Monday, June 27, 2016

VISIT ST. FRANCISVILLE...AND BRING THE KIDS!

VISIT ST. FRANCISVILLE...AND BRING THE KIDS!
girls at aftonWhen school’s out and the daycamps and vacation bible schools have run their course and the air is rent with anguished groans of boredom, harried parents need look no farther than St. Francisville for a kid-friendly staycation that won’t break the bank. This is a small town where flags fly from the lampposts every holiday and there’s a lemonade stand on every downtown corner, not to mention a popular snowball dispensary, and children are decidedly welcome.

For the small fry, there are well-equipped safe playgrounds at the West Feliciana Sports Park and also at the West Feliciana Parish Library, where they just might happen upon a story hour or other children’s activity.

For more active ones, a whole lot of energy can be worked off hiking. Clark Creek Natural Area, in the Tunica Hills, is a challenging hike through hills and hollows and creekbeds to a series of rare waterfalls, and there are also hiking paths through the Tunica Wildlife Management Area with deep shady ravines and high bluffs, lots of wildlife and photo ops. The sports park has lots of walks, both easy and hard, most notably the woodland trail called The Beast. The Mary Ann Brown Preserve has over 100 acres with interpretive trails, picnic areas and restrooms, while Audubon State Historic Site has a pond, picnic pavilion, great barn to explore, and easy child-friendly walking paths through the woodlands stalked by John James Audubon in 1821 as he studied the birds and tutored the daughter of Oakley Plantation. For younger children, nothing beats the maze of manicured paths through the 27 acres of formal gardens surrounding the grand Greek Revival house at Rosedown Plantation State Historic Site, now a National Historic Landmark.

quin catislandCat Island National Wildlife Refuge, encompassing thousands of wooded acres along the Mississippi River, has several hiking trails, one of 1 ½ miles to the National Champion Bald Cypress, 85 feet tall and thought to be over 1,000 years old. The cyclical flooding of the Mississippi, which sometimes inundates this refuge with 20 feet of water, makes this a unique habitat that attracts migratory waterfowl along the Mississippi Flyway, but sometimes renders this area accessible mostly by boat.

Biking in the area is popular, the terrain making it a destination for bicycle racing due to its challenging nature. The Sports Park has a dirt-bike trail, but there are also safe country roads and in-town streets where youngsters can let off a little steam on two wheels. The Conundrum, right in the heart of St. Francisville, has rental bikes, and visitors can make a day of it by combining bike rental with a kayak trip on Bayou Sara’s calm waters, for fishing or just lollygagging amidst the unspoiled scenery.

For more sedentary pursuits, The Conundrum has a great selection of children’s books and puzzles, and youngsters find it entertaining to stroll the brick sidewalks of St. Francisville’s downtown area to visit shops that have special children’s sections: Hillcrest and Sage Hill have enormous inventories that include numerous fun items for all ages, while Mia Sophia Florist and The Shanty Too have excellent selections of children’s clothing, including Feltman Brothers for infants.

Rainy days can still be entertaining with several fascinating museums in the area. The downtown West Feliciana Historical Society museum and tourist information center has exhibits plus children’s books in the gift shop, while the visitor center at Audubon State Historic Site has artifacts from the 19th century sure to interest any child, some touchable and all imparting an understanding of life as it was for children in the dark ages before cell phones and tablets and video games. Both state historic sites often stage special children’s activities, school programs and historic re-enactments.

fireworksRestaurants like Birdman, St. Francisville Inn and Audubon Café make eating out for breakfast seem like grand occasions with their specialty waffles and pancakes and crepes, and the dancefloor at everybody’s favorite casual eating spot, Magnolia Café, is alive with little dancers getting down to the music after dinner on Friday nights. Across the street at Al Aqaba, they can not only enjoy the unique culinary creations of the Jordanian chef-owner, but might have the hilariously fun opportunity to learn belly dancing as well.

For golfers, The Bluffs resort has an incredible Arnold Palmer-designed course atop high bluffs overlooking Thompson Creek. There are tennis courts at the parish sports park, ball fields for all ages and skills, rodeo arena, fishing pond, and a great setting for festivals and fundraisers featuring live music and other entertainments.

candy appleFestivals throughout St. Francisville are especially child-friendly. Christmas in the Country is a three-day family-fun event featuring great downtown shopping, parade, photos with Santa, strolling choirs, vendors and all sorts of entertainments. In downtown Parker Park, each October brings the Yellow Leaf Festival, with dozens of artists and craftsmen demonstrating and selling their wares, along with downhome food and music. In this the land of Audubon, nothing is more appropriate than a bird-oriented festival, so there’s the late-summer Hummingbird Festival where children can hold the tiny birds as they are banded, studied and then released. Polos and Pearls puts some sizzle into late evening downtown shopping in August, with trolley rides, music, refreshments and plenty of bargains. June marks The Day The War Stopped, Civil War re-enactment in tribute to the universality of Masonic brotherhood that allowed a deceased Union gunboat commander and Mason from New York to be buried in the local Episcopal Church cemetery with Union and Confederate Masons participating during a brief ceasefire. Springtime in St. Francisville is a glorious riot of azaleas blossoms and colorful costumes recreated from the 1820s for the Audubon Pilgrimage, featuring not only historic home and garden tours, but lots of children’s activities...dancing the Maypole, dramatic presentations of Audubon as he struggled to tutor plantation children, and a Rural Homestead with lively old-time crafts and skills. And what could be more exciting that the Angola Prison Rodeo, each Sunday in October and one weekend in April, pitting state pen inmates against professional rodeo stock in some hair-raising events along with music, tons of food and hobby-craft sales; even the museum at the prison gates enthralls kids, with the chance to go behind bars or see Old Sparky the electric chair. The Fourth of July weekend features lots of fireworks at the sports park; music, food, fun, fireworks and even snow in a new festival called The Big Chill in the Ville on July 2nd, followed by the customary fireworks and hotdogs sponsored by the town and the American Legion on the 4th. Other festivals celebrate gardening, literature, veterans and more.

poolMost Bed & Breakfasts and motels in the St. Francisville area welcome children as guests; some even allow pets. One even has an in-house ice cream parlor and lakeside beach. Those with swimming pools are particularly popular in the hot summertime, and the ones in the countryside provide an opportunity for city dwellers to experience what country children get to enjoy all the time: chasing fireflies or gazing at the multitude of stars visible on dark rural nights but often obliterated by urban lights.

Information on all these child-friendly activities and events may be obtained through the local websites or by telephoning the tourist center at 225-635-4224.
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).

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