Wednesday, December 30, 2009
by Anne Butler
Mayhem, mystery, murder---what is it about misfortune we find so intriguing? Whatever it is, Louisiana’s historic plantations, with morning mists swirling through the live oaks and breezes stirring the Spanish moss, provide the perfect setting for such scenarios. Think of River Road’s Ormond Plantation whose 1790s owner was summoned from the dinner table by a caller dressed as a Spanish official, never to be seen again, and whose subsequent owner was hung from an oak on the front lawn. And among the six historic plantations open for daily tours in St. Francisville, there is The Myrtles, which capitalizes wonderfully on its own woeful past.
Sticklers for historical accuracy might regard as more entertainment than fact the scintillating stories that captivate and terrify tourists on popular weekend mystery tours through a house calling itself the most haunted in America--the slave Chloe wearing a green tignon to cover the ear whacked off as punishment for eavesdropping, the tiny tots poisoned by oleander baked into a birthday cake, the slain soldiers and stabbings over gambling debts, the illicit affairs between master and slave, the disturbed Indian burial mound and the unquiet spirits captured in discolored mirrors.
But the murder at The Myrtles of William Drew Winter, ah, that’s another story altogether, and one well grounded in historical fact. William Winter had been born in Bath, Maine, in 1820, a direct descendent of pilgrim John Alden. His father was a ship captain who drowned when William was 15, and misfortune seemed to follow William all his life.
One fine day in August of 1856, for example, he boarded the steamer Star bound for Last Island, popular with south Louisiana’s plantation families and residents of the Crescent City escaping deadly yellow fever epidemics amidst the healthful sea breezes. Just off the Louisiana coast, Isle Dernier was a fashionable Victorian resort with summer cottages and a small hotel, fine fishing and sea bathing, and broad sand beaches for promenading and carriage riding.
Aboard the Star, attorney William D. Winter approached the island just as Louisiana’s first great hurricane arrived unheralded from the opposite direction. Devastating winds and strong surf inundated the lowlying island from both gulf and bay sides, with houses collapsing and shrieking residents washed out to sea. The crippled Star, its anchor chains snapped, was very nearly swept past the island to perish in gulf waters, but as the captain struggled to dock, the vessel bilged in the sand near the highest point of the island.
One of the heroes of the disaster would be William Winter, who arrived in time to see the collapse of the island hotel where numerous guests and visitors had taken refuge. With his colleague Dr. Jones Lyle, Winter leapt from the foundering steamboat into the raging waters and rushed into the shattered hotel to save scores of men, women and children, leading them to the terrapin pens, sturdy enclosures holding turtles destined for the dining table. Then, during a brief calm in the midst of the storm, the men formed a human chain stretching toward the foundered Star and led their two dozen charges from the neck-deep waters of the terrapin pens to the safety of the boat’s hull.
Winter and Lyle were both known as great gourmets, and at one point during the frantic struggle, as they watched hundred-pound turtles swimming around the trapped survivors and being washed out to sea, Winter wryly commented on how many good dinners were being lost. But in the aftermath of the tragedy, with hundreds of lives lost, an aunt of Winter’s would write that he could not speak of the disaster without tears in his eyes.
William Drew Winter’s first wife died in childbirth. Four years before the Isle Dernier disaster, in June 1852, he married 19-year-old Sarah Mulford Stirling at The Myrtles Plantation, home of her parents, Ruffin Gray Stirling and Mary Catherine Cobb. The Winters would have six children. After the death of Sarah’s father, William served as agent and attorney for his mother-in-law’s extensive properties, including the Myrtles, described in estate partitions as “2300 acres more or less, comprising all the land between Bayou Sara on the West and the Woodville Road on the East, and between lands of Mrs. Harriet Mathews on the North, and lands of D.S. Lewis and others on the South.”
The plantation, originally known as Laurel Grove, had been established in the late 1790s by Judge David Bradford, Pennsylvania attorney who represented Monongahela Valley farmers opposing an excise tax levied on their corn whiskey by US authorities. As one of the ringleaders of the so-called Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, Bradford narrowly escaped with his life to Spanish territory (the St. Francisville area remained under Spanish control until 1810). After his death in 1809, Bradford’s property was occupied by his descendants until 1834 when it was sold, along with improvements and slaves, for $46,853.17 to Ruffin Gray Stirling, father-in-law of William Winter.
The prosperous days of the Cotton Kingdom were ended by the Civil War, and by 1867 William D. Winter had to declare bankruptcy. However, after a tax sale by US Marshalls, the title to The Myrtles was transferred to his wife Sarah, and the family was still in residence on the tragic day in January 1871 when William Drew Winter met his end. Records of Grace Episcopal Church, quoted by expert genealogist Ann Stirling Weller in her meticulously researched book on the Stirling family in West Feliciana, say of William D. Winter, “He was shot at his own door 26 Jan. at half past seven o’clock, M.M. Dillon rector.”
William D. Winter was said to have been teaching a Sunday school class in the front room to the right of the entrance at The Myrtles when he heard someone outside calling his name. He went out onto the broad front gallery with its wrought-iron grillwork, and there he was shot dead. His stunned family inside heard the shooting, followed by the sound of horse’s hooves clattering off into the distance. Family recollections relate that Winter dropped dead where he was shot; later reenactments sweep him, mortally wounded, back into the house, through the gentleman’s and ladies’ parlors and onto the staircase rising from the central hallway, where he expired in his beloved’s arms on exactly the 17th step. Today ghostly steps are said to echo across the wood floors, halting on the fateful 17th stair tread.
William Drew Winter was buried at Grace Church the following day. Recountings of the tragedy blame an unnamed assailant, perhaps harboring a grudge due to the troubles of the turbulent Reconstruction era, when nighttime violence was commonplace and newspaper dispatches mention angry mobs of former slaves armed with torches and guns marching on St. Francisville. But actual newspaper accounts of Winter’s demise refer to the upcoming trial of one E.S. Webber for his murder.
Today The Myrtles makes the most of Winter’s murder and other tragedies on hair-raising mystery tours Friday and Saturday evenings (as well as the very popular spooky Halloween extravaganzas). The house is also open for daily historic tours from 9 to 5. Overnight accommodations are offered in the main house and other structures, and the Carriage House restaurant on the grounds is open daily for lunch and dinner, Sundays for brunch only, and closed Tuesdays. The Myrtles is also a favored venue for weddings and other special events (see www.myrtlesplantation.com).
With five other plantations—Rosedown and Audubon State Historic Sites, Butler Greenwood, The Cottage and Greenwood--open for daily tours as well, and Afton Villa Gardens open seasonally, the St. Francisville area (located on US Highway 61 between Baton Rouge, LA, and Natchez, MS) is a year-round tourist destination, but visitors find it especially enjoyable in the winter when the glorious 19th-century gardens are filled with blooming camellias. There are unique little shops in restored historic structures, and reasonably priced meals are available in a nice array of restaurants in St. Francisville. Some of the state's most unique 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. The scenic unspoiled Tunica Hills region surrounding St. Francisville offers excellent biking, hiking, birding, horseback riding and other recreational activities. For online coverage of tourist facilities, attractions and events in the St. Francisville area, see www.stfrancisville.us or www.stfrancisvilleovernight.com, or telephone (225) 635-3873 or 635-4224.
