Sunday, November 24, 2019

St. Francisville’s Christmas In The Country

Beloved Holiday Tradition: St. Francisville’s Christmas In The Country
By Anne Butler
parkRick Bragg, native of Possum Trot, Alabama, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, educator and latter-day aw-shucks humor columnist for Southern Living, confesses to being terrified of the melee and misery of Black Friday, envisioning himself yanking a discounted flat-screen TV from the death grip of a rabid granny snarling through bared teeth, before being trampled by the crazed hordes.

But holiday shopping doesn’t have to be that way, and the longtime sponsors of St. Francisville’s Christmas in the Country celebrate the season by combining great bargains on unique gifts with carols and concerts, home tours and a great parade, food and fun for all ages. This year’s festival is December 6, 7 and 8th with activities throughout the downtown area, where tiny white lights grace gallery posts and trace soaring Victorian trimwork to turn the entire National Register-listed Historic District into a veritable winter wonderland.

The theme of the Sunday afternoon Christmas parade is Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, and it sets the tone for the whole weekend, a safe, small-town celebration of its bedrock beliefs---in the goodness of people, the beauty of nature, and the strength of community and faith. Plus it’s just plain fun! Remember when Christmas shopping was actually a pleasure? It still is in St. Francisville, where each unique little store welcomes shoppers with lots of lagniappe: refreshments, music, and spectacular discounted sales.

porch townhallFriday evening, December 6th, Christmas in the Country is kicked off around St. Francisville’s Town Hall as jovial longtime mayor Billy D’Aquilla lights the town tree and hosts a reception complete with fireworks. The Polar Express Train travels along Ferdinand Street from 5 to 7:30, and participating homes along Ferdinand and Royal Streets, designated by signs, permit visitors to Peep Into Our Holiday Homes from 6 to 8 p.m. both Friday and Saturday.

griffinA fundraising concert called Sounds Of The Season will be held to benefit the restoration of the Old Benevolent Society Building, St. Francisville’s oldest black burial insurance lodge, listed on the 2018 list of Louisiana’s Most Endangered Places. The concert features one of America’s premier bass-baritone singers, Ivan Griffin, a classically trained artist whose repertoire spans a wide range, from sacred and gospel to musical theater, jazz, opera and oratorio. The concert takes place in Grace Episcopal Church from 7:30 to 8:30 p.m., and is preceded by a reception in the church’s Jackson Hall from 6 to 7:15. (Tickets: www.eventbrite.com)

Saturday, December 7th, begins with a 7:30 a.m. Community Prayer Breakfast at the Methodist Church Fellowship Hall. Christmas on the Run supporting the American Cancer Society has a one-mile fun run beginning at 8 a.m. and a 5-K run at 8:30 a.m., both starting at Town Hall.

santa christmas3Little ones can enjoy Breakfast with St. Nick at Grace Church’s Jackson Hall; sponsored by the Women’s Service League, two seatings are available at 8 and 10 a.m., with reservations encouraged and tickets available online ( wslwestfel@gmail.com ).

In Parker Park from 10 to 4, over 50 unique vendors offer everything from food and music to arts and crafts; from noon to 2 there will be live music in the park featuring the Main Street Band. Also open from 10 to 4 will be a Christmas Market in Audubon Market Hall on Royal Street, with offerings from some of the other fine St. Francisville area shops not located in the downtown area.

