Monday, September 04, 2017

West Feliciana Woods Beckon as Walden Once Did

West Feliciana Woods Beckon as Walden Once Did
By Anne Butler

Distraught? Distressed? Disturbed? Weary of worrisome world affairs?

kayakTake a tip from Henry David Thoreau, born in the summer of 1817, who despaired of seeing his fellow men leading “lives of quiet desperation” and sought solitude in the woods by Walden Pond. There he “wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

Now Walden Pond is operated by Massachusetts as a state reservation, complete with solar-powered visitor center and half-a-million hikers, boaters, swimmers, sunbathers or skiiers annually. But there are closer areas beckoning those wishing to commune more quietly with Nature. Strolling through St. Francisville’s 19th-century landscapes and formal gardens or wandering unhurried along the little rivertown’s bricked streets beneath overhanging moss-draped live oaks can impart the feeling of being a million miles away from the urban hustle and bustle, and the surrounding area has plenty of unspoiled wilderness accessible to the world-weary public.

treeJust south of St. Francisville on Highway 965 are several child-friendly hiking venues. Audubon State Historic Site has short trails through the hundred-acre park surrounding historic Oakley Plantation house (the house itself is temporarily closed for lead-abatement, but visitors are welcome on the grounds). Nearby Mary Ann Brown Preserve, 109 acres donated to The Nature Conservancy as a memorial, has interpretive trails as well as facilities for scout or school groups to picnic and camp with advance reservations.

The West Feliciana Parish Sports Park, extensive manicured complex of ballfields, tennis and basketball courts, rodeo arena and music stage, is open from 7 a.m. to dusk and hosts organized sports, camps and activities for all ages. Particularly popular is the aptly named Beast, rugged 6.5-mile hiking and mountain biking trail through the challenging terrain of typical Feliciana hills and hollows, providing great exercise for both advanced and intermediate hikers and bikers. There’s also a tamer walking path around the fishing pond. Hikers and bicyclers (who are required to wear bike helmets on the trail) should sign in at the trailhead; no horses are allowed.

The Tunica Hills State Preservation Area and Tunica Hills Wildlife Management Area offer thousands of wooded acres encompassing rare land formations found only in a narrow strip from St. Francisville northwest along the Mississippi River into Tennessee. Cool deep shady hollows and steep forested hills harbor rare plants and animals found nowhere else in Louisiana. The Office of State Parks has grand plans for the state preservation area, 700 acres along the river with loessial bluffs and bayous, steep wooded ravines and such a diverse ecosystem that this promises to become one of Louisiana’s most unique tourist destinations once funding is provided to fulfill the master plan. At present, this area and the wildlife management area which is actually two separate tracts of several thousand acres each operated by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, offer unmatched opportunities for hiking, photography and birdwatching, hunting in season (LDWF), horseback riding and just plain appreciation of unspoiled nature. Admission to the wildlife management area is free, but visitors must fill out daily self-clearing permit cards at entrance stations; the South Tract along Old Tunica Road is open year-round, while the North Tract along Farrar-Davis Road is closed March through September.

mary ann brownAlso in the Tunica Hills but entered just above the Mississippi state line is the popular Clark Creek Natural Area with challenging trails leading to a series of waterfalls. This area is reached from St. Francisville via US 61 north, left onto LA 66, right onto Hwy. 969 (Pinckneyville Road), then left onto Fort Adams Road at the old Pond Store (well worth a visit). A nominal contribution is payable at the trailhead parking area. The first two falls are reached by established trails; the rest require some challenging hiking.
Cat Island National Wildlife Refuge is currently closed to the public (including parts accessible by boat) awaiting parish road repair after wash-outs rendered Creek Road impassable during the Great Flood of 2016, but Bayou Sara Kayak Rentals (with or without guides) can access similar areas via the lazy waters of the creek with its swimming holes and sandy beaches.

