Friday, September 24, 2010

ANIMALS Remind of St. Francisville’s History

ANIMALS Remind of St. Francisville’s History
By Anne Butler
Since the dawn of history, animals have played vital roles in the development of civilization, as food and furs, as beasts of burden, as comrades and pets. Imagine the early colonists, if you will, enduring months-long ocean voyages in cramped quarters with the fowl and pigs and goats they needed to start a new life in a new world (remind anyone of their last cruise??), or the conquistadors with their warhorses and cattle that became the ancestors of many of our wild mustangs and longhorns. Not only in peacetime did animals contribute; the National World War II Museum in New Orleans currently has an exhibit saluting the four-legged and feathered friends’ significant security roles in campaigns on the Home Front and across the European Theater as well.
A turkey named Gus
A turkey named Gus welcomes visitors to the museum at Audubon State Historic Site.
Today animals continue to contribute in unique ways as visitors are welcomed to the St. Francisville, LA, area, especially on the historic plantations open for daily tours, where costumed human hosts often find themselves upstaged. This is especially so at the Oakley house, center of the Audubon State Historic Site. In a beautifully preserved pastoral setting where artist-naturalist John James Audubon painted many of his Birds of America studies in 1821, it is particularly fitting that the Wal-Mart greeter is a gregarious gobbler named Gus. Discovered as a feathered foundling abandoned at the front gate, Gus is a gorgeous broadbreasted bronze turkey who serves as the unofficial mascot of the historic site, welcoming guests in front of the museum in friendly fashion. Visitors, say site managers, “either love him or freak out,” but Gus is the most photographed icon at Oakley. Other animals on-site include a couple of cows named Daisy and Buttercup, some old-fashioned geese and chickens, a peacock and a few cats, giving guests a feel for the farm animals so important in the 19th century; Prissy the pig has unfortunately passed on.

The St. Francisville area’s other major state historic site is gorgeous 1830s Greek Revival Rosedown Plantation, where the emphasis is on the glorious gardens and the only present-day animals are a dozen or so chickens, while the lovely landscaped grounds of nearby Hemingbough are graced by a flock of peacocks, the most popular being an albino one the owner calls, naturally, Whitey.

Farm animals at Oakley House
Farm Animal at Oakley House
Butler Greenwood Plantation, established in the late 1700s by members of the same family in residence today, also boasts a friendly roving peacock called Humphrey, whose colorful tail feathers are much in demand during molting season. Humphrey, typically vain, likes to admire himself in shiny surfaces---car bumpers, French doors, and even the bubble skylights above some of the B&B cottage Jacuzzis, giving bathers a thrill until they realize the preening peacock atop their roof is looking at his own reflection rather than at them. As the only resident peacock, Humphrey is relatively quiet, but on occasion lets out a screech shrill enough that one New Orleans visitor exclaimed, “Oh my God! Is that a gorilla??”   Butler Greenwood also has ducks, a friendly dog, and an assortment of outside cats including one whose initial homeliness was compensated for with the elegant name of Eudora Rose and another that is half bobcat.

At historic 1790s Cottage Plantation, guests are greeted by a little yellow Labrador retriever named Tara, unfailingly eager to escort visitors on excursions across the extensive grounds and across the creek into the surrounding unspoiled woodlands. While Tara jumps into the pond to gobble the food thrown to the pet mallard, a previous lab had the strange habit of actually fetching the duck itself out of the water and burying it in the ground with only its head sticking out, quacking for dear life! Just up US 61 above The Cottage, Wakefield Plantation, now a private residence, is surrounded by a picturesque herd of registered longhorn cattle whose lean meat is recommended by the cardiologist-owner as far healthier than other fat-laden beef beloved by less health-conscious consumers today.

