Thursday, December 21, 2006


near St. Francisville, Louisiana
by Anne Butler

After the stress and overstimulation of the holiday season, however enjoyable, there’s something soothing, even healing, in seeking the solitude and stillness of unspoiled wilderness, especially when combined with strenuous physical activity. The Tunica Hills surrounding the St. Francisville area provide the perfect antidote for the post-Christmas crash.

Clark Creek
Clark Creek photo by H.Cancienne

The wintry winds whirl dead leaves from the hardwood trees, opening scenic forest vistas not visible in the lush crowded overgrowth of summer, while falling temperatures remove that triumvirate of aggravations suffered by the summer outdoorsman--snakes, poison ivy and mosquitoes, making late winter and early spring the perfect time for all sorts of outdoor activities in these hills, from biking to hiking, hunting to horseback riding, nature photography to unsurpassed birding.

Clark Creek
Clark Creek photo by H.Cancienne

Ranging from St. Francisville, Louisiana, northwest into neighboring Mississippi along the Mississippi River, the steep Tunica Hills provide the ideal backdrop for any outdoor activity, including some of the most challenging hiking in the gulf south. Rare rugged land formations found only in a narrow strip from West Feliciana on north into Tennessee, the Tunica Hills are loessial ridges created tens of thousands of years ago by dust storms of the Glacier period which swept in from the western plains carrying powdery fertile soil to form vertical cliffs up to 90 feet high resting on the sand-clay bottom of an ancient sea bed.

Botanists and zoologists find that the deep cool ravines harbor rarities like wild ginseng, Eastern chipmunks and other flora and fauna found nowhere else in Louisiana besides this unique microclimate. Bicyclists and Sunday drivers appreciate the area's quiet country roads, some so ancient they began life as prehistoric game trails stamped indelibly into the soil of lands claimed by Native Americans, first the Houmas and then the Tunica Indians, long before the first Europeans arrived. Birdwatchers find the area still provides habitat for the same rich abundance of birdlife that so inspired artist-naturalist John James Audubon in the 1820's that he painted many of his famous bird studies right here. And for experienced hikers, this is paradise, especially in the winter without the heat and humidity that can wilt the will of even the most determined summer outdoorsman.

Pond General Store
Pond General Store photo by H.Cancienne

The popular Clark Creek Natural Area just across the Louisiana state line near Pond, Mississippi, has challenging trails leading to a series of spectacular spring-fed waterfalls, some cascading 30 feet or more into pools lined with huge clay boulders. The hills here are heavily forested with mixed hardwood and pine; besides large beech, hickory, sweet gum, elm and magnolia trees, Clark Creek has several world-record-setting trees, a Mexican Plum and Bigleaf Snowbell. The damp cool creekbeds provide habitat for rare trilliums, jack-in-the-pulpit, violets and a huge variety of ferns, mosses, lichens and mushrooms, while the surrounding woodlands harbor a multitude of small mammals, whitetail deer, wild turkey and both resident and migratory birdlife, as well as endangered species like the black bear.

Creek Bed
Clark Creek photo by H.Cancienne

This 700+-acre preserve was established in 1978 as a cooperative endeavor between the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, the MS Wildlife Heritage Committee, the Nature Conservancy, Wilkinson County, David Bramlette and International Paper Co. which donated the core tract of 430 acres as the first industrial gift of land set aside specifically as a natural area in the state. In the Pond community 13 miles west of Woodville, MS, and 20 miles northwest of the intersection of US 61 and LA 66 just above St. Francisville, LA, the area is open for daytime public use only.

This is a steep, rugged area and a demanding hike; undulating ridges rise several hundred feet above the sandy creek bed in places. It is accessible only by foot; no hunting or motorized vehicles are allowed. There are primitive restroom facilities in the parking area just past the Pond Store, but the bulk of the area is pristine wilderness, undeveloped except for several established trails and some helpful stairs. Hikers should be sure to wear good sturdy footwear with traction and carry plenty of water. Daily Use Permit envelopes are available at the parking area kiosk for paying the $3 entry fee, and hikers should be sure to pick up park maps from the parking area (call 601-888-6040 for the Clark Creek Natural Area office) or from nearby Pond Store before entering the trail system.