One resident with a well-documented appreciation for Feliciana’s pastoral reaches and verdant woodlands was, of course, artist John James Audubon, who in the 1820s found inspiration for dozens of his famous bird studies while staying at Oakley Plantation. Just over a century after his stay, what was called a “Bird Fete” first celebrated his tenure in the parish with a presentation of scenes from his life, historic homes open “for inspection,” and a colonial ball. Noted writer Stanley C. Arthur was master of ceremonies, and Audubon relics, portraits, prints and letters were on exhibit at the local library, sponsored in the 1930s by the Drama-Library League. The West Feliciana Historical Society for the last four decades has carried on the tradition with its springtime tour of historic homes and related activities known as the Audubon Pilgrimage.

hummingbirdsToday the area still celebrates its huge population of both resident and migratory birdlife with an annual event highlighting the unique hummingbird feeding and breeding habitat that entices ruby-throats to linger awhile in the months between late March and early September as they migrate between South/Central America and Canada. The Hummingbird Festival is set in two private gardens for Saturday, September 9, from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., when there should be an abundance of migratory hummers on their way south for the winter. Vendors offer hummingbird-attractive plants and equipment, while hummingbird biologists Linda Beall and Nancy Newfield capture and band birds, giving visitors the rare opportunity to observe the tiny creatures up close as they are being weighed and measured. The banding sites are the homes of Carlisle Rogillio on Tunica Trace (his 400-acre National Wildbird Refuge sponsors the event this year, the 17th festival) and artist Murrell Butler on Oak Hill Road, both of which usually attract dozens of hummingbirds.
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).

tunica fallsThe nearby Tunica Hills region offers unmatched recreational activities in its unspoiled wilderness areas—hiking, biking and especially bicycle racing due to the challenging terrain, birding, photography, hunting, and kayaking on Bayou Sara. There are unique art galleries plus specialty and antiques shops, many in restored historic structures, and some nice restaurants throughout the St. Francisville area serving everything from ethnic cuisine to seafood and classic Louisiana favorites. For overnight stays, the area offers some of the state’s most popular Bed & Breakfasts, including historic plantations, lakeside clubhouses and beautiful townhouses right in the middle of St. Francisville’s extensive National Register-listed historic district, and there are also modern motel accommodations for large bus groups.
For visitor information, call West Feliciana Tourist Commission and West Feliciana Historical Society at 225-6330 or 225-635-4224, or St. Francisville Main Street at 225-635-3873; online visit  www.stfrancisvillefestivals.com, www.stfrancisville.net or www.stfrancisville.us (the events calendar gives dates and information on special activities).

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

St. Francisville Floods: A Tale of a Travelling House

St. Francisville & Floods: A Tale of a Travelling House
By Anne Butler

floodWhile St. Francisville developed on a high ridge overlooking the river, the port city of Bayou Sara was established in the late 1790s right on the banks of the Mississippi. Center of commerce for the surrounding plantation country, with a mile of warehouses to store cotton plus extensive residential and commercial sections, Bayou Sara was one of the 19th century’s most important river ports.

But just about every spring, as ice and snow melted upriver, a raging torrent of water raced downstream and through crevasses in flimsy levees to destroy everything in its path. This included Bayou Sara, but its residents, resilient souls that they were, came back year after year after year, at least until the 1920s.
In 1890 the New York Times described a levee break that inundated the entire town, stopping all business and compelling the abandonment of stores and homes by its 10,000 residents. Again in 1892 another flood put 10 feet of water into town, with considerable loss of property. Resourceful shopkeepers put merchandise on top shelves, tried to hold back floodwaters with mud boxes, and built raised wooden walkways and gangplanks so shoppers could keep their feet dry. But it was the flood of 1912 that was most devastating, with rising waters sending Bayou Sara residents rushing into the hills as large cracks appeared in the levee.

Beulah Smith Watts of Solitude Plantation vividly recounted the experience. “The rainy season began in the early spring of 1912. The melting ice and snow from the north began to swell the river. The Mississippi River began to rise and flood the low land. The levee which protected the town became threatened. Rains and winds caused alarm. The citizens of Bayou Sara worked day and night in the rain, filling sand bags to bank the levee in weakening places. School boys worked with them. Sand boils began to appear. Citizens of Bayou Sara were ordered to move livestock and possessions to higher lands. The rains had stopped, but the winds were high…The school was in St. Francisville. On May 2, 1912, before classes had started, whistles began blowing, and bells began tolling. We knew what had happened! School was dismissed, and we pupils ran to Catholic Hill to see the water rushing in, swallowing the town of Bayou Sara. The roar of onrushing water could be heard for miles. The crevasse was 187 feet wide. The next day nothing but the tops of houses were visible. Most of the houses were swept away by the strong current of rushing water, and debris floated in the water.”

flood bayou saraThe 1912 flood devastated areas all along the river, leaving hundreds homeless as rescue trains rushed to flooded areas to evacuate residents. At Bayou Sara, one newspaper account said, “The streets are under 25 feet of water. When the water rushed in late yesterday, houses were toppled from their foundations. A great sheet of water leaping through a gap in the levee 300 feet wide swept everything before it. The smaller buildings were dashed against the more substantial structures and the debris carried on by the flood…Men and women ran wildly into their homes, picked up their children and fled, leaving all their belongings behind. Others took their positions in boats, and were picked up by the crest of the flood and carried miles from the town.”

