Wednesday, November 18, 2009

December 2009 St. Francisville, La.


by Anne Butler

White LightsChristmas 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.

Gifts st francisvilleIt 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.

paradeBeginning 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.

christmas countryIn 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.

santa danceOn 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 or, or telephone (225) 635-3873 or 635-4224.