Thursday, March 26, 2009

Spring in St. Francisville, La.

Ivory-billed Woodpecker by Murrell Butler
Ivory-billed Woodpeckers
by Murrell Butler

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.
Yellow-crowned Night Heron
Yellow-crowned Night-Heron
by ptWalsh
The Feliciana Nature Society sponsors the Audubon Country BirdFest in its efforts to enhance the appreciation and preservation of the area’s splendid natural resources, and this event attracts birders and nature lovers from across the South. The guided field trips this year take participants into some of the most intriguing wildness areas, including Cat Island National Wildlife Refuge along the only un-leveed stretch of the lower Mississippi River, the swampy wetlands habitat of old-growth cypress trees including the champion bald cypress. The Cat Island tour is generally by canoe because of high water (canoes, life jackets and paddles are provided), so participants signing up for this tour should be capable of paddling for several hours. Other field trips, led by experienced birders, visit Oak Hill Plantation, home of wildlife artist and naturalist Murrell Butler with a variety of habitat areas from heavily forested hilly woodlands to swampy lakes and creekbeds, and historic Ouida Plantation, Tunica Hills home of Nature Society president Tracey Banowetz surrounded by steep ravines, open fields and cultivated butterfly gardens.
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 in St. Francisville, Louisiana
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 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.
Angola State Prison
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 or