And then came the great flood of April 1927 that displaced close to a million people along the Mississippi River corridor, causing numerous deaths and threatening millions of acres of land. It was one of the world’s most devastating floods, called “the last uncontrolled rampage of the Mississippi River,” inundating 27,000 square miles. After that one, the Corps of Engineers began serious construction of substantial levees and flood control structures along the Mississippi River to protect heavily populated urban areas. But these efforts came too late to save the little port city of Bayou Sara; there’s nothing there now but a boat launch, steamboat landing, and a bunch of weeping willows.

lise's cottageSt. Francisville, high atop the bluff overlooking the site of Bayou Sara, beckoned survivors, and up the hill they came, merchants and families, businesses, even some houses. The 19th-century Bayou Sara residents salvaged what they could of damaged homes and stores, and moved on up the hill to rebuild their lives and re-establish their businesses safe from the floodwaters.

One charming little structure that travelled from Bayou Sara up the hill to safety in St. Francisville is called Miss Lise’s Cottage, comfortably resettled across Prosperity Street from the West Feliciana Parish courthouse in 1890. It was a simple Creole cottage of two rooms, roughly 16’ by 16’, each opening to the outside. The rooms were divided by a solid wall; to go from one to the other entailed a trip outside along the front porch.

The cottage was moved up for Miss Lise, the first “telephone girl” whose last name seems lost to history, and the early switchboard was on the second floor of the 1905 bank building just across Royal Street from her domicile. Until recently, Miss Lise’s Cottage functioned as an attorney’s office. Now it’s the weekend getaway for a gifted career architect/educator and a frustrated designer whose talents complement each other to a remarkable degree in a perfect example of how adaptable these historic little cottages can be in the right hands.

The exterior frontal view retains the traditional Creole cottage character, its siding soft grey with contrasting shades on columns, shutters, entrance doors and trim; the roof is corrugated galvanized steel. But oh, that unexpected interior-- all black and white and simply stunning. With renovations and additions meticulously envisioned and executed by homeowners James Kilbourne Dart and David Anthony Parker II over the past several years, Miss Lise’s Cottage will add the WOW factor to the 2018 Audubon Pilgrimage tour of historic homes in the St. Francisville area. The pilgrimage is sponsored by the West Feliciana Historical Society, for which Jim Dart’s mother Elisabeth Kilbourne Dart, gifted writer and parish historian, served as the longtime leader.

front viewStark white walls and ebonized flooring decorated with black Argentine cowhides set off a thoughtfully curated collection of modern art, and the few antique pieces are the crème de la crème of family treasures. New York meets Creole modern, they call it, and the balance works perfectly, a striking juxtaposition of antique and contemporary furnishings and original artworks.

With their complementing creative talents and sensibilities, the partners have turned Miss Lise’s Cottage into a stunning example of comfortable contrasts, its starkly simple elegance embracing 19th-century oil paintings and family antiques from great-great-great-grandparents as warmly as naked Chinese artists and Sumatran loincloths in a carefully curated collection of artworks, all in an unassuming little cottage that climbed the hill into St. Francisville to escape Mississippi River floodwaters.

And now that St. Francisville has taken the place of Bayou Sara as the center of commerce for the area, the town showcases its assortment of unique little shops and puts the sizzle back into summertime shopping with the nighttime extravaganza called Polos and Pearls. From 5 to 9 on Saturday, August 19, the event features extended hours in downtown shops, food, music and trolley transportation for an easy hop on-hop off trip from one store to another.

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

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Take a Shopping Staycation to St. Francisville, LA

Take a Shopping Staycation to St. Francisville, LA
By Anne Butler

cartVisitors often marvel at how such a little town as St. Francisville can offer such diversity. Want something to eat? There’s Chinese, Middle Eastern, Mexican, Southern, you name it, all of it good. Want to spend the night? There are Bed & Breakfasts, modern motels, golf resorts, historic, contemporary, in town, in the country, on a lake. Want recreation? Hiking the hills, biking the rural lanes, birding in the wooded areas or even in the middle of tree-shaded downtown, kayaking in Bayou Sara.

And shopping? An enticing variety of little shops with unique wares offer something for everyone, from upscale jewelry sold around the world to one-of-a-kind items provided with warm personal service. This sure isn’t Wal-Mart, Toto, although there are a couple of Dollar Stores and a well-stocked Fred’s.