Wednesday, November 18, 2009
by Anne Butler
Christmas in St. Francisville, historically the commercial center of surrounding English Louisiana cotton plantations, was always a magical time. In the 19th century, country folks from miles around would pile into wagons to do their weekly shopping in the little town’s dry-goods emporiums that offerd everything from buggies to coffins, gents’ fine furnishings and ladies’ millinery. And at Christmas time, tiny tots would press their noses against frosted storefront windows to gaze with wishful longing at elegant china dolls and wooden rocking horses. It’s still that way today.
Its location atop bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River brought St. Francisville its earliest settlers, and residents have rejoiced in its fortuitous location ever since. The historic little rivertown’s Christmas in the Country celebration on December 4, 5 and 6, pays tribute to its heritage and showcases its continuing vitality as the center of culture and commerce for the entire surrounding region.
Present residents are a whole lot livelier than the initial ones. Respected historian Elisabeth K. Dart, who has researched and written about the area for half a century, says St. Francisville’s high bluffs led Spanish Capuchin friars from the early French settlement of Pointe Coupee to ferry their dead across the Mississippi for burial on high ground safe from the floodwaters. “In the very early years of the 19th century,” writes Mrs. Dart, “an enterprising American of Anglo descent named John Hunter Johnson bought the tract of land on which the burying ground lay from its legal owner, William Williams, who had held it under a land grant from the Spanish crown since 1796.”
Recorded wills, legal documents, and early plat maps cited in a 1945 Louisiana Historical Quarterly essay on the political career of John H. Johnson’s son Isaac, who became state governor, show John H. as owning most of central St. Francisville (when he died in 1819 “he left a large estate, including all the land now the town of St. Francisville” less those lots already sold by him), and credit has traditionally been given to him along with his brother for founding the town atop the bluffs. This was an entirely separate municipality from the port settlement called Bayou Sara along the riverbanks below, founded a bit earlier by John Mills, who had been a business partner of Johnson’s father.
It was John H. Johnson’s goal, according to historian Dart, “to establish a market town for the surrounding plantations even then producing cotton hauled to the Bayou Sara Landing and then barged to New Orleans for shipment to markets in Europe, and to grow rich from the sale of lots laid out on the same wooded bluffs occupied by the peaceful dead.” Although in 1810 both John H. Johnson and John Mills would help lead the revolution that ousted the inept Spanish regime, at the time Johnson established St. Francisville the area remained under Spanish rule, and the crown had strict requirements that towns be “properly chartered and laid out by the Royal Surveyor in an ordered grid of streets and squares of twelve lots measuring 60x120 feet centered by a public square.”
Johnson, says Mrs. Dart, “Anglo Protestant though he was, called his town after the Roman Catholic saint of the old burying ground, in the tongue of his Spanish overlords, La Villa de San Francisco. Thinking to please further, he called his main street after the Spanish King Ferdinand, and named other streets Royal, Florida, and Prince, crossing these with Fidelity, Prosperity, Prospect, and Feliciana. The street bordering the burying ground he called after his own family name, Johnson.” His little town was laid out atop a loessial bluffland ridge of highly erosive soil, however, and outer perimeter streets soon sloughed off into the gullies.
But lots along the central streets quickly attracted buyers and builders, and many of the little stores and residences they constructed in the very early 1800s still stand, still hosting that unique downtown combination of commercial and residential that allowed St. Francisville to retain its economic vitality long after deteriorating downtowns in other areas had been abandoned. Thanks to dedicated preservationists and an active Main Street program, downtown St. Francisville today is very much alive. And the well-established Christmas in the Country weekend, December 4, 5 and 6, gives the little town the perfect opportunity to strut its stuff.
Millions of tiny white lights trace soaring Victorian trimwork and grace gallery posts to transform the entire town into a veritable winter wonderland for Christmas in the Country, as special activities throughout the National Register-listed downtown Historic District provide fun for the whole family at this safe small-town celebration of the season which has for decades provided a joyful alternative to mall madness. The Saturday parade this year has the theme “Homegrown and Hip,” playing on the little town’s lively and engaging present that is nonetheless firmly rooted in its historic past.
Beginning at 5:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 4, Santa Claus comes to town to kick off the Lighting Ceremony of the Town Christmas Tree, followed by a public reception and fireworks display at Town Hall hosted by jovial longtime St. Francisville Mayor Billy D'Aquilla and featuring performances by the First Baptist Church Children’s Choir and West Feliciana Middle School Choir. The West Feliciana Parish Hospital is sponsoring a balloon release in recognition of cancer victims and survivors, with proceeds going to the American Cancer Society. From 6 to 8, visitors have the rare opportunity to glimpse beautifully decorated interiors of participating houses along Ferdinand and Royal Streets’ Peep Into Our Holiday Homes. The Baton Rouge Symphony presents its annual concert of seasonal selections and dessert reception beginning at 7 p.m. at Hemingbough (the location has been switched from Grace Church, which is undergoing ceiling repairs); tickets are available at the Bank of St. Francisville. In Grace Church’s parish hall, parishioners host an art exhibit called “Saints and Angels” all weekend, with proceeds funding mission work in Honduras.
Saturday, Dec. 5, begins with a 7:30 a.m. Community Prayer Breakfast at United Methodist Church on Royal St., followed by Breakfast with St. Nick for children at Jackson Hall next to Grace Church at 8, 9:30 and 11 a.m., sponsored by the Women’s Service League (reservations recommended; call 225-202-5403). The Women’s Service League also sells fresh wreaths and pre-wrapped Plantation Country Cookbooks all weekend on Ferdinand St. next to the library, with proceeds benefiting local civic and charitable activities.
Throughout the day Saturday there will be children’s activities--spacewalk and obstacle course, train and pony rides, games, pictures with Santa—plus holiday baking contest, Main Street Band (noon to 2), handmade crafts and food vendors in oak-shaded Parker Park. There will also be entertainment in various locations throughout the downtown historic district, featuring choirs, dancers, musicians, and other performers.
The angelic voices of the Bains Lower Elementary children's choir—Voices in Motion-- are raised at the West Feliciana Historical Society Museum on Ferdinand St. at 9:30. The Bain Elementary Chorus sings at the Methodist Church Fellowship Hall at 9:15, followed by West Feliciana High School's very popular Latin and Spanish Clubs (10:30 a.m.) and the high school choir (11). At 11:30 on Ferdinand St. the Junior Jazzercise group puts on a lively show, followed by a Shin Sun Korean Martial Arts demonstration. From 10 to 2 the Sweet Adelines’ Lagniappe Quartet strolls and sings along Ferdinand and Royal Sts., while the Angola Inmate Traveling Band from Louisiana State Penitentiary performs in Garden Symposium Park from noon to 4.
Saturday’s highlight, of course, is the colorful 2 p.m. Christmas parade sponsored by the Women’s Service League, its grand marshall beloved town matriarch Lucille Leake, mother of its popular spring pilgrimage and founder of past Red Cross swimming programs, an energetic 96-year-old who wasn’t about to let a little thing like the loss of a leg slow her down. Dozens of gaily decorated parade floats vie for coveted prizes, accompanied by cheerleaders, bands, marching ROTC units and dancers, even the high school football homecoming court whose own parade got rained out. There will also be bagpipes, vintage cars, and representatives of parish and town law enforcement and fire departments, all flinging plenty of candy. Santa rides resplendent in a magnificent sleigh pulled by Louisiana State Penitentiary's immense prized Percheron draft horses, groomed and gleaming in the sunlight with their sleigh bells jingling.
