Oakley Plantation inspired artist J.J. Audubon to Greatness
By Anne Butler
Established 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.
The 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.”
By 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.
It 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.
Mrs. 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.
Old 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.
Highlight 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!
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. 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).