Monday, January 29, 2007


in St. Francisville, Louisiana

by Anne Butler

Woodland on this year's Audubon Pilgrimage tour.

If houses could fly like crows, it would have taken a trip of only 37 miles. But houses cannot fly, and so the historic house called Woodland had to slowly and laboriously cross 300 miles of back roads as well as several centuries to fulfill its role of reestablishing family ties and making dreams come true. As visitors to St. Francisville’s popular Audubon Pilgrimage March 16, 17 and 18 will learn, the improbable odyssey of wonderful Woodland was simply meant to be.

It all began in the opening years of the 19th century, when widowed Olivia Ruffin Barrow led a large group of descendants from their Carolina home to establish a family plantation dynasty along the banks of Little Bayou Sara in Louisiana’s hilly Felicianas. First Highland, and then Greenwood and Ellerslie, Rosebank and Afton Villa, Live Oak and Rosedown, all these magnificent plantations housed Olivia’s sons and daughters and their progeny off and on over the years.

As the Barrows were building palatial plantation houses and planting sugar cane and cotton in the rolling countryside, a Virginia gentleman by the name of Major Amos Webb was establishing himself in nearby St. Francisville, where he operated a theater, had a fine saltbox home on Royal St. and, as postmaster, tried without success to have the town go down in history as Webbsville. Before leaving the parish, Webb would also abide at his bride’s family place, Live Oak, which would later be owned by Barrows, and by 1892 his townhouse would belong to another of Olivia Barrow’s descendants, Dr. Feltus Barrow, colorful turn-of-the-century horse-and-buggy doctor who also served as town mayor.

Columns of Woodland

In early antebellum days, there were only so many families in the remote reaches of Louisiana’s plantation country, so the interconnections weren’t wholly surprising. But wait! There’s more. Fast Forward several centuries, when Cammie Norwood took a shortcut to I-49 on her way to visit a daughter in Shreveport. Near the picturesque early steamboat town of Washington along Bayou Courtableau something caught her eye and tugged at her heartstrings—an old abandoned Greek Revival house, deteriorating, decaying, but obviously at one time a magnificent structure. On a subsequent trip she showed it to her husband David, longtime newspaper artist and avid preservationist as well as great-nephew of Dr. Feltus Barrow, and he loved it just as much.

A year later, their nextdoor neighbor in Baton Rouge’s Garden District showed Cammie a picture of a house where her mother had been born, a house now considered such a liability that the family was planning to tear it down. It was the same house! It turned out to have quite a history of its own, a history intertwined with the Barrow family and the Felicianas, for this house had been built around 1850 by that very same Major Amos Webb for his son, Dr. Louis Archibald Webb.

Dr. Webb studied at the University of Virginia, then returned to Louisiana to practice medicine and manage his father’s 4000-acre sugar plantation. After his death, his house eventually passed into the possession of Jacob U. Payne, prominent New Orleans cotton broker and close friend of Jefferson Davis, a frequent houseguest. During the Civil War the house was utilized as a hospital for Confederate soldiers and was damaged by artillery fire when Union troops under Gen. Nathaniel Banks battled Confederates under Gen. Richard Taylor nearby. When hot and thirsty Yankee soldiers tried to drink from her well, the Widow Webb removed the pump and taunted them that the water was polluted by dead cats; when the same troops passed by later, they sang out “Cats in the Well, Cats in the Well.” It was from the Thistlethwaite family that the Norwoods acquired the house they would rename Woodland.

Author Anne Butler
Author Anne Butler at previous Audubon Pilgrimage

To move the house from St. Landry Parish to property adjoining Highland Plantation in West Feliciana near St. Francisville, the Norwoods turned to David Beason, the recognized authority on restoration moves. Preparing for the move took a year; putting the house back together after the move took another year. The first and third floor as well as second-floor center hall were disassembled, but the double parlors and 12-foot-deep front and back porches were moved in one piece. The four chimneys were torn down and then reconstructed. Much of the millwork was intact, so that it could be numbered and put right back into place, as were the second-floor hallway flooring, the center hall arch and second-floor back porch columns. The doors are original, as are mantles, baseboards, second-story Federal windows. What is now the first-floor hallway was originally a carriage passage, and this is considered to be among the last of the fine plantation houses to have had such a feature in Louisiana.

