Friday, February 12, 2010

Living History - St. Francisville


by Anne Butler
Oakley HouseMany restored historic sites glibly promise to make history come alive for visitors, but that feat is easier said than done. One property that does indeed fulfill its promise, with both style and accuracy, is Oakley Plantation in the Audubon State Historic Site just south of St. Francisville, LA. That it can do so, and do it so well, is a testament to the stubborn endurance of the site itself as well as to the present-day stewards’ acute awareness of history.

For one thing, Oakley remained in the multiple generations of the same family for nearly 150 years, its residents wise enough not to embellish its simple elegance with inappropriate modern intrusions, so that this wonderful early home with its sensible West Indies architecture was not turned into a velvet-upholstered chandelier-lit McMansion. The Oakley house thus retained its original character and ambience into the mid-twentieth century, unadulterated by such modern conveniences as electricity or indoor plumbing. The post-Civil War impoverishment of the surrounding rural countryside, its cotton plantations no longer profitable, was another factor that helped protect Oakley’s woodlands from the creeping concrete of industrial development that too often encroaches upon historic sites elsewhere in the name of progress.

sideview After the last descendant with connections to the original family, elderly spinster Lucy Matthews, left Oakley for a nursing home, the house (unpainted and covered with vines following a period of emptiness) and 100 surrounding acres were acquired by the state. This acquisition, for $10,000 in 1947, was thanks to the efforts of the area’s longtime gentleman-statesman, white-maned Representative Davis Folkes, with encouragement from local preservationists—foremost among them the Misses Mamie and Sarah Butler, Mrs. Josie Stirling, Mrs. Rita Poche and her sister Hilda Moss--and the determined ladies of the DAR, who saw to it that the property was properly inventoried, restored and appropriately furnished with fine Federal period pieces.

Another dedicated local state legislator, Rep. Tom McVea, struggled to save Oakley once again during the 2009 legislative session, when funding for historic sites was slashed to the bone; unfortunately, the budget struggle continues this year, with little recognition of the importance of tourism to the region’s faltering economy. Oakley, in fact, for the half-century it has been open to the public, has attracted an international crowd of visitors to the St. Francisville area, primarily due to its 1820s associations with artist-naturalist John James Audubon, whose imagination and admiration were excited by the lush landscape and flourishing birdlife. Though his stay at Oakley was short, Audubon would draw dozens of his ornithological studies there as he undertook the staggering task of painting from life all the birds of America. The artist would draw more birds in Louisiana than in any other place, and even today the birding checklist for the area still includes more than 150 species.

pilgriamageOakley is always one of the most popular features of the Audubon Pilgrimage, sponsored every spring by the West Feliciana Historical Society as its major fundraiser supporting preservation projects. This year’s tour, March 19, 20 and 21, also marks the bicentennial celebration of the West Florida Republic, culmination of the rebellion whereby the Anglo-American settlers of the Florida Parishes wrested the area from Spanish control to belatedly join Louisiana as part of the United States in the winter of 1810.  The first mistress of Oakley Plantation, Lucretia Alston Gray Pirrie, was the sister-in-law of Alexander Stirling, at whose plantation the first organizational meeting of dissidents took place.

The Oakley house, a splendid towering  three-story structure with the jalousied galleries that made 19th-century Louisiana summers bearable, was well established by the time Irish-born traveler Fortescue Cuming visited the area in 1809, recording in his travelogue “Sketches of a Tour to the Western Country”  a visit to Lucretia and James Pirrie’s plantation, reached via “a good road through a forest abounding with that beautiful and majestick evergreen, the magnolia or American laurel,”  the same verdant landscape that would enthrall the artist Audubon a decade later.

Cuming described the countryside as “esteemed as the finest soil, the best cultivated, and inhabited by the most wealthy settlers, of any part of the Mississippi Territory or West Florida…on the whole a charming country,” and Oakley already a fine plantation with a hundred slaves “and the best garden I had yet seen in this country.” Cuming was somewhat less enthralled by local culinary practices, finding  gumbo “a most awkward dish for a stranger,” the okra making it “so ropy and slimy as to make it difficult with either knife, spoon or fork, to carry it to the mouth, without the plate and mouth being connected by a long string.”