On Saturday and Sunday, St. Francisville Transitory Theatre presents its quirky version of Dickens’ Christmas Carol, a hilarious localized adaptation complete with haunted plantations, nosy tourists and timely atrocities like the swine flu; performances are at 4 and 7:30 p.m. at Jackson Hall next to Grace Church. At 6 p.m. on Saturday, the Methodist Church on Royal St. hosts a Community Sing-a-long, while the First Baptist Church on US 61 at LA 10 sponsors its very popular Live Nativity reminding of the reason for the season.
In addition, Saturday evening from 6 to 8, visitors are welcomed for candlelight tours, period music and wassail at Audubon State Historic Site, where artist-naturalist John James Audubon tutored the daughter of plantation owners and painted many of his famous bird studies in the early 1820's. This historic home never looks lovelier than in the soft romantic glow of the candles that were its only illumination for its early years.
Christmas in the Country activities continue on Sunday, December 6, with a Christmas Tour of Homes presented from noon to 5 by the Women’s Service League (tickets available at Historical Society Museum and at the League’s wreath sales area on Ferdinand St.).
The enthusiastic sponsors of Christmas in the Country are the downtown merchants, and the real focus of the weekend remains the St. Francisville area's marvelous little shops, which go all out, hosting Open Houses with refreshments and entertainment for shoppers while offering spectacular seasonal decorations and great gift items. A variety of quaint little shops occupy historic structures throughout the downtown area and spread into the outlying district, each unique in its own way, and visitors should not miss a single one.
From the rich Victoriana of The Shanty Too, for thirty years the anchor of the downtown business community and always noted for eyecatching Christmas decorations, to the jewelry beautifully crafted from vintage buttons at Grandmother's Buttons, and the extensive selections of carefully chosen gift and decorative items at Hillcrest Gardens and Sage Hill Gifts, downtown St. Francisville is filled with fine shopping opportunities. Potter Michael Miller and artists Herschel Harrington and Joe Savell (Backwoods Gallery) have studios displaying their own works, while the St. Francisville Art & Antiques, Avondale Antiques, and the recently opened Bohemianville Antiques feature vintage collectibles and fine furnishings. Birdman Books & Coffee has an eclectic selection of books, Belle Glen Traditions has children’s toys plus sports memorabilia and gift items, and Destinee’s Clay Pot augments its florist selections with decorative items as well. Ins-N-Outs and Coyote Creek nurseries carry live seasonal plants to complement any decorating scheme. The tourist information center in the West Feliciana Historical Society on Ferdinand St. has free maps showing locations of all these retail outlets, as well as local plantations, restaurants and accommodations.
On the outskirts of town, intrepid shoppers won't want to miss the exquisite creations at Patrick’s Fine Jewelry, the fleur-de-lis decorative pieces at Elliott’s Pharmacy and an extensive collection of the latest in electronics at Radio Shack in Spring Creek Shopping Center, as well as Border Imports with huge selections of Mexican pottery, ironwork and concrete statuary on US 61 north. Most of the plantations in the St. Francisville area have gift shops, and a visit to those would permit enjoyment of spectacular seasonal decorations as well. The two state historic sites in the St. Francisville area, elegant 1830s Rosedown Plantation and Oakley Plantation (Audubon SHS), are decorated in period style with lots of natural greenery, fruits and nuts, and both offer living history demonstrations and other special activities most December weekends as well as daily tours except on Christmas Day.
Located on US Highway 61 on the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge, LA, and Natchez, MS, the St. Francisville area is a year-round tourist destination, but visitors find it especially enjoyable in the winter when the glorious 19th-century gardens are filled with blooming camellias. Six historic plantations--Rosedown and Audubon State Historic Sites, Butler Greenwood, the Myrtles, the Cottage and Greenwood--are open for daily tours, Catalpa Plantation is open by reservation and Afton Villa Gardens seasonally. Reasonably priced meals are available in a nice array of restaurants in St. Francisville. Some of the state's most unique 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. The scenic unspoiled Tunica Hills region surrounding St. Francisville offers excellent biking, hiking, birding, horseback riding and other recreational activities. For online coverage of tourist facilities, attractions and events in the St. Francisville area, see www.stfrancisville.us or www.stfrancisvilleovernight.com, or telephone (225) 635-3873 or 635-4224.
Thursday, October 08, 2009
FIRST FROSTS INTRODUCE FALL ACTIVITIES INby Anne Butler
ST. FRANCISVILLE, LA.
The first frigid frosts paint the Feliciana foliage in autumnal hues---the brilliant
|Fall Colors - Back Roads|
The Audubon State Historic Site, centered by the remarkable West Indies-style Oakley House which hosted the artist Audubon, kicks off its month-long weekend living history programs on Saturday, October 3, with Nature Day, as interpretive staff present programs on the plantation’s ecosystem (10 a.m.), tree identification walk (11 a.m.) and guided nature hike (1 and 3 p.m.) highlighting the natural beauty and original paths once trod by Audubon, and interaction with the plants and animals of Oakley (2 p.m.). Of course everybody’s favorite resident fowl is the overbearing turkey who serves as Wal-Mart greeter! On Sunday, October 4, the morning program (10:30 a.m.) examines 19th-century garden plants and their uses, while the afternoon focus shifts from the big house to the quarters to explain the life of the plantation slave, from housing in one of the historic cabins to cooking and crafts. Audubon’s sister state site, Rosedown Plantation, offers a program on 19th-century schooling of plantation children on Saturday, October 3 (11 a.m. to 2 p.m.). For information on Rosedown State Historic Site programs, call 888-376-1867 or 225-635-3110.
|Local Artist at Yellow Leaf Festival|
On Saturday, October 10, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Audubon State Historic Site kicks off its year-long observance of the bicentennial of the West Florida Rebellion of 1810 by commemorating the 1779 capture of the British post at Baton Rouge by Spanish General Bernardo Galvez along with American troops. Marking the end of English control of the Mississippi, this largely unheralded Louisiana battle of the Revolutionary War set the stage for Spanish domination of West Florida until the revolt of Anglo planters in 1810, and it will be observed at Oakley with soldier encampments, musket demonstrations and explanatory talks. For information on Audubon State Historic Site programs, call 888-677-2838 or 225-635-3739.
The active St. Francisville Main Street program gets everyone into the Halloween spirit on Friday, October 16, in oak-shaded Parker Park, beginning at 5:30 p.m. with fun children’s programs, carving pumpkins and decorating scarecrows; pumpkins and carving utensils will be provided along with hay to stuff the scarecrows, but participants should bring old clothes or other embellishments. This will be followed at dark by the Movie Under the Stars, “Coraline,” a 2009 animated stop-action 3-D fantasy film based on British novelist Neil Gaiman’s book. Called by Entertainment Tonight’s movie critic “the best 3-D movie I’ve ever seen,” it stars Dakota Fanning. Admittance is a canned good donation to the West Feliciana Food Bank. The Women’s Service League sells concessions and 3-D glasses are provided, but moviegoers should bring their own folding chairs, blankets, and other accessories. For information, call the Main Street office at 225-635-3873.
|Afton Villa Gardens|
Also on Friday, October 16, as well as Saturday, October 17, the twenty-first annual Southern Garden Symposium presents a series of workshops bringing in gardening enthusiasts from across the South to bask in the beauties of the glorious antellum gardens for which the St. Francisville area is justly famous. Programs feature lectures by visiting horticultural experts and hands-on demonstrations, lunch at Afton Villa Gardens and Hemingbough, tea at the recently restored Brasseaux House and cocktail buffet at Greenwood Plantation. For information see www.SouthernGardenSymposium.or or call 225-635-3738.