St. Francisville’s boutique shops and art galleries are the enthusiastic sponsors of this special weekend, offering a wide variety of inventory, from antiques (there are several sprawling antiques co-ops) and art (both original and prints), decorative items, one-of-a-kind handmade crafts, custom jewelry, housewares, artisanal foodstuffs, clothing for every member of the family. Be sure to pick up your Candy Cane Shopping Card from one of the 16 listed shops, featuring discounts and “I Shopped St. Francisville” t-shirts for purchases over $100. Another fun activity for dedicated shoppers started November 22 and ends Sunday, December 8th at noon; “Find Me If You Can, I’m the Gingerbread Man” challenges shoppers to find gingerbread men at participating shops to earn a t-shirt; playing cards are available from the library or the Visitor Center/Museum.

santa sledFrom 10 to 4 on Saturday, the non-profit organization Friends of the Library sponsors the popular annual Tour of Homes benefitting library programs, showcasing five stately homes featuring varied architecture and eclectic d├ęcor, plus the decorated parish library and a quilt exhibit in Audubon Market Hall. Homes are scattered in the historic district, The Bluffs, and even “down some ageless tree-lined back roads.” Tickets may be purchased online at www.eventbrite.com, at the library or tour homes; info at 225-635-3364.

Downtown Merchants Open Houses, with music and refreshments, keep the fun and fine shopping going into the evening Saturday from 4 to 7 p.m. From 6 to 8 p.m., Oakley Plantation’s Jane Austen Christmas at Audubon State Historic Site features candlelight tours, seasonal decorations, food tastings and vintage dancing to period tunes. From 6 to 7 p.m. United Methodist Church hosts a Community Sing-Along. First Baptist Church (LA 10 at US 61) has a Living Nativity inside the church from 6 to 8 p.m., a real Christmas journey—travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem and rediscover the miracle of the birth of Jesus; children love the petting stable, crafts, and hot chocolate and cookies.

On Sunday, December 8th, turn in Gingerbread Man playing cards from 9 to noon at Town Hall; there will also be a photo booth there. Candy Cane Shopping Card opportunities continue from 10 to closing, with T-shirt prizes available at the Visitor Center on Ferdinand St. (open 9 to 5). Vendors are in Parker Park from 10 to 4, with live music in the park noon to 2 by Nancy Roppolo and Day Trip. The Christmas Market at Audubon Market Hall on Royal Street is also open 10 to 4.

Sunday’s highlight is the Women’s Service League Christmas Parade beginning at 2 p.m., travelling along Ferdinand and Commerce Streets, with floats, bands, marching groups, dignitaries and lots of throws, all under the theme of Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.

jodi clayArts For All sponsors the final fabulous event of Christmas In The Country, a live concert in historic Temple Sinai featuring Clay Parker and Jodi James, the perfect acoustics making the restored place of worship a fine location for the perfect blending of voices and guitars by these two young Louisiana artists just back from a national tour. Reviewers praise their use of dense harmony-singing and subtle musical arrangements binding them to the tradition of singer-songwriters with folk and American-country roots. Tickets available at www.bontempstix.com.

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).

Friday, October 4, 2019

The Myrtles: History with a Side of Ghosts

The Myrtles: History with a Side of Ghosts
By Anne Butler

frontThe Myrtles Plantation, originally known as Laurel Grove, was established in the late 1790s by David Bradford, wealthy judge who in 1794 represented Monongahela Valley farmers opposing an unpopular excise tax newly levied by US authorities on their corn whiskey, the principal economic product of western Pennsylvania. He was prominent and influential, although some fellow attorneys in the region considered him “mentally unstable…and lacking in judgement” according to at least one book on the revolt, which was the first test of the power of the new federal government. As one of the ringleaders of the so-called Whiskey Rebellion, elected unanimously to serve as Major General in command of the forces, Bradford escaped arrest by heading to Spanish territory (the St. Francisville area remained under Spanish control until 1810). It was he who built the north section of the house on a grant of 650 arpents.

frontAfter his death in 1808, probate records itemize an estate including land, dozens of slaves, bedsteads and feather beds, looking glasses, 155 books, two dining tables, 9 silver teaspoons and 11 silver spoons, a pair of saddle bags and a valise, two swords, cotton cards and weavers’ loom and spinning wheels, one gig and harness, horses, oxen, hogs, ploughs and carpenters’ tools, geese and ducks and sheep, guns and ladies’ saddles, 730 barrels of corn, 1,000 pounds of seed cotton, and more. His widow Elizabeth retained most of the farming implements and livestock, household furnishings and some of the slaves, who were divided among the descendants with an apparent attempt to keep families together (“Three Negroes viz Bill, Miny his wife and their Child Maria, were offered for sale and being repeatedly cried were adjudged to Jane Speer with the consent of Henry Q. Speer her husband for the sum of $3060”).

