery around Grace Episcopal Church, with Union and Confederate Masons participating in the burial services along with the Episcopal rector, the Reverend Daniel Lewis.

An article in the New Orleans Times-Picayune in 1937 called this event “one of the strangest born of the War Between the States, when fighting men could battle to the death and yet know chivalry, when war had not become the cold-blooded butchery of today.” The article also referred to Hart’s grave in Grace Church cemetery’s Masonic plot as “a Yankee grave that Dixie decorates,” for every year on Memorial Day and All Saint’s Day, fresh flowers were placed, initially by Confederate Mason William Walter Leake whose intervention facilitated the burial. This unlikely event is observed each year in St. Francisville (this year June 15, from 9 to 5, all free), with re-enactors in blue and grey joining Masons recreating the burial, plus vintage presentations, Masonic programs and evening socials to celebrate not a battle but the bonds of brotherhood that proved stronger even than the divisiveness of a bitter civil conflict.

Then in January 1864 St. Francisville was shelled for hours by the USS Lafayette. Lieutenant Commander James P. Foster reported “one hundred and eight shots were fired slowly and with great accuracy, each one telling.” The bell tower of Grace Church was a tempting target. Church records note that “one shell entering at the front corner and dislodging large masses of brick, spent its force in the chancel and lay there unexploded, and another passed through the organ.” The rector of Grace was said to have sent a servant down to the river under a flag of truce to inform the gunners that “to fire upon God’s House is unthinkable.”

One story relates how old Aunt Silvia Chew, free woman of color whose family had originally owned much of the land purchased by Grace Church, sought protection inside the church until a cannon ball whistled over her head and crashed through the window. She fled in terror and hid behind the substantial tomb of Dr. Ira Smith, founding vestry member, whose unusual pyramidal tomb of Egyptian Revival design was originally intended for multiple burials (but not anymore; one of his descendants supposedly threw the key into the Mississippi River). At least Aunt Silvia Chew lived to tell the tale.

The church was a shattered wreck, its surviving congregation suffering and scattered. Of 72 white and 27 colored communicants on the rolls in 1861, only 32 white and 2 colored remained in 1866. But these hardy souls gathered in the damaged church for Easter services that year. Times had changed. Where there had been 493 white registered voters in the parish in 1860, now there would be 173 white and 1,630 newly registered black voters.

There was little money available for repairs to the church, and Rev. Daniel S. Lewis, after serving God in Grace Church for 27 years, left for New Orleans. The year 1872 saw a new minister arrive, Rev. Alexander Gordon Bakewell, who worked for 12 years leading and rebuilding, adding a rectory, completing the beautiful wrought iron fence around the churchyard. By the late 1850s, the cemetery’s tombstones and grave markers, originally simple memorial stones, began to be highly ornate Victorian Gothic styles, carved pillars covered with stone ivy or Grecian drapes, statuary and elaborate floral carvings and flowing epitaphs. Improving finances among congregation members brought many donations, but it was the generous 1883 gift of $12,000 from Mrs. Sarah P. Lawrason that allowed restoration of the church building.

In 1886 the Reverend William Kirkland Douglas came to Grace; one church history says, “Originally from Connecticut, he was yet understanding and kind. His gentle piety became known to all, and he grew to be a Southerner in life and purpose.” His tenure was marked by improvements including the establishment of a Woman’s Auxiliary, which supported missions and presented the rector with a new horse, saddle and buggy. By 1893 the church was reconsecrated and free of debt. A rectory built in 1895 was called by one occupant “Vicious Victorian architecture” for its freezing rooms, steep stairs and lack of proper plumbing. Next to the rectory was the church’s parish hall, Jackson Hall, dating from 1896; its upstairs was originally used as a lodge room of the fraternal and benevolent society known as the Knights of Pythias, and the lower floor a community opera house that held everything from weddings and wakes to dances, graduations and boxing matches.

Others were called to Grace over the years, with some staying a number of years and leaving indelible marks upon church and congregation, most notably Rev. J. Arthur Klein who came in 1950, Rev. John Senette, Father Kenneth Dimmick, and the current rector, Father Roman Roldan, born in Columbia, whose background as a social worker has surely encouraged the church’s valiant response in times of disasters like hurricanes and floods. Each has contributed in unique ways to assure that Grace Church retains its ministry not only to its congregants but to its many visitors. Said Father Kenneth Dimmick, “The reaching limbs of our ancient oaks provide for even the most casual visitor a place of silence and restfulness, where many find they can hear the voice of God. To kneel and pray in our historic church offers the chance to meditate on the changelessness of God’s love.”

For several decades Grace has provided a wonderful community-wide preschool begun onsite in 1982, plus nursing home ministry, youth activities, choirs and community outreach not just locally but around the globe, thanks to nuclear power and energy exploration propelling this little country church into a position of world responsibility and Christian stewardship.