|Artist Murrell Butler With His Paintings|
The weekend of October 24 and 25, the popular Yellow Leaf Arts Festival is put on by Arts For All, local non-profit arts promotion organization, with sponsorship by the Bank of St. Francisville and a cast of dozens of artists and craftspeople, musicians and poets, writers and just about every other kind of creative soul you can imagine. To get everyone in the spirit, on Friday, Oct. 23, a y’all-come “paint-out” will fill downtown Parker Park with artists painting en plein air, and during the festival the artist-in-residence, Ronnie Collins of Jennings, will paint a mural in the park gazebo. Saturday, October 24, the music tent features live music beginning at 11 a.m. with the West Feliciana Children’s Chorus, continuing through the afternoon with an old-time string band called The Mosspickers, the bluegrass group with the catchy name of Laughing Lizards String Band, singer-songwriter Kim Smith, Karuna Spoon, and Lee Barber and the Broken Cup warming up for an evening performance at Magnolia Café. Sunday’s music begins with Nancy Roppolo’s songwriter circle, Dylan Sneed, the Ben Bell 3 and the Fugitive Poets. Free yoga classes are offered at 8:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. This seventh annual Yellow Leaf Arts Festival has attracted more than fifty artists who will present their creations from 10 to 5 Saturday and Sunday—potters, painters, photographers, jewelry makers, metal and stained glass artists, fiber and fabric artists, wood crafters, folk artists, doll makers and candle makers and soap makers, beekeepers and birdhouse builders. For information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
|Nancy & Joe Roppollo|
Friday, October 30, and Saturday, October 31, from 6 to 10 p.m., the Myrtles Plantation hosts its chilling Halloween extravaganza through a spooky historic house called one of America’s most haunted. Food and beverages will be available on site in the Carriage House Restaurant or courtyard concessions. For information, call 800-809-0565 or email email@example.com.
Every Sunday in October the Louisiana State Penitentiary on LA 66 at Angola puts on “The Wildest Show in the South,” with prisoner hobbycraft sales, tons of food, and hair-raising rodeo events guaranteed to be unlike any you’ve ever seen at any other rodeo. Other than the ladies’ barrel racing, all rodeo participants are inmates in this enormous maximum-security prison. The covered arena seats over 10,000 and fills up every Sunday; with road construction along US Highway 61, visitors should pack plenty of patience to cope with traffic congestion. Grounds open at 9 for the arts and crafts, and the fascinating state museum at the entrance gate will also be open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. The rodeo starts at 2, and advance tickets are a must. Prison website at www.angolarodeo.com provides information and spells out regulations which must be observed on prison property.
|Rodeo Clowns at Angola Rodeo|
For visitor information, call St. Francisville Main Street at 225-635-3873 or West Feliciana Tourist Commission at 225-635-4224; online visit www.stfrancisville.us or www.stfrancisvillefestivals.com. .
Tuesday, September 08, 2009
West Florida Republic Bicentennial Kick-off
in St. Francisville, LA
by Anne Butler
The invitations aptly call it A Gathering of Forces, summoning the public for ceremonies to kick off the year-long bicentennial celebration of those momentous events that culminated in the wresting of Louisiana’s Florida Parishes from Spanish control in 1810 and set off the rolling wave of revolutions that shaped the entire country. Guests are invited to gather on September 27 at 2 p.m. on the proposed site of the memorial Republic Park beside the parish courthouse in St. Francisville, with state and local luminaries, scholars of history and costumed period re-enactors firing cannon salutes and toasting the ‘Old Republic’ as the Bonnie Blue Flag of the proud Republic of West Florida is raised and the coming year’s events are revealed. Keynote speakers include Dr. Sam Hyde of Southeastern Louisiana University and Louisiana Secretary of State Jay Dardenne.
And as these gathered dignitaries cast their eyes about them in historic St. Francisville, which in 1810 served as the capital of the fledgling West Florida Republic, they can see not only some structures which have stood witness to those past 200 years, but also some descendants of the very men who risked life and limb to lead the rebellion against Spanish tyranny. Spanish commandant Carlos de Grand Pre referred to those leaders, mostly Anglo residents of the Feliciana district which was the most populous part of West Florida, as “inclined to insubordination and prone to insurgency,” and he would soon find out how true his words would ring through history.
Tiring of the lengthy international diplomatic wrangling over just where the eastern boundary of the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 actually was, depending on which treaty was cited as France and England and Spain shifted the territory among themselves, the Anglo settlers of West Florida ousted the Spanish officials continuing to claim territory east of the Mississippi River and implemented their own independent republic, carefully conceived with constitution, militia, elected officials and a promise of more equitable government.
Dispatches from the legislative chambers where the leaders of the Republic of West Florida met in the fall of 1810 came from the St. Francisville Hotel. While this structure, originally located on one corner of what is now the courthouse square, is no longer in existence, surely the ringing tones of stirring orations by local rebellion leaders like William Barrow, John Mills and John Hunter Johnson could be heard at the adjacent townhouse now called the Barrow House.
Built around 1809 by the town jailer and later owned by the local postmaster who advertised it for sale in 1812 as “well calculated for a store and private family” on a lot not inferior to any in the village, this two-story saltbox with cottage addition became home to William Barrow’s descendant Dr. A. Feltus Barrow in the 1890’s. Dr. Barrow was an old-time horse-and-buggy doctor and town mayor; when he returned from exhaustive trips visiting patients in remote regions, he relished his bath and had an enormous clawfoot tub installed next to a downstairs window, from which he could lean to hold court for local miscreants or direct the treatment of patients dripping with blood.
|"Ambush on Royal St." by David Norwood|
One of Dr. Barrow’s numerous relatives, Capt. John Barrow, was sheriff during the trying times of Reconstruction following the Civil War and was ambushed right across Royal Street, where he had just paid a visit to his barber in the structure called the Cabildo. Capt. Barrow was handed a note and had stepped back into the shaded doorway of the Cabildo to read it out of the sun’s glare when he spotted a stranger aiming a rifle at him from the opposite side of the street as a bullet fired from another direction struck the doorway where he had been standing. Drawing his pistol, Capt. John quickly dispatched the culprits, sending one to meet his maker and the others hightailing it out of town. The sheriff lived to tell the tale to his daughter Margaret Leake Barrow Norwood, who preserved it for posterity.
By 1824 the Cabildo, a significant structure with heavy hand-hewn joists and sturdy walls of handmade bricks 22 inches thick, was serving as the first West Feliciana Parish courthouse after the original Feliciana parish was divided into two, with court meeting in the upper chambers above the local bank. Earlier uses of the building suggest the artist John James Audubon patronized Maximillian’s Tavern there, perhaps on his way to purchase art supplies at the neighboring brick townhouse now called Propinquity.
In the 1820’s German-born Dietrich Holl and his nephew Maximillian Nubling operated a store at Propinquity, a sturdy structure built around 1809 by John Mills, the Scotsman who founded the riverport of Bayou Sara around 1790. Mills held the early Spanish land grant that would become Rosedown Plantation, where he planted indigo and cotton utilizing the labor of slaves despite his disapproval of what he branded “that Inhumane commerce.” Like plantation owner William Barrow, Mills was part of the Anglo migration southward from the East Coast in the late 1700’s. He had partnered in a Natchez District sawmill venture with Isaac Johnson, an Englishman from Liverpool, until a spring freshet washed away the mill and the two men moved on down into the Felicianas. Johnson’s eldest daughter married Mills’ son Gilbert.