Among David Bradford’s immediate heirs were a number who met with tragedy in life. His daughter Sophia in 1818 married the apparently unrelated James Morgan Bradford; an attorney who served in Capt. Jedediah Smith’s Feliciana Troop of Horse in the Battle of New Orleans before establishing the first newspaper published in the Florida Parishes of Louisiana, he was stabbed to death in 1837 during a quarrel with John McDermott. David Bradford’s son and namesake, born in 1796, married the sister of Jefferson Davis and was assassinated in 1844; he too had served in Capt. Smith’s cavalry.

parlorThe Myrtles was next occupied by Bradford’s daughter Sarah Mathilda, who in 1817 at age 16 married 38-year-old Judge Clark Woodruff, who had been a corporal in the Feliciana Troop of Horse. It was they who added the ornate grape-cluster wrought-iron grillwork to the lengthy front gallery. After yellow fever epidemics in 1823 and 1824 killed Woodruff’s wife and young son and daughter, he sold the property, along with improvements and slaves, for $46,853.17 to Ruffin Gray Stirling in 1834. Audubon’s pupil Eliza’s mother Lucretia Alston Pirrie’s first husband was Ruffin Gray of Oakley Plantation; her sister Ann Alston was the wife of early settler Alexander Stirling, and their son, born in 1795, was named Ruffin Gray Stirling for his uncle.
In the 1850s Stirling, a wealthy cotton planter who farmed thousands of acres, and his wife, Mary Catherine Cobb, added the large central hallway and southern section, doubling the size of the house; skilled European craftsmen formalized the rooms with faux bois and elaborate pierced friezework, the plaster a mixture of clay, Spanish moss and cattle or deer hair. In June 1852 their 19-year-old daughter Sarah Mulford Stirling married William Drew Winter at The Myrtles.

William Winter had been born in Bath, Maine, in 1820, a direct descendent of pilgrim John Alden. His father was a ship captain who drowned when William was 15, his first wife died in childbirth, and misfortune seemed to follow William all his life.

One fine day in August of 1856, just four years after his marriage at The Myrtles, he boarded the steamer Star bound for Last Island, popular with south Louisiana’s plantation families and residents of the Crescent City escaping deadly yellow fever epidemics amidst the healthful sea breezes. Just off the Louisiana coast, Isle Dernier was a fashionable Victorian resort with summer cottages and a small hotel, fine fishing and sea bathing, and broad sand beaches for promenading and carriage riding.

frenzyAboard the Star, attorney William D. Winter approached the island just as Louisiana’s first great hurricane arrived unheralded from the opposite direction. Devastating winds and strong surf inundated the lowlying island from both gulf and bay sides, with houses collapsing and shrieking residents washed out to sea. The crippled Star, its anchor chains snapped, was very nearly swept past the island to perish in gulf waters, but as the captain struggled to dock, the vessel bilged in the sand near the highest point of the island.

One of the heroes of the disaster would be William Winter, who arrived in time to see the collapse of the island hotel where numerous guests and visitors had taken refuge. With his colleague Dr. Jones Lyle, Winter leapt from the foundering steamboat into the raging waters and rushed into the shattered hotel to save scores of men, women and children, leading them to the terrapin pens, sturdy enclosures holding turtles destined for the dining table. Then, during a brief calm in the midst of the storm, the men formed a human chain stretching toward the foundered Star and led their two dozen charges from the neck-deep waters of the terrapin pens to the safety of the boat’s hull.

tableWinter and Lyle were both known as great gourmets, and at one point during the frantic struggle, as they watched hundred-pound turtles swimming around the trapped survivors and being washed out to sea, Winter wryly commented on how many good dinners were being lost.

