Sunday, January 14, 2018

What's Old is New Again

St. Francisville’s Surrounding Plantation Country: What’s Old is New Again
By Anne Butler
St. Francisville has been the center of culture, government and religion since it was settled in the opening years of the 19th century, but the little port city of Bayou Sara along the Mississippi River just below the bluffs was the center of commerce, while the surrounding plantation country provided the economic driver for both communities. Today, Bayou Sara is no more and St. Francisville has become the center of commerce as well as culture, but there remain a number of recently rejuvenated historic plantations that attract visitors seeking an understanding of what life was like in the Cotton Kingdom.

oakleyOne of the most significant and earliest of Louisiana’s state historic sites, Oakley Plantation and its surrounding hundred wooded acres reopened with an old-time Christmas celebration the first weekend in December after being closed for nearly a year for lead abatement. During that time the house underwent a complete exterior restoration and was repainted in the original colors, white with darker green trim, plus interior paint touch-ups and furniture conservation. Popular as the central focus of the Audubon State Historic Site for more than half a century, Oakley is a splendid West Indies-style three-story structure with jalousied galleries and has a fascinating visitor center/museum, picnic facilities and hiking trails, detached plantation kitchen reconstructed on original foundations with weaving and wash rooms, 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 early practical skills and fascinating living-history events; weekends in January the highlights will be “Time Travelers” featuring the thunder of cannon in 1810 (January 6); “The Boys of ’61” replicating conditions on the eve of war as civilians become soldiers (January 20); and “Open-Hearth Candle Making” (January 21).

Oakley Plantation was responsible for artist John James Audubon’s fruitful stay in 1821, when he was hired to tutor Eliza, the young daughter of the Pirrie family, and painted dozens of his Birds of America studies in the area. His pupil would enter into marriages that tied Oakley to other early plantation families. Her first marriage was to a dashing young Barrow cousin who contracted pneumonia on their honeymoon and died before the birth of their first child; her last was to an attorney called by her friends “a trifling sponge,” lured away by the Gold Rush and absent when she died of childbed fever.

It was her second marriage, to the eminently respectable first rector of Grace Episcopal Church, that produced the descendants who were still struggling to keep Oakley going into the 20th century; it also united the plantation with another state historic site, Rosedown, when Eliza’s son James Pirrie Bowman married the daughter of Rosedown’s Barrow/Turnbull family.

rosedownA glorious double-galleried Greek Revival structure embraced by the surrounding 28 acres of formal gardens, the house at Rosedown was constructed in the 1830s and remained for more than a century in the original family. Now owned by the state, it is not only a State Historic Site but also a National Historic Landmark in recognition of its enormous significance. A number of original outbuildings remain, and as at Oakley they are often used to illustrate various facets of early plantation life, as are the grand gardens.

Another important Greek Revival structure is Greenwood Plantation, which has recently found new owners and a new lease on life, having enjoyed more than its fair share of miraculous resurrections. Its story began in 1798, when widowed Olivia Ruffin Barrow arrived with 50 wagons full of possessions, 150 slaves, six children (some grown), and the wealth with which to build a new life in a new land. One of her grandsons became the first and short-lived husband of Audubon’s pupil Eliza Pirrie.

Another grandson, William Ruffin Barrow, in 1830 built his home on family property that would eventually grow to 12,000 acres. Nearly 100 feet square, the Greenwood house was completely surrounded by 28 Doric columns of brick, rising more than 30 feet from a porch set 5 feet above ground level, supporting an intricately detailed entablature and solid copper roof topped by a belvedere from which Barrow could survey his cotton and sugar cane fields being tilled by some 750 slaves.

The Civil War brought tragedy, but in the early 1900s the plantation was purchased by Frank and Naomi Fisher Percy, who restored the house and enjoyed sharing it with the public. Surrounded by live oaks, Greenwood was called the finest example of Greek Revival architecture in the South, featured in magazines, visited by thousands of tourists, and beloved by Hollywood as a movie setting. And then on the night of August 1, 1960, tragedy struck again; lightning started a fire that destroyed everything but columns and chimneys. Eventually the house was rebuilt as close to the original as possible, and now new owners have brought new enthusiasm, sharing the home with visitors for tours and special events as well as overnight stays.

myrtles frontYet another plantation house that has found new energy and enthusiasm with a new generation is The Myrtles, which has its own connections with Oakley Plantation and Audubon’s pupil Eliza. Eliza’s mother Lucretia Alston Pirrie’s first husband was Ruffin Gray; her sister Ann Alston was the wife of early settler Alexander Stirling, and their son, born in 1795 and named Ruffin Gray Stirling for his uncle, purchased The Myrtles in 1834.