It was on Johnson’s Troy Plantation that much of the substantive planning for the West Florida Rebellion would take place, just south of where his son John H. Johnson founded the town of St. Francisville on the bluff above Mills’ settlement at Bayou Sara; a namesake grandson would become Louisiana’s 13th governor. On September 11, 1810, Major Isaac Johnson and a troop of mounted Feliciana dragoons captured the Spanish fort at Baton Rouge and unfurled the republic’s famous banner, a lone white star on a blue field hastily sewn by Johnson’s wife.
Only a superb classical wellhouse remains of Troy Plantation; in the 1880’s as then-owner Dr. I.U. Ball returned upriver by steamboat from a trip to New Orleans, he spotted smoke rising on shore and exclaimed, “Troy is burning!” and so it was. But all around the courthouse square in St. Francisville are structures that bore witness to the heroic revolution and heady days of the short-lived Republic of West Florida and to the brave gathering of forces whose descendants join in celebration this bicentennial year. A striking monument, its simple obelisk crowned with a single star, has been designed by William Barrow’s descendant, artist David Norwood, as focal point of the Republic Park, where visitors are invited to gather on September 27th to kick off a year of commemorative events.
The St. Francisville area features a number of splendidly restored plantation homes open for tours daily: The Cottage Plantation, Butler Greenwood Plantation, The Myrtles Plantation, Greenwood Plantation, plus Catalpa Plantation by reservation and Afton Villa Gardens seasonally. Particularly important to tourism in the area are its two significant state historic sites, Rosedown Plantation and Oakley Plantation in the Audubon state site, which offer fascinating living-history demonstrations every weekend to allow visitors to experience 19th-century plantation life and customs; during the year-long commemoration of the West Florida Rebellion, many of these programs will have a bicentennial focus.
The nearby Cat Island National Wildlife Refuge, home of the country’s largest bald cypress tree, and the adjacent Tunica Hills region offer unmatched recreational activities in unspoiled wilderness areas—hiking, biking, birding, photography, horseback riding with rental mounts from Cross Creek Stables. There are unique specialty shops, many in restored historic structures, and some fine little restaurants throughout the St. Francisville area, as well as some of the state’s most popular Bed & Breakfasts for overnight stays, including historic plantations, lakeside clubhouses and beautiful townhouses right in the middle of St. Francisville’s extensive National Register-listed historic district.
Wednesday, August 19, 2009
By Anne Butler
Slow down, you’re moving too fast. Summer in the south means dialing it back, says Southern Living editor Eleanor Griffin. She’s talking about abandoning the swift interstates for the picturesque winding back roads, decompressing in venues that don’t insist on round-the-clock activities, slow-cooking those old favorites that don’t come in the frozen-foods section of the local grocery. She’s talking about: St. Francisville, Louisiana, the perfect place to take it easy in the dog days of summer.
Even the hummingbirds slow down in the summertime in this birding paradise so beloved by John James Audubon. The Feliciana Hummingbird Celebration, sponsored annually by the Feliciana Nature Society, provides participants with an up-close and personal acquaintance with these tiny feathered friends. Normally among nature’s fastest winged creatures, hummingbirds can fly at speeds up to 34 miles per hour, wings flapping up to 90 times per second and hearts beating as many as 1200 beats per minute. This year hummingbirds were not in great profusion, but the ones captured at the celebration the end of July seemed to welcome the chance to chill before rushing off, as hummingbird biologists banded the birds, weighing and measuring them, to provide useful information on their habits and habitats. Information on next year’s hummingbird event is available at www.audubonbirdfest.com, or by telephoning 800-488-6502.
Tuesday, May 05, 2009
THE DAY THE WAR STOPPED — IN ST. FRANCISVILLE, LAby Anne Butler
|Volley from black powder rifles. |
The procession was not an impressive one, certainly not an unusual event in the midst of a bloody war, and it would no doubt have escaped all notice but for one fact--this was the day the war stopped, if only for a few mournful moments, and the lovely little rivertown of St. Francisville invites the public to join in commemorating the events 146 years ago on the weekend of June 12-14.
In June 1863, the Siege of Port Hudson was pitting 30,000 Union troops under Major General Nathaniel P. Banks against 6,800 weary Confederates under Major General Franklin Gardner, fighting over the all-important control of traffic on the Mississippi River. Port Hudson and Vicksburg were the only rebel strongholds left along the Mississippi, and if the Union forces could wrest from them control of the river traffic, they could cut off supplies from the west and completely surround the Confederacy. Admiral David Farragut had attempted to destroy Confederate cannons atop the bluffs from the river, but of his seven ships, four were turned back, one was completely destroyed, and only his flagship and the USS Albatross passed upriver safely, leaving ground troops to fight it out for nearly another month.
|Procession at Grace Church |
Even in the midst of war, there are mundane little touches of life scattered through the letter from Hart to his beloved wife…the mockingbirds singing around the boat, the little puppy he’d put ashore at Plaquemine to be raised, the shipboard litter of kittens. After perilously running through the Grand Gulf batteries on the river to the north, Hart writes that the Admiral signalled, “How many killed?” And he answered none. The Admiral signalled, “How many wounded?” And he answered none. And just then Kitty, ship’s mouser, produced kittens which Hart insisted become part of the official report…important to note the wartime births as well as the all-too-frequent deaths.
|Angolas horses, a favorite to |
visitors of the annual parade.
Hart was a Mason, and aboard his ship were other officers also “members of the Craft,” desirous of burying their commander ashore rather than consigning the remains to the river waters, especially since a metallic coffin which might have contained the body for safe shipment home to New York could not be found. A boat was sent from the Albatross under flag of truce to ascertain if there were any Masons in the town of St. Francisville. It just so happened that the two White brothers, Samuel and Benjamin, living near the river were Masons from Indiana. They informed the little delegation that there was indeed a Masonic lodge in the town, in fact one of the oldest in the state, Feliciana Lodge No. 31 F and AM. Its Grand Master was absent serving in the Confederate Army, but its Senior Warden, W. W. Leake, whose “headquarters were in the saddle,” was home on furlough and was soon persuaded to honor the request. As a soldier, Leake reportedly said, he considered it his duty to permit burial of a deceased member of the armed forces of any government, even one presently at war with his own, and as a Mason, he knew it to be his duty to accord Masonic burial to the remains of a brother Mason without taking into account the nature of their relations in the outer world
|Costumed actors participant |
in the reenactment.
But for one brief touching moment, the war had stopped at St. Francisville, and this moment will be marked the weekend of June 12, 13 and 14. The commemorative events begin on Friday, June 12, at 7 p.m., with graveside histories in the peaceful oak-shaded cemetery at Grace Church, where Commander Hart’s grave is marked by a marble slab and monument “in loving tribute to the universality of Free Masonry,” and over the years it was decorated with flowers by members of the Daughters of the Confederacy. W.W. Leake in 1912 was buried nearby after a long and honorable career as state senator, parish judge and bank president. An Open House and presentation of lodge history at the double-galleried Masonic Lodge just across Ferdinand St. from the graveyard follows at 8 p.m. Friday evening.