William Winter and his wife Sarah Stirling would have six children. An attorney, he served as agent for his widowed mother-in-law’s extensive properties, but the prosperous days of the Cotton Kingdom were over, and by 1867 William D. Winter had to declare bankruptcy. However, after a tax sale, the title to The Myrtles was transferred to his wife Sarah, and the family was still in residence on the tragic day in January 1871 when William Drew Winter met his end, according to Grace Episcopal Church records, “shot at his own door 26 Jan. at half past seven o’clock.”

Winter was said to have been teaching a son his Sunday School lessons in the front room at The Myrtles when he heard someone outside calling his name. He went out onto the front gallery and there he was shot dead with a double-barrel shotgun, “six buckshot taking effect in his breast.” His stunned family inside heard the shooting, followed by the sound of horse’s hooves clattering off into the distance.

Winter was buried in Grace Church cemetery the following day, and newspapers during this turbulent Reconstruction era recount the unsuccessful prosecution of former sheriff E.L. Weber and George Swayze for the murder. There had been disagreements over cotton and several lawsuits between Weber and Winter, and the coroner testified to hearing Weber make use of “unfriendly expressions” toward the deceased. The court affirmed that Winter was “foully and maliciously assassinated in cold blood…an outrageous dastardly act that struck terror to the hearts of every man, woman and child in this entire community. To be thus shot down in the vigor of manhood, in the floodtide of prosperity, conspicuous among men for his brilliant talents and attainments, eminent as an attorney and counselor at the bar of this State, at his own fireside, in the very bosom of his family.” But the first judge recused himself, the State’s witnesses could not be found and, although jailhouse conversations seemed to implicate the two defendants, the presiding Judge acquitted them both.

roomThe Myrtles capitalizes wonderfully on its own woeful past, and on dark evenings with moonlight trickling down through the hanging moss, it looks downright scary. Sticklers for historical accuracy might regard as more entertainment than fact the scintillating and ever-changing stories that captivate and terrify tourists on popular mystery tours through a house billed as the most haunted in America-- the slave Chloe wearing a green tignon to cover the ear whacked off as punishment for eavesdropping, the tiny tots poisoned by oleander baked into a birthday cake, the slain Confederate soldiers and stabbings over gambling debts, the illicit affairs between master and slave, the disturbed Indian burial mound and the unquiet spirits captured in discolored mirrors. But the murder at The Myrtles of William Drew Winter is another story altogether, and one well-grounded in historical fact.

From the 1890s to the 1950s The Myrtles had a succession of owners, including Harrison Williams who’d gone to the Civil War as a 15-year-old Confederate cavalry courier and was the last to actually raise crops on the place. Today this popular tourist destination, owned since 1992 by John E. and Teeta Moss who have recently handed over the responsibility to son Morgan, has taken on a new focus, more of a destination area complete with dining in the new 1796 Restaurant, B&B in the main house or shotgun cottages, bricked courtyard to the rear and tidy parterre garden leading to the front entrance. There are daily tours through the historic house, specialized mystery tours, and enormously popular Halloween Experience extravaganza tours on weekends in October (Friday, Saturday and Sunday 5 to 10 p.m.) guaranteed to scare the pants off visitors. Advance reservations are suggested and may be made online or by calling 800-809-0565 or 225-635-6277.

flowersOther events commemorating Halloween are Trunk or Treat at the West Feliciana Sports Park on October 24th, downtown trick or treating on Halloween sponsored by Main Street and the local merchants, and All Hallows Eve at Audubon State Historic Site on Friday, October 25, from 6 to 8 p.m., a traditional 1800s fall festival with storytelling, pumpkin carving, apple bobbing, superstitions, divinations and games for the whole family (for information, call 888-677-2838 toll free or 225-635-3739).

