Thursday, March 31, 2016

Afton Villa Gardens: the plantation, the gardens, the gardener and the book

Afton Villa Gardens: the plantation, the gardens, the gardener and the book
By Anne Butler

Afton_ArchNewly established contemporary gardens can showcase the latest in horticultural research, the newest plant varieties, the most up-to-date techniques. Old gardens, on the other hand, those glorious few left from the 19th century when gardening benefitted from unlimited labor, rich soil and the happy climate of south Louisiana, have a charm and character that can't be matched, the secret shadows and sun-dappled parterres of plantation pleasure grounds adorned with latticed summerhouses and brick pathways, with always a pleasant scent perfuming the air.
But combine the two, the historic and the modern, and the result would be magical, only attainable through a certain vision for what might be appropriate and a sensitivity to the spirit of the original without slavishly attempting an exact recreation. And that's just what the incredible grounds and gardens of Afton Villa are today, not so much a restoration as a rebirth, all thanks largely to Genevieve Munson Trimble.
Only one who dearly loves gardens and gardening would have been so bold (or foolhardy) as to undertake such an overwhelming project requiring not only fortitude but plenty of funding as well, for Afton Villa was a wreck in 1972 when Gen Trimble and her late husband Bud saved the property from development. The Afton Villa house, a fairytale Victorian Gothic castle with towers and turrets and forty rooms, had been lost to fire in 1963, and the extensive surrounding gardens, though brought back from ruin time and again through their history since the 1840s, were in sad shape.
afton-courtyardThe Trimbles not only determined to undertake the project, but persevered through four decades of voracious deer and marauding wild boar, pond levee blowouts and the savage winds of hurricanes uprooting enormous trees and altering the understory sun/shade dynamic more than once.
With the invaluable assistance of eminent landscape architect Dr. Neil Odenwald and hardworking head gardener/manager Ivy Jones, they worked a miracle, preserving and rejuvenating the gardens of Afton Villa not as a restoration but "as a reflection of their own sense of garden design." Today the famous half-mile oak allee, landscaped terraces and garden rooms, including the "garden in the ruins" on the brick foundations where the home once stood in this area historically known as the garden spot of the South, are among the St. Francisville area's most popular tourist and wedding destinations. And all it took was forty years of blood, sweat and tears, not to mention some 8,000 tulips, many thousand daffodils and narcissi, masses of bedding plants and azaleas, more than 250 pots filled with blossoming annuals, and some magnificent Italian statues overseeing with aplomb the house site that has been transformed from a place of tragedy into a place of beauty.
afton-villa-bookNow LSU Press has published Genevieve Munson Trimble's book, AFTON VILLA; BIRTH AND REBIRTH OF A 19-CENTURY LOUISIANA GARDEN, with gorgeous color images by several Louisiana photographers and from the author's personal collection. Successes, failures, struggles and triumphs, Mrs. Trimble includes it all, including her explanation of the necessity of respecting the soul of the old landscape. "We resolved to restore the spirit of the original garden, and to protect it as well. We would beautify, enhance, even superimpose our own ideas, but at the same time we would be very careful never in any way to obliterate the original footprint of the garden or the house. Whenever possible, we would use old nineteenth-century plants and ornamentation such as might have conceivably been contained there originally, but in the interest of practicality, availability and maintenance, we would be willing to make substitutions, so long as they were compatible with the spirit of the garden. What do I mean, one may ask, when I say the spirit of the garden? To me it means the ambiance that permeates or surrounds a garden. At Afton, I am referring to the almost indefinable aura of past grandeur and, even more than this, the ability to have sustained and risen above the rigors of unbearable tragedy."
This gracious gardener, she of the perfectly coiffed white hair and ever-stylish colorful outfits, hesitated in despair upon entering the avenue to Afton for the first time after the death of her husband in 2004. And then she caught sight of the old oak that stood alone at the end of the drive overlooking the ruins, planted by Bartholomew Barrow in 1828, witness to war and reconstruction, deaths and depressions, neglect and the ravages of winds and fire. And the old oak still stood, proud, covered in the resurrection fern that springs back to life after each rainfall, "symbol of endurance and a triumph of nature to overcome all disasters that would befall. Wasn't this, I thought with sudden clarity, exactly what had drawn Bud and me here in the first place? It was Afton Villa's miraculous ability to have risen, phoenixlike, out of the ashes of tragedy....I could not leave this garden behind."
book-signingMrs. Trimble has received widespread recognition and many prestigious awards for her rescue of the Afton Villa Gardens as well as a number of significant projects in New Orleans. Her book is available at area bookstores and online, and the West Feliciana Historical Society in March joined the Southern Garden Symposium to host an immensely successful book-signing reception at Afton Villa.
The gardens of Afton Villa are open for public enjoyment seasonally, six months of the year; closed July, August, and September during summer heat and hurricane season, also closed January and February in the dead of winter. Other extensive gardens in the St. Francisville area that may be visited are Rosedown State Historic Site's 27 acres of 19th-century heirloom plantings and Imahara's Botanical Garden. A number of fine private landscapes are shown on the Spring Garden Stroll April 30, sponsored by the Feliciana Master Gardeners of the LSU Ag Center.
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