On Saturday, June 13, a lively parade travels along St. Francisville’s historic main street beginning at 10:30 a.m., followed by lunch at the Masonic Lodge from 11 to 12:30. Visitors will be pleasantly transported back in time during the afternoon, as Grace Church’s parish hall is the setting for a concert of antebellum period music and graceful vintage dancing from 11:30 to 1:30. At 1:30 commences the very moving dramatic presentation showing Commander Hart’s young wife in New York as she reads his last letter to their small son and then receives the terrible news of his death. This is followed by the re-enactment of the burial of Hart, with re-enactors in the dignified rites clad in Civil War uniforms accurate down to the last button and worn brogan. Taking leading roles in this ritual, amazingly, are W.W.Leake’s great-great-grandson Robert S. Leake, as well as Frank Karwowski, member of Commander Hart’s Masonic lodge, St. George’s in Schnectady, New York, and Shirley Ditloff who now operates a popular B&B in W.W. Leake’s Royal St. townhouse.
|Numerous clowns ride in |
this annual parade.
On Sunday, June 14, Rosedown Plantation State Historic Site from 1 to 3 presents a program on Civil War medical techniques and their all-too-often conclusion, period burial customs. At nearby Locust Grove State Historic Site, a 2 p.m. talk at her gravesite focuses on Jefferson Davis’ young bride, Sarah Knox Taylor Davis, daughter of President Zachary Taylor, who succumbed to yellow fever on their honeymoon visit to his sister’s plantation in West Feliciana. A gravestone rendering class utilizes some of the historic headstones in this peaceful little graveyard.
All of these activities are free and open to the public. Among sponsors are St. Francisville Overnight! (Bed & Breakfasts of the area), the Feliciana Lodge No. 31 F and AM, Grace Episcopal Church, and St. Francisville Main Street.
The St. Francisville area features a number of splendidly restored plantation homes open for tours daily: The Cottage Plantation, Butler Greenwood Plantation, The Myrtles Plantation, Greenwood Plantation, plus Catalpa Plantation by reservation and Afton Villa Gardens seasonally. Particularly important to tourism in the area are its two significant state historic sites, Rosedown Plantation and Oakley Plantation in the Audubon state site, which offer fascinating living-history demonstrations every weekend to allow visitors to experience 19th-century plantation life and customs. The nearby Tunica Hills region offers unmatched recreational activities in its unspoiled wilderness areas—hiking, biking, birding, photography, horseback riding with rental mounts from Cross Creek Stables. There are unique specialty shops, many in restored historic structures, and some fine little restaurants throughout the St. Francisville area, as well as some of the state’s most popular Bed & Breakfasts for overnight stays, including historic plantations, lakeside clubhouses and beautiful townhouses right in the middle of St. Francisville’s extensive National Register-listed historic district.
For visitor information, call St. Francisville Main Street at 225-635-3873 or West Feliciana Tourist Commission at 225-635-4224; online visit www.stfrancisville.us or www.stfrancisvillefestivals.com. For additional information on The Day The War Stopped, see www.daythewarstopped.net.
Sunday, April 19, 2009
Wonder if provisions have been made to accomodate cyclists on the new bridge, if the ferry is to be discontinued.
Thursday, March 26, 2009
by Murrell Butler
PUTS A NEW TWIST ON THE BIRDS AND THE BEES
By Anne Butler
Spring in other locales may turn a young mans fancy to the good old birds and bees, but the residents of the historic little rivertown of St. Francisville, Louisiana, put their own spin on it. Here, the emphasis in April is on the birds and thebulls.The birds are only natural in a scenic unspoiled area so richly endowed by Mother Nature that some 175 resident or migratory feathered species frequent it. In the 1820s more than half of these were painted by artist-naturalist John James Audubon for his famousBirds of Americawhile in residence at Oakley Plantation near St. Francisville, and participants in the 8th annual Audubon Country BirdFest April 4th should see be able to chalk up sightings of a large number of these.
But the bulls? This is, after all, part of Louisiana’s fertile plantation country, where the early cash crops of indigo and cotton were planted in orderly rows across the hilly farmlands. But one of the most notorious of these agricultural endeavors is the penal farm called Angola. That’s where the bulls come in, at one of the region’s most popular events, “the wildest show in the South.” The infamous Angola Prison Rodeo, begun in the 1960s, proved so popular during its regular fall runs that an entire spring weekend, April 18 and 19, has now been devoted to it as well.
The area’s two state historic site plantations, Rosedown and Oakley, are also Birdfest features, with guided tours designed for both beginner and intermediate birders. Both have intimate family connections to Audubon; the artist first came to the St. Francisville area in 1821 to tutor Eliza Pirrie, young daughter of the family at Oakley, under an arrangement leaving him half of each day free to roam the woods collecting specimens for his paintings. Eliza’s son would marry beautiful Sarah Turnbull of Rosedown Plantation, interweaving the family histories of these two remarkably preserved plantation properties.
Except for the state historic site tours, morning and afternoon field trips carpool from the St. Francisville Inn, BirdFest headquarters; capacity is limited, so advance reservations are required. The Audubon State Historic Site (Oakley House) sponsors an educational Audubon Nature School Day on Friday, April 3, with interactive stations providing students with hands-on learning, and on Saturday, April 4, Audubon Nature Day at Oakley highlights “Thinking Green” and explores nature conservation and green environmental practices with modern implications.
| Pileated Woodpecker at Oakley House|
photo by ptWalsh09
After birdwatching the first weekend in April, visitors to the St. Francisville area can bask in the beauties of nature at the Easter Sunrise Service at Hemingbough. This extrmely popular non-denomination service, hosted for several decades by gracious owner Arlin Dease, begins at 7 a.m. Easter morn, April 12, as the sun rises over still waters and the congregation fills the lovely lakeside amphitheater. Music, spiritual inspiration and complimentary continental breakfast make this an unforgettable experience in a setting of unsurpassed beauty. For information, telephone 877-635-6617.
Considerably livelier is the following weekend’s entertainment in the St. Francisville area, the annual Angola Prison Rodeo on April 18 and 19th. From the time the mounted black-clad Angola Rough Riders race at break-neck speed into the arena, flags streaming and hooves flying, visitors are on the edges of their seats through events pitting inmates against pro-stock Brahma bulls and wild-eyed bucking broncos. The only non-inmate event in what is called the longest running prison rodeo in the country features ladies’ barrel racing.
But the crowd favorites are the events unique to Angola, the "Bust Out" when all the chutes containing ferocious bulls are opened at once, or the "Wild Horse Race" in which inmates try to catch and mount frantic wild horses, or the "Wild Cow Milking" where obtaining even a drop of milk is easier said than done. Two other events pit convicts against bulls in a contest of wills: "Convict Poker," with four inmates seated at a poker table as a bull is released into the arena, and the last one to remain seated wins; and the crowd-pleasing "Guts and Glory", an arena full of inmates on foot trying to remove a $100 chit tied between the horns of the meanest Brahma bull around. Professional rodeo clowns and pick-up riders do their best to assure the safety of the contestants, and Angola's EMS units haul off the casualties.
|Museum at Audubon State Historic Site|
The rodeo grounds open at 9 a.m. for a huge arts and crafts festival and sale showcasing inmate talent in hobbycraft like jewelry, handtooled leather, paintings and woodwork both large and small. Inmate bands perform throughout the morning, and the famous Angola Prison Rodeo Band takes over for the duration of the rodeo events, which begin at 2 p.m. There are a large number of concessions offering a variety of food and drink, and the stands provide shaded seating for more than 10,000 cheering spectators.