When River Bend Nuclear Plant was constructed in the 1970s south of St. Francisville, the property left to the church by widowed longtime parishioner Ada Z. Mackie was purchased by Entergy for a considerable sum and the proceeds were used to acquire a historic structure on Royal St. When in 1980, as oil and gas activity in the parish accelerated because of nearby finds in the Tuscaloosa Trend, Amoco Oil leased and then purchased half the royalty rights of the extensive Lavergne property, given to the church in 1929 by an old bachelor who had served in the Confederacy, whose family was all buried in Grace churchyard, and whose will consisted of one lone statement: “I will all I die possessed of to the Grace Episcopal Church, West Feliciana.”

Then–rector Rev. John Senette thoughtfully considered this new bounty for a church that had faced financial struggles in different periods of its history, “I wanted us to be responsible in using the money wisely, not only for ourselves but for worthwhile purposes outside the community,” he said as he guided the long process of meetings, arguments, compromise. “There developed a growing awareness that the bounty so generously given us was being seen as not ours alone. There was a feeling of receiving it in trust, not only for the benefit of our spiritual family and descendants, but for a broken and suffering humanity. The generosity of Grace Church since 1980 has been felt in this area, the nation and the world.” Thus the feeling that it was the responsibility of the current parishioners to support the church; said Libby Dart, parish historian and longtime Grace worker, “It is the obligation and the privilege of the living to support the church.” Added Father Senette: “These stewards seem determined not to allow the generous dead to usurp the joyful privilege of the living.” So the Lavergne Charitable Fund was established by the vestry and authorized to use not less than 10% of the trust funds “as a vehicle through which Grace Church can exert a Christian influence and extend a helping hand in and outside the community.”

Other than times when weddings or funerals are scheduled, Grace Church welcomes visitors and is certainly one of the little rivertown’s most visited historic attractions.

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. A number of 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 and is spectacular. 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 especially 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 right in the middle of 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).

Friday, April 26, 2019

Wedding Bells Ring in St. Francisville, La.

Wedding Bells Ring in St. Francisville, LA
By Anne Butler


weddingDreaming of a destination wedding? There’s no need to travel too far away; St. Francisville offers all the conveniences of home, but guarantees you’ll feel a million miles away.
Back in the day, weddings were mostly formal affairs, held in churches with elaborate floral arrangements and guests dressed fit to kill, the bride wearing white and her attendants in outfits that would never come out of the closet again. That was then.

This is now: Many ceremonies these days are second (or maybe even third) weddings, the couples having been there and done that formally the first time. It’s not their first rodeo, and they want something casual, more relaxed, hopefully even enjoyable this time around.

Destination weddings at the beach or on a mountaintop in Colorado, the bride barefoot in the sand in a billowing maxi dress or wearing hiking boots clutching a bouquet of wildflowers, have become the “in” thing, and St. Francisville has become one of the state’s most popular wedding destinations.
 The area can provide the perfect place to fulfill any bride’s heart’s desires, be it her first wedding or (heaven forbid) her fourth, from glorious garden settings to charming chapels, from lakeside amphitheaters to oak-shaded plantation properties and pastoral pastures. And yes, there are beautiful historic churches as well. Not only does St. Francisville offer the ideal site; there are also professional services available locally…caterers, officiants, florists, wedding coordinators, photographers, musicians, rental tents and tables, romantic overnight accommodations for honeymooners and wedding guests as well.
butterSeveral of the historic plantations host only small weddings. Rosedown Plantation State Historic Site offers beautiful backdrops in the 28-acre formal gardens or oak allee for 15 or 20 guests, only before dark, with hourly rates and requirements for the private purchase of liability insurance; nothing is permitted inside the 1830s home (phone 225-635-3332). Butler Greenwood, an even earlier plantation, does not have parking or restroom facilities to accommodate large groups, but does offer beautiful moss-draped oak trees and a lane of 19th-century cast-iron urns leading to a vine-covered pergola complete with hitching post (a favorite spot of the local Justice of the Peace). Only wedding parties of 15 or fewer are permitted and only on the grounds, but very reasonably priced and with romantic private cottages for honeymooners (phone 225-635-6312). Other plantations like The Cottage and The Myrtles provide honeymoon accommodations but do not currently host weddings, though the new restaurant at The Myrtles has all sorts of possibilities for rehearsal dinners and receptions.

Afton Villa Gardens offers glorious 19th-century garden settings in spite of the elaborate plantation house having burned in the 1960s, with lengthy oak alley, terraced grounds, formal parterres, marble statuary and a ruins garden room filled with blooms in season (phone 225-635-6773; for bridal photos 225-721-2269; for weddings 703-508-5073).

