Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Audubon Pilgrimage Heralds Spring

Audubon Pilgrimage Heralds Spring in St. Francisville, LA
By Anne Butler

pilgrimage poster 17 PRThe forty-sixth annual Audubon Pilgrimage March 17, 18 and 19, 2017, 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 46 years of experience under their belt, society members put on one of the South’s most professional and enjoyable pilgrimage presentations. This year’s featured homes include Wyoming Plantation, St. Clare House, Hillcroft and Wildwood, plus a welcome new emphasis on birds.

Audubon arrived at the Mississippi River port of Bayou Sara by steamboat in June of 1821 and walked up the hill into St. Francisville, where he was to meet Eliza Pirrie and her mother at nearby Wyoming Plantation for a brief rest and repast before journeying to Oakley. Besides its Audubon connections, Wyoming also had enormous relevance in the social and political life of the St. Francisville area. Begun in the early 1800s, the plantation would be the home of Louisiana’s last antebellum governor. The original home burned, and by the 1920s the property belonged to Sam Vinci, who had emigrated from Italy as a 17-year-old with big dreams. The extensive Wyoming property was purchased in the 1980s/90s by Sam’s granddaughter, the late Elaine Vinci, and her husband Leonard Sullivan, who turned the house into a magnificent but livable showplace filled with fine 19th-century furnishings by such famous makers as Prudent Mallard and Alexander Roux.

By the time of Audubon’s arrival, the Bayou Sara area had endured years of cyclical flooding by the Mississippi River, and many of the residents deserted the little port city for the safety of St. Francisville’s high ground, where Catholic monks from across the river had long come to bury their dead. It was right after the disastrous 1912 flood that tug captain James Aubic moved his family up the hill and had a house built behind Our Lady Of Mount Carmel Catholic Church by his brother-in-law, carpenter George Baier, no doubt using some salvaged building materials. Recently beautifully restored, shaded by ancient live oaks and century-old camellias, this is now owned by the church as the comfortable home of the Catholic priest, Father Cary Bani. He has named the elegantly simple home St. Clare for one of Francis of Assisi’s devotees, in keeping with the patron saint of the town itself and the church devoted to Our Lady.
hillcroftAcross from the Catholic Church is regal Hillcroft, reigning over the western end of Royal Street from its landscaped hilltop setting and crowned by a rare widow’s walk overlooking the Mississippi River. Of neo-classical colonial revival design with columned entrance portico and rear double galleries, the house is one of St. Francisville’s largest, but was built for Judge Samuel McCutcheon Lawrason for a mere $5000 beginning in 1903 on what had been a cow lot and fruit orchard. In 1925 Hillcroft was purchased by a relative and namesake of the judge, sugar chemist Samuel Lawrason Butler, whose granddaughter Julie and husband Mitch Brashier have sensitively adapted the historic home to an active lifestyle including yet another Sam, their young son.


wildwood siteWildwood and its preservation-minded occupants have been integral parts of the Audubon Pilgrimage since its inception. The house was on the very first pilgrimage in 1972, and two generations of owners have served as pilgrimage chairwomen in different years (1975 and 2001) as well as being involved in every aspect of the annual tours every single year. Once a profitable cotton plantation, in 1915 Wildwood was purchased by Albert Lee Soule, president of the Soule Commercial College in New Orleans, as a weekend retreat from the city. Specifications for the 7,000-square-foot three-story farmhouse, designed by his architect brother to feature such innovations as inside bathrooms, closets and intercoms, called for assuring “all work done or materials furnished shall be first class in every respect.” In 1958 the property was purchased and revitalized by Conrad P. and Frances McVea, educators and dedicated preservationists, and now Wildwood is home to the next generation: Tom McVea, former state representative, farmer and cattleman, inveterate collector of vintage wood that somehow always comes in handy when restoring an old place, and his wife Toni.

Other features of the 2017 Audubon Pilgrimage include Afton Villa Gardens, Rosedown and Audubon 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. 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.

woodpeckersThis year’s pilgrimage has a new and welcomed focus on Audubon’s birds, for he painted 32 at what is now the Audubon State Historic Site, over 60 in the Felicianas, and more in Louisiana than in any other state. Audubon Market Hall hosts an exhibit of Audubon prints daily and Friday evening, featuring those birds rendered across West Feliciana in such locales as Beechwoods and Beech Grove Plantations, along Bayou Sara, in the Sleepy Hollow woods and the Tunica Swamp. Also on exhibit will be Audubon-inspired paintings by talented local artist Patsy Dreher and middle school art students. Of great interest will be morning presentations at Audubon State Historic Site featuring three widely respected local ornithologists guiding nature walks and giving bird talks on grounds trod by Audubon himself in 1821: Friday 9:30 to 10:30 or 11 a.m. featuring wildlife/landscape artist Murrell Butler; Saturday 9:30 to 11 a.m. featuring author/photographer C.C. Lockwood; and Sunday 9:30 to 11 a.m. with Dr. Tom Tully, LSU vet school avian specialist.