Clark Creek photo by H.Cancienne

In the 19th century, a stockpond was built by the county as a watering place for the teams of oxen and mules hauling cotton down the steep hill to the riverport at Fort Adams, and from it the little store built beside it took its name. The present Pond Store & Post Office dates from 1881, when its predecesor, opened by early Jewish merchants Barthold and Karl Lehman, burned. This is the quintessential old-time country store, complete with creaking wood-plank floors, wood stove and old-fashioned display cases providing a veritable museum of the emporium’s wares in days gone by, including the 1916 inventory list featuring a one-bedroom suite (dresser, armoire and washstand) for $17.50 and an iron bed for the princely sum of $1.50. Visitors should take time to chat with congenial longtime proprietor Liz Chaffin, who dispenses Clark Creek maps, historic lore and plenty of southern charm along with bottled water and snacks all day Friday and Saturday, and Sunday afternoons. There are a couple of rustic cabins here that provide an ideal overnight spot for hikers just a few hundred yards from the Clark Creek Natural Area entry point (call 601-888-4426), and the St. Francisville area also abounds in B&Bs.

Other popular hiking spots are the Tunica Hills Wildlife Management Area, with several thousand acres of rugged hills, high bluffs and deep shaded ravines maintained by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (225-765-2360 for regulations governing its use) in two separate tracts for public hunting, trapping, hiking, riding, birding and sightseeing; and Cat Island National Wildlife Refuge along the Mississippi River west of St. Francisville. One of the largest tracts of virgin wetland forest along the Mississippi not protected by levees from cyclical flooding, Cat Island is sometimes inundated by 15 to 20 feet of water in the spring and supports huge populations of wintering waterfowl as well as the world's largest Bald Cypress tree, believed to be 800 to 1500 years old and an astounding 83 feet tall. Visitors to these areas should be cognizant of hunting seasons and take necessary precautions.

Less strenuous hiking is offered by the Nature Conservancy’s Mary Ann Brown Preserve southeast of St. Francisville near the Arnold Palmer-designed golf course at The Bluffs on Thompson Creek, with over 100 acres of deep ravines and loblolly pine forests traversed by interpretive trails (call the Nature Conservancy at 225-338-1040). Yet another enjoyable way to take in the scenery of the Tunica Hills is on horseback, and Cross Creek Stables (225-655-4233) offers gaited horses for three-hour morning or afternoon rides; advance reservations are a must for rides along the sunken roadbed of the historic Old Tunica Road or on trails in the wildlife management area.

Located on US Highway 61 on the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge, LA, and Natchez, MS, the St. Francisville area makes the perfect base for hiking trips through the Tunica Hills and is a year-round tourist destination, with six historic plantations--Rosedown and Audubon State Historic Sites, Butler Greenwood, the Myrtles, the Cottage and Greenwood--open for daily tours, Catalpa Plantation open by reservation and Afton Villa Gardens seasonally. Reasonably priced meals are available in a nice array of restaurants in St. Francisville, and eclectic shops fill restored 19th-century structures throughout the National Register-listed historic downtown area Some of the state's best Bed and Breakfasts offer overnight accommodations ranging from golf clubs and lakeside resorts to historic townhouses and country plantations; a modern motel has facilities to accommodate busloads. For online coverage of tourist facilities, attractions and events in the St. Francisville area, see, or, or telephone (225) 635-3873 or 635-6330.

High resolution photos for media use, email

Farewell to the St. Francisville Ferry

by Anne Butler

Ferry at Sunset by Henry Cancienne
Ferry at Sunset by H.Cancienne
Construction of land approaches began in October 2006, and when the entire project is completed in the summer of 2011, St. Francisville and New Roads will be linked by the longest cable-stayed bridge in North America. The gorgeous four-lane John James Audubon Bridge across the Mississippi River will be 1,583 feet long and supported by 136 steel cables stretching from towers built over drilled concrete-filled steel shafts sunk deep into the riverbottom. Estimated cost: $348 million.
The bridge will be an important east-west connector for the Zachary Taylor Parkway and a great boon for economic development. It is welcomed especially by those living on one side of the river and working on the other, whose commute time and expense greatly increase whenever the current ferry link is disabled.

But progress always comes with a price. The bridge will be big. The bridge will be fast. The bridge will be reliable. But match the charm of the car ferry across the mighty Mississippi, with windswept tourists standing at the rail marveling at the swift current and romantics admiring spectacular sunsets setting the muddy waters afire? Never.

Back in the 1930s, the ferry system between New Roads and St. Francisville consisted of two old tugs, The Melville and The Red Cross, pushing a wooden barge that could hold only 9 cars, which was plenty back in the days when a mere 20 vehicles crossed the river a day.

New Roads to St. Francisville, La
Crossing the River by ptWalsh
Retired ferry captain Morris Bennett of St. Francisville knows a thing or two about the river. He’s spent a lifetime on it, and there are those who say he has river water running in his veins. Son of longtime ferry captain P.M. Bennett, Morris Bennett as a child operated the pumps on the leaky old vessels his father was running, and by the time he reached 11 or 12 years of age he was running the ferry himself; he became a licenced pilot while still in high school and when he retired he was one of the Mississippi’s most respected boat masters. There were a lot of changes in all those years. “We used to drink the river water,” Bennett says today, “but now I wouldn’t even wash my hands in it.”