Greenwood Plantation also provides a spectacular site for weddings of all sizes, with all-inclusive wedding packages that can include the first floor of the 1830s mansion, the grounds with majestic live oaks and reflecting pond, bricked patio and outside kitchen building, even a small chapel that seats 50 and was constructed as the overseer’s house during the filming of a movie. Also available are dressing rooms for bride and groom, overnight B&B stay, setup and cleanup, plus bridal portraits, rehearsal dinners, caterers and vendors for receptions, bridal luncheons and showers…this is the full scope of wedding services, priced accordingly, and wedding coordinators work with bridal couples to ensure complete satisfaction (phone 225-655-4475).

hemingbouhAnother popular setting that can accommodate large weddings both indoors and out is Hemingbough, and its new Marketing and Events Director can work with couples to customize the perfect package plan. Breathtakingly beautiful ceremonies are held in the Greek amphitheater that seats hundreds overlooking Audubon Lake (setting for an annual Easter sunrise service), while indoor spaces include a memorial chapel with beautiful stained glass windows and pipe organ. On-site catering is available, as are overnight accommodations in the 8-room Guest House replica of Uncle Sam Plantation’s garconnier. For receptions, the ballroom at Hemstead Hall holds large groups, while the stately Audubon Room is ideal for smaller parties (phone 225-635-6617 or 225-978-7557).

Noted for its elegant simplicity is the small chapel available for weddings at The Bluffs on Thompson Creek, resort complete with spectacular Arnold Palmer-designed golf course, overnight accommodations in one- and two-bedroom suites in The Lodge and several restaurant options (phone 225-634-6400 or 634-5222).

churchIn St. Francisville’s National Register-listed historic district is Temple Sinai, turn-of-the-century Jewish temple overlooking the Mississippi River, recently restored by the non-profit Freyhan Foundation as a non-denominational event center and indoor site for weddings. It can accommodate up to 100 guests, with restroom facilities and small kitchenette, plus perfect acoustics, stained glass windows and rows of comfortable pews. Reasonably priced with damage deposit required; reservations may be made through the West Feliciana Historical Society’s director at 225-635-6330, who can also furnish information on reserving 1819 Audubon Market Hall, another historic indoor venue downtown with a capacity of 40-50 guests.

Just down Royal Street, Shadetree Inn hosts small outdoor weddings on its picturesque hilltop setting and provides three eclectic suites for honeymoon overnights (phone 225-635-6116).
gazebo next to the innAlso in the historic district next to Parker Memorial Park is the St. Francisville Inn, which recently underwent an ambitious renovation and now offers craft cocktails in The Saint bar, a catering kitchen (elegant breakfast/brunch daily, plus group lunches and dinners by reservation), and small weddings of fewer than 25 guests on the front lawn or in the bricked courtyard; for larger groups, rental of all 11 guest rooms is required. If the new owners of this boutique property can pull off an outside tented sit-down dinner for 180 guests in the midst of wild winds and tornado warnings mere days after opening as handily as they did, our hats are off to them! Phone 225-635-6502.

Local caterers include popular Heirloom Cuisine for elegant refreshments (225-784-0535) and Tip’s Catering Connection (from Black Tie to Backyard Barbeque plus rental tables, chairs, tents, fans and heaters) (225-921-7785). Temple Design offers creative custom services for wedding invitations and other print materials (225-635-9454), while Tara Marie Photography takes excellent photos (225-634-7229) as does Lilly Belle Photo (225-721-3636); Stacey Foretich Photography does not shoot weddings but does amazing engagement photos (225-505-7906). Mia Sophia Florist, whose head designer/owner has three decades of experience, provides fresh flowers from growers across the United States, custom bouquets, tablescapes, rental plants, arches and backdrops (phone 225-635-3339). To contact retired Justice of the Peace Kevin Dreher regarding officiating, phone 225-721-1120. Information on all of these services may be found online at www.stfrancisville.us.

On May 5 from 7 to 10 p.m., Temple Sinai is the setting for an Arts For All concert featuring acclaimed guitarist Arnold Cardon, plus Nancy Roppolo with harmonica virtuoso husband Joe and Susan Aysen.

Besides weddings and concerts, fans of fine literature flock to St. Francisville in May for two popular festivals, the West Feliciana Children’s Book Festival in Parker Park on May 4th, and the Walker Percy Weekend May 31 through June 2nd. “Reading Gives You Wings” is the theme of the third annual children’s literary festival, featuring storytelling tent, crafts, sidewalk chalk art contests, and authors of children’s, middle and young adult books performing, reading and discussing their works. It’s fun, and it’s free, and it goes on from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Friday, May 31, the Walker Percy Weekend kicks off with a reception and cocktails under the majestic oaks. This will be followed on Saturday, June 1, by lectures and panel discussions as experts expound on themes in Percy’s fiction, much of it set in south Louisiana as the author explored “the search for meaning in an increasingly materialistic society via masterfully wrought tales delivered with a poetic Southern sensibility and informed by the author’s deep Catholic faith.” Saturday afternoon highlight is the Progressive Front Porch Tour and Bourbon Tasting, and the evening culminates with the popular crawfish boil and craft beer celebration. Among the acclaimed speakers are New York Times columnist/author David Brooks, Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance, and Walter Isaacson, noted for his astute biographies of Leonardo da Vinci, Steve Jobs, Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein. This popular event benefits the sponsoring non-profit Julius Freyhan Foundation. For additional information and tickets, see www.walkerpercyweekend.org.