Tickets should be purchased in advance by calling 225-655-2040, 225-655-2607 or 225-635-2042, or by mail from the Louisiana State Penitentiary Business Office, Angola, LA 70712, or online atwww.angolarodeo.com. Visitors should allow time to tour the fascinating prison museum just outside the front entrance gates to learn more about the history of this enormous maximum-security penitentiary. It should be noted that there are specific regulations with which visitors must comply when entering prison grounds; no food, drink, cell phones or cameras are allowed through the rodeo entrance gate, and on prison property no weapons, ammunition, alcohol or drugs are permitted; purses and bags will be searched and all vehicles must be locked when unoccupied.
The St. Francisville area features a number of splendidly restored plantation homes open for tours daily: The Cottage Plantation, Butler Greenwood Plantation, The Myrtles Plantation, Greenwood Plantation, plus Catalpa Plantation by reservation and Afton Villa Gardens seasonally. The area’s two state historic sites, Rosedown Plantation and Oakley Plantation in the Audubon state site, offer fascinating living-history demonstrations every weekend to allow visitors to experience 19th-century plantation life and customs.
|Bull Riding at Angola Prison Rodeo submitted by LSP|
The nearby Tunica Hills region offers unmatched recreational activities in its unspoiled wilderness areas—hiking, biking, birding, photography, horseback riding with rental mounts from Cross Creek Stables. There are some unique shops, many in restored historic structures, and some fine little restaurants throughout the St. Francisville area as well as some of the state’s most popular Bed & Breakfasts for overnight stays, including historic plantations, lakeside clubhouses and beautiful townhouses right in the middle of St. Francisville’s extensive National Register-listed historic district.
For visitor information, call St. Francisville Main Street at 225-635-3873 or West Feliciana Tourist Commission at 225-635-4224; online visitwww.stfrancisville.us or www.stfrancisvillefestivals.com
Monday, March 09, 2009
Admission is one canned good for the West Feliciana Parish Food Pantry. Concessions will be available along with Face Painting from the WFHS International Club.
Bring your blanket or lawn chair and join us for the family fun night.
The Movie will start at dark.
For more information call Laurie Walsh 225 635 3873 at the St. Francisville Main Street Office.
Valerie Gaumont and Alison Saunders both with the Louisiana Office of Historic Preservation will present information on Main Street Basics and Historical Tax Credits. They will be available by appointment on Thursday to make a site visit if you are interested in either commercial or residential tax credits. This is a wonderful opportunity to take advantage of. If you are interested in the working of the Main Street Program, we encourage you to come on Thursday night.
For more information please call Laurie Walsh 225 635-3873 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Thursday, February 26, 2009
ST. FRANCISVILLE, LA’S
ANNUAL AUDUBON PILGRIMAGE
By Anne Butler
|Home Tour in St. Francisville|
In 1809 a young English adventurer travelled down the Mississippi and across the 31st parallel from the Mississippi Territory into the wilds of Spanish West Florida. He described this area as having the finest and best cultivated soil and the wealthiest settlers, on the whole “a charming country,” and he especially enjoyed his sojourn with Don Juan O’Connor, whom he called a respectable old gentleman who for many years had served as the alcalde or chief magistrate of the vicinity. O’Connor was building “a very large and commodious house.”Today we know this home as Rosebank, and it will be one of the features on the West Feliciana Historical Society’s popular annual spring tour called the Audubon Pilgrimage March 20, 21 and 22. The Rosebank house shows Caribbean influence in its sensible architectural style, its thick brick walls and broad galleries designed to mitigate the hot humid summers.
After leaving Rosebank, Cuming travelled nearer to St. Francisville, visiting along the way the early pioneering families, the Barrows, Butlers, Stirlings and Flowers, and then passing through “a forest abounding with that beautiful and majestick evergreen, the magnolia,” before arriving at the commodious home of millwright and planter James Pirrie, late of Scotland. Those same majestic forests would within a decade arouse the creative passions of artist-naturalist John James Audubon, flamboyant Frenchman whose tenure at Oakley Plantation, where he was hired in 1821 to tutor the Pirries’ young daughter Eliza, would result in the completion there of no less than 80 of his famous bird folios in his quest to paint all the birds of this young country America. Oakley, now a state historic site, is also one of the features on the 2009 Audubon Pilgrimage, a wonderful West Indies-influenced soaring structure with wooden jalousies shading its double galleries and cooling interiors furnished with fine period pieces.
Other featured homes span the 19th century of development in the St. Francisville area. Rosedown Plantation, another state historic site, dates from 1834, the elaborate main house approached by a magnificent oak allee, surrounded by fascinating historic dependencies and set off by 27 acres of glorious gardens full of heirloom plants. The reclaimed gardens at Afton Villa, 19th-century terraced plantings and formal parterres, originally enhanced an immense Gothic villa which burned in 1963; they have been so beautifully restored that in their own right they are one of the most popular features of the Audubon Pilgrimage each year.
Fairview Townhouse, in the Royal Street Historic District, was purchased in 1891 by Edward L. “Ned” Newsham, whose drygoods store in St. Francisville afforded the financing to embellish the home with a bay window, second story with small gable gallery up top and exuberant gingerbread decorating the front gallery wrapping around the lower floor. Newsham served as bank president and was elected mayor before his death in 1904. His parents had come from England to settle in Missouri, and during the Civil War served as a heart-wrenching example of family divisions, his father fighting for the Union side and his father’s twin brother serving in the Confederate Army. This marks the first time this recently restored home has been opened for tours.
|On Tour Rosebank Plantation|
Another feature of the pilgrimage is Wyoming, built in the early 1900s on the site of the plantation home of Robert C. Wickcliff, last antebellum governor of the state of Louisiana, whose wife Ann Ruffin Dawson was the granddaughter of St Francisville’s founder John Hunter Johnson as well as of John Bennett Dawson, early parish judge and state legislator who had himself been a candidate for governor in 1834. After Governor Wickcliff’s term ended, he practiced law in St. Francisville and was said, during the Civil War, to have played poker with Union naval officers on the river at Bayou Sara, when he won sparing St. Francisville a shelling. This year marks Wyoming’s first appearance on the Audubon Pilgrimage.
In the first West Feliciana Parish courthouse on Royal Street, a circa 1809 structure of old handmade brick and exposed beams, local artist Murrell Butler will exhibit the lush landscape paintings and bird studies that have led to comparisons of his exacting and detailed renditions with those of Audubon, who roamed these same fields and woodlands generations before and actually knew some of Butler’s early ancestors.
The featured homes are open from 9:30 to 5 Friday and Saturday, noon to 5 on Sunday. Evening entertainment includes a cemetery tour at historic Grace Episcopal Church and hymn singing at United Methodist Church, followed by a wine and cheese reception at the West Feliciana Historical Society Museum on Friday night, and on Saturday evening “Light Up The Night” features dining and dancing along Prosperity Street and on the courthouse lawn.
Throughout the days of the pilgrimage, costumed children dance the Maypole and play nostalgic games, while three sites host antique sales (Jackson Hall, Masonic Lodge and Market Hall). Pilgrimage workers wear costumes beautifully recreating the garb of the 1820’s when Audubon was in residence, and these magnificent dresses have won national recognition for their painstaking attention to authentic detail. Visitors are also welcomed to three historic churches in St. Francisville’s historic district, Grace Episcopal established in 1827, United Methodist which replaced a flood-damaged Bayou Sara church built in 1844, and Our Lady of Mount Carmel overlooking the Mississippi River from atop Catholic Hill and designed by General P.G.T. Beauregard.
Pilgrimage tickets and orientation are available at the West Feliciana Historical Society Museum on Ferdinand St. in St. Francisville, or by mail from Box 338, St. Francisville, LA 70775. For information, telephone 225-635-6330 or visit online at www.audubonpilgrimage.info.