One of the area’s iconic events, a fall tradition for gardening enthusiasts across the south organized in tribute to the glorious 19th-century gardens still extant in the St. Francisville area, is the Southern Garden Symposium October 18 and 19th, when nationally renowned speakers conduct programs in plantation settings including Rosedown, Afton Villa and historic churches on Friday; a Saturday symposium at Hemingbough features outstanding lectures, autographed gardening books and tools. For information and ticket information, online southerngardensymposium@gmail.com.

Other October events drawing visitors to the St. Francisville area include the Angola Rodeo and Craft Show every Sunday, and the popular Yellow Leaf Festival in St. Francisville’s oak-shaded Parker Park on October 27 and 28, featuring lots of carefully curated art works as well as continuous live music and good food.
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).



Tuesday, August 27, 2019

St. Francisville’s Rosedown Plantation State Historic Site: Story of Survival

St. Francisville’s Rosedown Plantation State Historic Site: Story of Survival
By Anne Butler


rosedown“Of all the houses in the world it seemed to be the beloved of its own trees and gardens,” said Mississippi-born writer Stark Young when he used Rosedown as a picturesque setting in his acclaimed Civil War novel So Red The Rose, written a full century after Rosedown was built in 1834. That charm and appeal continues unabated today, the house folded in the embrace of 27 surrounding acres of 19th-century gardens and live oaks grown to immense size, and indeed the beauty of the glorious gardens has saved the house itself more than once through the generations.

In 1829 Martha Hilliard Barrow and her husband Daniel Turnbull acquired the Rosedown property from the estate of her father for $60,000; the couple had married in 1828 when Martha was 18 years old and Daniel 28. Here they would erect a stately double-galleried home, all 8,000 square feet of it costing a mere $13,109.20 and completed in just six months, November 1, 1834, to May 1, 1835.
oaksMuch of the labor was performed by slaves during the winter months when planting chores were few. Built of cypress cut from the surrounding woods, the Rosedown house featured Doric columns, double galleries, and a fanlight over the entrance doorway to remind the mistress of her own homeplace, Highland; its style was called transitional Federal Greek Revival. The “workmanship and stile (was) not to be surpassed in the state,” according to the contract with carpenter W. Wright, who had been a contractor for the West Feliciana Railroad, the country’s first standard-gauge line.

The young bride planned a housewarming party for only some thirty guests, but the menu included 6 chickens for chicken salad, 2 turkeys, 2 ducks, 1 ham, 1 tongue, 1 roast mutton, 2 roast chickens, 1 pig, cakes made from 12 dozen eggs, 6 eggs for salad, 16 pints for cream, jelly, blancmange, 23 bananas, 6 pineapples, 2 hogsheads ice, 4 decanters wine, 4 decanters brandy, 2 bottles brandy, 8 bottles champagne, 4 pounds candy fruit, 2 ornamental pound cakes of 12 pounds each, 1 10-pound fruitcake, macaronas, lady fingers, 1 jar grapes, 2 neuga ornaments; “costs 74 dollars, musicians 60 dollars, indeed to induce everything it cost 224 dollars.”

On their lengthy wedding trip through Europe in 1835, Martha fell in love with Versailles and other great landscapes of the Continent and gleaned the inspiration for her own grand gardens. Only such expansive yet orderly grandeur could adequately complement the fine plantation house. Initially five acres of rare shrubs on each side of the avenue, the Rosedown plantings were continually expanded into one of the great gardens of the 19th century and early proving grounds for the exotic flora of the Orient.

camelliaCamellia japonicas, for example, planted at Rosedown as early as the 1830s or ‘40s, were natives of the Orient and Far East, known to thrive in the gardens of Japan and China centuries before they were seen by Europeans. They were initially carried to other lands by missionaries and early medical men, travelling first afoot and then across the seas after trade with the Orient was first opened in the early 1500s by the Portuguese and their infamous Black Ships. Soon trading groups like the East India Companies were formed, dealing in spices, silks, porcelains and other Oriental treasures. It was often the medical officers of these trade companies who first studied the native plants for their medicinal propensities, then introduced the botanical oddities back home.