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. A number of 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 and is spectacular. 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 especially 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 right in the middle of 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).

Monday, April 8, 2019

Carl the Roving Ram Cuts Up in St. Francisville, LA

Carl the Roving Ram Cuts Up in St. Francisville, LA
By Anne Butler
carl
Sometimes in the country you’ve got to make your own fun, and little St. Francisville, full as it is of creative souls, sure knows how to do that.

Take Carl. Poor Carl. He was a regal Dall Sheep, inhabitant of the alpine ridges and steep slopes of the frozen Yukon Territory and Alaska, cavorting among the rocky crags in death-defying feats of agility. Carl had thick curling horns and must have presented a tempting target for the trophy hunter who apparently took him down and then took him to a taxidermist to be stuffed. A fine trophy, indeed.

So how did Carl end up climbing mountains of junk instead of Northwest Territory mountainsides? Even Bubba, the proprietor of the popular flea market on Commerce St. in St. Francisville, can’t remember where Carl came from or who brought him in, although you’d think he’d have made an impression (not every day do you get a stuffed goat). But Bubba has such a passion for used treasures that his wares overflow his crowded house and spill out into the yard; he can’t possibly remember everything.

carl lightsSo Carl happened to be out there sunning in full view of passersby, and that’s when he entered the twilight zone known as the Court of Three Sisters. Sister One sped by one morning and spotted Carl. Sister One immediately saw possibilities and called Sister Two, who enthusiastically hired the local plant nursery’s van to pick up Carl, who was too big to fit in her car. Sister Two remembers paying Bubba $15 to relieve him of something he never thought he’d sell. And poor Sister Three, the more serious and particular one of the family, soon freaked out to find Carl in her front yard on Ferdinand Street for all the world to see, decked out in a big red velvet bow and magically transformed into Carl the Christmas Ram.

That third sister, the practical one, not wanting Carl to greet guests at her own house forever, hung a list of instructions around Carl’s neck regarding length of stay (just a night), location (in town, or close by), and the requirement to post images, and then she quickly deposited him in someone else’s front yard. And thus Carl acquired a life of his own, honored guest at Christmas parties and family reunions and all manner of gatherings.

carl houseSometimes he was decorated with shining Christmas lights, sometimes with a glowing red nose like Rudolph. There were Mardi Gras beads and mistletoe. At one home he wore red plaid flannel pajamas, and when it rained he often had an umbrella to protect him from the downpour, although he seemed to have less of his own hair after every soaking. And that wet-dog smell every pet owner knows and loves…imagine wet mountain goat!

 One image shows Carl stretched out on the local veterinarian’s examining table, the vet sorrowfully declaring there was no help for Carl. A modest hostess even suggested knitting a pouch to hold Carl’s family jewels, the ram being what vets call “intact” and hardly a Hallmark moment.

Everybody in St. Francisville delighted in being able to boast, “We’ve been rammed!” And it was fun. Carl the Christmas Ram confined his perambulations to the period around the Christmas holidays; now he awaits his next appearance in that third sister’s storage unit.

magnolia pigThere had been precedents, of course, and not so seasonally dependent. Magnolia CafĂ©, everybody’s favorite little local casual place, has for years had a lifesize painted pig, named Gustav for the hurricane, greeting folks dropping by for pita-bread sandwiches and homemade soups and sensation salads. Periodically Gustav the pig would wander. This was not on its own, of course, being made of aluminum; there were nefarious kidnappers who carted him off to different locations, not only private homes but even the Louisiana Marathon. He has also been known to ride atop a float in St. Francisville’s popular Christmas parade.

grannyAnd then there was grey-haired Granny Francis, resurrected from a garbage pile a few years back. Some three feet tall and plump with a winsome grandmotherly grin, Granny Francis was a real social butterfly. She visited around to all the local stores and tourist attractions, properly attired and escorted by town employees or Main Street staff, played the drums with the local dance band, participated in popular events like the Audubon Pilgrimage and Polos & Pearls (yes, she wore pearls and was pictured beforehand in spa robe getting a beauty treatment with debatable success), went Trick-or-Treating in her witch costume, and attended the local elementary school where she was confined mostly to the principal’s office. Granny Francis was a favorite both in person and on Facebook during her active social life, but now she seems to have retired to a spot in the town mayor’s office where she can try to keep him in line.

drumsObviously St. Francisville, which is a Main Street community as well as a National Register Historic District, has a well-established sense of place, preserving significant elements of its 19th-century history and architecture along its two main streets that run down to the Mississippi River; they call it the little town that’s two miles long and two yards wide, without much exaggeration. It is full of restored tour homes and gardens, great restaurants and shops, beautiful historic churches, great B&Bs, and unsurpassed recreation in the surrounding Tunica Hills. Tourists love to visit. But St. Francisville residents love living there as well, for the little town also has an appreciation for creative characters and a well-honed sense of fun.