Spring is a glorious time in St. Francisville, with antebellum and contemporary gardens abloom with azaleas, late camellias and all manner of flowering shrubs and plants. Visitors to the area will find that the St. Francisville area features a number of splendidly restored plantation homes open for tours daily throughout the year: The Cottage Plantation, Butler Greenwood Plantation, The Myrtles Plantation, Greenwood Plantation, plus Catalpa Plantation by reservation and Afton Villa Gardens seasonally. The area’s two state historic sites, Rosedown Plantation and Oakley Plantation in the Audubon state site, offer fascinating living-history demonstrations every weekend to allow visitors to experience 19th-century plantation life and customs. The nearby Tunica Hills region offers unmatched recreational activities in its unspoiled wilderness areas—hiking, biking, birding, photography, horseback riding with rental mounts from Cross Creek Stables. There are some unique shops, many in restored historic structures, and some fine little restaurants throughout the St. Francisville area as well as some of the state’s most popular Bed & Breakfasts for overnight stays, including historic plantations, lakeside clubhouses and beautiful townhouses right in the middle of St. Francisville’s extensive National Register-listed historic district. For visitor information, call St. Francisville Main Street at 225-635-3873 or West Feliciana Tourist Commission at 225-635-4224; online visit www.stfrancisville.us or www.stfrancisvillefestivals.com.
Tuesday, January 13, 2009
ST. FRANCISVILLE, LA’S COLORFUL CAMELLIAS IN THE COUNTRY FESTIVAL
By Anne Butler
|Chef John Folse|
Consequently, when the little Feliciana Nature Society contacted him to help with its Camellias in the Country festival in St. Francisville the first weekend in February 2009, he was already inclined to offer assistance. And then they made him an offer he simply could not refuse, combining as it did his incredible culinary talents with his great fascination with history and heritage as well as a growing interest in horticulture.
The Camellia Festival is sponsored each year by the little Feliciana Nature Society, which also conceived and hosts the annual Audubon BirdFest and Feliciana Hummingbird Festival. Just as the BirdFest is an ideal activity in the area most treasured by artist John James Audubon when he painted a large number of his Birds of America there in the early 1820s, so the Camellia Festival is particularly suited for the area to which the 1831 Encylopedia Americana referred as “the garden of Louisiana.”
And so it was, for once the great indigo and cotton plantations of this English section of Louisiana had been established, attention turned from the practical to the merely pleasing and the early manor houses were quickly surrounded by formal gardens laid out in orderly bordered beds and patterned parterres, protected from roaming livestock by picket fences and presided over by classical marble statues. Great allees of live oaks were planted, their arched canopies soon to provide much-needed shade, and lattice-sided summer houses offered cool quiet retreats.
The glorious antebellum gardens of the St. Francisville area, many inspired by the great plantings of Europe, combined the plantation mistress’s passion for ornamental plants with a fortuitious climate, rich soil and unlimited labor. From the surrounding woods were transplanted ferns, trilliums and oak-leaf hydrangea, violets, dogwood and wild plum trees. But the pride of the gardens were the camellias, and these had to be imported.
These colorful natives of the Far East were initially carried to other lands by missionaries and early medical men after trade with the Orient was opened in the early1500s by the Portuguese and their Black Ships. The trading companies dealing in spices, silks, porcelains and other treasures all had medical officers who became the first to study native plants of the Far East, initially for their medical propensities. A camellia japonica specimen collected in China in 1677 by a physician with the East India Company introduced this botanical novelty to England. By the close of the 18th century, the first camellias had been brought overseas to the United States.
|Garden Walk at Rosedown|
From the mistress of Catalpa Plantation Martha Turnbull borrowed some helpful tips: “Mrs. Fort puts one gallon Guano to a barrel of water to water her plants,” and it was no wonder the camellias and hydrangeas at Catalpa flourished as well. At Butler Greenwood Plantation hundreds of camellias were being ordered from eastern nurseries as well to thrive in the formal gardens around the lovely summer house, while at Afton Villa gardens the camellias held their own with the famed Pride of Afton azaleas lining the magnificent oak avenue.
Every plantation had its grove of camellias, and many of the townhouses in St. Francisville as well. A number of these plantations and gardens today are open to the public for tours, and there is no lovelier time of year to visit than the cooler months when the camellias are in full bloom. The Feliciana Nature Society began the Camellias in the Country festival to encourage visitors to do just that, but in 2009 an extra added attraction promises to greatly enhance the enjoyment, for this year visitors can not only see the camellias, they can actually TASTE them, thanks to Chef John Folse and the lucky visitation by a distinguished French physician to one of the local plantation Bed & Breakfasts.
Docteur Pierre Gausset, “Ancien Externe des Hopitaux de Paris,” enjoyed the hospitality of the Bed & Breakfast at Butler Greenwood Plantation in early 2008 and admired the more than 150 ancient camellias blooming in the formal and sunken gardens there. Had the owner ever tasted, he wondered, Vin de Camelia? He highly recommended it. In fact, he happened to have the recipe and would be happy to share it, since the St. Francisville area obviously had plentiful ingredients. Written in French, of course, the recipe is a combination of white or red wine, eau de vie de fruits, camellia blossoms, sugar and vanilla, all allowed to rest for 20 days as the wine absorbs the aroma of the camellia blossoms before bottling.
|Butler Greenwood Lawn|
Chef Folse unveils his Camellia Wine, produced from camellia blossoms from St. Francisville gardens, at a presentation on Friday, February 6, at 6 p.m. at the historic Audubon Market Hall on Royal Street in St. Francisville. Guests will have the opportunity to sample the wine, perhaps even purchase some, and Chef Folse will also autograph his remarkable cookbooks for interested visitors at the wine and cheese reception following his presentation.
The fifth annual Camellias in the Country program continues on Saturday, February 7, at Rosedown Plantation State Historic Site. Site manager Patricia Aleshire will lead a workshop on “Knowing and Growing Camellias in the Deep South” at the visitor center beginning at 9 a.m. Lunch at Audubon Café will be followed by a guided walking tour of Rosedown’s extensive formal gardens, where participants will enjoy seeing outstanding examples of both heirloom and contemporary japonicas. The gardens at Rosedown are simply spectacular this time of year.
|Camellia at Catalpa|
The St. Francisville area features a number of splendidly restored plantation homes open for tours daily: The Cottage Plantation, Butler Greenwood Plantation, The Myrtles Plantation, Greenwood Plantation, plus Catalpa Plantation by reservation and Afton Villa Gardens seasonally. The area’s two state historic sites, Rosedown Plantation and Oakley Plantation in the Audubon state site, offer fascinating living-history demonstrations every weekend to allow visitors to experience 19th-century plantation life and customs. The nearby Tunica Hills region offers unmatched recreational activities in its unspoiled wilderness areas—hiking, biking, birding, photography, horseback riding with rental mounts from Cross Creek Stables. There are some unique shops, many in restored historic structures, and some fine little restaurants throughout the St. Francisville area as well as some of the state’s most popular Bed & Breakfasts for overnight stays, including historic plantations, lakeside clubhouses and beautiful townhouses right in the middle of St. Francisville’s extensive National Register-listed historic district. For visitor information, call St. Francisville Main Street at 225-635-3873 or West Feliciana Tourist Commission at 225-635-4224; online visit www.stfrancisville.us or www.stfrancisvillefestivals.com. (our Festival Website)
For high resolution photos, email Patrick Walsh at email@example.com