The gardening journals of Martha Turnbull are a testament to the importance of plantings in early southern life and the amazing variety of not just ornamental but also edible plants she set out…eggplants and tomatoes, turnips, cabbage and lettuce, celery, broccoli, beets and spinach, parsnips, carrots, kale, leeks, potatoes, garlic, onions planted at the full moon, peas, dewberries and raspberries, beans, watermelons, cucumbers and cantaloupe, cauliflower, squash, rutabaga, figs and pears and apples, quince and peaches, plums, artichokes, pineapples in the greenhouse, tobacco and rice.

cookingHere along the Lower Mississippi River where more than half of America’s 19th-century millionaires were to be found before the Civil War, Daniel Turnbull acquired additional lands for an extensive cotton operation. His more practical journal of cash crops and work details, preserved in the LSU Department of Archives and Manuscripts, includes such entries as: “Shipped 308 Bales; killed 20 hogs, weather cold; Rosedown gin running, 6 hands digging holes for trees in orchard; teams hauled pork from landing; 6 men cut up and salted hogs, 4 men whipsawing; heavy freeze last night; new smokehouse, new woodhouse; carpenters and 2 men in the swamp getting out timber for new cabins, 2 ox teams hauled the same, 7 hands worked in orchard, 5 men pressed 14 bales in Rosedown gin.” In 1860 a New Orleans newspaper called West Feliciana one of the richest parishes in the state, and among the largest planters were mentioned Daniel Turnbull of Rosedown and William J. Fort of Catalpa.

The Turnbulls’ seven-year-old son James Daniel died in 1843 of yellow fever, and their grown son William, who with his wife Caroline S. Butler had several children, drowned in the river while herding cattle. Their only daughter Sarah, beautiful “National Belle” of 1849, married James Pirrie Bowman, the son of Audubon’s pupil Eliza Pirrie of Oakley. Sarah was the center of brilliant entertainments and social life at Rosedown prior to her marriage, making the rounds of resorts, dancing the night away at fancy dress balls, touring Europe, and excelling at athletics as well. One account, written later by one of her daughters, tells the story of Sarah in attendance at drills at West Point on horseback when an officer dared her to take a hurdle. A fearless equestrienne, she sat erect and replied, “A Southern girl was never known to refuse a dare,” and gracefully leaped the hurdle. The cadets saluted her and the band played Dixie in her honor. It would be her eight daughters, four of them spinsters, who would struggle to maintain Rosedown after the Civil War through some very lean and difficult years.
gardenIn one particularly poignant scene from So Red The Rose, a Confederate cavalryman rides along the 660-foot oak allee from the plantation house based on Rosedown, tipping his hat to each of the marble statues lining the drive, a final farewell to a vanishing way of life. And indeed life would never be the same at Rosedown, and yet the plantation persevered through struggling years of genteel poverty. After 30 years of recording daily experiments and plantings with unlimited labor and funds, the diaries of Mrs. Turnbull dolefully record the disintegration of the gardens into melancholy wildernesses of sedgegrass during the difficult years of the Civil War, while she tried to save them by paying the help with plantation produce and often working by their side.

