Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Gateway to the Hills

St. Francisville, LA: Gateway to the Hills
By Anne Butler

Clark CreekSt. Francisville for many years has been justly famous as the heart of Louisiana’s historic English plantation country, but as changing tourism demographics attract younger and more active visitors, the little rivertown has lately become known as the Gateway to the Hills. And winter, with snakes hibernating and poison ivy no longer a problem, plus fallen leaves opening up clear vistas not seen in the tangled overgrowth of summer, is the ideal time to take advantage of all the recreational opportunities offered throughout the Tunica Hills.

These unspoiled wilderness areas, rare loessial ridges running northwest from St. Francisville along the Mississippi River north into Tennessee, feature steep forested hills and deep cool shady hollows carved out by the Glacial Age, harboring plant and animal life found nowhere else in South Louisiana. Several large chunks of West Feliciana land have been preserved for public usage by the state, and along with a third state natural area just across the Mississippi line, provide ideal landscapes for hiking, birding, hunting, photography and nature studies.

waterfallTunica Hills State Preservation Area consists of some 700 rugged acres, including a towering bluff overlooking the Mississippi River. Planning for this unique preservation area began in 2002, its exciting innovative design showcasing the uniqueness of this diverse ecosystem with hiking trails, tram system, amphitheater, river overlook, interpretive center elevated high above the ground, and boardwalks designed for low impact on the natural environment. The Office of State Parks continues to work with the legislature to find funding for completion of this significant project.

The Tunica Hills Wildlife Management Area consists of two separate tracts totaling more than 5500 acres operated by the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. Here, wooded hills, high bluffs and deep ravines harbor a huge variety of game animals, making these areas particularly popular with hunters. LDF regulations govern use of these management areas, and hikers should avoid them during hunting seasons.

One of the most popular hiking areas is Clark Creek Natural Area, just across the state line in Mississippi, reached from St. Francisville via LA 66 to Hwy. 969 to Fort Adams Rd. near Pond Store. The challenging trails lead to a series of waterfalls through some of the most scenic sections of the Tunica Hills. The area is maintained by the state of Mississippi as a natural area, safe even during hunting seasons, but visitors should be sure to wear sturdy hiking shoes or boots and allow plenty of time to get out of the woods before dark.

trail at clark creekLess strenuous is the hike through Cat Island National Wildlife Refuge to gaze in awe at the immense national champion bald cypress, largest tree of any species east of the Sierra Nevada mountains, thought to be over 1,000 years old and an astounding 85 feet tall. The Big Cypress Trail is only 1½ miles; there are also longer hiking trails through this 10,473-acre refuge which preserves one of the largest tracts of virgin wetland forest not protected by levees from cyclical flooding. Some springs it can be inundated by 15 to 20 feet of Mississippi River overflow, and the dynamics of the wetting and drying cycles make this refuge exceptionally unique and ecologically significant. Hunting is popular here, so hikers should exercise caution during certain seasons, and the area is not always accessible by car or on foot during high water times, although Bayou Sara Kayak Rentals offers new possibilities for access as well as guided fishing excursions.

Steps along the trailAudubon State Historic Site, centered by the wonderful historic Oakley Plantation house where John James Audubon stayed and painted dozens of his Birds of America studies in the 1820s, has a system of child-friendly nature trails showcasing the natural and historic aspects of the park. Nearby is the Mary Ann Brown Preserve of 109 acres of mature forests, self-guided interpretive trail, picnic areas and primitive campsites available for school or scout groups. The extensive West Feliciana Parish Sports Park also offers trails, tennis courts, fishing pond, rodeo arena, playground, ballfields and other recreational facilities, plus organized sports and camps for all ages; the wooded trails are particularly popular for dirt bikes and physically demanding races like the Warrior Dash.

Biking, including bicycle racing, is popular in the St. Francisville area due to the challenging terrain, as is golfing at The Bluffs Golf Resort. The 200-acre Arnold Palmer course was designed to highlight its unique site on a tall bluff overlooking Thompson Creek with its sandy beaches.

