Wednesday, October 14, 2020

St. Francisville: Soothing to the Soul

div>

St. Francisville: Soothing to the Soul

By Anne Butler, Images by Darrell Chitty

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 D Chitty      Located on US Highway 61 on the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge, LA, andNatchez, MS, the St. Francisville area is a year-round tourist destination; check locally for coronavirus mitigation requirements, please. Several splendidly restored plantation homes are open for tours: The Cottage Plantation (weekends), Myrtles Plantation, Greenwood Plantation, plus Catalpa Plantation by reservation; Afton Villa Gardens is open in season. Particularly important to tourism in the area are its two significant state historic sites, Rosedown Plantation (a National Historic Landmark) and Oakley Plantation in the Audubon state site, which offer periodic living-history demonstrations to allow visitors to experience 19th-century life and customs.

The nearby Tunica Hills region offers unmatched recreational activities in its unspoiled wilderness areas—hiking, biking and bicycle racing due to the challenging terrain, birding, photography, hunting. While Clark Creek Nature Preserve remains closed to the public until after the first of the year, according to the Mississippi Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, there are wonderful hiking trails at the Mary Ann Brown Preserve and Audubon State Historic Site, at the West Feliciana Parish Sports Park, and also in the Cat Island National Wildlife Refuge (be sure to visit the Big Tree) and the Tunica Hills Wildlife Management Area that are open. There are unique art galleries plus specialty and antiques shops, many in restored historic structures, and some nice restaurants throughout the St. Francisville area serving everything from ethnic cuisine to seafood and classic Louisiana favorites. For overnight stays, the area offers some of the state’s most popular Bed & Breakfasts, including historic plantations, lakeside clubhouses and beautiful townhouses in St. Francisville’s extensive National Register-listed historic district, and there are also modern motel accommodations for large bus groups.

For visitor information, call West Feliciana Tourist Commission and West Feliciana Historical Society at 225-6330 or 225-635-4224, or St. Francisville Main Street at 225-635-3873; online  www.stfrancisville.us, www.stfrancisvillefestivals.com, or www.stfrancisville.net(the events calendar gives dates and information on special activities).

Thursday, October 1, 2020

ADAPTIVE REUSE IN DOWNTOWN ST. FRANCISVILLE

ADAPTIVE REUSE IN DOWNTOWN ST. FRANCISVILLE

By Anne Butler         

 

            It’s hard to keep track of time in the midst of a pandemic, when many people no longer have rigid work or school schedules. The little town of St. Francisville feels much the same, with visitors not sure exactly what century they’re entering. Oh sure, there are no longer the blacksmith shops and gristmills, the cotton gins and livery stables, the bustling supply houses selling everything from buggies to coffins. But there are plenty of original structures, too, and even some that were moved up the hill from Bayou Sara to escape the river floodwaters. 

            The 19th-century streetscape with its mixture of residential and commercial buildings side-by-side lends charm and assures a 24-hour presence in the historic district downtown. The desire to preserve these structures that give St. Francisville its sense of place has led to a need to creatively repurpose or adapt many of them for new purposes, to convert them for use in new formats. Repurposing is the reappropriation of artifacts or buildings of older cultures in new and creative ways, and this adaptive reuse can be seen throughout the two main streets of St. Francisville, Royal the residential area of beautiful historic homes, and Ferdinand the main thoroughfare to the Mississippi River and center of commerce.