April of course brings the ever-popular annual Angola Prison Spring Rodeo on April 27 and 28, pitting determined inmates against ferocious Brahman bulls and bucking broncos; grounds open at 9 a.m. for the Craft Show and rodeo starts at 2. For tickets and information, telephone 225-655-2060 or www.angolaprisonrodeo.com. Also on April 27 the LSU Ag Center sponsors its fascinating Spring Stroll Garden Tour (for information, contact jhoover@agcenter.lsu.edu).

Earlier in the month, on April 13, Audubon State Historic Site presents a fun and educational return to the Regency Period, with dance and etiquette lessons, a duel and an explanation of the intricate language of fans, plus a glimpse into the life of a soldier in the War of 1812 (225-635-3739 or 888-677-2838).

boy with grannyLocated 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. A number of 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 and is spectacular. 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 especially 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 right in the middle of 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).

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Colorful Azaleas and Costumes of the 1820s Welcome Spring in St. Francisville, LA

Colorful Azaleas and Costumes of the 1820s Welcome Spring in St. Francisville, LA
By Anne Butler

Pilgrimage 17 61The forty-eighth annual Audubon Pilgrimage March 15, 16 and 17, 2019, celebrates a southern spring in St. Francisville, the glorious garden spot of Louisiana’s English Plantation Country. For nearly half a century the sponsoring West Feliciana Historical Society has thrown open the doors of significant historic structures to commemorate artist-naturalist John James Audubon’s stay as he painted a number of his famous bird studies and tutored the daughter of Oakley Plantation’s Pirrie family, beautiful young Eliza. A year’s worth of planning and preparation precedes each pilgrimage, and with nearly half a century of experience under their belt, society members put on one of the South’s most professional and enjoyable pilgrimage presentations.

Featured this year are three historic plantation homes in the countryside and two townhouses, plus lots of extras.

Sunnyside, built in 1838 in Pointe Coupee Parish, was disassembled, trucked across the Mississippi River bridge in 1997, then meticulously reassembled on the Tunica Trace, retaining its original footprint. A fine example of vernacular architecture, its bluffland design is eminently suite to the historic Weyanoke community and its period landscaping anchors house to site as if it’s been there for centuries. Historian David Floyd and wife Marla have raised two children there.

Brasseaux House 2Laurel Hill Plantation was purchased in the 1830s by Judge Edward McGehee, founder of the early standard-gauge West Feliciana Railroad that hauled cotton through this plantation country to the Mississippi River port at Bayou Sara. In the 1870s daughter Caroline and her husband Duncan Stewart enlarged the original small Carolina-I structure to accommodate their growing family. Beautifully restored, it is now the property of Jimmy and Mary Farrar Hatchette.

Puente Largo, built in the 1850s in Tangipahoa Parish and moved to West Feliciana in 1997, is a handsome raised Creole cottage with four large rooms and spacious hallway on the upper premier etage, above what had been an unfinished ground-floor storage for wagons and buggies but is now closed in. Broad front stairs access the upper gallery. Used as a field hospital during the Civil War, Puente Largo has been beautifully furnished and landscaped by owners Mike and Krista Dumas.

In St. Francisville’s downtown National Register-listed Historic District is the Brasseaux House, quintessentially charming cottage complete with Victorian gallery trim, picket fence and climbing roses. It was built in 1895 by Albert Sydney Brasseaux, who was named for his father’s commanding general in the Civil War. Its architectural style is called southern dogtrot, and its extensive sloping back yard shows why St. Francisville is called the little town that’s two miles long and two yards wide. It is now home to a vibrant young family, the Magruder Hazlips.

Coffin House sideAnd then there’s the Coffin House, tiny stepped-roof structure built around 1903 right on St. Francisville’s main thoroughfare, proving history is nothing if not dynamic and showing the amazing adaptability of even the most unassuming of historic structures. Previously used for strictly utilitarian purposes including the storage of coffins, it is now a delightfully cozy pied-a-terre for visiting doting grandparents, Don and Harriet Ayres.
In addition to the featured homes, pilgrimage visitors are also welcomed to Afton Villa Gardens, Audubon (Oakley) and Rosedown State Historic Sites, three 19th-century churches and Temple Sinai in town and beautiful St. John’s and St. Mary’s in the country, plus the Rural Homestead with lively demonstrations of the rustic skills of daily pioneer life.

Audubon Market Hall hosts an exhibit of the West Feliciana works of the late Charles Reinike (1906-1983), one of New Orleans’ most respected landscape artists. Passionately in love with South Louisiana from New Orleans through the wetlands and the hills of rural plantation country, Reinike and wife Vera opened an art school in the French Quarter in the 1930s-1940s and brought their students to summer art camp on their West Feliciana property where their daughter lives today. Reinike’s paintings are nostalgic but not saccharine, his son Charles III explains; “he liked the grittier side of things...depicting rural Louisiana and chronicling the early African-American cabins and lifestyle for their honesty and simplicity, as well as the residential and industrial scenes of New Orleans and the Mississippi River, and the beauty of the bayous and shrimp boats.”
Pilgrimage 17An impressive exhibit of Audubon’s Birds of Feliciana hangs at Oakley Plantation (Audubon State Historic Site). Other special events called Exploring Nature and Birding remind of continued ties to the birdlife so beloved by the artist: Friday bird walk is led by local artist Murrell Butler at his Oak Hill property; Saturday the Wildlife Hospital of Louisiana offers a glimpse of live-and-in-person rehab survivors (Red-Winged Scarlett, Red-Tailed Hawk, Mississippi Kite, Broad Winged Hawk, Eastern Screech Owl); Sunday’s bird walk is led by LSU avian vet Dr. Tom Tully at Oakley.
Daytime features are open 9:30 to 5; Friday evening activities are scheduled from 6 to 9 p.m., Saturday soiree begins at 7 p.m.