In those years Capt. Morris Bennett saw it all, ferrying not just vehicles but elephants and monkeys, runaway boar hogs and midstream motorcycle weddings, moonshiners and revenuers, through hurricanes, ice floes, fires and earthquakes. He came close to delivering babies more than once, and came close to losing his own life on the river as well. In the 1946 hurricane the Bennetts rode out the storm on the ferry and were swamped, with water in the wheelhouse and waves washing them out onto the bank where they held onto willow trees for dear life; their barge was washed up 12 feet on the bank.

He remembers in 1939 when the ice floes in the river were 8 feet deep, and another cold winter when a propeller was lost midstream and his father had to get overboard to fix it, requiring plenty of liquid refreshment to keep him from freezing to death. Said Morris Bennett, “That river is the hottest place in the world in the summer and the coldest place in winter.” He tried to get away from it once, briefly taking a job on land. “I didn’t like it,” he says simply, and he went right back to the river for half a century.

The ferry usually ran from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m., but local folks knew all they had to do was ask and they’d be taken across whenever there was an emergency, whatever the time. The ferry was also called upon to transport the local firetrucks out into the river to fight fires on passing tugs or barges, or transfer wounded seamen from other vessels to medical facilities ashore.
Sunrise with Eagle by ptWalsh
Eagle over Mississippi River by ptWalsh
Morris Bennett is a natural-born storyteller, and he has a wealth of material from his years of running the boat. He remembers an old Model A truck loaded with chickens whose driver carelessly lit up a cigar too close to the fumes coming from the overheated gas tank. The ensuing explosion sent chickens flying and caught the boat railing on fire, and the crew just had water buckets for fighting fires back then. Folks living along the river ate plenty of chicken for some time afterward.
The ferry crew would also help evacuate cattle from flooded swamplands at nearby Cat Island when the river rose, and Morris Bennett recalls spending days trying to capture one big old bull. When somebody finally got a rope on the bull, it broke away and Morris and his father, in a pirogue, caught the flying end of the rope, which proved to be a big mistake, with the bull wheeling and getting into the pirogue with them and Morris setting a record for shinnying up a cypress tree. Other times, back gates would swing open on packed cattle trailers trying to board and there’d be more excitement on the ferry ramp than at a rodeo.

Old-time traveling circuses used to cross the river on the ferry, and when their old trucks couldn’t pull the grade on the ramp, they’d unload the elephants to push the circus wagons up the hill. And then there was the monkey that got loose onboard and made his way to the pilothouse, where, Morris says, “it was a standoff for awhile.”
Late at night, the bootleggers would cross, waiting until the last minute when the whistle blew to make sure the revenuers weren’t aboard, their old trucks loaded with chicken crates and a few moth-eaten chickens to make them look legitimate. And then there were the fully loaded gravel trucks, a couple of which slipped out of gear or lost their brakes, careened down the steep approach ramp and drove straight across the ferry deck and off the other side into the depths of the river.

Leaving SF dock
Leaving the Dock by Pat Walsh
Today the ferries are operated by the state and are all one piece, not tugs and barges, with 40-car capacities. They cross over a thousand vehicles every day and have over 1000 horsepower, compared to the early boats whose 30 hp sometimes left them at the mercy of the strong current. The present ferries also have all kinds of modern equipment, radar and radios instead of just a compass, and real life preservers instead of just cypress boards. “We used to have a four-car barge and had to squeeze the fourth car on by bouncing the third car over; no way they could have opened their doors if the ferry went down,” recalls Bennett.

Visitors from other areas are amazed to find that the ferry is part of the state highway system, and they are thrilled to be able to see the mighty Mississippi River up close and personal as they cross from West Feliciana Parish to Pointe Coupee and back again. The wait is rarely long, providing an opportunity to slow down and watch the barge traffic on the river while enjoying one of Miss Emily’s homemade pralines from her little red wagon concession stand and contemplating the fate of Bayou Sara, that important antebellum cotton-era riverport that once occupied these empty fields along the riverfront until the floodwaters washed away all signs of life.

Like we said, the new bridge will be big. The new bridge will be fast. The new bridge will be reliable. But Miss Emily won’t be strolling along the approach road pulling her little red wagon full of homemade pralines, and there won’t be time to watch as the setting sun paints a string of barges dayglow pink. Captain Morris Bennett, or his replacement pilots, won’t be fending off monkeys in the pilothouse, and the out-of-state tourists won’t be clinging to the rail in the stiff river breeze. And all of us will have lost a little something in the year 2010 as we whiz across a bridge high above the waters of the Mississippi.