Resolved to get more exercise and pursue a healthier lifestyle in 2016, did you? St. Francisville’s got you covered. Of course there are less strenuous entertainments still offered in the St. Francisville area as well, for those who’d prefer to be pampered at one of the diverse Bed & Breakfasts, or shop ‘til they drop in the historic downtown area’s boutique marketplaces and galleries, or enjoy the assortment of eateries, or tour historic plantations and 19th-century gardens. Visitors can do it all; or do nothing but relax and rejuvenate in the calm country atmosphere.

Rocks at Clark CreekLocated 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, Myrtles Plantation, Greenwood Plantation, plus Catalpa Plantation by reservation; Afton Villa Gardens and Imahara’s Botanical Garden are open in season and are both spectacular.

Particularly important to tourism in the area are its two significant state historic sites, Rosedown Plantation 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 (state budget constraints have unfortunately shuttered Oakley Monday and Tuesday).

tri fallsThe 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, and kayaking on Bayou Sara. 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 visit www.stfrancisvillefestivals.com, www.stfrancisville.net or www.stfrancisville.us (the events calendar gives dates and information on special activities).

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

St. Francisville’s Christmas in the Country

St. Francisville’s Christmas in the Country

By Anne Butler

Santa Arrives There’s just something special about small-town Christmas shopping, with welcoming shopkeeps, unique settings with plenty of character, and one-of-a-kind inventory, combining to make the experience enjoyable, as opposed to the dreaded harried hurried crush of big-box stores. And St. Francisville’s wonderfully varied boutique shops and galleries deliver all that in spades, especially during the ever-popular Christmas in the Country. This year set for December 4, 5 and 6th, the safe, family-oriented weekend is crammed full of spectacular seasonal decorations, musical entertainment throughout the National Register-listed downtown, breakfast with Santa and a colorful parade themed “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” caroling and window-peeping, plus contemporary house tours and even a symphony concert.

Christmas Lights - St. Francisville, La. Millions of white lights trace soaring Victorian trimwork and grace gallery posts to transform the entire picturesque little town into a veritable winter wonderland for Christmas in the Country. The mayor lights the town Christmas tree Friday evening, Dec. 4, with a reception and fireworks beginning at 6 p.m., followed by a chance to “Peep into our Holiday Homes” along Ferdinand and Royal Streets from 6 to 8.

Saturday, Dec. 5, begins at 7:30 a.m. with a prayer breakfast at Methodist Church Fellowship Hall, followed by the Women’s Service League Breakfast with St. Nick for children at Jackson Hall of Grace Episcopal Church; there are two seatings at 8 and 9:30 a.m., reservations are encouraged, and advance tickets may be purchased online at www.womensserviceleague.com ). The Service League also has its usual fresh wreath and cookbook sale on Ferdinand St.

Tour of HomesA Saturday house tour (10 to 4) benefits the wonderful new parish library and showcases some unique contemporary homes as well as beautiful 19th-century St. Mary’s Church. Tickets ($25 in advance, $30 day of tour) may be purchased at the library, online at www.brownpapertickets.comor at tour homes on event day. Sponsored by Friends of the Library for the 18th year, featured homes include the Carolina-I farmhouse of the Lindsey family (now happily overflowing with the third and fourth generations since development of Lake Rosemound by family patriarch, the late Lloyd Lindsey Sr.); a secluded Tunica Hills home called Briar Creek which comes complete with sheepherder’s wagon and lifesize bronze bear; and Harmony House/Melody House, two separate structures joined by a 150-foot bridge over a 60-foot ravine.

Parker ParkSt. Francisville’s oak-shaded Parker Park overflows with children’s activities, music, food and crafts vendors all weekend including Friday evening, and there will be entertainment throughout the historic downtown area, featuring choirs, dancers, bands, and other performers. Talented art students display their works at local shops, with purchase proceeds benefitting the local school arts programs. A Charlie Brown Christmas movie will be shown at 2 p.m. in Jackson Hall.

