Thursday, February 26, 2009

2009 Audubon Pilgrimage


By Anne Butler

Home Tours
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.

Period Customs

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.

Period Customs

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.

Period Custom
At the Rural Homestead just north of St. Francisville, the sensible skills of the pioneering settlers are celebrated in authentically recreated simple cypress structures. Demonstrations showcase such skills as grinding corn in a 19th-century gristmill, hand-riving cypress shingles, weaving oak-strip baskets, quilting and making candles, blacksmithery, plowing with a mule, cooking cracklins in black iron pots over an open fire and baking cornbread in the wood stove; youngsters especially enjoy the wagon rides and petting zoo.

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

Period Customs

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 or