The Historic District around Royal Street is filled during the day with the happy sounds of costumed children singing and dancing the Maypole; in the evening as candles flicker and fireflies flit among the ancient moss-draped live oaks, there is no place more inviting for a leisurely stroll. Friday evening features old-time Hymn Singing at the United Methodist Church, Graveyard Tours at Grace Episcopal cemetery (last tour begins at 8:15 p.m.), and a wine and cheese reception at the newly restored St. Francisville Inn showing off the exquisitely detailed 1820’s evening costumes, nationally recognized for their authenticity. Light Up The Night, the fun Saturday evening soiree, features live music and dancing, dinner and drinks.

Village PilgrimageFor tickets and tour information, contact West Feliciana Historical Society, Box 338, St. Francisville, LA 70775; phone 225-635-6330 or 225-635-4224; online www.audubonpilgrimage.info, email sf@audubonpilgrimage.info . New this year is a package including daytime tours, all evening entertainment Friday and Saturday, and a Saturday picnic lunch. Tickets can be purchased at the Historical Society Museum on Ferdinand Street. For information on St. Francisville overnight accommodations, shops, restaurants, and recreation in the Tunica Hills, see www.stfrancisville.us, www.stfrancisville.net, or www.stfrancisvillefestivals.com.

Beautiful oak-shaded Parker Park in the midst of St. Francisville’s National Register-listed Historic District is the scene for two other special activities in March. A Walk In The Park on Saturday, March 2nd, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. will feature live music plus vendors offering varied crafts, art and culinary specialties, while March 30th from 10 to 10 the Tunica Hills Music Festival and Jam has professional musicians performing on stages but also dispersed throughout the park to encourage pop-up jams everywhere. Visitors are encouraged to bring their own instruments and join in the free fun.

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. A number of 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 and is spectacular. 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 especially 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 right in the middle of 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).

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Post-Bellum Sanctuary and Salvation: the Old Benevolent Society in St. Francisville By Anne Butler

front with markerPost-Bellum Sanctuary and Salvation: the Old Benevolent Society in St. Francisville
By Anne Butler

February is Black History Month, so it’s only right that a little neglected structure in the middle of St. Francisville should be getting increased attention.

The St. Francisville area has been fortunate to retain a number of restored plantation homes that welcome visitors with an impressive picture of life as it was for the upper echelon of antebellum society in the South. But other structures---smaller, simpler---speak in quieter tones to teach a history lesson no less significant.

One such structure is the tiny Old Benevolent Society. Its small green historic marker designates this unassuming wood-frame shotgun house as the oldest black burial lodge in the parish. It was founded in 1883 by a gentleman of color whose grandson would more than a century later become president of the parish police jury.

The sign gives just the merest hint of the importance of benevolent societies in the turbulent aftermath of the Civil War, when slaves feed from bondage found few resources to fill needs hitherto addressed by masters of the plantations where they labored.

historic marker signThe most important institution for freedmen in those days was the church, which struggled to provide not just spiritual but temporal comfort as well in the absence of social service organizations or insurance companies open to persons of color. The church offered sanctuary and socialization in addition to salvation.

From tiny black churches sprang the soulful gospel music spiced by the cadences of African chants, the church suppers, shouting with the spirit, and all the other traditional rituals treasured by black congregants, practices that served to set them apart from the staid Protestant worship of their former owners.

And nearly every church had its benevolent society, officially incorporated under the direction of respected elders of the congregation. Preserved documents reveal that, while some of these church leaders laboriously wrote their names on deeds in the fanciful flowing script of the times, others, unlearned, simply signed with an X.
But they all took their responsibilities seriously, for the benevolent societies they formed filled direct and pressing needs. With few other outside resources, these societies offered significant services to their members---sitting with the sick, caring for the infirm, feeding the weak, funding medical care, and finally covering the modest expenses of a decent burial as well.

By July 1911 when the Union Reform Society applied for a charter, the corporation’s purposes had been embellished beyond these basics to include: “To better the condition of its members by shaping their manners, and framing their characters by the promotion of honesty, good morals and the diffusion of knowledge among them; and to care for the sick members of the organization; to aid them in distress, to bury their dead, and generally to promote and foster Friendship, Love and Good Fellowship.”