Saturday, February 20, 2016

2016 Audubon Pilgrimage

St. Francisville’s Spring Fling: Audubon Pilgrimage
By Anne Butler

MaypoleThe forty-fifth annual Audubon Pilgrimage March 18, 19 and 20, 2016, celebrates a southern spring in St. Francisville, the glorious garden spot of Louisiana’s English Plantation Country. For over four decades the sponsoring West Feliciana Historical Society has thrown open the doors of significant historic structures to commemorate artist-naturalist John James Audubon’s stay as he painted a number of his famous bird studies and tutored the daughter of Oakley Plantation’s Pirrie family, beautiful young Eliza. A year’s worth of planning and preparation precedes each pilgrimage, and with 45 years of experience under their belt, society members put on one of the South’s most professional and enjoyable pilgrimage presentations.

This year’s tour features several townhouses in St. Francisville’s National Register Historic District and two early plantations in the surrounding countryside, each illustrative of the interconnections of early homes and family histories.

Cablido Audubon PilgrimageThe Cabildo, thought to have been built on Royal Street in St. Francisville as early as 1809 with handhewn joists and brick walls 22 inches thick, is a Spanish colonial structure used over the years as monastery, tavern frequented by Audubon, bank/counting house, West Feliciana’s first parish courthouse beginning in 1824, barbershop, grocery, hotel, drugstore, library, and now beautifully restored present residence of Peggy and Joey Gammill, preservation/conservation experts.

Vinci Cottage at Virginia, all of 1000 feet, was built in the forties of materials salvaged from the detached kitchen and servants’ quarters behind the 1817 historic townhouse on Royal Street called Virginia, perfect for owner Nancy Vinci’s “downsizing with dog.” Supplementing the postage-stamp lawn of this cottage is Woodleigh Garden, just across Royal, a beautifully landscaped hillside setting filled by owners Leigh Anne and Butch Jones with heirloom pass-along plantings and a pleasant brick courtyard with fountain.

The Myrtles, a raised English cottage begun in the late 1790s by Judge David Bradford, leader of the Whiskey Rebellion, was enlarged by subsequent owners throughout the 19th century. The long front gallery is graced with grape-cluster wrought iron, and inside rooms are formalized with elaborate plaster friezework and marble mantels in the twin parlors. John E. and Teeta Moss are the current owners.

Rosale Plantation, north of St. Francisville at Wakefield, was part of early settler Alexander Stirling’s enormous 1790s landholdings; when the elaborate brick house his daughter Ann Skillman built in 1836 burned in the 1880s, the family moved into the two-story schoolhouse, built the same time. Today the simple farmhouse with sweeping vistas of manicured oak-shaded lawns and multiple ponds is owned by Peter and Lynda Truitt.

