St. Francisville Says Goodbye and Good Riddance to 2020, Welcome to 2021
By Anne Butler
While we grieve for loved ones lost and celebrate those medical personnel and essential workers who have helped us preserve some semblance of living, we must remember that over the ages civilizations have somehow managed to survive pandemics and other atrocities. As Ashley Sexton Gordon reminded us in In Register magazine’s December issue, in the year 1347 the bubonic plague wiped out some 60% of Europeans, leading Italian writer Boccaccio to mourn that victims “ate lunch with their friends and dinner with their ancestors.” At least, she points out, they didn’t eat their friends, as did guide Alferd Packer, lost in a snowstorm in the San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado in 1874, when he apparently cannibalized the five goldseekers in his starving party. And Smiley Anders’ contributor Marvin Borgmeyer brought up the Middle Ages, when survivors celebrated the end of each pandemic with wine and orgies (“Does anyone know what is planned when this one ends?” he asks).
As the new year opens, with vaccines and continued mitigation measures revealing the light at the end of the terrible tunnel, St. Francisville has much to celebrate and look forward to, for 2021 marks the 200th anniversary of the artist John James Audubon’s inspirational stay in the area. Hired by Lucretia Pirrie, mistress of Oakley Plantation, to tutor her young daughter Eliza for the summer, Audubon arrived at the Mississippi River port of Bayou Sara by steamboat in June of 1821. His arrival marked a pivotal point in his career. The artist who was “bereft at that time of not only funds but incentive” was about to be introduced to the rich flora and fauna of the Felicianas, teeming with birdlife, that would renew his enthusiasm and artistic inspiration to continue on his staggering quest to paint all the birds of this immense fledgling country..
The artist, penniless but rich in talent and dreams, was immediately struck by the beauty of the countryside, as he related in his journal: “The aspect of the country entirely new to us distracted my mind...the rich magnolia covered with its odoriferous blossoms, the holly, the beech, the tall yellow poplar, the hilly ground, even the red clay I looked at with amazement...surrounded once more by thousands of warblers and thrushes, I enjoyed nature.”
He recorded in his journal that the rich lushness of the landscape and flourishing birdlife “all excited my admiration,” and he would find the inspiration to paint dozens of his bird studies while residing at Oakley. The arrangement called for him to be paid $60 a month plus room and board for himself and his young assistant Mason, with half of each day free to collect and paint bird specimens from the surrounding woods, where he certainly must have cut a dashing figure in his long flowing locks, frilly shirts and satin breeches.
To celebrate the 200th anniversary of his arrival in the Felicianas, the West Feliciana Tourist Commission is planning an Audubon Interpretive Trail program, tracing his footsteps as he walked from Bayou Sara to Oakley Plantation, recording the amazing number of structures he would have seen and interacted with that are still standing in St. Francisville. These historic homes and businesses, governmental locations, churches and cemeteries have been preserved due to the area’s abiding sense of place, allowing visitors to experience at least partially what Audubon must have seen during his stay in 1821.
Of course there is nothing left of the little port city of Bayou Sara, washed away by continual Mississippi River flooding, but atop the bluffs of St. Francisville it is amazing how much is still around...the Catholic cemetery where Oakley’s neighbor rests in peace after Audubon had sat up with his body all night, the structures housing the mercantiles and marketplaces patronized by Audubon and his wife Lucy, the home of Audubon’s acquaintance whose horse he borrowed for a desperate ride to check on his wife Lucy during a yellow fever epidemic, the Episcopal church presided over by his pupil Eliza’s second husband, the sunken roadways and verdant countryside still teeming with birdlife, and of course Oakley Plantation, now a state historic site and popular tourist attraction with a wonderful visitor center full of all-inclusive exhibits bringing to life the early days on this extensive cotton plantation.
A 1937 biography by colorful Louisiana historian/author Stanley Clisby Arthur described Audubon’s aura of mysterious charm: “a gifted artist, quasi-naturalist, sometime dandy, quondam merchant, unkempt wanderer, many-sided human being...A halo of romance surrounds his entire career, and he was generally regarded as mad because of his strange self-absorption, his long hair, tattered garments, and persistence in chasing about the countryside after little birdies.” The good-looking and graceful young Audubon had a decided way with the ladies, played the flute as well as flageolet and violin, danced a mean cotillion, fenced, and was partial to snuff and a liberal helping of early-morning grog.
In 1820, following a string of failed business ventures, he set out for New Orleans aboard a flatboat with only his gun, flute, violin, bird books, portfolios of his own drawings, chalks, watercolors, drawing papers in a tin box, and a dog-eared journal. As he wrote in his journal, “Without any Money My Talents are to be My support and my Enthusiasm my Guide in My Difficulties.” He earned a meager living painting portraits and giving lessons in drawing, dancing and more scholastic subjects, but by the following year Audubon was established at Oakley Plantation near St. Francisville and well on his way to accomplishing his dream.
Audubon would spend only four months at Oakley, but managed to produce at least 32 of his bird paintings there and upwards of 70 in the area, from the Tunica Swamp to Little Bayou Sara, Beech Woods and Sleepy Hollow Woods, Beech Grove, and Thompson Creek. He did more of his bird studies in Louisiana than in any other state, and often referred to it as his favorite part of the country. He would mourn his departure from “the sweet Woods around us, to leave them was painfull, for in them We allways enjoyed Peace and the sweetest pleasures of admiring the greatest of the Creator in all his Unrivalled Works.”
In 1826 the artist started for Europe in search of a publisher; he had 240 bird drawings and $1700 his wife had saved from her earnings. He went first to England, then to Scotland with his “Birds of America,” and there the William H. Lizars Company of Edinburgh etched on copper plates the first ten drawings. After difficulties caused by colorists delaying production by going on strike in Scotland, Audubon took his drawings to the London company of Robert Havell and Son. It took eleven years to complete the copper plates of all, first run off in black and white, then hand colored to exactly match the original drawings, all under the supervision of Audubon. The original prints of “The Birds of America” measured 39½” by 29½” and were known as the Elephant Folio because of the size, bound in sets of four books; just under 200 complete bound sets were made up, sold by subscriptions costing $1000, and they represented 1065 lifesized birds. One of these original sets is in the rare book collection at LSU’s Hill Memorial Library.
Audubon died in January of 1851 in New York at the age of 66, some 30 years after his summer at Oakley set him on the road to recognition as one of the greatest bird artists and naturalists of all time, his bird studies characterized as “the greatest monument erected by art to nature.” As he would write in his journal on March 1, 1828, “The reason why my works pleased was because they are all exact copies of the works of God, who is the Great Architect and Perfect Artist—nature, indifferently copied, is far superior to the best idealities.”
And in the year 2021, the St. Francisville area will celebrate the colorful artist, his amazing bird studies, and hopefully the end of a devastating global pandemic. This might be a good year to give gift certificates from struggling small businesses in the St. Francisville area...the restaurants, overnight accommodations, gift shops and mercantiles, antiques co-ops, bookstores, art galleries, museums, historic tours, boutiques and all the other little indie businesses that have suffered from closures and limitations to keep customers safe.
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 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; note that Clark Creek Natural Area with its waterfalls just across the Mississippi state line will not reopen until spring, but other fine options for hiking include Cat Island National Wildlife Refuge, Mary Ann Brown Nature Preseve, and the West Feliciana Parish Sports Park. 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 St. Francisville Main Street at 225-635-3688 or West Feliciana Tourist Commission and West Feliciana Historical Society at 225-6330 or 225-635-4224; online www.stfrancisvillefestivals.com or www.stfrancisville.net.