An 1877 issue of the West Feliciana Sentinel described the annual meeting of the Union Benevolent Society as involving a 75-foot table groaning under the weight of “turkey, chicken, sugar-cured hams, deliciously barbecued beef, mutton and pig, flanked with vegetables, fruits, desserts and wines. It was the finest ‘spread’ we have seen in many a long day, and reflected great credit upon our friends of the ‘Benevolents.’ We have frequently had occasion to mark the perfect order and decorum of the society when paying the last sad tribute to the dead, and the spontaneous manner in which they turn out upon such occasions.”

Ms. Sara and Louise WhitakerOnly a few churches maintain their societies in this day of equal access to medical and life insurance coverage, and the Old Benevolent Society building has seen better days. No longer housed there is the horse-drawn black hearse that transported the deceased to burial grounds, mourners walking behind, women in white, carrying candles. But the structure deserves to be preserved as a reminder of the significant role benevolent societies played in southern black society of the late 19th and early 29th centuries.
Now an Old Benevolent Society Restoration Committee has formed, made up of representatives of the local historical society, town of St. Francisville, parish school system, members of the local Order of the Eastern Star, and other avid preservationists. Already overhanging tree branches have been removed and some short-term stabilization work undertaken to minimize further deterioration, though the structure in its present condition remains unsafe for use.

The Louisiana Trust for Historic Preservation included the site as one of fifteen on its 2018 list of Most Endangered, bringing much needed attention statewide with hopes of generating funding assistance. Said Brian Davis, executive director of the Louisiana Trust, “Historic buildings and sites are the fingerprints of our communities and it takes creative measures to preserve and protect them for future generations. Strategic partnerships, tax credits, and programs like revolving funds can save buildings many people may consider too far gone.”

Plans include applying for an individual listing on the National Register of Historic Places; the structure is already included in the Register’s St. Francisville Historic District. Social media and grant opportunities are being identified, and the committee hopes to enlist a preservation consultant to assess the building’s condition in anticipation of establishing a restoration scope and budget.Preserve Louisiana award
Once restored, the committee envisions a small museum telling the story of benevolent societies and their significant role in African American history. In addition, it may be open to the public for special local events and festivals, educational children’s programs, and other activities. For information on restoration efforts, email obsrestoration@gmail.com.
February is also the month for the much-anticipated Writers and Readers Symposium, sponsored annually by The Celebration of Literature and Art at Hemingbough conference center just south of St. Francisville on Highway 965. Every year the selection committee brings in accomplished published writers of every genre to present their works and creative processes, and avid readers have a chance to visit with these authors, purchase autographed books and enjoy lunch. This year’s presentation, on Saturday, February 16, from 9 to 3:30, features an amazing lineup of six award-winning writers.

Jason Berry, New Orleans author and film director, is best known for his pioneering investigative reporting on clergy sex abuse in the Catholic Church, but his most recent book, City of a Million Dreams, covers the 300-year history of New Orleans. His other books, Up From the Cradle of Jazz, Render Unto Rome, Vows of Silence, and Lead Us Not into Temptation, have been called the perfect balance of scholarship, compassion, and the ability to write with the poetic power of Robert Penn Warren. Dr. Jack Bedell, Louisiana’s 2017-2019 Poet Laureate, is a professor of English at Southeastern Louisiana University and longtime editor of the college literary magazine; he is the author of nine books.
Erica Spindler, another featured presenter, is a prolific New York Times best-selling author whose books have been published in 25 countries and are called thrill-packed page-turners, white-knuckle rides and edge-of-your-seat whodunits. Among her most popular books are The Other Girl, The First Wife, All Fall Down, and Bone Cold. C.H. Lawler’s books, including The Saints of Lost Things and Living Among the Dead, tell moving stories of flawed characters from a place of compassion...a 1965 hurricane awakening a forbidden love, or an old man in 1925 on Prytania St. in New Orleans recording his memories of the aftermath of the Civil War.

Dima Ghawi is a motivational speaker and author of Breaking Vases, her memoir of a Middle Eastern woman’s struggles to escape the subservient culture to pursue her passion of helping others find the courage to overcome hardships and forge their own paths. A special addition to this symposium will be a presentation by Alysson Foti Bourque, the author of several award-winning children’s books: the Rhyme or Reason Travel series and the Alycat series, emphasizing techniques for book promotion.

Tickets for the 2019 Writers and Readers Symposium, $45 including lunch, are available from bontempstix.com/even...writers-readers-symposium.
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. A number of 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 and is spectacular. 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 especially 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 right in the middle of 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).

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Old-Time Medications...weird but they worked!

Old-Time Medications...weird but they worked!
By Anne Butler

There’s a wonderful new full-service hospital and a number of physicians practicing medicine in St. Francisville now, but back in the days when money was scarce and doctors were even scarcer in rural areas, folks doctored themselves with a wide assortment of home remedies.
Of course every early plantation had its kitchen garden, where herbs and culinary additives were supplemented by treasured medicinal plants, with every housewife worth her salt knowing the value of each. But well into the 20th century, isolated country folk continued to rely on time-honored traditions of home remedies passed down through the generations. And current doctors admit there was something to be said for at least some of these folk cures.

