Sunday, May 13, 2007

Picnicking in the Parks



By Anne Butler

Picnics used to be one of the most highly anticipated of pleasures, whether they were beside bubbling creeks, in sun-drenched meadows filled with wildflowers, or in some urban greenspace with traffic roaring along the periphery. The picnickers themselves might be lovers snatching a few magical moments together, or they might be sunburnt children toting fishing poles along with their baskets of goodies. And as for the picnic fare, it could range from gourmet goose liver pates and imported vino in baskets equipped with fine silverware and china to PB&J “sammiches” and a Mason jar of sweet tea in a brown paper sack. But somehow it all tasted divine on a picnic.

Some of the most memorable picnics began at Catalpa Plantation near St. Francisville in the old days, when Miss Mamie and Miss Sadie doted on young visitors and would send them out into the lovely landscaped grounds with picnic baskets so heavily laden that the gardener had to be dispatched as bearer for the expedition. There would be fried chicken, dainty finger sandwiches with crusts removed, tiny tarts with lemon filling or perhaps pecan, deviled eggs, chicken salad, old-fashioned tea cakes, fresh strawberries, pink lemonade with maraschino cherries, all to be devoured on a patchwork quilt spread beneath the live oaks amidst the blossoming hydrangeas and the drooping pink indigo blooms. At every historic home near St. Francisville, the same scene was repeated, though perhaps not with quite such elan.

Residents and visitors to the St. Francisville area today can still enjoy picnics just as much; it simply takes a little advance planning to discover the perfect spot, but this region has a myriad of possibilities. There are also a number of small restaurants that offer delectable take-outs for picnicking, and even a new wine bar offering lots of liquid enhancements for the picnic fare.

Informed visitors of course know to make their first stop the West Feliciana Historical Society museum and visitor center in the heart of St. Francisville, where information is dispensed, suggestions made, and the friendly staff make sure nobody misses a thing in this scenic unspoiled garden spot of Louisiana. There are even a few picnic venues right in the Historic District of St. Francisville, all of it listed on the National Register. Tiny pocket parks dot the streetscape, and spacious Parker Park, donated to the town for public use, provides the perfect spot for dining al fresco under the towering trees right in the middle of town, with a covered gazebo-bandstand and a war memorial as well.

Several easily accessible picnic spots are not far southeast of St. Francisville along LA 965. The Audubon State Historic Site commemorates the famed artist-naturalist John James Audubon’s arrival in St. Francisville by steamboat in 1821, penniless and with a string of failed business ventures behind him, but rich in talent and dreams, having set for himself the staggering task of painting all of the birds of the immense fledgling country. Hired to tutor the beautiful young daughter of Oakley Plantation, now preserved as Audubon State Historic Site, he was allowed his afternoons free to roam the woods, sketching and collecting specimens, painting a large number of his famous bird studies and cutting a dashing figure with long flowing locks, frilly shirts and satin breeches. Picnickers are welcomed at Oakley upon payment of the small park admission fee, with tables in the open and under a covered pavilion, easy walking trails and guided tours through the historic home.

Nearby is The Nature Conservancy’s Mary Ann Brown Preserve, over 100 acres of deep ravines and loblolly pine forests donated for the enjoyment of the public in memory of a beloved daughter. The site features interpretive trails and is open daily for hiking. School or scout groups have access to picnic areas and primitive camping sites by advance reservation; call The Nature Conservancy at 225-338-1040.

Northwest from St. Francisville range the rugged Tunica Hills, unspoiled wilderness area perfect for picnickers who want to include a little hiking along with the eating.
Rare hilly 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 of this unique microclimate harbor rarities like wild ginseng, Eastern chipmunks and other flora and fauna found nowhere else in Louisiana. Bicyclists and picnickers 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 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, and for experienced hikers, this is paradise

The popular 700-acre 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, while the damp cool creekbeds provide habitat for rare trilliums, jack-in-the-pulpit, violets and a huge variety of ferns, mosses, lichens and mushrooms. The surrounding woodlands harbor a multitude of small mammals, whitetail deer, wild turkey and both resident and migratory birds, as well as a few endangered species like the black bear.

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, Clark Creek is open for daytime public use only. This is a steep, rugged area, with undulating ridges rising 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, and there are shaded picnic tables within easy walking distance of the entrance. 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.