The plantation, originally known as Laurel Grove, was established in the late 1790s by General David Bradford, who represented Monongahela Valley farmers opposing an excise tax levied on their corn whiskey by US authorities. As one of the ringleaders of the so-called Whiskey Rebellion, Bradford narrowly escaped with his life to Spanish territory and built the north section of the house on a land grant of 650 arpents. After yellow fever epidemics in 1823 and 1824 killed the wife and two young children of the next occupant of The Myrtles, the property was sold, along with improvements and slaves, for $46,853.17 to Ruffin Gray Stirling. After a succession of owners, it was purchased in 1992 by the Moss family, and now a new generation, son Morgan, is implementing a long-needed restoration and re-landscaping with big plans for the future of this popular tourist destination.

Other plantations, the early Cottage Plantation which remarkably resisted gentrification through the generations of the same family, and Catalpa Plantation which has family ties to Rosedown and Oakley, are open only on weekends (The Cottage) or by appointment (Catalpa). Greenwood, Myrtles, and Rosedown are open to the public daily except holidays, while Oakley is open Wednesday through Sunday. Together they present a good picture of early life in the Felicianas, when pioneering families were joined together by blood, marriage, economic necessities and history, and they continue to hold much interest for the steady stream of tourists enjoying the St. Francisville area.

greenwoodLocated 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 (weekends), 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 .

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

Friday, November 10, 2017

Christmas in the Country Dec. 1-3, 2017

St. Francisville’s Christmas in the Country December 1-3
By Anne Butler
christmas paradeThe 1700 residents of the little Mississippi River town of St. Francisville sure know how to throw a party. Flags flying for every special occasion, they host fun festivals throughout the year, but the holiday weekend called Christmas in the Country, this year December 1 through 3, is the most enjoyable. Spectacular decorations, with millions of white lights gracing gallery posts and tracing soaring Victorian trimwork, turn the downtown Historic District into a winter wonderland, and carefully planned activities provide fun for the entire family.

The theme of the Sunday afternoon Christmas parade, Don’t Stop Believing, sets the tone for the whole weekend and is highly appropriate for a safe, small-town celebration of its bedrock beliefs---in the goodness of people, the beauty of nature, and the strength of community and faith. Plus it’s just plain fun!

Friday evening, December 1st, Christmas in the Country is kicked off around St. Francisville’s Town Hall as the children’s choir Voices in Motion sings at 5:30, followed by jovial longtime mayor Billy D’Aquilla lighting the town tree and hosting a reception complete with fireworks. Twilight Shopping is offered until 7 p.m. by a variety of unique little shops throughout the downtown area and spreading out into the outlying district, offering seasonal decorations, great gift items and extended hours. Visitors should not miss a single shop, and vendors in Parker Park will also observe late shopping hours.

breakfast with SantaSaturday, December 2nd, begins with 7:30 a.m. Prayer Breakfast at the Methodist Church Fellowship Hall, followed by Christmas on the Run for the Relay for Life supporting the American Cancer Society, with a one-mile fun run beginning at 8 a.m. and the 5-K run at 8:30 a.m., both starting at Parker Park. Little ones can enjoy Breakfast with St. Nick at Grace Episcopal Church’s Jackson Hall; sponsored by the Women’s Service League, three seatings are available at 8, 9:15 and 10:30, with reservations encouraged and tickets available online. The Women’s Service League also offers fresh wreaths and cookbook sales on Ferdinand St. daily all weekend.

In Parker Park from 10 to 4, vendors offer everything from food and music to jewelry, photos, honey, paintings, t-shirts, calendars, hair bows and more. Main Street Band plays in the park gazebo from noon to 2.

Christmas in the ParkThe Polar Express train transports visitors through the downtown area from 10 to 2, with a Polar Express movie and fun in the Town Hall meeting room.

St. Francisville’s shops and art galleries are the enthusiastic sponsors of this special weekend, offering a wide variety of inventory, from antiques and art (both original and prints), decorative items, one-of-a-kind handmade crafts, custom jewelry, housewares, artisanal foodstuffs, clothing for every member of the family. Plus there’s something new this year called the Candy Cane Shopping Card, featuring discounts and “I Shopped St. Francisville” t-shirts for purchases over $100.