            In addition, there’s Commerce Street that was once the principal route from New Orleans to Natchez, where 19th-century travelers were greeted at its intersection with Ferdinand St. (now the only traffic light in downtown St. Francisville) with the sight of three magnificent structures. They were just across the road from J. Freyhan & Co., sprawling commercial complex of general mercantiles, cotton gin, grocery, saloon, warehouses and more. These homes were built by Julius Freyhan himself, his brother-in-law Morris Wolf, and dentist Denison Stocking.

           main street 






An 1880s Bayou Sara newspaper calledPastimes describes the picturesque beauty of these three residences at the fork of the road: “First, in order of completion, comes the cozy cottage of Mr. Julius Freyhan, the appearance of which attracts the attention as it is approached from either of the converging avenues of travel which mingle into one immediately in its front. The sensation produced is one of quiet, unostentatious comfort, the perfection of neatness unalloyed by any superfluity of ornamentation. Next comes the beautiful residence of our fellow townsman Mr. Morris Wolf, situated as it were like a jewel, between those of Mr. Freyhan on the one hand and Dr. D. Stocking on the other. There is a feeling of adaptedness about the relative position of these three buildings which is particularly strong. That of Mr. Wolf, though marked perhaps with more amplitude of architectural decoration, is a perfect mode of neatness and good taste. To the left as you approach stands the palatial dwelling of Dr. Stocking, a magnificent termination to the lovely and romantic scene presented by the ample lawn and towering trees which lie between it and the highway.”

            Alas, the magnificent Stocking villa burned in the thirties, but descendants donated the grounds to the town of St. Francisville for a well-used public park complete with Victorian bandstand and space for fun festivals. On the other side, the original home of Julius Freyhan was passed to his brother-in-law Emmanuel Wolf, was used over the years  as doctors’ offices, and was eventually torn down to make way for a convenience store which has morphed into a wonderful Middle Eastern restaurant. One side wing was salvaged to form the basis for first a real estate office and now a great shop brimful of home décor items and lots more, Sage Hill. And the center structure from the 19th century, the one with that “amplitude of architectural decoration” and the only one left standing of this historic group, is now the recently restored St. Francisville Inn, beautifully furnished and landscaped, offering B&B accommodations, first-class restaurant and popular Saint bar.

            Julius Freyhan, mid-1800s Jewish immigrant who arrived penniless and died one of the richest men in Louisiana, implemented a fine example of chain migration by bringing from Germany his nephew Morris Burgas, first as bookkeeper and then as owner of his own mercantile store. A succession of marriages kept this store operational in the same family for nearly a century, until it was appropriately resurrected as District Mercantile, selling everything under the sun…antiques and collectibles, oldtime children’s games and toys, clothing and more… from its propitious location right on Ferdinand St.

            Royal St






Throughout the downtown historic district, there are other examples of restorative repurposing. Built in 1905 and long used as the local bank, the wonderful red brick structure with its arched windows and entrance doorway is now home to the thriving international jewelry business called Grandmother’s Buttons, the original inspiration coming from the owner’s grandmother’s ubiquitous button box. Way Down South was a grocery store and auto dealership in its early years, and now it’s an appealing gift shop with popular ice cream bar and candy shoppe. Across Ferdinand Street is the West Feliciana Historical Society headquarters, museum and tourist information center, housed in an 1896 two-story frame structure that saw continuous use as a hardware store and blacksmithery until its restoration.

            Grace Episcopal Church’s parish hall, Bishop Jackson Hall, was built in 1896 for the charitable brotherhood called the Knights of Pythias and was used for all sorts of travelling theatrics; on Royal Street, United Methodist Church’s offices are housed in what used to be a drugstore. Beautiful Temple Sinai, overlooking the river behind Grandmother’s Buttons, was built in the early 1900s, served as Jewish place of worship, then Presbyterian church, and has recently been restored by the Julius Freyhan Foundation as a wonderful nondenominational event center, ideal for concerts and small weddings. Another structure on Ferdinand Street was the Alamo Theater, screening popular movies in the mid-1900s; the locale was later used as a delicatessen and is now a well-stocked indie bookstore called The Conundrum. Throughout the downtown area, there are other examples, residences retrofitted as ladies’ dress shops, art galleries, beloved cafes and more.