From 10 to 4 on Saturday, Oakley plantation house in Audubon State Historic Site presents Colonial Christmas cooking demonstrations in the outside kitchen, followed by candlelight tours with period music and wassail from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. In town, Saturday evening entertainment includes a Community Sing-Along at United Methodist Church on Royal Street from 6 to 7, a Live Nativity inside First Baptist Church on US 61 from 6 to 8, and “Peep into our Holiday Homes” to admire Christmas decorations in participating historic structures. New this year will be Twilight Shopping and Music, extended hours for downtown shopping on Saturday evening from 4 to 7 p.m., with musical groups and bands enlivening some of the venues.

The Christmas parade, usually held on Saturday, will be on Sunday, December 6, this year, beginning at 2 p.m. and traversing Ferdinand and Commerce Streets. Sponsored by the Women’s Service League, the parade features gaily decorated floats, marching bands, and of course Santa Claus riding atop a vintage fire truck. The Baton Rouge Symphony Orchestra has its Holiday Brass concert and dessert reception at Hemingbough Sunday evening beginning at 7 p.m.; tickets are available at Bank of St. Francisville.

The enthusiastic sponsors of Christmas in the Country are the downtown merchants, and the real focus of the weekend remains the St. Francisville area's marvelous shops, which go all out, hosting Open Houses with refreshments and entertainment while offering spectacular seasonal decorations and great gift items.  A variety of quaint little shops and galleries occupy historic structures throughout the downtown area and spread into the outlying district, each unique in its own way; visitors should not miss a single one. 

StoresThe town’s longstanding popular anchor stores have been joined by a number of smaller boutiques offering a wonderful variety of wares—antiques, collectibles, original artworks, upscale and affordable clothing, housewares, decorative items, jewelry, books and children’s playthings-- to remind visitors how timeless is the excitement of small-town Christmas shopping at this exuberant celebration of the season.

To balance the “wretched excess” of materialism by remembering the less fortunate this time of year, however, there’s one heartwarming local charity that would welcome donations. “Sharing Jamie’s Joy” was begun a couple of years ago by the widow of young Jamie Navarre as a memorial ministry to the homeless. Leslie Davis Navarre and her son Tucker, with help from supportive family and community members, compile and deliver some 200 “blessing bags” of greatly appreciated practical necessities like ponchos and socks, gloves, winter hats, toiletries, pens and notepads, candy, even big black garbage bags for protection against the wet winter weather. Cash contributions are accepted as well as the items mentioned here; deadline for donations is December 12th, and information may be obtained by calling Leslie at 225-931-8611.

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, Myrtles Plantation, Greenwood Plantation, plus Catalpa Plantation by reservation; Afton Villa Gardens and Imahara’s Botanical Garden are open in season and are both spectacular. Particularly important to tourism in the area are its two significant state historic sites, Rosedown Plantation 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 (state budget constraints have unfortunately shuttered Oakley Monday and Tuesday).

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, and kayaking on Bayou Sara. 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 visit www.stfrancisvillefestivals.com www.stfrancisville.net
or www.stfrancisville.us (the events calendar gives dates and information on special activities).

Friday, October 23, 2015

Thoughts of Thanksgiving in St. Francisville, LA

Thoughts of Thanksgiving in St. Francisville, LA
By Anne Butler

Miss EmilyThanksgiving turns our thoughts backward, back to the 1620s First Thanksgiving celebrated by Plymouth pilgrims with the Native Americans who taught them survival skills, back to our heritage and history, back to “Over the River and Through the Wood, To Grandmother’s House We Go.”

These days, Grandma might just as well be on a skiing trip to her condo in Colorado instead of laboring over a hot oven roasting turkey for the multitudes, and anyway, the original poem penned by Lydia Maria Child said we were going to Grandfather’s House. And while Ol’ Man River keeps on rolling, rolling, rolling in timeless fashion past St. Francisville, we’re missing two of the icons of a trip over the waters. The ferryboat we rode for a century or so has been replaced by a grand new bridge. And Miss Emily, ah, we miss Miss Emily.

