Flying Charlie McDermott and St. Francisville’s New Elementary School Suit Each Other
By Anne Butler
The loss of historically significant structures, whether to fire or flood or neglect, is disheartening to say the least. Sometimes, though, these historic homes are replicated. Sometimes, when the home itself is a total loss, the gardens and landscaping can be salvaged. And sometimes, when home and gardens are gone, the property itself can be rejuvenated in unexpectedly appropriate ways. That’s what is going to happen at Waverly Plantation, just north of the attractive campus where all of the St. Francisville area students go to school.
The West Feliciana Parish public school system is considered one of the best in the state, and its newer Lower Elementary and Middle School buildings are top rate as well. Parish residents are so supportive of the system that they recently voted tax funding to provide upgrades to the high school and some of its attached facilities. With student enrollment increasing yearly, the funding also covers an entirely new Upper Elementary building to replace the crowded and dated current structure.
And happily, just to the north of the Middle School complex lay Waverly Plantation. The main house there, built on a 1790s Spanish land grant, was a beautifully austere double-galleried frame structure, its entrance doors enhanced by fanlights and sidelights. It was actually located in the tiny community called Bains after Dr. Henry Bains, and when it burned in 1972 it was the home of another longtime parish physician, Dr. Alfred Gould.
But it was a third physician, the brother-in-law of Dr. Bains, who gained national notoriety for his 19th-century scientific experiments. Because of him, it is entirely appropriate that the Waverly property will find new life as an elementary school on the expanded campus of one of the state’s best public school systems, where STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and other innovative programs encourage exactly the same mindset that inspired the early owner of the property who was known as Flying Charlie McDermott.
McDermott, of Irish descent and an 1828 graduate of the Sheffield Scientific School at Yale University, inherited Waverly and became a respected physician at the encouragement of his brother-in-law. But like creative geniuses and dreamers from the time of Leonardo da Vinci, he was irresistibly drawn to the study of the mechanics of a flying machine, and for forty years was said to be constantly leaping out of the live oaks or dashing pell-mell down the nearest slope with the latest iteration of his invention.
By 1842 he told the Daily Picayune that he had “a kite 110 feet long, 20 feet broad, and tapering to each end like the wings of a fishhawk. Under the center of the kite I have a frame 18 feet high, in which I stand. Under the kite are four wings which operate horizontally like the oars of a boat. They are moved by the muscles of the legs. The blades of the oars are made of a series of valves resembling Venetian blinds so that they open when they move forward and close when the stroke is made.” By 1872 he had been issued Patent Number 133046 from the U.S. Patent Office for “Improvement in Apparatus for Navigating the Air,” but by then he was an old man. He said he probably knew more than any other living soul on the subject of aerostation, adding that “when in the future the air is filled with flying men and women, the wonder will be that a thing so simple was not done long ago.”
Flying Charlie McDermott’s early experiments with human flight preceded the 1903 Wright brothers’ Kitty Hawk ascent by nearly half a century. He was quoted in a newspaper of 1882, “It is mortifying that a stinking buzzard and a stupid goose should fly, and man, the lord of all the earth, should be any longer confined to the land and water. Many sails, one above the other, and a horizontal propulsion, is the secret, which was never known until I discovered it by analysis and synthesis, and which will fill the air with flying men and women.”
He and his brother eventually moved to Arkansas, where he became such an influential citizen that the whole town was named for him (Dermott), although he continued to manage his Louisiana property as well, making arduous trips back and forth. One 1842 letter describes his arrival at Waverly looking “very thin, says he has had nothing to eat since he left, rode 12 miles with a heavy rifle on his shoulder and 12 more with a deer on his horse. And to crown the whole, slept 3 nights in an Arkansas tavern, resting his head on a pillow that had a dead rat in it.”
After the Civil War, he joined Charlie Barrow of West Feliciana in founding colonies in Honduras. And it would not take a big stretch of the imagination to understand his excitement could he but know the use to which his Waverly property will be going, encouraging little minds to think out of the box and let their own imaginations soar.
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).