            One of the most interesting retrofits is ongoing, having begun life in Bayou Sara, was dismantled and moved up the hill safe from the floodwaters of the Mississippi River, and reassembled in what was called the Red Horse neighborhood (one story says because the horses that hauled the materials up the steep red-clay hill were covered in red dust). It served as the all-black Faithful Workers Lodge that was dedicated in 1929, then for years was known as the Boll Weevil Café with upstairs rooms of questionably scandalous usage. Restaurants came and went until its purchase by the current owner, who is doing a thorough restoration for a more wholesome mixed-use future, with apartments upstairs (eventually to be reached by elevator), and offices downstairs, plus an additional commercial space in the side lean-to. The rafters were salvaged and as much of the old wood used as possible, for ceilings especially. The original marble plaque, which graced the entrance and included the names of original members of the lodge, has been saved and will be replaced.

           Main street 






Venerable buildings can be expensive and labor-intensive to restore and repurpose, but there’s a certain charm about them that’s hard to replicate in new construction. A number of these and other historic buildings have benefitted from small but encouraging Main Street grants, now available on a competitive basis for restoration of interior and exterior projects involving commercial structures within certified Main Street communities. For information on the Main Street program, which is a National Trust effort to rehab deteriorating small towns across the country and return them to present-day viability and appeal, contact Director Laurie Walsh at 225-635-3688; online lauriemainst@bellsouth.net.

            Located on US Highway 61 on the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge, LA, andNatchez, MS, the St. Francisville area is a year-round tourist destination; check locally for coronavirus mitigation requirements, please. Several splendidly restored plantation homes are open for tours: The Cottage Plantation (weekends), Myrtles Plantation, Greenwood Plantation, plus Catalpa Plantation by reservation; Afton Villa Gardens is open in season. Particularly important to tourism in the area are its two significant state historic sites, Rosedown Plantation (a National Historic Landmark) and Oakley Plantation in the Audubon state site, which offer periodic living-history demonstrations to allow visitors to experience 19th-century 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.stfrancisville.us, www.stfrancisvillefestivals.com, or www.stfrancisville.net(the events calendar gives dates and information on special activities).

 

Saturday, August 15, 2020

St. Francisville’s Longtime Mayor Retiring After Half-Century of Public Service

 

Mayor D'Aquilla by D. Chitty

St. Francisville’s Longtime Mayor Retiring After Half-Century of Public Service
By Anne Butler


You wouldn’t think growing up in an isolated little community of a hundred or so occupants would be good training for a career in politics, but for St. Francisville’s longtime mayor it provided exactly what he needed as the basis for his half-century of public service…an appreciation for history and an ability to get along with everybody. Those two must have served him well, for he has been elected and re-elected since he moved to St. Francisville in 1959.

 


cleo fields and mayor billy Mayor Billy D’Aquilla grew up in tiny Fort Adams, Mississippi, at a time when there were three wood-frame stores (two owned by his father and uncle) where trappers sold pelts and hunters or fishermen purchased provisions and all the country folks 

from cotton plantations and small farms piled into wagons to come into town on Saturdays, sitting on the store porches and shooting the breeze. This was after the Mississippi River channel shifted away from town. Originally Fort Adams had been the important US port of entry before the acquisition of New Orleans. A Jesuit mission had been established there around 1700 to bring Christianity to the local Indians, and in 1798 a military post named for President John Adams was established overlooking the river near the international boundary established between Spanish West Florida and the Mississippi Territory. There was a steep one-mile road down to the port at Fort Adams where cotton from across the central part of the state was hauled for shipment on paddlewheelers to factors in New Orleans during much of the 19th century.