For more than 30 years, the long wait at the landing for the ferry to cross the Mississippi River between St. Francisville and New Roads was brightened by the much anticipated sight of Miss Emily. Braving the freezing breezes or broiling sun, straw-hatted Miss Emily trundled along the landing road with a bright red Radio Flyer wagon loaded with her famous homemade pralines, teacakes, boiled or roasted peanuts. Generations of travelers from around the world grew to love Miss Emily, daughter of an old-time pastor/carpenter. Miss Emily worked for many years as nanny and housekeeper for the Wilcox family in St. Francisville, but she needed more income to support her seven children. When she came up with the idea of hawking snacks, she asked the Lord to give her a recipe, and after a few failures, she and the Lord perfected the ingredients and technique for what visitors and residents alike called the world’s best pecan pralines.

Miss Emily in FurWhen she died in September at the age of 84, longtime St. Francisville mayor William H. D’Aquilla, “by the authority vested in me by the State of Louisiana and the Town of St. Francisville,” officially proclaimed October 3 as Ms. Emily Smothers Williams Day in recognition of the great respect with which she was viewed in the community.

Today her grandson Antonio Williams, long her understudy, continues to make her popular pecan candy, selling it from her home across from the town post office as well as in the local historical museum and other shops in St. Francisville, carrying on the tradition in fine fashion.

This being November, the month of nostalgia, there’s another salute to tradition and heritage on Sunday, November 1, when the Hemingbough Blues Festival pays tribute to the roots music from which so many contemporary musical genres spring, everything from jazz and R&B to rock and roll or hip hop. From 12:30 to 6:30 p.m. (doors open at 11:30), the Baton Rouge Blues Society has assembled an incredible array of talent to give concert goers the opportunity to enjoy world-class blues played by some of the best musicians around.

Hosted by radio personality Rob Payer, the festival features blues and soul man Luther Kent, who was born in New Orleans and began singing professionally at age 14. One-time lead singer for “Blood, Sweat and Tears,” he has been inducted into the Louisiana Blues Hall of Fame as well as the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame. Another member of the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame is Gregg Wright of the stellar guitar and soulful voice fame, called King of the Rockin’ Blues. Wright played 75 concerts as Michael Jackson’s guitarist on his legendary 1980’s Victory Tour. Worldwide audiences proclaim him one of the most innovative guitarists of our time, in the top echelons of the great blues guitarists.

Johnny They will be joined by Chris LeBlanc, for over 20 years a mainstay on the Louisiana music scene, whose performances resonate with the rich bluesy sound of the south; Betsy Braud with her upbeat gumbo bayou jazz with a hint of the swamp; talented LSU music school grad Kiki Lynell; and beloved local blues band the Delta Drifters. Also appearing are Oscar “Harp” Davis, one of the region’s best blues harmonica players and member of the Louisiana Blues Hall of Fame; John Gray, educator and trumpet player noted for his wide range of musical genres from classical to jazz, funk and R&B; Chris Belleau, physiatrist by day and in Zydeco bands by night, whose album Knee Deep in the Blues featured him on vocals, harmonic and Cajun accordion.

Tickets for the Hemingbough Blues Festival are $20 in advance, $25 at the gate, and are available at Phil Brady’s Bar and the Elizabethan Gallery in Baton Rouge. No coolers are allowed; food and drink are available on-site for purchase.

So if you don’t have an accessible Grandma to go home to for Thanksgiving, come on over the river and through the wood to St. Francisville, eat some of Miss Emily’s legendary pralines and hear some soulful sounds of the southern blues for which this area is famous.
Gregg WrightLocated 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, Myrtles Plantation, Greenwood Plantation, plus Catalpa Plantation by reservation; Afton Villa Gardens and Imahara’s Botanical Garden are open in season and are both spectacular. Particularly important to tourism in the area are its two significant state historic sites, Rosedown Plantation 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 (state budget constraints have unfortunately shuttered Oakley Monday and Tuesday).

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, and kayaking on Bayou Sara. 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 visit www.stfrancisvillefestivals.com, www.stfrancisville.net or www.stfrancisville.us (the events calendar gives dates and information on special activities).