Thursday, September 13, 2007

Happy 200th


Happy 200th Birthday

By Anne Butler

by Darrell Chitty

Some 200 years ago, John H. Johnson laid out the little village of St. Francisville on a narrow finger-ridge overlooking the Mississippi, and soon it would become the commercial and cultural center of the surrounding rich plantation country. The gently rolling hills and rich soil, the warm climate and long growing seasons proved ideal for the cultivation of first indigo and then cotton, and in the antebellum glory years of the Cotton Kingdom, many of the country’s wealthiest families lived along the Mississippi River from New Orleans to Natchez. The St. Francisville area claimed more than its share of them, and soon the area blossomed with magnificent manors with evocative names like Solitude and Rosebank, Oakley and Greenwood, The Cottage and The Myrtles, Wakefield, Live Oak, Ellerslie and all the rest.

Not everyone lived on a plantation, of course. The streets of St. Francisville and its sister port city Bayou Sara, though at first mere muddy thoroughfares clogged with cattle drives or wagonloads of cotton bound for shipment on flatboats and steamers, were soon lined with drygoods emporiums, boarding houses and a fine hotel, the seat of government along with plenty of saloons, libraries and livery stables, newspaper offices, churches and one of the state’s earliest Masonic lodges.

In 1819 the Audubon Market Hall was erected to house vendors hawking fresh produce and all manner of goods beneath its picturesque brick arches. The building has been restored by local preservationists and returned to present-day viability, as has much of the little town, which is lived in and loved and remarkably well preserved. Thanks to the longtime efforts of the dedicated West Feliciana Historical Society as well as some thoughtful zoning regulations and an active Main Street program, nearly all of downtown St. Francisville is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as an architecturally significant historic district.

Now, as St. Francisville prepares to celebrate its bicentennial, the old Market Hall will house, most appropriately, the debut of a book covering St. Francisville’s history from the very beginning. On Friday, Nov. 9, the West Feliciana Historical Society will host a public photo/painting exhibit and book signing featuring THE SPIRIT OF ST. FRANCISVILLE, a coffee table book full of superb full-color images of the area and its residents, its structures and special events. The book is a big birthday tribute to St. Francisville on the occasion of its 200th year. Its creators will also sign and sell books and prints all day Saturday at Backwoods Gallery next to Magnolia CafĂ©.

Trying to understand particular places and their importance in particular times, chroniclers of history have taken many approaches, from paintings to plays, from journals to volumes of books both fact and fiction. Just as St. Francisville’s visitors today see the results of the happy marriage of felicitous climate and fertile soil in the flowering of fabulous antebellum gardens, so this book happily joins the visual and verbal homages and paeans of praise sung by two artists, one Louisiana's top photographer and the other a local author who contributes that loving insider’s knowledge only a longtime resident-observer can provide. By combining images with words in this book, a true labor of love, photographer/painter Darrell Chitty and author Anne Butler have managed to capture just a bit of the magic of St. Francisville, its soul, its heart, its spirit, its timeless charm that is only enhanced by the patina of the passing of years.

by Darrell Chitty
Prize-winning professional photographer Chitty, whose Heritage Gallery is located in Shreveport, is a Louisiana native whose images make THE SPIRIT OF ST. FRANCISVILLE, though packed with historical anecdotes and plenty of facts and figures, much more than a tour guide. Through his astute choice of subjects, his very personal and fond focus, his amazingly creative compositions and his technical skill, Darrell Chitty opens a window into the very soul of this special place called St. Francisville, showing the substance, the meaning, the true heart.

More than a photographer, Chitty is truly an artist, a painter without paintbrush. Instead of canvas and paint pots, he creates veritable impressionistic masterpieces by painting with camera and computer, combining his modern technological skills with an abiding appreciation and in-depth knowledge of art history and the age-old techniques of the Old Masters. The consumate professional, twice named Louisiana Photographer of the Year, he conducts seminars and teaching workshops, and he has a following of patrons around the world who admire his courage in bursting the barriers of tradition to combine yesterday’s art heritage with today’s digital revolution to compose an entirely new artistic song.

But one of his favorite locations has for years been St. Francisville, and his passion for the area shows in the superb photographs in this book, which represent but a smattering of the sturdy salient souls and structures whose special contributions, both great and small, have mattered in the life of the little rivertown of St. Francisville in that part of Louisiana long called Feliciana, the Happy Land. This book is merely a tantalizing glimpse of the spirit of St. Francisville, offered by a 21st-century artist with the passion and talent to capture the elusive soul of a very special place in time.

by Darrell Chitty
Other special events are planned for a Bicentennial celebration focused around the second weekend in November, timed to coincide with the statewide Main-to-Main celebrations showcasing the uniqueness of Louisiana’s wonderful Main Street communities, including St. Francisville. On Saturday, November 10, the Feliciana Stitchers hold a quilt sale and show in Parker Memorial Park beginning at 9 a.m., and all day long the downtown shops host special 200th birthday sales. To liven things up, the most recent movie filmed on location in St. Francisville, “The Reaping” starring Hilary Swank, will be shown Saturday evening. On Sunday, Nov. 11, festivities move to turn-of-the-century Freyhan School, beginning with a veterans’ recognition program at 2:30, then “School Days,” an open house featuring oral histories from former students of this historic school, music by the Community Choir in its spectacular auditorium, and an exhibit of vintage photographs and video interviews celebrating 200 years in the life of St. Francisville. The Freyhan Foundation plans restoration of this splendid structure into a community cultural center and museum, so everyone is encouraged to come and see what all the fuss is about.

The St. Francisville area has much to offer visitors year-round. 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. 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 (800) 789-4221. Visit for information on local festivals and events.