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, 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 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.

For 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 (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 (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.

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Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Writers and Readers Flock to St. Francisville

Writers and Readers Flock to St. Francisville in February
By Anne Butler

A mecca for creative souls ever since John James Audubon painted dozens of his Birds of America studies in the St. Francisville area in 1821, this little rivertown now harbors artists, musicians, designers, authors, and even talented rock painters who relish its peaceful atmosphere and stimulating environs. And for the past ten years the slow cold month of February has been enlivened by the Writers & Readers Symposium, now sponsored by A Celebration of Literature and Art, that draws interested readers and writers from a wide area to hear published authors of all genres speak about their creative processes and mingle with enthusiastic fans. This year’s symposium is slated for February 18 from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. at beautiful Hemingbough Conference Center just south of St. Francisville, LA. Sure to be a popular addition is a separate but related Writers Retreat.

Featured professionals presenting at this year’s Symposium of Writers and Readers are Louisiana’s current Poet Laureate Peter Cooley; award-winning memoirist Melissa Delbridge; novelist Deborah Johnson ; and Rheta Grimsley Johnson, who will also lead the Writers Retreat.

debra johnsonBorn in Missouri, raised in Nebraska, resident of San Francisco and then Rome for many years, award-winning novelist Deborah Johnson lives in Mississippi now, setting for her riveting novels The Secret of Magic and The Air Between Us, which won the Mississippi Library Association Award for Fiction for its insightful take on human nature and endearing cast of characters. The Secret of Magic won the 2015 Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction and was a finalist for the Earnest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence. Johnson found inspiration for this book while researching the United States’ first African-American Supreme Court justiceThurgood Marshall and one of his NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s first civil rights causes of the postwar era, a black veteran purposefully blinded when a policeman used a billy club to punch out both of his eyes.

melisssa delbridgeMelissa Delbridge, recently retired as archivist at Duke, is the author of the witty and wise Family Bible, called “a gritty coming-of-age story set on the banks of the Black Warrior River in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, with everything one expects of the Deep South: incest (some willing, some not), guns, bourbon, insanity, Jesus, fast women, cheating men. But Melissa Delbridge explodes and exploits these clich├ęs into something startling and new, and in spite of the horror aroused by some events, it’s a hell of a fun ride. Delbridge’s ability to bring such joy to her readers through narratives that contain so much quiet sorrow is a true testament to her understanding of what it means to persevere.” Said another reviewer, “Reading it was like going to a reunion. Family Bible took me home.”

Peter CooleyAlso presenting at the Writers and Readers Symposium will be Louisiana’s current Poet Laureate Peter Cooley, Midwest native with a doctorate in Modern Letters from the University of Iowa (his Writers’ Workshop dissertation was a book of his own poetry) who has lived for a number of years in New Orleans, where he is Director of Creative Writing at Tulane University. His poems have been published in more than 100 anthologies and over 700 magazines. His nine books of poetry include Divine Margins, A Place Made of Starlight, The Astonished Hours, and most recently Night Bus to the Afterlife dealing with Hurricane Katrina. Besides having taught at universities across this country and abroad, he has also had the challenging opportunity to present writing workshops “in a mental hospital, a prison, in pre-schools, grade schools, high schools, and to the elderly, the socially disadvantaged, and the illiterate.” If he can hold the attention of such diverse audiences, surely he can captivate a group of rapt readers and writers anxious to hear about his meticulous approach to his demanding craft.

rheta johnsonBack by popular demand for the Writers and Readers Symposium is award-winning journalist and accomplished author Rheta Grimsley Johnson, who has covered the South in all its glory for four decades. Following years as an intrepid reporter for newspapers both large and small in iconic southern locales like Birmingham, Memphis and Atlanta, Johnson began writing columns syndicated nationally to hundreds of papers including the Advocate, columns celebrating what Encyclopedia Alabama calls “seemingly average southern people whose stories she elevates to the universal.” It is precisely this fond look at our foibles and fascinating off-the-wall places and people that won Johnson the Ernie Pyle Memorial Award for human interest reporting as well as the American Society of Newspaper Editors’ Distinguished Writing Award. She was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 1991.