Not far to the northwest of St. Francisville the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (225-765-2346) maintains several separate tracts as the Tunica Hills Wildlife Management Area for public hunting, trapping, hiking, riding, birding, primitive picnicking (no facilities) and sightseeing, and has pamphlets delineating regulations governing its use. Work is also beginning on the 635-acre Tunica Hills State Preservation Area, which will encompass bluffs and bayous and interpretive centers telling the story of the early Tunica Indians and the later Civil War battle at nearby Como Landing, while introducing Louisiana's "flatlanders" to the wonders of this hilly unspoiled wilderness site.

For more “civilized” picnic venues, visitors should try one of the St. Francisville area’s magnificent restored antebellum plantations, most of which permit picnicking on the grounds after touring the homes and paying the entry fees. Afton Villa Gardens welcomes picnickers to its luxuriously landscaped lawns during open hours, as does Rosedown State Historic Site, where picnic tables are provided near the reception center and the glorious Greek Revival home with surrounding formal gardens may be visited. Butler Greenwood Plantation permits picnicking on the oak-shaded grounds for visitors touring the 1790’s home or staying in the B&B cottages on site, while The Cottage Plantation, another of the early plantations with extensive grounds and fascinating historic outbuildings, allows picnicking only for overnight guests. The Myrtles Plantation has a “no picnicking” rule. At the free state museum at the gates of the Louisiana State Penitentiary, an expansion set for completion mid-July will make available a
covered picnic pavilion with tables and rocking chairs. There is also the West Feliciana Sports and Recreational Park just north of town with natural trails, sports fields and picnic tables; it is open daily during daylight hours at no charge.

The St. Francisville area abounds in sandy creekbeds, with access from most of the bridges, and of course there are the banks of the Mississippi River, but picnickers in these areas need to watch out for snakes. In a rural region like this, visitors would be well advised to pay attention to posted private property signs and to remember that barbed wire fences are usually there for a very good reason, which just might be a big ol’ brahma bull behind the next bush. Trespassing is never a good idea, and it isn’t necessary, because there are plenty of picnic spots that welcome visitors and provide the facilities and the setting to make for a perfect outing, not only enjoyable but also safe. And always remember, as the mantra goes, to leave only footprints and take only photographs.

Now, as for filling that picnic basket: Since few of us are fortunate enough to have a Miss Mamie or a Miss Sadie to pack our picnic hampers for us, we’re lucky to have some local restaurants that can pick up the slack. Feliciana Seafood has some of the best fried chicken around as well as deli sandwiches, and fried chicken, that oldtime picnic staple, is also available at the Cracker Barrel convenience store and Church’s in St. Francisville. Magnolia Café and Audubon Café have specialty sandwiches and salads that make the perfect picnic fare, and don’t forget to add some of those gigantic Mag cookies for desert. Those with an ethnic hankering can get something to go from Que Pasa Mexican food, Sonny’s Pizza or East Dragon Chinese, and if the perfect picnic to you calls for a boudin link and a Dr. Pepper, try Benoit’s Country Meat Block. D’John’s has great barbecue, and Cypress Grill’s poboys would make delectable picnic fare as well. For gourmets, Varnadoe’s Carriage House
at The Myrtles and The Oxbow both can provide delightful takeout feasts with advance notice, complete with beverages, as can the restaurants at The Bluffs. And the St. Francisville Inn now has a specialty wine bar where picnickers can savour old favorites or sample some new varieties before choosing a few bottles to pack into the basket; corkscrews, cheeses and all the necessities are available here.

After picnicking, visitors should take advantage of all the St. Francisville area offers. There are six antebellum plantations open for daily tours: Rosedown and Audubon State Historic Sites, The Myrtles, Greenwood, Butler Greenwood and The Cottage; Catalpa is open by reservation, and Afton Villa Gardens opens seasonally, with spring usually the peak of its blooming season. Picturesque 19th-century structures throughout downtown St. Francisville are filled with an eclectic selection of little shops, and reasonably priced meals are available in a nice array of restaurants. 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. Recreational opportunities abound in the Tunica Hills, with excellent hiking, biking, hunting, fishing, golfing and horseback riding, in addition to the superb birdwatching. For online coverage of tourist facilities and attractions in the St. Francisville area, see,, or; or telephone (225) 635-3873 or 635-6330.