Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Cottage Plantation one of Feliciana’s earliest

The Cottage Plantation one of Feliciana’s earliest

By Anne Butler
Its name hints at a rustic simplicity, and indeed this early plantation house was constructed long before the popularity of southern Greek Revival grandeur or Victorian flamboyance. Today one of six historic plantations that draw tourists to the St. Francisville area, The Cottage exhibits instead a sensible sturdiness, and for nearly 150 years it housed the sensible sturdy members of a single family.

In late 1810 or early 1811, shortly after the West Florida Rebellion ousted the Spanish in the area, Judge Thomas Butler purchased lands along Alexander’s Creek granted in the mid-1790s by Baron de Carondelet to John Allen and Patrick Holland. Named by Governor William C.C. Claiborne the first judge of the Feliciana parishes in 1812 after Louisiana became a state, Judge Butler was elected in 1818 to represent the area in the United State Congress, though he found in Washington “nothing like the agreeable social society we have in Louisiana.”

He came from a long line of distinguished military heroes descended from the Irish Dukes of Ormond. His father and four uncles, several under age 17 at war’s onset, fought valiantly on the American side in the Revolutionary War, gaining high rank and a toast from George Washington, with whom they endured the harsh winter of 1777-8 at Valley Forge. General Lafayette also commended the brothers’ bravery, saying, “When I wish a thing well done, I have a Butler do it.”

These brothers also fought in the subsequent Indian Wars, during which Major General Richard Butler, second in command of the US Army, was mortally wounded, tomahawked, scalped, and his heart was eaten by the redskins, while Col. Thomas Butler, father of the judge, was shot through both legs but was saved by a third brother. This same Col. Butler later gained notoriety for stubbornly resisting the famous “roundhead order” issued by General Wilkinson forbidding the wearing of a “queue,” the long pigtail favored by Anglo aristocracy and colonial army officers. After much anguished correspondence with his dear friend Andrew Jackson, the colonel was still under order of courtmartial for resisting what he considered an “arbitrary infraction of his natural rights” when he perished of yellow fever in 1805 in New Orleans, and it was said a hole was cut in the bottom of his coffin so that his queue might hang out in defiance.

Col. Thomas Butler had six children, the oldest being his namesake, born in 1785. Judge Thomas Butler, descending south from Pennsylvania, in 1810 was commissioned a captain in the cavalry of the Militia of the Mississippi Territory, purchased The Cottage soon afterward, and married Ann Madeline Ellis of Natchez in 1813. Together they had a dozen children, expanding the simple early cottage structure to accommodate them, and the judge’s letters to his beloved wife during absences on court duties or in Congress often begged her to “kiss my dear sweet children for me and make them often think of me.” Well educated and well travelled, the family maintained a cultured lifestyle as Judge Butler increased his landholdings to include several sugar plantations in Terrebonne Parish.
The children married into other distinguished plantations families---the Stirlings, the Minors, the Forts, even the family of Andrew and Rachel Jackson. The sons and cousins fought at the Battle of New Orleans with General Jackson, who made an extended visit to The Cottage on his way back to Tennessee, for Judge Butler’s brother was the general’s chief of staff.

The family military prowess continued during the Civil War. Judge Butler’s son Robert Ormond Butler, a Yale-educated physician born in 1832 who studied medicine in Paris, served as Surgeon in Chief under Confederate Brig. Gen. Pratt. He referred in correspondence to the Union troops as “villainous vandals,” describing a heartbreaking midnight march down the Mississippi River below Baton Rouge as “one continued scene of desolation and sadness, nearly every place plundered even to the huts of the poorest creoles, large plantations deserted not a living thing to be seen, the river once so teeming with life and gladness flowing by us as swiftly and silently as that stream said to flow to eternity.”

Dr. Butler’s children and grandchildren were the last generations of Butlers to occupy The Cottage. His daughter Louise, who never married, was a writer and historian of some note, whose published pieces in early Louisiana Historical Quarterlies captured the very soul of southern plantation life in the nineteenth century. When The Cottage was sold by the Butler family in the 1950s, an effort was made to preserve other vivid images of life in the early days through the donation of priceless vintage books to the LSU Library, significant correspondence and records to the Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley Collection at LSU, and an incredible collection of early 19th-c. garments to the university’s Textile & Costume Museum. Even portions of the once-extensive gardens surrounding The Cottage were shared, with one enormous white azalea more than 100 feet in circumference shipped by railroad flatcar to Houston.

Today The Cottage, long and rambling, peacefully presides with unpretentious charm atop a bluff overlooking Alexander’s Creek, the multitude of French doors opening from the long front gallery admitting cooling breezes and the huge live oaks providing plenty of shade. To the rear, one of the state’s most extensive and fascinating groupings of original plantation dependencies--the judge’s office/schoolroom, smokehouse, saddle room, commissary, kitchen/laundry, dairy and well house, greenhouses, carriage house with Judge Butler’s Philadelphia-made 1820 carriage, slave quarters used in filming The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, brick-walled family cemetery--collectively provide a clear picture of life on functioning plantation communities of the early 19th century.
Now occupied by Harvey and Mary Brown, its present-day economic viability stems from tourism, and visiting writers wax eloquent about The Cottage as a state of mind, its antebellum ambience evoking the serenity of a bygone era. When The Cottage was purchased in the fifties by Harvey’s uncle J.E. and Eudora Brown of Chicago, a number of improvements were effected, including an inside kitchen, swimming pool, and raised automobile bridge over the creek to replace a scary hanging footbridge and low-water ford. Mr. Brown was an innovative inventor and pioneer in the television industry, but both he and his wife threw themselves wholeheartedly into community preservation efforts by opening The Cottage for tours and Bed & Breakfast in rooms with fine four-poster beds and morning demitasse served on a silver tray before guests are called to a hearty plantation breakfast in the antique-filled dining room. The Cottage was the first B&B to open in the St. Francisville area, and remains one of the most popular.

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. 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; modern motel facilities can 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.