Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Fall is Colorful in St. Francisville


By Anne Butler

Fall Countryside
Fall colors along local hilly & windy back-roads.
photo by ptWalsh

The first frosty nights of fall bring to the St. Francisville area some of south Louisiana's most spectacular autumn foliage, as the leaves of wild sumac and swamp maples are tinged with scarlet, providing striking contrast with the brilliant golds and yellows of the beech and gingko trees. Early fall also brings cool clear days simply perfect for hiking or horseback riding through the scenic unspoiled Tunica Hills.

Fall also brings some of the area's most popular special events. October 17 and 18 mark the 20th anniversary of the Southern Garden Symposium, which attracts gardening enthusiasts to hear programs presented by outstanding experts from around the globe. There are workshops and lectures on garden and floral design as well as heirloom and newly developed plants. Proceeds over the years have funded important revitalization projects in state historic gardens and scholarships for LSUís School of Landscape Architecture.

The last weekend in October brings the increasingly popular Yellow Leaf Arts Festival, sponsored by Arts For All and this year combining Vibes in the Ville musical entertainment with all manner of creative arts and crafts. From 10 to 5 Saturday and Sunday, October 25 and 26th, picturesque Parker Park in historic downtown St. Francisville will be filled with lively activities. Donna Kilbourne is the Artist In Residence in the park's bandstand, while dozens of other artists and crafters present their creations in booths scattered around beneath the ancient live oaks.

Painting by Murrell Butler
Oil painting by Murrell Butler, who will be attending the Yellow Leaf Festival
Painters like Laura Lindsey, Lorraine Griffin, Leon Hollins, Coco Treppendahl, Carin Carlson, Alvin Batiste, Marsha Eisworth and Murrell Butler; potters including Craig Roth and Tina Ufford doing raku firing on site; jewelry artists like Blanchie Johnson and Sandra Ware, Leese Widajewski, Vero and EveAnna Gomez; graphic artists like Amanda McKinney; photographers such as Ken Stewart and Salongo Lee; furniture makers like Wendell Dietz; makers of soaps and body lotions and candles like Camp Topisaw; dollmakers like Anna Hinson; authors like Margot Soule and Anne Butleróa wonderful mix of creative artists will be around both days to exhibit their wares and meet admirers. Visitors will also have the rare opportunity to hear Louisiana's current poet laureate Darrell Bourque, who will present a poetry workshop on Friday, October 24 (register by calling 225-721-1296 or online at birdman@bsf.netThis e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it ) and will also read from his works on Friday evening at 6:30 at Birdman and Saturday during the festival at 1 p.m.

The Yellow Leaf Arts Festival this year also includes a great selection of varied musical entertainment. On Saturday at 10:30 the children's group called "Voices in Motion" performs, followed at noon by Annie Fergus, at 3 by Nancy Roppolo and at 4:30 by an acoustic jam offstage. On Sunday the Laughing Lizards String Band kicks off the entertainment at noon, followed at 1:30 by Kevin Johnson, at 2:30 by the immensely talented West Feliciana Community Singers and at 3 by the Fugitive Poets. This year marks the sixth anniversary for this arts festival, which has grown in scope and popularity each year.

Inmates risk attacks to collect poker chip on the bull. - courtesy LSP/CORRECTIONS
And then, of course, fall also brings the hugely popular Angola Prison Rodeo, held every Sunday throughout the month. This year's rodeos are October 5, 12, 19 and 26, with the arena opening at 9 for the huge arts and crafts festival, complete with inmate bands and plenty of food concessions, and the rodeo events kicking off at 2. The covered rodeo arena now seats more than 10,000 spectators, and it is filled for every performance, generating enormous funds and bringing more visitors to the St. Francisville area than any other annual event.

This was surely not always the case. Now the longest running prison rodeo in the country, this one had its inauspicious beginnings in 1965 with a few inmates putting on a show for a few employee-spectators sprawled on the hoods of their cars circled around a make-shift arena. Within a couple of years the public was allowed to attend, but they had to sit on apple crates until 1969 when bleachers were erected (their collapse during one performance added to the excitement, but there were no injuries and the show went on).

Over the years, the rodeo has grown in scope and stature, now held according to the rules of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association with professional rodeo stock and judges as well as professional clowns and emergency services to ensure inmate and spectator safety. The record-breaking ticket, concession and hobbycraft sales have exceeded all expectations, and the new stadium-arena is a far cry from the football bleachers of the early shows.

With the success of the prison rodeo, there was some contention as to exactly who had had a hand in starting it, so much so that the Louisiana State Penitentiary Museum Foundation ratified a resolution in 2002 stating that no one specific individual could be identified as deserving credit as the founder of the rodeo, though several longtime employees were singled out as having played significant roles: Claude Butler, Red Norris, Walter Carmouche, Dick Oliveaux, John Cavalier, Jessie Simms, H.L. Hanchey, Nick Skrmetta, Nolan Tollett, C. M. Henderson, Kermi Varnado and Thomas Hill, plus several inmates like longtime Angolite staffer Ron Wikberg.

Angola rodeo bareback rider
Bareback rider - courtesy LSP/CORRECTIONS
But in the late 1960's, a bizarre twist of fate did more to push the Angola Prison Rodeo toward the professional status it enjoys today than any other event when Jack Favor was wrongfully convicted of murder in Bossier City and shipped to the state penitentiary. While the conviction would be overturned after nine long years, Favor's stay at Angola would prove a great boon to the rodeo. A native of Eula, Texas, 6"2', handsome Jack Favor was a rodeo professional, a bigger-than-life and colorful all-American cowboy, four-time world-champion steer wrestler and bronco buster. Throughout the 1940s and 50s he had travelled the rodeo circuit across the country, setting a world record by bulldogging a steer in 2.2 seconds in Houston and winning $18,000 in Madison Square Garden as the only cowboy to ever ride Hell's Angel, called the greatest bucking horse that ever lived.

By the sixties Favor had retired from active rodeo participation and had settled down with his family in Texas, working as a travelling salesman. He had the misfortune to pick up a couple of hitchhikers while making a sales call in north Louisiana, and when they later robbed and killed the owners of a fish-bait stand, they tried to shift some of the blame onto Jack Favor, who had actually gone on to Oklahoma by the time the crime was being committed.

Angola rodeo Flag Bearer
Opening Flag Bearer

At Angola, Favor broke horses for prison guards, worked in the library and hospital, and transformed the rodeo from a ragtag operation to a thoroughly professional production attracting big-name performers and thousands of visitors. He added excitement with such prison rodeo favorites as the "Bust Out" and "Guts and Glory" pitting scrambling inmates and bucking bulls, and he travelled the state promoting the production, his national reputation adding credibility and appeal.

Today the Angola Prison Rodeo is called the Wildest Show in the South and is immensely popular, so visitors must reserve tickets ahead of time (www.angolarodeo.com).

Halloween weekend heralds another wildly popular event in the St. Francisville area, the eerie ghost tours at The Myrtles Plantation, which bills itself as Americaís most haunted house. As dusk darkens the galleries with their wrought-iron trim and shadows deepen beneath the ancient live oaks, grim stories of murders and mishaps send chills down spines. The bloodstains on the stair step where the body dropped, the crackled finish of the vintage mirror where a soul lies trapped, the vengeful poisoning of the children's birthday cake--stories to terrify the timid and set even the most sceptical teeth on edge.

Visitors 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.

For additional information on the St. Francisville area, telephone 225-635-4224, 225-635-3873 or 225-635-6330; online www.stfrancisville.us, www.stfrancisville.net or www.stfrancisvillefestivals.com.