In the 19th century, St. Francisville atop the bluffs was the center of culture while Bayou Sara, perched on the banks of the Mississippi River below the bluffs, was the center of commerce, with steamboats unloading treasures from around the world. But after years of overflow flooding, most of that port city was washed away, though some structures and businesses relocated up the hill into St. Francisville. Today there are still some of these same structures and businesses, but they have been joined by a whole host of others, providing a new fresh outlook and plenty of up-to-date shopping opportunities.

Grandmothers Buttons, in the turn-of-the-century red brick bank building, has beautifully designed jewelry utilizing vintage buttons and imported glass or crystal in an affordable price range, as well as an eclectic selection of many other items; there’s also a fascinating museum of antique buttons in the former bank vault. Patrick’s Fine Jewelry (Live Oak Centre) has classic custom pieces as well as estate jewels.

Two art studio/galleries showcase the works of local artists and host periodic shows: Harrington Gallery and Backwoods Gallery, with originals, prints and framing. Temple Design has totebags, tshirts, hats, beach towels and lots of other pieces with local insignia.

home goodsThere are several antiques co-ops with multiple dealers exhibiting vintage collectibles as well as fine antiques: Bohemianville Antiques, St. Francis Art and Antiques, and the new St. Francisville Antique Mall.

Gift shops include The Shanty Too, longtime downtown anchor store with linen clothing, baby presents and an old-time candy shoppe; Hillcrest Gardens and Interiors with something for every age and every taste; Sage Hill Gifts with a wonderful selection of carefully chosen decorative items.

Elliot’s Pharmacy (Live Oak Centre) also has a large gift section, and next door is Mia Sophia Florist, which augments beautiful fresh flowers and plants with children’s clothing and the world’s best fudge. Ins-N-Outs Nursery has hanging and bedding plants for flowerbeds and vegetable gardens, while Border Imports on US Highway 61 North has a huge variety of Mexican import pottery and cast aluminum pieces for indoors and out, ranging from small colorful Talavera pieces to lifesize animal reproductions, garden statuary and seating.

Ladies’ clothing shops offering the latest fashions and stylish accessories include Ma Mille which often has special markdowns, Femme Fatale Boutique, Beehive Boutique, and Trends. Sharing space with Beehive is Mud-Pie Soaps.

booksThe Conundrum Books and Puzzles is a quirkly little indie bookstore with a well-curated collection of reading material and puzzles for children and adults, and the West Feliciana Historical Society also has a nice gift shop with lots of regional books as well as cards and children’s things. Heirloom Quilt Shoppe has patterns and select fabrics for sewing projects and offers periodic instruction as well.

And then there are the little pop-up periodic shopping opportunities. On Thursdays and Fridays the Farmers’ Market has not only fresh produce but also designer Anna Maceda’s beautiful Bon Savon Soaps, plus honey and jellies and baked goods. On days when the American Queen steamboat docks at St. Francisville so its passengers can tour the downtown area and patronize the shops, a boutique of arts and crafts (great jewelry and other items) sets up in historic Audubon Market Hall. Rosedown, Oakley and The Myrtles Plantations in the surrounding area also have well-stocked gift shops.

Most of these shops are in St. Francisville’s National Register-listed Historic District downtown within easy walking distance of each other, except for the ones in Live Oak Centre, on US Hwy 61 North, or at the outlying plantations. So stroll the brick streets beneath the overhanging live oaks and colorful crepe myrtles, and this shopping staycation can make visitors who’ve driven short distances feel a million miles away, transported back to a time when shopping trips were eagerly anticipated and lavishly rewarding.

polos and pearl A fun special event called Polos and Pearls extends shopping hours into the cool of the evening on Saturday, August 19, with trolley transportation throughout the downtown area as shops host open houses with refreshments and live music. Participating shops are open until 9 p.m. and visitors should not miss a single one.

And if auctions are your thing, be sure to attend the Wags and Whiskers Gala at Hemingbough on Saturday, July 29, beginning at 6 p.m. This fundraiser for the West Feliciana Animal Shelter promises food, fun, kissing costumed dogs wishing for a home, dancing to the music of the popular Delta Drifters, and a silent auction with tons of great things to bid on. The shelter does a magnificent job and deserves everyone’s support. Tickets may be purchased at the Bank of St. Francisville or online at Brown Paper Tickets.

g bLocated 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 main house at Oakley is temporarily closed for lead abatement, but the visitor center and grounds remain accessible and planned programs continue.

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).