OakleyOther popular features of the 2016 Audubon Pilgrimage include Afton Villa Gardens, Audubon (Oakley) and Rosedown State Historic Sites, three 19th-century churches in town and beautiful St. Mary’s in the country, as well as the Rural Homestead with lively demonstrations of the rustic skills of daily pioneer life. An Audubon Play will be performed several times daily on Saturday and Sunday in recently restored Temple Sinai. Daytime features are open 9:30 to 5, Sunday 11 to 4 for tour homes; Friday evening activities are scheduled from 6 to 9 p.m., Saturday soiree begins at 7 p.m.

The Historic District around Royal Street is filled during the day with the happy sounds of costumed children singing and dancing the Maypole; in the evening as candles flicker and fireflies flit among the ancient moss-draped live oaks, there is no place more inviting for a leisurely stroll. Friday evening features old-time Hymn Singing at the United Methodist Church, Audubon Play in Temple Sinai, Graveyard Tours at Grace Episcopal cemetery (last tour begins at 8:15 p.m.), and a wine and cheese reception at Bishop Jackson Hall (7 to 9 p.m.) featuring Vintage Dancers and young ladies modeling the pilgrimage’s exquisitely detailed 1820’s evening costumes, nationally recognized for their authenticity. Light Up The Night, the Saturday evening soiree, features live music and dancing, dinner and drinks beginning at 7 p.m.

Afton VillaFor tickets and tour information, contact West Feliciana Historical Society, Box 338, St. Francisville, LA 70775; phone 225-635-6330 or 225-635-4224; online www.westfelicianahistoricalsociety.org, email wfhistsociety@gmail.com. A package including daytime tours and all evening entertainment Friday and Saturday is available. Tickets can be purchased at the Historical Society Museum on Ferdinand Street.
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).

Monday, February 15, 2016

Layers of History

St. Francisville’s Layers of History
By Anne Butler
Tunica
Tunica-Biloxi Cultural and Educational Resources Center
St. Francisville, Louisiana’s popular Audubon Pilgrimage each March features West Feliciana’s fascinating historic plantation homes and gardens from the 19th century, but the history of the area goes much farther back than that. Indeed, some of the earliest roadways, sunken deep into the soft loessial soil with steep sides showing striations delineating the layers of history, began as game trails leading to watering holes, then as footpaths trod by the moccasins of the area’s earliest Native American occupants.

The 1680s journals of French explorer Rene-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, mention the Houma Indian nation living on the eastern banks of the Mississippi River across from the mouth of the Red River around what is now West Feliciana Parish, and in 1686 explorer Henri de Tonti visited the Houma village. Peaceable farmers whose numbers in 1699 were recorded by Iberville as 350 men, it was the Houmas who marked the boundary of their hunting grounds with the tall red pole that gave Baton Rouge (Red Stick) its name. By 1706 the Houmas had been driven farther south by the Tunica tribe, fierce tattooed warriors as well as skilled traders, who moved near the present site of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. It was an ideal location for the continuation of their role as middlemen in the trading of commodities like salt, highly valued by both Indians and European explorers.

In 1731 the Tunica moved a few miles south to the site of Trudeau Plantation, and over the course of the next three decades, until 1764, the burial grounds at this Indian village would grow to include over 150 graves. It was the custom of the Tunica to bury valuables with the dead, and these graves contained not only the wealth of the tribe but also exotic imported goods attesting to their extensive trade with Europeans.

pottery tunica
 Tunica Indian's Artifacts
After joining the military campaign of Governor Galvez which overthrew British control in Baton Rouge, the Tunicas were rewarded with Spanish land grants in the Avoyelles Prairie, now the Tunica-Biloxi Indian Reservation in Marksville on the west side of the Mississippi River. The 2000 census showed 648 Tunicas on the reservation, which is run by an elected tribal council with its own police force, health services, education, housing authority, court system, and they also operate Louisiana’s first land-based casino.

But the Trudeau Landing burial grounds remained on the east side of the Mississippi River, undisturbed until the 1960s, when an amateur treasure hunter and Angola guard named Leonard Charrier from Opelousas, having pinpointed the location of the Indian village site by poring over old maps and journals, began excavating the graves, unearthing without landowner permission what came to be known as the Tunica Treasure.