In 1821 the Pirries hired John James Audubon as tutor and drawing instructor for their young daughter Eliza, and he arrived by steamboat, penniless and with a string of failed business ventures behind him, but rich in talent and dreams. Born in 1785 in Santa Domingo to a French ship captain and his Creole mistress, Audubon was raised in France and sent as a young teen to learn English and a trade in America, arriving in 1803 just as the Louisiana Purchase doubled the size of the country. In 1820 he set out for New Orleans with only his gun, flute, violin, bird books, portfolios of his drawings, chalks, watercolors, drawing papers in a tin box, and a dog-eared journal. The meager living he earned painting portraits in the city made the Pirrie offer particularly appealing.

Kitchen oakleyThe artist’s arrangement at Oakley called for him to be paid $60 a month plus room and board, with half of each day free to collect and paint bird specimens from the surrounding woods, where he cut a dashing figure in his long flowing locks and fanciful garb. Audubon viewed his employers with as sharp an eye as he did the subjects of his bird drawings. His 15-year-old pupil Eliza he described in his journals as “of a good form of body, not handsome of face, proud of her wealth and of herself” with “no particular admirers of her beauties, but several very anxious of her fortunes.” Audubon referred to Eliza’s volatile mother Lucretia as “generous…but giving way for want of understanding at times to the force of her violent passions” and her second husband James Pirrie as “when sober, truly a good man.”

Immensely popular as the central focus of the Audubon State Historic Site since it was opened to the public in 1954, Oakley has been beautifully restored and carefully furnished in the sublime understatement of late Federal style, and it is open for tours every day except major holidays. Within its hundred wooded acres are a detached plantation kitchen/weaving room/washroom reconstructed on original foundations, barn full of horse-drawn vehicles and farm implements, and several rustic slave cabins. These dependencies are frequently utilized on weekends to augment the house tour with demonstrations of old-time practical skills: cooking over the coals at the enormous hearth of the outside kitchen, blacksmithing, spinning and weaving, animal husbandry, 19th-century horticultural techniques as demonstrated in the plantation’s formal and kitchen gardens; some of the open-hearth cooking focuses on the slave diet and other programs illustrate  what life was like for enslaved laborers on the plantation. Throughout 2010, these special programs and re-enactments will emphasize the period of the West Florida Rebellion and area transition from Spanish colonial rule to statehood two centuries ago.

Oakley has a picnic pavilion and child-friendly hiking trail, a splendid visitor center/museum full of fascinating exhibits, and a gregarious gobbler named Gus who serves the site as Wal-Mart greeter. This state historic site is also blessed with a dedicated staff led by site director John R. House III, whose insistence on absolute accuracy and appropriateness has allowed the historic structure to maintain the simple elegance of its Federal period origins without intrusions by the frills and fancies of subsequent styles.

museumAt Oakley it really IS possible to envision life on the plantation from its earliest days to the tenure of its most famous resident and through subsequent generations of occupancy by Pirrie descendants. The poetic little gem of a book by Danny Heitman, A Summer of Birds, pays tribute to the significant impact Audubon’s stay at Oakley had on his art and subsequent success, quoting ornithologist John O’Neill’s assertions that Oakley is not merely a piece of geography but rather a state of mind, capable of enduring the trials and tribulations of budget cuts and commercial exploitation. Visitors won’t find much sense of Audubon at the local Audubon Library or crossing the new Audubon Bridge or even at the Audubon Liquor Store, but they WILL be able to find his spirit at the state historic site named for him. Says author Heitman, “Audubon’s durable hold on Oakley seems to transcend tourism’s customary promise of history brought to life. His continuing resonance here also issues, one gathers, from the special culture of the Felicianas, an area of Louisiana where the distance between present and past can collapse as casually as the hand fans fluttered by tour guides in plantation homes.” As Heitman says, “Though Audubon left Oakley nearly two centuries ago, it can seem to the visitor as if the renowned artist has just slipped out the door.”

With six plantations—Rosedown and Audubon State Historic Sites, Butler Greenwood, The Cottage, The Myrtles and Greenwood--open for daily tours, 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 late 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.   For romantic Valentine’s getaways, 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.