 Working in his father’s store for $3 a day, Billy D’Aquilla recalls not having electricity until he was in the third grade, and listening to the Grand Old Opry on Tuesday nights after it had been broadcast on Saturday. When he left home at age 17 to join the National Guard, he’d already learned the skills he would put to use in the first job he got after moving to St. Francisville in 1959, working as a butcher in Vinci’s IGA supermarket and treating everybody the same…behind the counter, in front of the counter, and on the front porch shooting the breeze. After six years there, he opened his own grocery on US Highway 61, along with some rental houses behind the store, before advancing to travelling sales jobs.


town hall Meantime he was elected to the town council in 1972 and served for twelve years, 8 of them as Mayor Pro Tem, before running for mayor himself. He winces as he recalls those early days of raw sewerage running in the streets of St. Francisville. Once elected to that demanding position in 1984, he has been returned to office ever since, 12 terms counting the town council, mostly without opposition. Why? He absolute loves his town and absolutely loves his job. He also serves on numerous boards and commissions like the Capitol Region Planning Commission and the Louisiana Municipal Association for which he has served for years as Vice President At Large for communities of 1,000 to 5,000 residents.


Caboose Proud of the many accomplishments made during his lengthy tenure, he says he has always had great people to work with, helping to implement many progressive improvements, including a new sewage system, 500,000-gallon water tower, new fire trucks, ball fields, enhanced tourism promotion. He’s especially proud of the downtown development plan that facilitated the placement of bricked sidewalks, public restrooms, and a lovely oak-shaded park with bandstand gazebo in the center of town, Parker Park, that hosts a myriad of festivals, marketplaces, and other entertainments. He has worked hard to get millions of dollars in grants to carry out projects in town, as well as lots of capital outlay money through the state legislature. He also convinced the state to turn over those portions of both highways (LA 10 and US 61) running through town, but only after the state overlaid both streets and shared $500,000 in surplus funding.


 “We did a lot for the town,” he says, working with a top-notch Main Street program, historic district commission, planning and zoning commission and different boards to whom he gives a lot of credit, including the Zachary Taylor Parkway commission of which St. Francisville was a charter member, so influential in placement of the new Audubon Bridge across the Mississippi. “We used to have a Class Six fire rating, and improved it to a Class Three, quite an accomplishment with a small mostly volunteer department and a real savings on fire insurance costs. Next up is a new waste-water treatment plant, a $5 million project in a new location safe from the increasingly regular floods on the Mississippi River, to be financed by a half-cent sales tax that will be on the ballot in December.”


 santaTourism has for years been an economic mainstay for the downtown economy, with visitors coming from around the country to admire the small-town heritage and the preservation of its historic structures in a National Register-listed downtown district. As mayor, D’Aquilla certainly has been the head cheerleader and supportive of projects benefitting not only those within the town limits but also the parish as a whole. Steamboat visitors from around the world get off buses at the Town Hall and often stop in for a chat with the mayor, who is always welcoming. Hospitality as well as history keep this little town at or near the top of regional and national lists of Favorite Small Towns, and the patronage of out-of-town visitors means the difference between surviving and thriving for all the little downtown boutique shops and galleries. A spruced up docking facility planned for the steamboats that regularly visit St. Francisville will provide space for three vessels at once, as well as safe and spacious boat launching for recreational fishermen.


 tvAge and back troubles have slowed the mayor, and he needs to spend more time with his family, especially wife Yolanda, whom he married in 1962. But as he approaches retirement, he looks back over his long career with the satisfaction of having made many improvements, with incredible help from his devoted staff and town employees. What is he most proud of? “I have always treated everybody fairly,” he says, “no matter what age, color or status in life. I think I am most proud of that.”


 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; check locally for coronavirus mitigation requirements, please. Several splendidly restored plantation homes are open for tours: The Cottage Plantation (weekends), Myrtles Plantation, Greenwood Plantation, plus Catalpa Plantation by reservation; Afton Villa Gardens is open in season. Particularly important to tourism in the area are its two significant state historic sites, Rosedown Plantation (a National Historic Landmark) and Oakley Plantation in the Audubon state site, which offer periodic living-history demonstrations to allow visitors to experience 19th-century plantation life and customs.

paradeThe 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.stfrancisville.us, www.stfrancisvillefestivals.com, or www.stfrancisville.net (the events calendar gives dates and information on special activities).