Rosedown Plantation State Historic Site
Camellia at Rosedown by ptWalsh
Now’s the perfect time to visit the little Mississippi River town of St. Francisville, while the ferry’s still running. Located on US Highway 61 between Baton Rouge, LA, and Natchez, MS, the St. Francisville area is a year-round tourist destination, but visitors find it especially enjoyable in the winter of the year when the antebellum gardens are filled with blooming camellias. On February 9th and 10th, the Feliciana Nature Society joins Rosedown State Historic Site to present Camellias In The Country, featuring receptions, guided tours through one of the country’s great 19th-century gardens filled with hundreds of fine heirloom specimen camellias, planting and pruning demonstrations, photography exhibits and more (online, see

Six historic St. Francisville area plantations--Rosedown and Audubon State Historic Sites, Butler Greenwood, the Myrtles, the Cottage and Greenwood--are open for daily tours, Catalpa Plantation is open by reservation and Afton Villa Gardens seasonally. Eclectic shops fill restored 19th-century structures throughout the downtown area, reasonably priced meals are available in a nice array of restaurants in St. Francisville, and some of the state's best Bed and Breakfasts offer overnight accommodations ranging from golf clubs and lakeside resorts to historic townhouses and country plantations; a modern motel has facilities to accommodate busloads. The scenic unspoiled Tunica Hills region surrounding St. Francisville offers excellent biking, hiking, fishing, birding, horseback riding and other recreational activities.
And for goodness sake, don’t forget to experience the ferry ride across the Mississippi River, even if you don’t intend to stay on the other side; ride back and forth, and a nominal fee is charged only one way. The main street of St. Francisville, Ferdinand St., runs right through the National Register-listed Historic District directly to the ferry. For online coverage of tourist facilities, attractions and events in the St. Francisville area, see or, or telephone (225) 635-3873 or 635-6330.
High resolution photos for media use, email Patrick Walsh or

A Celebration of Readers and Writers


CONTACT: Virginia R. Smith, phone:(225)635-6162; email; or Linda Fox, phone (225)635-3364; email

The West Feliciana Parish Library and the Friends of the West Feliciana Library present “A Celebration of Readers and Writers”:
Codrescu, Cullen, Domingue and Hill
Saturday, February 24, 2007, at the Oxbow Restaurant in St. Francisville.

Plan to be part of a grand occasion to hear 4 Louisiana authors in person in a comfortable and delicious setting! Beginning at 8:30 with coffee and pastries, Ed Cullen, Ronlyn Domingue and Ernest Hill will discuss their writing styles and subjects, followed by a 12:30 luncheon with the main speaker Andrei Codrescu. A book signing for all four authors will be held from 11:30 to 12:30. Copies of their books will be available for purchase, cash or checks only.

Tickets for the morning session only, including coffee and pastries and the book signing, are $10 a person. Tickets for the entire day including lunch and Mr. Codrescu, are $35. Tickets must be purchased in advance by February 22, either by mail at West Feliciana Library @ Box 3120, St. Francisville 70775 or in person at 11865 Ferdinand St., St. Francisville. For more information, call the Library Director at 225-784-0260.

Andrei Codrescu
A poet, novelist, essayist, screenwriter, and commentator for NPR’s All Things Considered, ANDREI CODRESCU is the MacCurdy Distinguished Professor of English at Louisiana State University and the editor of the literary journal Exquisite Corpse. His most recent book is New Orleans, Mon Amour: Twenty Years of Writing from the City

Ed Cullen
Ed Cullen's Attic Salt appears on the front of the Sunday People section. The column's name, which means "subtly humorous or poignant," gives Cullen a lot of latitude. An essayist on All Things Considered, National Public Radio's afternoon news and feature program from Washington, D.C. Cool Springs Press published Letter in a Woodpile, a collection of his NPR essays and newspaper columns, last spring.

Ronlyn Domingue
Ronlyn Domingue received her MFA in creative writing from Louisiana State University in 2003. She has worked as a grassroots organizer, project manager, teacher, and grant writer. Her short stories have appeared in New England Review, Clackamas Literary Review, and New Delta Review. Born and raised in Louisiana, she lives there still. The Mercy of Thin Air is her first novel and has sold in nine other countries to date.

Ernest Hill
The novelist Ernest Hill holds degrees from the University of California at Berkeley, Cornell University, and UCLA. His novels include Satisfied With Nothin', A Life for a Life, Cry Me a River, It's All About the Moon When the Sun Ain't Shining and, most recently, A Person of Interest. He was born in Oak Grove, Louisiana and currently lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where he is the Writer-In-Residence at Southern University.