Saturday, October 20, 2007


By Anne Butler

The quaint little Mississippi River town of St. Francisville, LA, has always been a happy marriage of residential and commercial structures, its gingerbread-trimmed Victorian dwelling houses co-existing shoulder-to-shoulder with vibrant small businesses, houses of worship, schools and other structures. Thus it is no surprise that its 200th birthday celebration this month should be just such a mixture, an appreciation of the past joined with enjoyment of the present and anticipation of the future.

Highlight of the bicentennial observation will be an Open House on Sunday, November 11, at Julius Freyhan School just off Royal St. in St. Francisville. A splendid sturdy brick structure overlooking the Mississippi River, it was opened in the early 1900s as the first public school in town, its construction funded initially by a bequest in the will of one of the area’s earliest Jewish immigrants, Julius Freyhan. Freyhan had arrived in this country a penniless peddler in the 1850s and prospered sufficiently as a supply merchant to the cotton empire that he was considered one of the wealthiest men in the state at the time of his death.

For half a century the Freyhan School educated several generations of St. Francisville students, some even riding horseback from the surrounding countryside to attend classes, from which they were dismissed early on stormy days to get home safely before the creeks swelled with rainwater and became impassable. Other country students caught the train carrying cotton and passengers to the riverport beneath the school’s hilltop location, and one intrepid fellow even rowed across the Mississippi River every day for class. Today the alums of J. Freyhan School gather monthly in ever-dwindling numbers to share memories, and many of them will be present in person for the Open House November 11 in “their” school.

In addition, the dynamic director of St. Francisville’s active Main Street Program has enlisted the help of her talented videographer son to record for posterity oral histories related by a number of the earliest students, some now in their 90s. Elderly couples like the Bill Plettingers, married more than 70 years; brothers Ingram and Barrow Norwood of the early pioneering family of Barrows at Highland Plantation; historian Elisabeth Kilbourne Dart who has spent a lifetime carefully recording the history of the area and spearheading its proper preservation; Lucille Leake with whom the idea for the popular spring pilgrimage originated, and who insisted the children of the town learn to swim; the Temple family with their involvement in every aspect of local education as teachers and principals and school board members for generations; and a number of retired teachers and now-elderly students whose lives centered around Freyhan School---Laurie Walsh and son Shane have taped interviews of their fascinating recollections. These will be continuously shown during the Freyhan School Open House and will be preserved in the permanent collection of the museum planned for the future in the building. There will also be an accompanying display of vintage B&W photographs.

Though it has not been used as a school for more than 50 years, the Freyhan School building retains its historic charm, the third-floor auditorium with ceiling of patterned tin and the impressive wooden archways and moldings crying out for restoration. Now the non-profit Freyhan Foundation plans to preserve the structure as a community cultural center and museum with exhibits interpreting early education in the area as well as the significant contributions of its 19th-century Jewish community. The public is invited to see what all the excitement is about at the bicentennial Open House at the school, where they will also be treated to a concert by the wonderful Community Choir, strong voices drawn from a variety of local church choirs, blues bands and other musical groups. The West Feliciana High School ROTC will honor local veterans of wars both past and present at the event to mark Veteran’s Day.

The bicentennial weekend commemorates St. Francisville’s founding 200 years ago as John H. Johnson laid out the little village on a narrow finger-ridge overlooking the Mississippi River. It soon became the cultural and commercial center of the rich surrounding plantation country. Today this charming Main Street Community, listed as an extensive National Register Historic District, is still very much alive and still the center of life in the area, its 200 years being celebrated by the debut this weekend of a book covering the life and times of the little town. The Spirit of St. Francisville has text by local author/historian Anne Butler and images by prize-winning Louisiana photographer Darrell Chitty, their words and superb full-color photographs capturing the very soul of the place and its people over the years. On Friday, November 9, at 6 p.m. the author and photographer discuss the book, sign autographs and show full-size images in 1819 Old Market Hall on Royal St. in St. Francisville, hosted by the West Feliciana Historical Society. On Saturday, Nov. 10, they sign books at Backwoods Gallery.

Also on Saturday, November 10, the wonderful array of little shops in downtown St. Francisville, many in restored 19th-century structures, host special Birthday Sales, and shoppers can have cards stamped to be eligible for a birthday present of their own. The Feliciana Stitchers hold a Quilt Show and Sale in downtown Parker Memorial Park on Commerce St. beginning at 9 a.m. At Birdman Books and Coffee, Arts at the Market showcases a month-long exhibit of members’ creations.

The rolling hills and picturesque plantations of the Felicianas as well as the Victorian streetscape of downtown St. Francisville have long been favored by Hollywood for movies, beginning with such early classics as Otto Preminger’s “Hurry Sundown” and dashing Jeff Chandler in “Band of Angels.” Most recent production, “The Reaping” starring Hilary Swank, will be screened Saturday evening at the 4-H Barn as St. Francisville Main Street kicks off its annual autumn outdoors movie series, this year showcasing popular productions filmed on location in the area; the high school International Club provides concessions, viewers should bring lawn chairs or blankets, and admission is one canned good for the Food Bank. The bicentennial weekend also promises live musical entertainment at several venues; the popular Delta Drifters will be at Magnolia CafĂ© beginning at 8 p.m. Friday, while at 7 p.m. Saturday evening Dylan Sneed performs at Birdman Books and Coffee, and Cypress Grill also has live music.

Thanks to the longtime efforts of the dedicated West Feliciana Historical Society as well as some thoughtful zoning regulations and a vibrant, committed Main Street program, nearly all of downtown St. Francisville is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as an architecturally significant historic district that remains very much alive today, and it is most appropriate that its bicentennial celebration has been timed to coincide with the statewide Main To Main activities highlighting Louisiana’s incredibly varied array of Main St. Communities. THE SPIRIT OF ST. FRANCISVILLE 200 YEARS and Main To Main activities are made possible in part by grant funding from the Office of the Lieutenant Governor, Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism, and Preserve America, as well as the local Main St. program and historical society.

The St. Francisville area has much to offer visitors year-round, most especially in the fall when the Angola Rodeo enlivens every Sunday in October and the Tunica Hills with waterfalls and brilliant fall color beckon outdoorsmen. Every weekend there are art festivals, garden symposiums and other special events (see Six spectacular antebellum plantations are 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 635-6330.