ST. FRANCISVILLE, LOUISIANA:
HISTORY COMES ALIVE
By Anne Butler
Photos by: Henry Cancienne
During the week, personable John Flippen works for the Federal Aviation
Administration, maintaining the navigation and communication facilities
for the airport in Baton Rouge. But on weekends, he leaves the present behind
and slips back into the 19th century as one of a growing number of re-enactors
dedicated to preserving the past and making it come alive for today’s observers.
The increasing popularity of re-enactments and living history demonstrations is just part of a growing trend in travel as the baby boomer generation demands more than mere static museum displays. Today’s travelers are more active and engaged, and they want stimulation and hands-on challenges both mental and physical. They are also well enough informed to want accuracy and authenticity rather than sensationalized or sanitized portrayals of history, and that’s right up a good re-enactor’s alley.
The state historic sites in St. Francisville, particularly Rosedown and
Oakley Plantations, have responded enthusiastically to the changes in travel
demographics with a continuing presentation of living history demonstrations
that involve the visitor in everything from period holiday celebrations
and weddings to antebellum funeral customs. Lost arts and old-time skills
are demonstrated on these plantation sites in appropriate historic settings,
with the presentations well researched and authentically presented. Special
activities and day camps involve visiting children in 19th-century games,
toymaking, and all aspects of antebellum life. In the outside kitchens,
costumed cooks sweat over the open coals as they prepare meals using the
very same recipes treasured by generations of the original families in those
very sites, carpenters sit astride the shaving horse to demonstrate vintage
construction methods and tools, and in the gardens visitors find growing
the herbs and plants so vital for cooking and medicinal uses on the early
The most popular part of the annual Audubon Pilgrimage spring house tour in St. Francisville is the Rural Homestead, re-created early farmstead where the skills of the common folk are demonstrated, from quilting to carding wool, from plowing with a mule to riving cypress shingles with a hand froe, and grinding corn that’s made into cornbread on a woodstove. More interesting than reading some dry textbook? You bet. This is the type of lively activity that makes history come alive for children and visitors of all ages.
After hours, the Louisiana Vintage Dancers shed their workclothes and don splendid antebellum evening garb to whirl through waltzes and polkas, reels and quadrilles, all carefully rehearsed and set to period music of fiddle, banjo and guitar. It was vintage dancers who first captured John Flippen’s attention, performing at the Fall Muster at Beauvoir on the Mississippi Gulf Coast with the 12th Louisiana String Band, and he was so captivated that after moving to Louisiana in 2002 he joined the Louisiana Vintage Dancers after seeing them perform at the Audubon Pilgrimage in St. Francisville, first borrowing costumes to attend the balls and soon investing in his own Regency and 1860s costumes. These dedicated performers dance in all manner of historic venues, from the big plantations like Rosedown and Oakley near St. Francisville or Oak Alley and Houmas House along the River Road, to events like the Audubon Pilgrimage and St. Francisville’s popular Christmas in the Country weekend; they also generously share their talents to put on demonstrations to entertain nursing home patients, library patrons and other groups, mostly on a volunteer basis. Onlookers are welcome to join the dancers and learn the steps.
The Vintage Dancers also perform at Civil War re-enactments, and so it was only natural that John Flippen would also become involved in re-enacting, as some of the dancers participate in both activities. Perfect example is St. Francisville’s Day The War Stopped commemoration each June, featuring the Vintage Dancers performing and also the uniform-clad soldiers in both grey and blue re-enacting the Civil War burial of a Union gunboat officer in the cemetery of historic Grace Episcopal Church as the war halted for a brief moment of civility and brotherhood. John Flippen participates in both activities, and also portrays one of the historic characters in the graveyard tableaux as shadows deepen across the marble tombstones beneath the live oaks and the ghosts emerge to tell their stories. As a member now of the 10th Louisiana Militia (Confederate) and Battery 'K' of the First Illinois Light Artillery(Union), he participates in re-enactments at places like historic Jefferson College and Beauvoir in Mississippi, Camp Moore in Tangipahoa Parish, Jackson Crossroads, Pleasant Hill, and Port Hudson, to name a few. He is also involved in other events across the region, like the monthly firepower demonstrations at Port Hudson, Centenary College in Jackson, and Confederate memorial services at several cemeteries.