Wartime diary entries show the determination of Martha Turnbull, who had been mistress of hundreds of slaves, to do whatever it took to save her garden: “Julia one week at 40 cents…Penny and Lancaster 2 days each, $1.60…Penny cleaning front yard, gave her 2 lbs. coffee, 2 lbs. sugar, pint molasses…Ben hawled all leaves from the Avenue…Kitty and children cleaned up with Clabber paying.” The entry of January 1864 reads, “Up to this time, since the Federals landed in May neither field or Garden has been worked.” In January 1869: “Not one speck of ground yet plowed. Hay all over the truck patch & no manure yet hawled…all work that ought to have been in October and November yet to be done…Very cold & damp-deep snow today-can do nothing-no hands yet in garden but John Prenter & he’s worse than nothing.” And times worsened: “August 23…cleaned up my yard entirely by my own hands and now hawling manure and trash from Eliza’s side,” reads one entry in 1872.

gazeboIn 1874 she initiated a Civil War claim for property confiscated by Union forces in June of 1863, including 300 hogsheads sugar, 600 barrels molasses, 200 mules, 100 horses, 700 head of cattle, 80 wagons, 300 hogs, 6,000 bushels of corn, 50 bales of cotton, 100 barrels of pork, 3000 pounds of salted meat and 20 sacks of coffee. She never received compensation. And yet annual inventories of household items like the one of August 1867 still show remarkable treasures: “24 fingerbowls, 11 flower and 13 dark blue; 24 breakfast forks; 24 dinner forks; 1 asparagus knife; 1 buckwheat knife; 1 custard spoon; 1 gravy spoon; 21 teaspoons; 6 STB coffee spoons; 6 egg spoons; 17 dessert spoons; 17 dinner spoons; 1 cheese knife; 1 cake knife; 2 salt spoons; 1 sugar tongs; 2 butter knives; 12 nut picks; 1 sugar sifter; 23 fruit forks; 24 fruit knives; 1 fish knife; 16 old things in drawer; 6 nut crackers; 1 ham hock; 1 crumb brush…” Census of the labor force and of the animals from the same era, compared with the claim for property confiscated by federal troops, shows the decline: “40 sheep, 2 bulls, 1 old and 1 young, 6 oxen” and “little negroes 105, hands 248, no accounts 12.”
On September 1, 1895, Martha Barrow Turnbull entered her last posting in her garden journal: “My pension came. I had not one dime to pay Emma $2 this month, August or any debt whatever.” Her pension, as a widow of a veteran of the War of 1812, was a monthly check of $8.

Martha Turnbull died at age 87 in 1896, her daughter Sarah, mother of ten, in 1914. The slim Bowman sisters of the next generation, spinsters Corrie, Isabel, Sarah and Nina, inherited the place and all its accompanying responsibilities at the worst possible time, as the boll weevil destroyed the cotton empire upon which the house was built; the parishwide harvest of 1853 had been 24,000 bales, but by the early 1900s only 400 bales of cotton were harvested in West Feliciana. But the sisters did the best they could, selling poultry and cuttings of garden plants, and timidly offering postcards for 25 cents to inquisitive tourists who were allowed in to the house to see only the parlor and dining room.

It would be the gardens that touched the hearts of the Milton Underwoods from Texas when the plantation home and acreage were put up for sale after the last of the Bowman sisters, Miss Nina, died in mid-1955. The detailed gardening diaries of Martha Turnbull span nearly 60 years and prove that she was one of the first to introduce azaleas and camellias to the South beginning in 1836. These records were invaluable restoration tools when oil heiress Catherine Fondren Underwood, after attending a Garden Clubs of America event in Natchez, purchased the property in 1956, her keen eye recognizing the lush beauty of the gardens and haunting dignity of the house even through the creeping undergrowth and peeling plaster.

barnPrior to opening to the public, a meticulous 10-year restoration, overseen by noted New Orleans architects Richard Koch and George Leake and landscape architect Ralph Gunn of Houston who was succeeded by Dr. Neil G. Odenwald, salvaged the house and its unique collection of plantings. A 1930s WPA architect’s survey of Rosedown aided immeasurably in the location of paths, potting shed, conservatory and greenhouse. Century-old sweet olives, cypress, camellias, azaleas, and other flowering shrubs and trees were preserved, and a propagation program regenerated old-fashioned roses, rare hip gardenias with their seed pods glowing like bright orange lanterns, and lace-cap hydrangeas from the original 19th-century stock.