Johnson also writes books. In 1989 she published Good Grief, The Story of Charles M. Schulz, the authorized biography of the creator of “Peanuts.” Other published books, moving memoirs of life with husbands, dogs, and assorted other characters, include Poor Man’s Provence: Finding Myself in Cajun Louisiana; Dogs Buried Over the Bridge; Hank Hung The Moon and Warmed our Cold, Cold Hearts; and Enchanted Evening Barbie and the Second Coming. The titles alone promise warm and witty and sometimes heartbreaking recollections of experiences that resonate with readers who grew up in the South. We know those people. We ARE those people! And Johnson vividly captures a time and place to which we can all relate, for she sees beyond the surface to the very soul, with love and laughter and, yes, more than a few tears. On those rare occasions when she turns her searing glance to contentious contemporary issues, her columns are cut-to-the-bone honest, like it or not. Johnson and her handsome husband Hines Hall, retired Auburn history professor, divide their time between Fishtrap Hollow and The Pass in Mississippi these days.

After individual author presentations, Writers and Readers Symposium participants are treated to lunch and homemade desserts, followed by a panel discussion led by lively local writer/artist Carolyn Thornton. Tickets for the symposium, $55 in advance or $65 at the door, are available online at www.brownpapertickets.com or through OLLI at LSU. For additional information, contact oliviapass@bellsouth.net.

Those participating in the Writers Retreat (preregistration required; separate fee) led by Rheta Grimsley Johnson, a workshop welcoming both fiction and nonfiction authors including beginners, will get together for a wine and cheese reception at Hemingbough on February 18 from 5 to 7 p.m., then enjoy both breakfast and lunch during the actual workshop February 19 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

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 (state budget constraints have unfortunately shuttered Oakley Monday and Tuesday). In January Oakley features programs called “12th Night Tea” for mothers and daughters on January 7th (preregister by calling 225-635-3739), and “Breaking the Chains” on January 14th, an examination of the 1811 Louisiana slave rebellion plus a look at slavery on this particular plantation. Rosedown Plantation State Historic Site from January 9 through January 22 presents a special well-researched slant to its house tours debunking the inaccurate myths repeated all too often on historic home tours.

The St. Francisville area is a year-round tourist destination. The nearby Tunica Hills region offers unmatched recreational activities in its unspoiled wilderness areas—hiking, biking and especially bicycle racing due to the challenging terrain, birding, photography, hunting, and kayaking on Bayou Sara. There are unique art galleries plus specialty and antiques shops, many in restored historic structures, and some nice restaurants throughout the St. Francisville area serving everything from ethnic cuisine to seafood and classic Louisiana favorites. For overnight stays, the area offers some of the state’s most popular Bed & Breakfasts, including historic plantations, lakeside clubhouses and beautiful townhouses right in the middle of St. Francisville’s extensive National Register-listed historic district, and there are also modern motel accommodations for large bus groups.

For visitor information, call West Feliciana Tourist Commission and West Feliciana Historical Society at 225-6330 or 225-635-4224, or St. Francisville Main Street at 225-635-3873; online visit www.westfeliciana.us, www.stfrancisvillefestivals.com, www.stfrancisville.net or www.stfrancisville.us (the events calendar gives dates and information on special activities).

Monday, November 28, 2016

Come Home for Christmas in St. Francisville

CIC posterCome Home For Christmas in St. Francisville
By Anne Butler

The theme of St. Francisville’s popular annual holiday parade is “I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” and visitors the weekend of December 2, 3 and 4 will indeed experience that warm and welcome homecoming feeling as they enjoy this small town’s safe and family-friendly celebration called Christmas in the Country.
The whole weekend is packed full of fun, with spectacular seasonal decorations, musical entertainment throughout the National Register-listed downtown, breakfast with Santa, caroling and window-peeping, contemporary house tours, living nativity and even a symphony concert. Sparkling lights trace soaring Victorian trimwork and grace gallery posts to transform the entire picturesque little town into a veritable winter wonderland.
Mayor D'AquillaSt. Francisville’s jovial mayor Billy D’Aquilla, just elected to serve an unprecedented ninth term in office, lights the town Christmas tree Friday evening, Dec. 2, with a welcoming reception, choral performance on the front porch of Town Hall by Voices in Motion at 5:30 p.m. and fireworks beginning at 6 p.m. Local shops as well as vendors in Parker Park downtown offer twilight shopping until 7. Hemingbough is the setting for the Baton Rouge Symphony Orchestra’s St. Francisville Chamber Series presentation Holiday Jazz, beginning at 7 p.m. and featuring the jazzed-up seasonal favorites performed by pianist Willis Delony and friends, plus a dessert reception (tickets available at Bank of St. Francisville; 225-635-6397).

