Tuesday, August 19, 2008

P.T. Barnum Visits


By Anne Butler

That great American showman Phineas Taylor Barnum had an exuberant career exhibiting freaks and frauds, Fee-Gee Mermaids and Siamese twins, giants and midgets and everything in between, in various museums and theatrical settings until fairly late in his life he founded what would become the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus. His original, outrageous autobiography, The Life of P.T. Barnum written by Himself, was published in 1855 and gives an amusing account of his troupe’s visit to St. Francisville, Louisiana, in 1838.

Barnum’s traveling company performed throughout the South that year, from Nashville where they visited General Andrew Jackson at the Hermitage, on down through Vicksburg where they transferred from land conveyances to a steamboat purchased for $6000, to Natchez and on to St. Francisville. There, a drunk trying to sneak into the tent for free was denied admission and consequently took aim at Barnum with “a slung-shot.” Said Barnum with characteristic colorfulness, “The blow mashed my hat, and grazed the protuberance where phrenologists located the organ of caution.”

The rejected party returned with “a frightful gang of his half-drunken companions, each with a pistol, bludgeon, or other weapon. They seemed determined to assault me forthwith,” Barnum related in his autobiography. The showman begged the mayor and other respectable citizens present in the theatre for protection against the mob, but the mayor “declared his inability to afford it against such odds.” The rabble-rousing ringleader gave Barnum just one hour to load up his exhibits, strike the tent, and head on downriver on his steamboat. “He looked at his watch, I looked at the pistols and bludgeons, and I reckon that a big tent never came down with greater speed,” said Barnum.

Today’s visitors to St. Francisville, now a popular year-round tourist destination, receive a far more cordial welcome, thanks in large part to the hospitable and knowledgeable staff at the parish tourist information centers. On busy US Highway 61 about 15 miles north of St. Francisville, just below the Mississippi line, is the state-run St. Francisville Welcome Center (225-635-6962). Open daily 8:30 to 5, the facility provides helpful information on all areas of the state, with public-access WiFi and Direct TV for up-to-date weather forecasts. Capable supervisor Cathy Metz and her staff of seven dispense brochures, tour guides and maps while giving each traveler a warm and friendly greeting. Mrs. Metz says it’s a pleasure to assist the travelling public and assure that they enjoy their visit to Louisiana and the St. Francisville area.

On St. Francisville’s main thoroughfare, Ferdinand St., the West Feliciana Historical Society, West Feliciana Tourist Commission, and St. Francisville Main Street combine forces to provide helpful information and interesting museum exhibits (225-635-4224). This facility is housed in a vintage hardware store with gingerbread trim, flanked by a tidy little garden offering a welcome respite from the summer sun. Open daily from 9 to 5, Sundays from 9:30 a.m., the historical society’s well-designed museum houses excellent exhibits on the area’s vernacular architecture and history, including the long-gone port city of Bayou Sara below St. Francisville, artist John James Audubon’s stay in the area in the 1820’s, the West Florida Rebellion, and early Jewish contributions. Maps, brochures and plenty of information are dispensed by Museum Curator Helen Williams and her friendly staff, and the gift shop here is full of prints by Audubon and contemporary local bird artist Murrell Butler, photographs, Louisiana books and tasteful souvenirs. Says Mrs. Williams, who is the Jack-of-all-trades here filling many demanding roles, “We have visitors from all over the world, and it’s so interesting to meet and greet people.”

Of course the staff members of both tourist information centers say their jobs are made easier by what the St. Francisville area has to offer, from magnificent restored plantation homes and gardens open for tours to unspoiled wilderness areas in the Tunica Hills for recreation, from special events throughout the year to hospitable residents anxious to share their treasures with the world. There are wonderful little shops and restaurants, even a wine bar, though that would hold little attraction for master showman P.T. Barnum. After the reception he got in St. Francisville in 1838, threatened by local rowdies and run out of town, it was little wonder that Barnum soon became a teetotaler, enthusiastically involved in the temperance movement and lecturing across the country on the evils of strong drink. After returning from a European tour with the midget he called General Tom Thumb, he crisscrossed America promoting Jenny Lind and gave temperance lectures on nights when the Swedish Nightingale was not singing. In the early 1850’s his audience at the new Lyceum Hall on St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans included 3000 of “the most respectable portion of the New Orleans public.” As he illustrated “the poisonous and destructive nature of alcohol to the animal economy,” an opponent in the audience yelled out, “How does it affect us, externally or internally?” To which the quick-witted Barnum replied, to thunderous applause, “E-ternally!”

Visitors to St. Francisville today will find fascinating restored 19th-century structures filled with fine shops and restaurants throughout downtown St. Francisville, which boasts an extensive Historic District listed on the National Register. The area has a wonderful assortment of Bed & Breakfasts as well as a modern motel. Six restored historic plantations are open daily for tours—Rosedown Plantation and Audubon State Historic Sites, Butler Greenwood Plantation, The Cottage Plantation, Greenwood Plantation and The Myrtles; Catalpa Plantation is open by reservation, and Afton Villa Gardens is open seasonally. The surrounding Tunica Hills region offers a wide array of unsurpassed recreational opportunities, from birding and biking to horseback riding and hiking. And yes, there’s even a Transitory Theatre. Mr. Barnum would feel right at home.