For decades Rosedown was the strong draw for tourism in St. Francisville, nationally recognized, well publicized, admired by preservationists and gardening enthusiasts for its attention to historical accuracy, a generous community partner for the entire area. But after the death of the Underwoods, the house with several thousand surrounding acres was purchased in 1994 for $3.75 million by a most unfortunate owner, who sold the cattle, sold the timber, sold some of the property, removed the marble statues lining the avenue, replaced knowledgeable tour guides with audiotapes and made visitors look through plexiglass rather than entering the rooms at an exorbitant entrance fee which generated tremendous ill will. He divided and sold the enormous Gothic Revival Henry Clay bedroom suite for which an entire wing had been added to one side of the main structure, balanced on the opposite side by a library; Daniel Turnbull purchased the immense set, which had been ordered for use in the White House, after Clay lost his bid for the presidency in 1844. The bed alone was sold to the Dallas Museum of Art for $450,000, matching side chairs went to Houston’s Bayou Bend museum, while the dresser, wash stands, massive armoire and cheval mirror went in different directions. Other purported contents of the house, seemingly everything that wasn’t nailed down, were sold at auction on the grounds, where local preservationists tried to purchase what they could so the items could be returned to Rosedown.

statueHe even tried to evict the little black Rosedown Baptist Church, on property well removed from the main house, given to the congregation way back in time and surrounded by a cemetery. That threat caused outrage in the entire community. Eventually the one-acre church property was purchased by an anonymous local resident and the deed handed over to the rector, the Reverend Lafayette Veal, Jr., a heartwarming recognition that any appreciation of area history and heritage must of necessity include the major contributions of black community members and of the importance of black churches to life through the generations. Rev. Veal, whose father pastored the church before him, recalled the night Rosedown’s new owner came to break the bad news to the congregation: “I was thinking and praying at the same time, ‘What is wrong with this man?’ Then it came to me: Satan is in our midst.”

Maybe it could have been worse. Sotheby’s International Realty had listed the property---2100 acres of woodlands, pasture, gardens and plantation house, with this sales pitch: “Currently maintained as a museum, Rosedown Plantation is well suited for a number of possible uses such as a hunt club, horse or cattle farm, private school, spa/health club, hotel/restaurant or residential development.”

Finally the State of Louisiana stepped in and purchased the house, gardens and close to 400 acres for $5.7 million in November 2000. Today Rosedown, magnificently furnished and now a State Historic Site and National Historic Landmark, represents one of the South’s finest examples of antebellum culture, a picture of life along the River Road during the Cotton Kingdom. Rosedown’s grand gardens remain one of few extant 19th-century gardens in America. Rows of live oaks form a vaulted canopy above the entrance allee, considered one of the most beautiful approaches in the South. On the grounds, a compelling collection of original outbuildings—barn, plantation doctor’s office, milk house, latticed gazebos—provide further understanding of the operations of the early plantation communities, and here Rosedown’s staff periodically demonstrates early plantation skills like down-hearth cooking in the detached kitchen, using actual recipes from the Turnbull family and their descendants.

One of the area’s iconic events, a fall tradition for gardening enthusiasts across the south organized in tribute to the glorious 19th-century gardens still extant in the St. Francisville area, is the Southern Garden Symposium October 18 and 19th, when nationally renowned speakers conduct programs in plantation settings including Rosedown, Afton Villa and historic churches on Friday; a Saturday symposium at Hemingbough features outstanding lectures, autographed gardening books and tools. For information and ticket information, online southerngardensymposium@gmail.com.

hummingbirdsOther fall events drawing visitors to the St. Francisville area include the Feliciana Hummingbird Festival at the National Wildbird Refuge in Tunica on September 15, the Angola Rodeo and Craft Show every Sunday in October, the popular Yellow Leaf Festival in Parker Park on the 27th and 28th of October, and the Myrtles Plantation Halloween Experience weekends throughout October.

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).

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).