|Mayor D'Aquilla by D. Chitty|
St. Francisville’s Longtime Mayor Retiring After Half-Century of Public Service
By Anne Butler
You wouldn’t think growing up in an isolated little community of a hundred or so occupants would be good training for a career in politics, but for St. Francisville’s longtime mayor it provided exactly what he needed as the basis for his half-century of public service…an appreciation for history and an ability to get along with everybody. Those two must have served him well, for he has been elected and re-elected since he moved to St. Francisville in 1959.
Mayor Billy D’Aquilla grew up in tiny Fort Adams, Mississippi, at a time when there were three wood-frame stores (two owned by his father and uncle) where trappers sold pelts and hunters or fishermen purchased provisions and all the country folks
from cotton plantations and small farms piled into wagons to come into town on Saturdays, sitting on the store porches and shooting the breeze. This was after the Mississippi River channel shifted away from town. Originally Fort Adams had been the important US port of entry before the acquisition of New Orleans. A Jesuit mission had been established there around 1700 to bring Christianity to the local Indians, and in 1798 a military post named for President John Adams was established overlooking the river near the international boundary established between Spanish West Florida and the Mississippi Territory. There was a steep one-mile road down to the port at Fort Adams where cotton from across the central part of the state was hauled for shipment on paddlewheelers to factors in New Orleans during much of the 19th century.
Working in his father’s store for $3 a day, Billy D’Aquilla recalls not having electricity until he was in the third grade, and listening to the Grand Old Opry on Tuesday nights after it had been broadcast on Saturday. When he left home at age 17 to join the National Guard, he’d already learned the skills he would put to use in the first job he got after moving to St. Francisville in 1959, working as a butcher in Vinci’s IGA supermarket and treating everybody the same…behind the counter, in front of the counter, and on the front porch shooting the breeze. After six years there, he opened his own grocery on US Highway 61, along with some rental houses behind the store, before advancing to travelling sales jobs.
Meantime he was elected to the town council in 1972 and served for twelve years, 8 of them as Mayor Pro Tem, before running for mayor himself. He winces as he recalls those early days of raw sewerage running in the streets of St. Francisville. Once elected to that demanding position in 1984, he has been returned to office ever since, 12 terms counting the town council, mostly without opposition. Why? He absolute loves his town and absolutely loves his job. He also serves on numerous boards and commissions like the Capitol Region Planning Commission and the Louisiana Municipal Association for which he has served for years as Vice President At Large for communities of 1,000 to 5,000 residents.
Proud of the many accomplishments made during his lengthy tenure, he says he has always had great people to work with, helping to implement many progressive improvements, including a new sewage system, 500,000-gallon water tower, new fire trucks, ball fields, enhanced tourism promotion. He’s especially proud of the downtown development plan that facilitated the placement of bricked sidewalks, public restrooms, and a lovely oak-shaded park with bandstand gazebo in the center of town, Parker Park, that hosts a myriad of festivals, marketplaces, and other entertainments. He has worked hard to get millions of dollars in grants to carry out projects in town, as well as lots of capital outlay money through the state legislature. He also convinced the state to turn over those portions of both highways (LA 10 and US 61) running through town, but only after the state overlaid both streets and shared $500,000 in surplus funding.
“We did a lot for the town,” he says, working with a top-notch Main Street program, historic district commission, planning and zoning commission and different boards to whom he gives a lot of credit, including the Zachary Taylor Parkway commission of which St. Francisville was a charter member, so influential in placement of the new Audubon Bridge across the Mississippi. “We used to have a Class Six fire rating, and improved it to a Class Three, quite an accomplishment with a small mostly volunteer department and a real savings on fire insurance costs. Next up is a new waste-water treatment plant, a $5 million project in a new location safe from the increasingly regular floods on the Mississippi River, to be financed by a half-cent sales tax that will be on the ballot in December.”
Tourism has for years been an economic mainstay for the downtown economy, with visitors coming from around the country to admire the small-town heritage and the preservation of its historic structures in a National Register-listed downtown district. As mayor, D’Aquilla certainly has been the head cheerleader and supportive of projects benefitting not only those within the town limits but also the parish as a whole. Steamboat visitors from around the world get off buses at the Town Hall and often stop in for a chat with the mayor, who is always welcoming. Hospitality as well as history keep this little town at or near the top of regional and national lists of Favorite Small Towns, and the patronage of out-of-town visitors means the difference between surviving and thriving for all the little downtown boutique shops and galleries. A spruced up docking facility planned for the steamboats that regularly visit St. Francisville will provide space for three vessels at once, as well as safe and spacious boat launching for recreational fishermen.
Age and back troubles have slowed the mayor, and he needs to spend more time with his family, especially wife Yolanda, whom he married in 1962. But as he approaches retirement, he looks back over his long career with the satisfaction of having made many improvements, with incredible help from his devoted staff and town employees. What is he most proud of? “I have always treated everybody fairly,” he says, “no matter what age, color or status in life. I think I am most proud of that.”
Located on US Highway 61 on the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge, LA, and Natchez, MS, the St. Francisville area is a year-round tourist destination; check locally for coronavirus mitigation requirements, please. Several splendidly restored plantation homes are open for tours: The Cottage Plantation (weekends), Myrtles Plantation, Greenwood Plantation, plus Catalpa Plantation by reservation; Afton Villa Gardens is open in season. Particularly important to tourism in the area are its two significant state historic sites, Rosedown Plantation (a National Historic Landmark) and Oakley Plantation in the Audubon state site, which offer periodic living-history demonstrations to allow visitors to experience 19th-century plantation life and customs.
The nearby Tunica Hills region offers unmatched recreational activities in its unspoiled wilderness areas—hiking, biking and bicycle racing due to the challenging terrain, birding, photography, hunting. There are unique art galleries plus specialty and antiques shops, many in restored historic structures, and some nice restaurants throughout the St. Francisville area serving everything from ethnic cuisine to seafood and classic Louisiana favorites. For overnight stays, the area offers some of the state’s most popular Bed & Breakfasts, including historic plantations, lakeside clubhouses and beautiful townhouses in St. Francisville’s extensive National Register-listed historic district, and there are also modern motel accommodations for large bus groups.
For visitor information, call West Feliciana Tourist Commission and West Feliciana Historical Society at 225-6330 or 225-635-4224, or St. Francisville Main Street at 225-635-3873; online www.stfrancisville.us, www.stfrancisvillefestivals.com, or www.stfrancisville.net (the events calendar gives dates and information on special activities).