Something Old and Something New at St. Francisville’s popular Audubon Pilgrimage
By Anne Butler
The forty-ninth annual Audubon Pilgrimage March 20, 21 and 22, 2020, 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 1821 stay as he painted a number of his famous bird studies and tutored the daughter of Oakley Plantation’s Pirrie family, beautiful young Eliza.
Two venerable townhouses in St. Francisville’s National Register-listed downtown Historic District are featured on this year’s pilgrimage. Amidst meandering Royal Street’s significant treasures is Prospect, built in 1809; during Audubon’s tenure it was occupied by Dr. Isaac Smith, early physician, LA State Senate president and great advocate of higher education. Another public-service minded figure, Dr. O.D.Brooks, purchased Prospect in 1879. As a 16-year-old boy he saw Civil War action alongside his father, owned the Royal Hotel, had a pharmacy, and served on the School Board for three decades, facilitating establishment of the parish’s first public school.
On Ferdinand St., the second of downtown’s two main historic streets, Baier House was a simple four-room cottage considerably embellished by former mayor and master carpenter George Baier when he finally moved from flood-prone Bayou Sara up the hill to the safety of St. Francisville’s high-and-dry location. He had nearly drowned in Bayou Sara in the flood of 1920/21, when the Weydert brothers saved him as he held onto ropes trying to keep his house from being washed away. Its steep backyard gives testament to St. Francisville’s description as the little town that’s two miles long and two yards wide.
In the countryside, Spring Grove was built in 1895 on lands carved from Afton Villa Plantation for Barrow descendent Wade Hampton Richardson IV. It was considered an ideal country home supplied with modern conveniences to make rural life agreeable. When his only daughter married at 18, the house was expanded so that she could raise her family there, and in later years it has expanded even more…a bedroom here, a bigger kitchen there…to warmly welcome subsequent generations.
Another country house is the Lemon-Argue House, fine example of vernacular architecture and a fascinating yeoman farmer’s cottage illustrative of 18th-century timbering techniques with its handhewn logs of blue poplar. Built by Irish immigrant William Lemon around 1801 on a Spanish land grant, it has recently been donated by his descendants to LSU and the Rural Life Museum for use as a classroom, research lab and historic house museum providing hands-on experience for students in many different fields. Minimally furnished for pilgrimage tours, this is a preservation work in progress.
Other popular features of the 2020 Audubon Pilgrimage include Afton Villa Gardens, Audubon (Oakley) and Rosedown State Historic Sites, three 19th-century churches 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 vintage jewelry, an Audubon Bird Exhibit will be shown at Oakley, guided birding opportunities pay tribute to Audubon himself, and other exhibits featuring black history will be at the Old Benevolent Society building.
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 (7 to 9 p.m.) featuring the pilgrimage’s exquisitely detailed 1820’s evening costumes, nationally recognized for their authenticity.
New this year will be two evening tours on Friday night only. Sainte Reine on Royal Street, its name a reminder of the area’s first tiny fort dating from the 1720s, was built in 1894 by Max Mann, Bayou Sara saloonkeeper and merchant who had the good sense to move up on the St. Francisville bluff high above the river floodwaters that plagued the immigrant merchants below. On Ferdinand St., Hilltop is a wonderful old Acadian-Creole house probably dating from the 1840s. It was moved from Bayou Lafourche to a lot consisting at most of a foot or two of level ground beside the street and then a precipitous drop 40 or 50 feet to the creek below.
Daytime features are open 9:30 to 5; Friday evening activities are scheduled from 6 to 9 p.m.; Saturday soiree, Light Up The Night, features live music and dancing, dinner and drinks, beginning at 7 p.m. Featured homes: Prospect, Baier House, Spring Grove and Lemon-Argue House will only be shown on Friday and Saturday; Sunday the Sullivan barn at Wyoming Plantation hosts a Gospel Brunch, another inviting innovation this year. Open all three days will be the churches, Audubon (Oakley) and Rosedown State Historic Sites, Afton Villa Gardens and the Rural Homestead.
For 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 email@example.com. Tickets can be purchased at the Historical Society Museum on Ferdinand Street.
Other March activities center around oak-shaded Parker Park in downtown St. Francisville. On Saturday, March 7, A Walk In The Park features music, crafts and art; hours are from 10 to 4, and the local food truck, A Hint Of Lime Tacos, will be there with authentic street tacos with homemade cheese, original salsas and specialty cremas. Then on Saturday, March 28, from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., the Tunica Hills Music Festival and Jam features a family-friendly get-together with food vendors and three stages full of continuous performances of many genres of music by the likes of the Bagasse Boyz, Clay Parker and Jody James, traditional gospel choir performances at dusk, and jam circles with attendees encouraged to bring their own instruments and join in the 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. Several splendidly restored plantation homes are open for tours: The Cottage Plantation (weekends), Myrtles Plantation, Greenwood Plantation, plus Catalpa Plantation by reservation; Afton Villa Gardens is open in season. Particularly important to tourism in the area are its two significant state historic sites, Rosedown Plantation (a National Historic Landmark) and Oakley Plantation in the Audubon state site, which offer periodic living-history demonstrations to allow visitors to experience 19th-century plantation life and customs.
The nearby Tunica Hills region offers unmatched recreational activities in its unspoiled wilderness areas—hiking, biking and bicycle racing due to the challenging terrain, birding, photography, hunting. There are unique art galleries plus specialty and antiques shops, many in restored historic structures, and some nice restaurants throughout the St. Francisville area serving everything from ethnic cuisine to seafood and classic Louisiana favorites. For overnight stays, the area offers some of the state’s most popular Bed & Breakfasts, including historic plantations, lakeside clubhouses and beautiful townhouses in St. Francisville’s extensive National Register-listed historic district, and there are also modern motel accommodations for large bus groups.
For visitor information, call West Feliciana Tourist Commission and West Feliciana Historical Society at 225-6330 o r 225-635-4224, or St. Francisville Main Street at 225-635-3873; online www.stfrancisville.us, www.stfrancisvillefestivals.com, or www.stfrancisville.net (the events calendar gives dates and information on special activities).