Eventually estimated at 2½ tons of artifacts (Charrier cast aside the bones), his findings included not only intricate native pottery, calumets and three-legged cookpots but also large amounts of European trade goods, glass bottles, brass and copper items, flintlock muskets, iron tools, French faience pottery, lead-glazed bowls and stoneware. As Charrier explored possible sales for his booty, various respected archeologists and museums across the country got involved. The bulk of the artifacts were sent to the Peabody Museum at Harvard and later stored at the LA State Museum while a lawsuit over ownership of the treasure made its way through the cumbersome court system. The state of Louisiana eventually purchased the Trudeau Plantation property and the Tunica tribe was declared the legal owner of the burial goods. One significant upshot of the legal wrangling was passage of protective federal legislation called the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990.

Today the Tunica Treasure collection is housed on the reservation in Marksville at the Tunica-Biloxi Cultural and Educational Resources Center, a soaring architectural wonder housing a library, learning center, conference facilities, tribal offices, museum on Tunica tribal history, and a state-of-the-art conservation laboratory where a large percentage of the artifacts have been painstakingly restored.

D. Chitty tunica road
 Old Tunica Road by Darrell Chitty
Visitors to the St. Francisville area today have access to state preservation wilderness areas in these same Tunica Hills, and a drive along the Old Tunica Road between Weyanoke and Tunica offers a thrilling roller-coaster ride as it parallels the Mississippi River’s course, traveling along steep hills and deep hollows back through the centuries along paths once trod by the area’s earliest inhabitants. A favorite of hikers and bicycle racers because of the challenging terrain, the Old Tunica Road traverses some of south Louisiana’s most spectacular scenery, but it is not for the hurried or the faint-hearted during inclement weather, as some unpaved sections become impassable when wet without four-wheel drive. The road passes through the south tract of the Tunica Hills Wildlife Management Area, sunken between high roadside banks rising 20 or 30 feet above the roadbed and covered with mosses and wild ferns that thrive in the cool shady habitat. From St. Francisville, go north on US 61, left onto LA 66, left onto LA 968 and right onto Old Tunica Road, which eventually winds back out to LA 66 for a right turn to go back to US 61 and south into St. Francisville.

Less strenuous but just as challenging (mentally, at least) is St. Francisville’s popular annual Writers and Readers Symposium, bringing together an amazing group of authors and artists to speak about their creative processes and mingle with enthusiastic lovers of good literature at Hemingbough Conference Center on Saturday, February 20. Registration begins at 8:30 a.m., with presentations by featured authors starting at 9, lunch at noon, a 1 p.m. author’s panel Q&A, followed by an hour-long autograph session at 2 p.m. An added visual treat will be A Novel Image, a competitive exhibit of photographs, paintings and sculpture matched with literary works. The Saturday symposium will be followed on Sunday by a Writers Workshop led by Margaret McMullan for both experienced and aspiring authors at the West Feliciana Parish Library from 9 to 4.

Writer
Margaret McMullan
Featured presenters this year are award-winning novelist Margaret McMullan, who released her moving seventh novel Aftermath Lounge on the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina; Renaissance man Michael Rubin, jazz pianist, national speaker/humorist, and practicing attorney whose murder mystery The Cottoncrest Curse was published by LSU Press; New Orleans poet Mona Lisa Saloy returning to share a new book of poetry called Second Line Home; and noted Louisiana photographer Philip Gould and renowned public muralist Robert Dafford. The Public Art of Robert Dafford, one of Gould’s dozen books, features his superb images in both words and photographs of some of Dafford’s most memorable murals, painted in this country, Canada, France, Belgium and Great Britain, and both artists will be present for the symposium at Hemingbough.

For tickets, register online with credit card at www.brownpapertickets.com (OLLI members www.outreach.lsu.edu/olli). Advance fees for the symposium are $50; $60 at door. Writers Workshop fee is $150; limited scholarships are available. Online information is available at www.literatureandart.org.

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).