runSaturday, Dec. 3, begins at 7:30 a.m. with a prayer breakfast at United Methodist Church Fellowship Hall, followed by Christmas on the Run, relays for life benefitting the American Cancer Society, with 1-mile Fun Run at 8 and 5-K at 8:30 a.m., both starting from Parker Park on Commerce Street (www.stfrumc.org).

Children won’t want to miss the Women’s Service League Breakfast with St. Nick at Jackson Hall of Grace Episcopal Church; there are three seatings at 8, 9:15 and 10:30 a.m. Reservations are encouraged, and advance tickets ($8) may be purchased online at www.womensserviceleague.com ). The Service League also has its usual fresh wreath and cookbook sale on Ferdinand St. throughout the weekend.

A Saturday house tour (10 to 4) benefits the wonderful parish library and showcases some unique contemporary homes. Tickets ($25 in advance, $30 day of tour) may be purchased at the library, The Conundrum bookstore, or online at www.brownpapertickets.com. Sponsored by Friends of the Library, featured homes exhibit a variety of architectural styles and include Charles and Kate Seal’s classic southern home with sweeping front gallery, Chip and Connie Hunter’s home filled with vintage touches and French influence, David and Angie Ray’s traditional home in The Bluffs golfing community, and Finney and Peter Couhig’s intriguing West Indies-style home.

Parker ParkSt. Francisville’s oak-shaded Parker Park overflows with children’s activities, music, food and crafts vendors all weekend including Friday evening, and there will be entertainment throughout the historic downtown area. Dynamic Laura Lindsey gathers children under the tent in the park for Christmas storytelling at 11:30, and the Fugitive Poets perform from noon to 2. New this year in a little town gone crazy for rock painting/hiding/finding is a fun activity sponsored by WF Rocks under the tent at 12:30 Saturday, with guidance by talented Alaine Dibenedetto and her sister Angie in dotting/painting fun rocks which will travel to St. Jude Hospital to spread some joy. The group has brought out the creativity in residents of all ages and even has specially designed T-shirts, one of which will be provided free to finders of a dozen marked rocks hidden around town on Sunday. At 2:30 p.m. the West Feliciana Middle School choir performs under the park tent.
From 10 to 4 on Saturday, Oakley plantation house in Audubon State Historic Site presents Colonial Christmas cooking demonstrations in the outside kitchen, followed from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. by candlelight tours plus period music and wassail. In town, Saturday evening entertainment includes Twilight Shopping and music from 4 to 7 p.m., a Community Sing-Along at United Methodist Church on Royal Street from 6 to 7, a Live Nativity inside First Baptist Church on US 61 from 6 to 8, and “Peep into our Holiday Homes” to admire Christmas decorations in participating historic structures (also 6 to 8 p.m.).

floatThe popular Christmas parade on Sunday, December 4, begins at 2 p.m. and traverses Ferdinand and Commerce Streets. Sponsored by the Women’s Service League, the parade features gaily decorated floats, marching bands, and of course Santa Claus riding atop a vintage fire truck. This year’s theme is “I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” and there are not one but three grand marshalls being honored this year, all specially recognized award-winning local educators: Heather Howle, Terrance Williams and Janet Lathrop. Prior to the parade, the Angola Traveling Band from Louisiana State Penitentiary performs in Parker Park beginning at noon Sunday.

The enthusiastic sponsors of Christmas in the Country are the downtown merchants, and the real focus of the weekend remains the St. Francisville area's marvelous shops, which go all out, hosting Open Houses with refreshments and entertainment while offering spectacular seasonal decorations and great gift items. A variety of quaint little shops and galleries occupy historic structures throughout the downtown area and spread into the outlying district, each unique in its own way; visitors should not miss a single one.

The town’s longstanding popular anchor stores have been joined by a number of smaller boutiques offering a wonderful variety of wares—antiques, collectibles, original artworks, upscale and affordable clothing, housewares, decorative items, jewelry, books and children’s playthings-- to remind visitors how timeless is the excitement of small-town Christmas shopping at this exuberant celebration of the season.

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 (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).