What’s the big deal about re-enacting? St. Francisville resident John Flippen,
a Virginian who lived around the globe before settling in Louisiana primarily
for employment and re-enactment opportunities, says he enjoys the camaraderie
and the chance to preserve the past. His great-great-grandfather served
in the Confederate army, but he has uniforms for both Union and Confederate
soldiers—cavalry, marine and infantry, with jackets in butternut, grey and
blue--and they are authentic down to the last button and belt buckle, well-worn
brogans and bayonet, canteen and cavalry boots. When the re-enactments involve
weekend campouts, he has a tent and all the authentic accoutrements for
Civil War camp life. He has a pistol and rifle as well as cartridge and cap
boxes, and points out that great attention goes into ensuring the authenticity
of the weaponry; cavalry re-enactors, for example, have breechloading carbines
rather than muzzleloaders for reloading on horseback. Most cavalry units
have horses, of course, while artillery units have cannons, both big guns
and smaller mountain howitzers, mostly replicas for safety’s sake, and mule-drawn
wagons. Many of the wives of the soldiers also dress out and participate
in the dances and the camp scenes, and some of them even make uniforms from
appropriate patterns. Some battle re-enactments are enormous affairs involving
casts of hundreds, but others are quite simple, like the quiet memorial
services at cemeteries.
Visitors enjoy walking through the campsites and chatting with the re-enactors, though at actual battle re-enactments observers remain at a safe distance out of harm’s way. They never fail to be impressed with the authenticity of the equipment and dress, and John Flippen says this authenticity comes at a price. Simple soldier’s pants, he explains, can cost $60, while jackets can run up to $200 as can custom-made cavalry boots. The weapons are another expense, with rifles beginning around $400 and going up to $1000 for particularly unique ones. But the re-enactors make every effort to remove modern intrusions from the campsites; sometimes a provost marshall inspects the campsites and can levy small fines if he spots inappropriate ice chests or cell phones, for example.
From the boom of the cannon and crack of rifles, the whoops and thunder of hooves at the battle re-enactments to the sutlers’ tents hawking 19th-century gear and equipment, from the lively reels and elegant waltzes as hoopskirts wheel around the candelit camp dance to the evening campfires where soldiers listen to music played by camp musicians, swap stories or play cards, re-enactments transport the observer back in time. They see the sweat drip from faces as soldiers in wool coats cope with the Louisiana heat; they feel the horror and the tears as comrades fall in a hail of bullets, never to rise again. This is the history of America, of the building and binding together of our country, and to see it enfolding in the living flesh makes a far deeper impression than reading about it in a textbook. Many observers, seeing the re-enactments for the first time, are even moved to join the groups and become part of the living history themselves, and they are welcomed.
This is a trend noted nationwide, not just in Louisiana, as historic venues and
museums attempt to connect with modern, more active visitors. At Old Sturbridge
Village, a collection of historic structures near Boston, the director has
commented, “I don’t think people want to be shown so much; they want to
do more.” Instead of “watch me do it,” they want to be involved, to do it
themselves. And when the Louisiana Vintage Dancers grab partners from the
audience, they have that chance, and also when the re-enactors set up campsites
and encourage visitors to stroll through and chat, or when the demonstrators
at Rosedown or Oakley hand the tools or equipment to onlookers and invite
them to try their hand at whatever skill is being demonstrated, and encourage
visiting children to join the fun in rolling old-timey hoops across the
lawns. These visitors can be literally immersed in history, not mere onlookers.
And these days, that’s just what they want.
Like many small communities across the state, St. Francisville has sometimes
struggled to find ways to interpret and preserve its past in ways both meaningful
and relevant to the present, and even to the future. As the picturesque
little rivertown approaches the observation of the bicentennial of its founding
in 1807, with the help of living history demonstrators and re-enactors like
John Flippen it seems to have hit on just the right formula, combining its
wonderful 200-year heritage with present-day attractions, great recreational
opportunities and romantic settings for weekend getaways as well as weddings
Besides the living history demonstrations and re-enactments, the St. Francisville area
has much to offer visitors. 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 www.stfrancisville.us,
www.stfrancisville.net, or www.stfrancisvilleovernight.com;
or telephone (225) 635-3873 or 635-6330.