Ferris HouseFrom 10 to 4 on Saturday, the Friends of the Library sponsor the popular annual Tour of Homes benefitting library programs, showcasing four homes showcasing innovative architecture and eclectic d├ęcor. Abby and Doug Cochran’s downtown Ferdinand St. home is a farmhouse-style cottage built in the early 1900s from salvaged lumber, with cypress cabinets and a broad front porch. The Plantation Drive home of Chuck and Heather Walters is in the architectural style called Mediterranean Transitional, with soaring ceilings, old cypress beams, three fireplaces, even a glass staircase. Located on LA 421, the Acadian-style home of Greg Ferris and Wendy Phillips overlooks a 10-acre lake and replicates the understated elegance of area historic homes with exposed beams, old brick, heart-pine floors and old New Orleans accents. Justin and Charlotte Peno’s home in downtown St. Francisville on Fidelity St. began as a simple cottage, later renovated to its current Acadian appearance; it was the 1940s townhouse of Peno’s great-grandfather, widely respected LA senator W.D.Folkes.

Walters HouseSaturday evening entertainment begins at 5:30 at Oakley Plantation’s Colonial Christmas at Audubon State Historic Site, with candlelight tours, period music and wassail until 8:30 p.m. From 6 to 7 United Methodist Church hosts a Community Sing-Along. First Baptist Church (LA 10 at US 61) has a Living Nativity of seven scenes inside the church from 6 to 8, a real Christmas journey—travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem and rediscover the miracle of the birth of Jesus; children love the petting stable, crafts, and hot chocolate and cookies. Participating homes in St. Francisville’s National Register Historic District along Ferdinand and Royal Streets permit visitors to Peep Into Our Holiday Homes from 6 to 8 p.m.

On Sunday, December 3rd, Candy Cane Shopping Card opportunities continue from 10 to closing. Vendors are in Parker Park from 10 to 4, with music noon to 4 by Angola Travelling Band. Sunday’s highlight is the Women’s Service League Christmas Parade beginning at 2 p.m., travelling along Ferdinand and Commerce Streets, with floats, bands, marching groups, dignitaries and lots of throws, all under the theme of Don’t Stop Believing.

Christmas with SantaLocated 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 (weekends), 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.

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 many offering extended evening shopping during the holiday period, 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).

Sunday, October 08, 2017

TurnbillFall in the Felicianas: Glorious Gardens, Gallivanting Ghosts, and a Gathering of Artists
By Anne Butler

On her honeymoon Grand Tour through Europe in 1835, 18-year-old bride Martha Barrow Turnbull fell in love with the gardens of Versailles and other continental landscapes, gleaning the inspiration for formal plantings to complement the stately double-galleried plantation home being built on her cotton plantation back home. Thus began a sixty-year love affair with the 28-acre gardens of Rosedown, meticulously preserved in near-daily diary entries that later proved invaluable in restoring the property.

Blessed with rich land, long growing seasons, a felicitous climate and unlimited labor, Martha Turnbull became one of the great horticultural innovators of her day, the Rosedown gardens serving as early proving grounds for the exotic flora of the Orient. Camellias, for example, were thriving in gardens in Japan and China centuries before they were first seen by Europeans. It was only after trade with the Orient was opened in the early 1500s by the Portuguese and their Black Ships that trading groups like England’s East India Company began importing spices, silks, porcelains and other Oriental treasures. The medical officers of those trade companies first studied the native plants for their medicinal propensities, and the camellia japonica was introduced to England by the 1700s and then crossed the ocean to the East Coast. By 1830s invoices among the Rosedown archival papers show camellias, azaleas and other plants being purchased from nurseries in New York and Philadelphia.


rosedownTestament to the hardiness of early plantings, many of the heirloom plantings of Rosedown survive or have been propagated, even though the post-Civil War era brought great hardship. Martha Turnbull applied for a widow’s pension (she received $8 monthly) and initiated a Civil War claim covering property taken from Rosedown by federal troops in 1863 that included 300 hogsheads of sugar, 600 barrels of molasses, 200 mules and 100 horses, 700 head of cattle, 80 wagons, 300 hogs, 6000 bushels of corn, 50 bales of cotton. The third-generation descendants of Martha Turnbull who struggled to maintain the property were spinster sisters who sometimes had to pay with cotton bales their accounts at the local mercantile, the invoices of 1896 including such varied goods as a tub of lard, nails, syrup, lap robe and whip, spectacles, and a metallic casket for $100, presumably for their grandmother who died that year.

