St. Francisville’s Celebration of Rural Life Skills
By Anne Butler
The forty-ninth annual Audubon Pilgrimage March 20, 21 and 22, 2020, celebrates a southern spring and artist John James Audubon’s productive stay in the area in 1821. On tour will be several venerable townhouses in St. Francisville’s National Register Historic District, two country houses dating from the 1800s, historic gardens and churches, graveyard tours and hymn singing, Friday candlelight tours, Saturday night soiree and Sunday gospel brunch, and of course lots of bird-related activities.
But one of the most popular features, for both adults and children, has proven to be the Rural Homestead, and it has been that way since the mid-1970s. That’s when the directors of the West Feliciana Historical Society, in a prescient attempt to provide a balanced presentation of parish history, decided to recreate a setting suitable for demonstrating rural life with all its requisite skills and homespun crafts while there were still some folks around who remembered how to do them.
Besides the plantation big houses and the quarters for enslaved workers, there were many small yeoman farmers, both black and white, eking out a hardscrabble existence, clearing small landholdings and erecting rough dwellings either on their own or with the help of a small number of slaves. It is that simple way of life that the Rural Homestead celebrates.
The 1977 pilgrimage brochure explained the intent this way: “The Rural Homestead is a major project of the Historical Society which will…tell the story of rural life in this parish. The landscape is changing rapidly and folkways that lent stability and commonality to those in all walks of rural life are vanishing. Not enough is being said today about the daily life of rural folk and their homely skills, some of them dating from pioneer times. Their story is just as much a part of the storied past as are the white pillars of the Old South…More than a nostalgic look backwards, this effort will create a new awareness as a living historical interpretation…”
And so began the Rural Homestead, with simple structures built in the traditional manner by carpenters using time-honored practices passed down through the generations, inside which demonstrations of significant 19th-century skills and crafts provide an understanding of early life in the Felicianas. And it is heartwarming to see third and fourth-generation workers of all ages…Daniels, Harveys, Temples, Ritchies, Lindseys, Metzes and more…carrying on the traditions today.
Corn was an all-important crop in the 19th century, providing sustenance for both people and livestock, and the Homestead’s operational gasoline-powered Gristmill with its original stones shows how dried corn was ground to make cornbread and other staples of country life. In the Kitchen, long the heart of rural life and usually detached from the main abode due to the heat and danger of fire, costumed interpreters churn butter and turn the ground corn into delicious cracklin’ cornbread over a woodburning stove. The Kitchen building, called a single pen structure with front and rear porches, was constructed from old materials salvaged locally, some pieces still bearing the marks of the broad ax and the foot adze used for squaring round logs. The framing follows practices carried over from half-timbered buildings, and the carpenter learned his skills from his grandfather.
The Kitchen is roofed with cypress shingles, as were all the early structures in West Feliciana; they were weather resistant, fire resistant, termite resistant. Making these shingles using a froe to peel them from a cypress log is a dying art. It is demonstrated on site by a member of a family long associated with such practice; he’s the only one left to do so, and he uses a treasured century-old draw knife that’s been used by generations.
Inside the dogtrot Quilters’ Cottage, so named for the open passageway separating the two sections of the structure, may be seen quilters, spinners and weavers, as well as hook rug making and perhaps tatting. Farm wives had to cord cotton or twist wool fibers into thread with a drop spindle before sewing or knitting clothing, bedding, curtains and other decorative fabrics. On the porch there will be a display of brown cotton as well as candle making.
The Commissary, which traditionally served the significant function of storing bulk provisions in barrels, croker sacks, demijohns and large stoneware crocks, will feature basket weaving and a doll maker on the porch, with items such as wooden buckets and birdhouses for sale. This structure also houses modern conveniences like restrooms, and a Clementine Hunter-inspired student art show on Saturday below a wonderful wall-sized Hunter mural.
The Blacksmith Shop recalls the early methods of forging and repairing the all-important farming equipment, horseshoes, wagon wheels and other metals over an open fire. Today, hooks and simple fireplace tools are made, and demonstrations of woodburning are given; some of these items may be purchased.
There’s a board-and-batten crib barn, and other tin-roofed sheds shelter typical farm animals. Visitors can observe how ground was broken for planting prior to the advent of modern mechanical miracles like tractors, when it was done by plow behind well-trained mules.
Many different sizes of cast-iron pots were utilized for all sorts of chores, from cane syrup making to cooking and laundry. Cracklin’s are pig skins being cooked in a big iron pot over an open fire near the lye soap makers, both activities utilizing the rendered lard in which fish is also fried.
Water and soft drinks may be purchased from the refreshment wagon, plate lunches are available 11:30 to 1:30 near conveniently placed picnic tables, and old-time music enlivens the happy conviviality that characterized the frolics of an earlier day as Audubon Pilgrims step into the rural past.
As a 1976 article in the local newspaper said, “Not every door in fabled West Feliciana swung open on silver hinges. Most swung on plain iron hinges, and some even on wooden hinges.” The Rural Homestead was conceived and still is an effort to record vanishing folkways and create a new awareness of the need for preservation and conservation, and it was implemented just in the nick of time to capture the 19th-century practices and skills being passed along by “the collective remnant of the last generation to have known 19th-century rural ways.”
Audubon Pilgrimage tour tickets cover visits to the Rural Homestead, but visitors may purchase a separate ticket just for the Rural Homestead for $3 adults, children 12 and under free. These tickets are only available at the Homestead site. Open Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 9 to 5.
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).