Saving Woodland’s original woodwork was well worth all the effort. When David McNicoll, born in 1876, wrote his memoirs of early Washington, he vividly recalled the Dr. Louis Archibald Webb Plantation as a very large southern-style house on the north bank of Bayou Boeuf, flanked by pigeonniers and a garconnier and occupied over the years by a succession of interesting characters like “Six-Shooter Bill” Prudhomme. McNicholl was given a tour of the home by J.U. Payne, who proudly pointed out the handmade stair rails and window trim, moldings and newel posts, all the work of skilled slaves, the spindles turned on a fixed-center lathe utilizing a foot-treadle and springy tree limb. Ironically this same Mr. Payne, so proud of his property, very nearly burned the whole place down trying to dry out an underground cistern beneath the kitchen with a roaring fire.

Woodland with its 14-foot ceilings shows transitional architectural features, combining early Creole influences with the later Anglo-American elements such as the colossal Doric columns across the front. Filled with antiques from early Barrow family homes, it seems right at home now and is a welcome and fitting addition to the historic plantations of West Feliciana.

Pilgrimage at Play
Children at play during Pilgrimage

Other features of the 36th annual Audubon Pilgrimage, sponsored by the long-established West Feliciana Historical Society, include Nydrie which was also used as a hospital during the Civil War, The Oaks which was built in 1888 by Thomas Butler, Rosedown and Oakley Plantations which are now state historic sites, the glorious antebellum gardens of Afton Villa right at the peak of azalea bloom, and three historic churches in the National Register-listed Historic District of St. Francisville.

Audubon Pilgrimage also features costumed children dancing the Maypole, award-winning authentic 1820’s costumes, an Antique Show & Sale in three vintage in-town buildings, a lively re-created rural homestead showcasing the simple farm chores of yesteryear, and entertainment both Friday and Saturday evenings. Friday night features a storytelling tour through the oak-shaded graveyard of Grace Episcopal Church, hymn singing at United Methodist Church, and a wine and cheese reception at the Historical Society Museum, while Saturday evening entertainment is called Revel on Royal Street with music, dancing and refreshments.

Pilgrimage tickets can be purchased at the Historical Society Museum or by mail from West Feliciana Historical Society, Box 338, St. Francisville, LA 70775; online information is available at This celebration of a southern spring in the quaint little rivertown of St. Francisville, LA, commemorates the contributions of that famed artist-naturalist John James Audubon, who arrived at St. Francisville by steamboat in 1821, penniless and with a string of failed business ventures behind him, but rich in talent and dreams of painting all the birds of this fledgling country of America. Hired to tutor the beautiful young daughter of Oakley Plantation, he was allowed his afternoons free to roam the woods, sketching and collecting specimens, and would paint a large number of his famous bird folios in this area.

Grace Church
Azeala's of Grace Episcopal Church

Born in 1785 in Santa Domingo to a French ship captain and his Creole mistress, young Audubon was reared in France. He was sent to America in 1803 to learn English and a trade on his father’s Pennsylvania estate, but the fiery young artist chafed under the bonds of practical employment, longing instead to be at his nature studies in the woods, where he cut a dashing figure with his long flowing locks, frilly shirts and satin breeches. In 1820 he set out for New Orleans with only his gun, flute, violin, bird books, portfolios of his own drawings, chalks, watercolors, drawing papers in a tin box, and a dog-eared journal. He earned a meager living painting portraits and giving lessons in drawing, dancing and more scholastic subjects, but by the following year Audubon was established at Oakley Plantation near St. Francisville and well on his way to accomplishing his amazing task.

The St. Francisville area is a year-round tourist destination but is especially lovely in the spring, as flowering bulbs and fruit trees compete with ancient azaleas to brighten lawns and gardens. 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.

For online coverage of tourist facilities, attractions and events in the St. Francisville area, see or, or telephone (225) 635-3873 or 635-6330.

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