Tuesday, May 24, 2016

St. Francisville’s Immigrants—then and now

St. Francisville’s Immigrants—then and now
By Anne Butler
3v courtIt has been called the little town that’s two miles long and two yards wide, not much of an exaggeration, for the land falls off very steeply behind structures occupying the high ridge comprising its two main streets. As the area was under Spanish control as part of West Florida when it was laid out in 1807, St. Francisville’s two streets were dubbed Royal and Ferdinand in tribute to the Spanish crown. Royal boasts the most beautiful historic homes, but Ferdinand was originally the center of commerce and still is today, lined with boutique shops and art/antique galleries intermingled with Victorian cottages. This unusual mixture of residential and commercial structures gives a significant 24-hour presence to St. Francisville’s very-much-alive downtown, now designated in its entirety a National Register Historic District and a Main Street Community.

In the 19th century Ferdinand Street was a muddy dirt thoroughfare, scene of cattle drives and wagonloads of cotton being hauled down to the Mississippi River for shipment to markets around the globe. Below the bluff upon which St. Francisville developed, Ferdinand St. dropped down the hill by Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church where the monks from across the river came to bury their dead safe from the floodwaters. Along the river below St. Francisville was the port city of Bayou Sara, developed in the late 1700s when flatboaters pulled over to spend the night on the trip to New Orleans, their boats loaded with produce from the Ohio Valley and points west.

Cattledrive3During much of the 19th century, Bayou Sara was the most important port on the Mississippi River between Natchez and New Orleans, with a mile of warehouses to store cotton plus extensive residential and commercial structures, its riverbanks lined with steamboats. The West Feliciana Historical Society museum on Ferdinand Street has an impressive display of vintage images showing early life in Bayou Sara, many showing floodwaters up to the roofs of houses and stores, and raised wooden walkways to provide dry passage for shoppers during flood times. This, of course, is one of the only unlevee-ed stretches of the Lower Mississippi, and with no levees to hold the water in its channel, when the Mississippi is running high, floodwaters engulf all of the lowlying lands below St. Francisville. During the devastating floods of the early 20th century, most of Bayou Sara was washed away or destroyed, leaving only stands of cottonwoods, willows, and the Corps of Engineers Mat Field where concrete mats are manufactured to line levees to combat erosion.

While the outlying plantations were established primarily by Anglos leaving the East Coast after the Revolutionary War, the 19th century saw a great influx of immigrants from the Old Country, especially Germans, both Jewish and Gentile, settling in Bayou Sara and St. Francisville, bringing with them skills in merchandising and financing which were sorely lacking in what was essentially an agrarian society that existed precariously on credit. The Jews, of course, were anxious to escape religious persecution abroad, and Gentiles too welcomed the chance to forge a new and prosperous life.

Cattledrive 2A collection of letters from Max Nuebling, covering the period from October 1822 as he leaves his home in Germany to join his uncle in Louisiana to August 1826, gives in fascinating detail an intimate look at life in early Bayou Sara/St. Francisville, where Uncle Dieter Holl operated a store in his home, now known as Propinquity. Young Nuebling’s writings, preserved at the West Feliciana Historical Society, also shed light on the appeal of this fledgling new country, with all its promised opportunities and freedoms, to immigrants from the Old Country, making them willing to risk life and limb on ocean voyages that were fraught with dangers and must have seemed interminable.

“Good Lord, what a difference between the free and easy life here, and over there,” wrote Max Nuebling to his family back in Germany. “Overbearing people that look down upon everyone else, because they hold some kind of official position and think they are better than everyone else, are unknown here. A man here is valued here according to what he is, and what he can do, and not the position he holds. Our sheriff, who holds a high position here, is the most friendly man one can meet; he talks to everyone, and any man can talk to him. Liberty is the greatest gift of manhood, and here we have real liberty, and I have no intention ever to return to my old home and end my days as a slave. Of course, I want to see you again, but only on a visit, and then to return to the Free America.”

francis2Today Bayou Sara is long gone, but St. Francisville continues to attract new residents from near and far. Consistently ranked as one of Louisiana’s most popular tourist destinations, the little town of fewer than 2,000 residents has just as much to offer those who live there as those who simply visit. New restaurants and groceries, new library and bookstore, new boutique shops and galleries, new sports park offering not only recreational opportunities for all ages but a new focus on homegrown festivals as well, new hospital under construction, great hiking and historic attractions...no wonder its current logo boasts “We Love It Here.”

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).

conundrumThe 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.

There are several upcoming special events in St. Francisville during the month of June. The Walker Percy Weekend (June 3-5) attracts literary bon vivants to various downtown sites for a celebration of the late Louisiana novelist that features good food, craft beer and bourbon, live music, and discussions about books and southern culture under the live oaks. The following weekend, June 10-12, The Day The War Stopped is a Civil War re-enactment like no other, with evening graveside stories in historic Grace Church cemetery, vintage music and dancing, touching drama and a re-creation of the war-stopping burial of a Union gunboat commander complete with Yankee and Confederate Masons joining the Episcopal rector in the burial service.
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).

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).