The late Reverend H.S. Pate, pastor to a rural flock, always insisted, “Those old sayings and remedies held true in the old days, and they hold true today. Used to be, you had to ride horseback through the woods to get to a doctor, if you could get to one at all, so folks did their own doctoring.” And it wasn’t simply a matter of money; they really believed that the folk cures worked.
jc metz
JC Metz and Amy having a tea party
Now in his 90s, J.C. Metz, one of many sons of a pioneering logging family which during the Depression got their sustenance as well as their remedies from the swampy areas bordering the Mississippi River, remembers many cures his mother utilized. Pepper tea, made of hot water and black pepper, would sweat the fever out of anybody, coughs were cured with a syrup made by boiling wild plum bark with sugar and lemon, while whiskey and honey remedied the worst sore throats. Sinus problems were cleared up with a mixture of honey, whiskey and apple cider, and an application of catfish fat rendered into oil was used to treat the common cold. For cuts, turpentine and iodine reduced the danger of infection, and bleeding was stopped by applying spider webs to the affected area. Tobacco juice took the sting out of insect bites, and for thorns or boils, a poultice of okra blossoms or salt meat would draw out the offending article. Warm honey in the ear was used to soften wax and cure ear aches. And each spring, the blood was purified with a tonic of sassafras root or vine boiled into a tea.

Other elderly folks swore by other practices, especially teas made of various ingredients. The white leaves of the sassafras bush cured fevers and colds, while tea made from ordinary cornshucks was said to cure measles. Tea made from life-everlasting weed or bitterweed helped reduce fever, and another cure for colds was tea made from scrapings from hogs’ hooves, also said to be effective for pneumonia.

Sardine oil rubbed on the jaws, which should then be bound with a scarf, would reduce the pain from mumps. Aching limbs could be soothed by application of hot Epsom salts and turpentine or boiled cedar, which could also unstop the most stuffed-up nose. Palm of Christian leaves, applied directly to the affected area straight off the bush, drew out headache pain, while tea made from the leaves of the Jerusalem bush cured worms. Lighter fluid was another recommended rub for arthritis pain, as were poultices of boiled mullin leaves to reduce swelling and pain, and could cure dropsy as well. For rheumatism, a bottle of table salt mixed with red pepper could be rubbed onto the limbs, while coal oil and turpentine was applied under the throat and on the chest to cure colds.

Bit by a snake? Old folks would kill a chicken and extract the gall bladder, then apply it to the bitten area. No chickens available? They could draw out the snake poison with coal oil or kerosene and soda.

For small infants and children, there was a whole list of do’s and don’t’s to be observed. To stop hiccups, cross two broomstraws in the crown of the baby’s head. To cure whooping cough, ride a stud horse until he gets real hot, then let him breathe in the baby’s face. Cutting a baby’s fingernails with scissors meant he would steal, while putting his dirty diapers on the floor would give stomach pains. Colic could be cured by blowing smoke from a pipe into the baby’s diapers and onto the soft spot on top of the head. But if the top of the head was covered, the baby wouldn’t get colic in the first place.
bitter weed
Bitterweed
For chest colds, heat tallow and camphorated oil and rub onto chest and bottom of feet, or brown a piece of flannel to put on chest. For worms, hang a sack of garlic around the baby’s neck; to cure hernia, tape a quarter or 50-cent piece over navel. To ease the pains of teething, bore a hole in a silver dime and tie around neck with string. Bitterweed, boiled and steeped, was used to bathe a child with malaria. For diarrhea, tea made from white planton leaves was said to be effective, as well as a scorched spoonful of whiskey.
Besides the curatives, there were many practices and prohibitions to be kept in mind before and just after birth. A baby born with a veil (membrane) over its face would always see ghosts, it was thought. And don’t attract the baby’s attention from behind or above; looking back and up could cause crossed eyes. Strange sights, seen by a pregnant mother, might mark a baby, as could a mother’s strong cravings during pregnancy. If a child-bearing-age woman in her menses held a baby, it might cause bowel strain, to be cured by putting a piece of that lady’s silk underdrawers on the baby.

The baby was said to turn out to be just like the first person to take it outside and walk all the way around the house. And the nicest tradition of all was the belief that when a baby smiled in his sleep, you knew the angels were playing with him.

Even with more modern medical facilities available today, there are some elderly people in the rural reaches of West Feliciana who turn to the time-honored maxims and cures practiced through the generations. They know they can count on them to work, and they are as close as the nearest wooded field or forest or barnyard. They don’t have office hours, and they’re free. But in this wintry month, in the midst of colds and flu season, if you don’t have any hogs or hard-breathing stud horses and can’t identify bitterweed or Palm of Christian leaves, feel free to avail yourself of more modern medical facilities.
horsekellen22
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. A number of 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 and is spectacular. 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 especially 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 right in the middle of 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).