Longhorns at Wakefield Plantation
Early Louisiana author Lyle Saxon included in his 1929 book Old Louisiana a description of the hallways at Acadia Plantation where 9 pointers and setters slept until summoned to go hunting. Said Saxon, “All day long there would be growls and yelps as their tails were stepped upon, for it was nearly impossible to go from room to room without stepping on some sleeping animal. But the dogs must have been strangely good-natured, for no one was ever bitten.” Sounds like Catalpa Plantation, where instead of herds of cattle, the soft-hearted owner today has a milling herd of dogs, many of them friendly drop-offs or salvaged strays.

Greenwood Plantation tourists and overnight guests enjoy gazing at the horses and the Beefmaster-mix cattle in the adjacent pastures, and there’s a popular green-eyed black cat named Sam. Nearby, the former Angola Plantation now is the Louisiana State Penitentiary, where there are large herds of beef cattle and  horses, some used as mounts for the correctional officers patrolling  farm fields as inmates work the crops and others bred to pull the heavy farm wagons and equipment. Among the most popular features of St. Francisville’s annual Christmas parade are Angola’s immense Percherons pulling Santa’s sleigh, coats gleaming and harness bells jingling. Angola’s canine population works, too, with bloodhounds bred to track escapees and also often used to locate lost or missing persons in nearby rural areas; there’s also one very scary-looking wolf-dog.

Mary Thompson's dog.
Mary Thompson of Catalpa Plantation
and one of her several dogs.
Of course at The Myrtles, which bills itself as “America’s most haunted house,” there have been sightings of spirit animals. The longtime tour director recounts stories of a smokey grey cat called Myrt with a disfigured face, who returned after death to haunt the grounds, never showing up in photographs but immediately recognized by return visitors because of the unusual facial characteristics. And then there was the big white dog, remarkably similar to one said to have been owned by a turn-of-the-century resident, spotted by contemporary visitors. Said the tour director, “If the dog had been seen on the grounds, it might have been passed off as one from the neighborhood. But to see it inside in the hallway??? And then it would disappear…”

These resident domestic creatures serve as reminders of the important roles animals played in the early years---the hunting dogs and barn cats and mousers, the sleek coach horses and walking horses carrying plantation owners across their fields, the sturdy stubborn mules pulling plows and farm wagons loaded with cotton or cane, the strong oxen hauling huge trees felled in the forests for building, the dairy and beef cattle providing milk and meat and hides, the practical poultry and more decorative fowl adding beauty to 19th-century landscapes and plumage to decorate ladies’ bonnets, the pigs and goats and sheep and all the other reminders of the days when plantations were self-sufficient entities raising all the necessities of life right on the place.
They serve as perfect introductions to the St. Francisville area, which 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. Particularly important to tourism in the area are its two significant state historic sites, Rosedown Plantation and Oakley Plantation in the Audubon state site, which offer fascinating living-history demonstrations most weekends to allow visitors to experience 19th-century plantation life and customs.

Peacock at Hemingbough
Peacok at Hemingbough.
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 unique art galleries plus specialty and antiques shops, many in restored historic structures, and some fine little restaurants throughout the St. Francisville area serving everything from soul food to Chinese and Mexican cuisine, seafood and classic Louisiana favorites. For overnight stays, the area offers some of the state’s most popular Bed & Breakfasts, including historic plantations, lakeside clubhouses and beautiful townhouses right in the middle of St. Francisville’s extensive National Register-listed historic district, and there are also modern motel accommodations for large bus groups. The month of September features some fun special events in the St. Francisville area, including the popular Vibes in the ‘Ville on Saturday, September 25, filling oak-shaded Parker Park with an afternoon music festival featuring everything from blues to bluegrass, plus a kids’ kazoo parade. That same weekend, the Audubon State Historic Site celebrates the bicentennial of the West Florida Rebellion with military encampments, period crafts, live music, vintage dancing, and lectures by noted scholars. For visitor information, call St. Francisville Main Street at 225-635-3873 or West Feliciana Tourist Commission at 225-635-4224; online visit (the events calendar gives dates and information on special activities, including the lively monthly third Saturday morning Community Market Day in Parker Park) or