It would be the surviving plantings that saved Rosedown when a Texas oil heiress, herself a great horticulturist, passed through on a national garden club tour in 1956 and saw the potential beneath the rampant jungle growth outside and cracked peeling plaster inside. Purchasing the property from Martha Turnbull’s great-grandchildren, she began the ten-year restoration of house and grounds that turned Rosedown Plantation into one of the country’s premier historic tour destinations.

StarkA century after Rosedown was built in 1834, author Stark Young used it as a picturesque setting in his acclaimed Civil War novel So Red The Rose, saying, “Of all the houses in the world it seemed to be the beloved of its own trees and gardens.” That charm and appeal continues unabated today, the house folded in the embrace of its 19th-century gardens and live oaks grown to immense size.

Now it is a state historic site and national historic landmark, its fall and winter-blooming camellia sasanquas and japonicas grown to tree-size, and serves as one of the most inviting features of the 29th annual Southern Garden Symposium.

Set for October 20 and 21 (registration deadline October 13), the symposium combines top-quality expert speakers and glorious garden settings with engaging social events and historic venues to attract gardening enthusiasts from across the south. Gourmet lunch in the ruins gardens of Afton Villa Plantation, speakers’ gala at Rosale Plantation, afternoon tea at Dogwood complement carefully chosen presentations on everything from orchids to medicinal marijuana, from Thomas Jefferson’s botanical laboratory at Monticello to the challenges of invasive species. Morning and afternoon sessions explore Martha Turnbulls’ grand gardens at Rosedown so participants can admire centuries-old camellias, live oaks and other plantings as well as hear about present-day efforts to ensure that the gardens continue to thrive into the future. Online information on schedules and tickets is available at www.southerngardensymposium.org. Proceeds fund such projects as scholarships to LSU’s School of Landscape Architecture and garden enhancements at state historic sites.

camelliaThe sheer beauty of the cultivated landscapes and the verdant wild woodlands in the St. Francisville area have inspired creative artists ever since John James Audubon painted a number of his famous bird studies in the area, and the arts scene is growing just as prolifically as the glorious gardens. The Yellow Leaf Arts Festival, Saturday and Sunday, October 28 and 29th from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., is sponsored annually by Arts For All (the local arts umbrella agency whose name says it all). The weekend celebrates that rich tradition of artistic inspiration by filling St. Francisville’s downtown oak-shaded Parker Park with an incredible selection of music and art and food and fun.

Featured artist this year is versatile Acadian artist-naturalist Jim Jeansonne, whose colorful woodcut of butterflies graces the Yellow Leaf poster. He will be in the park gazebo. One of the original founding artists of the Baton Rouge Gallery, Jeansonne’s creative endeavors run the gamut from printmaking to sculpture, furniture making, and photography. Festival musicians performing include the Fugitive Poets, Wilder Janes, Nancy Roppolo, Bill Romano and others, while local farmer Jerry Landrum and his family offer sweet potatoes in many forms plus great barbecue.

movieOther events in October include the Angola Prison Rodeo every Sunday throughout the month; grounds open at 9 with inmate arts/crafts, food and music, rodeo starts at 2 (visitors should remember that this is a penitentiary and they would be well advised to follow regulations to the letter). Halloween activities include The Myrtles Halloween Extravaganza every Friday, Saturday and Sunday in October beginning at 5 p.m. and guaranteed to scare the pants off visitors touring this “most haunted house in America” (call 225-635-6277 for information); Movie in the Park from 6 to 8 on Friday the 13th is The Incredibles, with snacks and drinks (bring your own lawn chair or quilt); “Trunk or Treat” at the West Feliciana Sports Park beginning at 6 p.m. on October 26 with costume and trunk decoration competitions (call 225-784-8447 for information on candy distribution and decorating trunks); and Trick Or Treating through downtown St. Francisville from 6 to 8 on Halloween.

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 (weekends), 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 (Oakley’s main house is temporarily closed for lead abatement, but the wonderful visitor center/museum remains accessible).

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