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).

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Salutes Dead Sailors and Writers With Plenty of Spirit(s)

St. Francisville Salutes Dead Sailors and Writers With Plenty of Spirit(s)
By Anne Butler

bourbon tastingLiterati leavened with “bourbon strolls” and graveyard dinners under the live oaks…dead bodies sent off with vintage dancing and period tunes…weekly peeks at 19th-century medical practices at home and on the battlefield that most often ended in the cemetery as well, plus those wild and wacky Zouaves, the Civil War’s most colorful troops. The staid and stately live oaks must be in a state of shock, but visitors to St. Francisville in June are promised a heck of a good time.

“Come for the literature. Stay for the feast,” promises the fourth annual Walker Percy Weekend June 2-4 with activities scattered throughout St. Francisville’s picturesque National Register-listed downtown. Called “intellectually serious but broadly accessible,” the weekend is filled with panel discussions and entertaining presentations by Percy scholars, readings, photo exhibit, and eat-drink-be-merry social and culinary events including summer-weight bourbon cocktails and crawfish boiled by those famous Hot Tails chefs.

musicParticipants register Friday, June 2, at The Conundrum Books & Puzzles on Ferdinand St. from 3 to 5:30, then mosey on down to beautiful oak-shaded Grace Episcopal for what is called “Lost in the Churchyard, an elegantly provisioned reception and cocktail party.” Saturday’s presentations include “Walker Percy and the Benedict Option: Confronting the Culture of Death,” “Walker Percy and the Burden of History,” “The Devil Went Down to Georgia: Flannery O’Connor and the Religion of Me, Myself and I,” “Walker Percy’s Blues: Suffering and Self-Discovery in Love in the Ruins,” and “Memoirs of a Mississippi Boy.” Those who survive the presentations may revive themselves from 5:30 to 7:30 on the Progressive Front Porch Tour and Bourbon Tasting, followed by the Crawfish and Craft Beer Celebration with live music and dancing. Added this year is a Bourbon Tasting Tent with premium bourbons to sample.

What, you may ask, does the late acclaimed Covington author Walker Percy have to do with West Feliciana Parish? Plenty, having used some iconic sites including the state pen at Angola and the River Bend nuclear plant in his famous works, as well as a somewhat fictionalized version of the whole parish. Not to mention all the family connections, because the St. Francisville area has had a Percy under practically every bush---sheriffs, farmers, cattlemen, even one cattlewoman who famously drove a herd of steers to LSU in Baton Rouge to pay her tuition during the Great Depression---ever since the very first Percy arrived in West Feliciana while it was still part of Spanish West Florida, established the family foothold and then drowned himself in a fit of despondency in Percy Creek, foreshadowing the sad propensity toward suicide that seemed to run through the generations of the author’s family.

seminarAnd the progressive bourbon-tastings on front galleries throughout downtown St. Francisville pay tribute to Percy’s memorable essay called “Bourbon, Neat.” As he explored in his works the search for meaning in an increasingly materialistic society, Percy applauded the application of a few shots of bourbon daily to “warm the heart, to reduce the anomie of the late twentieth century, to cut the cold phlegm of Wednesday afternoons.” What, he wondered, “if a man comes home from work every day at 5:30 to the exurbs…and there is the grass growing and the little family looking not quite at him but just past the side of his head, and there’s Cronkite on the tube and the smell of pot roast in the living room, and inside the house and outside in the pretty exurb has settled the noxious particles and the sadness of the old dying Western world, and him thinking: ‘Jesus, is this it? Listening to Cronkite and the grass growing?’” Hoist the bottle.
Proceeds benefit the Freyhan Foundation’s ongoing efforts to restore as a community cultural center the area’s first public school building, a stately brick structure overlooking the Mississippi River with a grand third-floor auditorium and an outdoor amphitheater down the hill. For tickets and schedule of events, visit www.walkerpercyweekend.org or email info@walkerpercyweekend.org. Contributions are deductible to this 501 © (3) arts organization.


soldier
by Darrell Chitty
The following weekend, June 9 and 10th, an event is celebrated that a 1937 article in the New Orleans Times-Picayune called “one of the strangest born of the War Between the States, when fighting men could battle to the death and yet know chivalry, when war had not become the cold-blooded butchery of today.” And indeed, the twentieth anniversary celebration of The Day the War Stopped is a Civil War re-enactment like no other, for instead of blazing guns and battles, this is a tribute to the universality of the Masonic brotherhood that could take precedence over anything happening in the outside world.

In June of 1863, as the siege of Port Hudson pitted 30,000 Union troops against 6,800 weary Confederates as they fought over the all-important control of traffic on the Mississippi River, a shot rang out in the captain’s stateroom of the USS Albatross, patrolling off the coast of Bayou Sara/St. Francisville. The vessel’s commander, John Elliot Hart of Schenectady, New York, lay mortally wounded on the floor.

Attempts to find a metallic coffin the ship the body home were unsuccessful, so the ship’s surgeon, a Mason, went ashore in hopes of arranging burial on land; Commander Hart, a Union naval officer, was also a Mason, and in St. Francisville was the second oldest Masonic lodge in the state, its senior warden a Confederate cavalry officer fortuitously at home on furlough.

And so the war was stopped, if only for a brief mournful moment, as Masons in blue and gray joined the Episcopal rector in burial services. Today this rare moment, a compassionate ceasefire in the midst of a bloody conflict, has been re-created every year for two decades, with re-enactors in Union and Confederate garb, a few of them actual descendants of original participants and others from Hart’s New York lodge.

war stoppedThis year’s Day the War Stopped also marks the bicentennial of St. Francisville’s Feliciana Lodge #31 F&AM, so on Friday evening, June 9, there will be graveside histories in the hauntingly beautiful cemetery surrounding Grace Episcopal Church where Hart rests in peace, followed by a special historical presentation at the Masonic Lodge just across Ferdinand St. On Saturday, June 10, the lodge serves lunch from 11:30 to 12:30, preceded at 10:30 a.m. by a concert of vintage music at Grace Church’s parish hall and followed by vintage dancing in the same location. A presentation saluting the Masonic Lodge bicentennial takes place 12:30 to 1:30, then a heart-touching little play about Hart’s homelife is followed by the re-enactment of his burial from 1:30 to 2:30. Further celebration of the lodge bicentennial takes place from 6 to 11 p.m. at the Austin Daniel home on Joe Daniel Road in Elm Park, with music by the Delta Drifters, crawfish and barbeque, plus drinks; reservations for the After Party are required, and tickets to this event are $25, but all the other activities are free. For information, see www.daythewarstopped.com online or Facebook The Day The War Stopped.

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.

The main house at Oakley is temporarily closed for lead abatement, but the visitor center and grounds remain accessible and planned programs continue, in June with special weekend focus on the plantation apothecary (early medical practices with many medicines coming from the herb garden), Civil War medical practices and surgery, an exploration of historical recreation for Take A Kid Fishing day, and a look at some of the Civil War’s most colorful units, the LA Zouaves. For information, telephone 225-635-3739.

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).