VOICES FROM THE PAST IN ST. FRANCISVILLE, LA
by Anne Butler
If only these walls could talk! How often have we lamented that the lessons of history might be lost without the voices of the past recounting their experiences. In the four decades that the West Feliciana Historical Society has hosted the Audubon Pilgrimage in St. Francisville, this popular spring fling has featured beautifully restored antebellum plantations and historic townhouses, brilliantly blooming azaleas, hostesses resplendent in replicated 1820s garb, old-time rural crafts and skills, and even glamorous nighttime entertainments. But initially something was missing, some intimate personalized voice resonating through time, and the ancestral oil portraits, the architectural treasures, the leather-bound literature…all gave only mute testament to past glories and sorrows.
One of the historic churches featured on the pilgrimage is Grace Episcopal, the oldest church in St. Francisville and second oldest Episcopal congregation in the state, established in 1827. Its first rector was the Reverend William R. Bowman, second husband of widowed Eliza Pirrie of Oakley Plantation whom the artist Audubon was hired to tutor in the early 1820s; their son would marry the beautiful belle Sarah Turnbull of Rosedown Plantation.
The present brick church, which replaced an early simple wooden building, is reminiscent of the Gothic country churches of rural England, from whence came many of the pioneering settlers of St. Francisville. Its cornerstone was laid by Leonidas Polk, the Fighting Bishop of the Confederacy, in June 1858, the same year an immense Pilcher organ was shipped downriver from St. Louis and fitted into the south transcept in memory of Judge George Mathews.
From Judge Mathews’ plantation came the oak saplings that now shade the cemetery where he rests in peace along with many of the early settlers. Among the earliest burials was that of baby Edward Baldwin, whose death in the 1840s was recorded as ‘flung from buggy.’ During the Civil War, as St. Francisville received heavy shelling from a Union gunboat on the nearby Mississippi River, old Aunt Sylvia Chew, a free woman of color, took refuge before the altar until a cannon ball crashed through the window over her head; she then fled to the cemetery and put her faith in the substantially built tomb of her old acquaintance Dr. Ira Smith.
Some of these frustrated thespians are real pros, like Dave and Valerie Barnes, who have had many years of professional radio and television experience, while others are simply blessed with a flair for the dramatic, but each gives a memorable performance bringing to life a carefully selected cross-section of St. Francisville residents beginning in the heady years just prior to the Civil War and continuing through the trying times afterward. And so, as dusk falls and the fireflies flit amid the moss-draped live oaks, costumed spirits rise among the tombstones to relate their poignant stories, and in doing so, relate the history of St. Francisville itself. An introduction to Grace’s history is given from the brick front steps of the church, and then young guides lead visitors through the cemetery lit by candles and torches, all to the strains of acoustic period music provided by talented David Porter.
The Turnbulls of Rosedown are well represented in the cemetery and in the performance, with three different generations telling their tales, beginning with Martha Barrow Turnbull who with her husband Daniel built magnificent Rosedown Plantation in the 1830s and over six decades surrounded the home with glorious gardens based on landscapes seen on her European honeymoon. Her grandson Daniel Turnbull Bowman was slain in 1900 after volunteering with the army unit sent to quell the Moro insurrection in the Philippines. Lt. Bowman is portrayed graveside with such elan by Hamilton Willis, complete with the riding boots that are his customary attire, that during one performance, as he related how his devoted mother fretted over his perilous military service, the cell phone forgotten in his pocket rang, and without missing a beat Willis adlibbed, “That must be her now.” The third of the Turnbull-Bowman spirits is the most recent, the fifth generation, Mamie Fort Thompson, last of the area grande dames and noted for her wicked wit. Into her 90s “Miss Mamie” presided over Catalpa Plantation, sharing with each and every tourist who came calling a glass of the potent sherry referred to as “grandma’s daily dalliance with naughtiness,” and proving to the world that old southern belles never die, nor do they ever lose one iota of their charm.
Beside the enormous stone cross marking his family plot arises the spirit of Judge George Mathews, chief justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court from 1812 until his death in 1836; his father was an early governor of Georgia, and several brothers-in-law served on the first vestry of Grace Church. His is the earliest burial included in the Cemetery Tales, while nearby is one of the most recent, the 27th Marine Corps Commandant, General Robert H. Barrow of Rosale Plantation, whose distinguished military career took him around the world but who returned to his boyhood home for retirement. Declining burial in Arlington National Cemetery, General Barrow opted to be laid to rest in 2008 beside his beloved wife Patty, the interment ceremony with its impressive military honor guard and booming gun salutes attended by everybody in town, including school children.
Features of the 2011 Audubon Pilgrimage March 18, 19 and 20 include two historic townhouses: Avondale and White’s Cottage, and in the surrounding countryside two 19th-century plantations: Wakefield and Spring Grove, plus Afton Villa Gardens, Rosedown and Audubon State Historic Sites, three 19th-century churches and the Rural Homestead with lively demonstrations of the rustic skills of daily pioneer life. Tour hostesses are clad in the exquisitely detailed costumes of the 1820’s, nationally recognized for their authenticity.
The National Register-listed historic district around Royal Street is filled during the day with the happy sounds of costumed children singing and dancing the Maypole; in the evening as candles flicker and fireflies flit among the ancient moss-draped live oaks, there is no place more inviting for a leisurely stroll. Besides the Graveyard Tours at Grace Episcopal cemetery, Friday evening also features old-time Hymn Singing at the United Methodist Church and a wine and cheese reception at the West Feliciana Historical Society museum headquarters. Light Up The Night Saturday evening features live music, dinner and drinks. For tickets and tour information, contact West Feliciana Historical Society, Box 338, St. Francisville, LA 70775;phone 225-635-6330; online www.audubonpilgrimage.info, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The nearby Tunica Hills region offers unmatched recreational activities in its unspoiled wilderness areas—hiking, biking, birding, photography, hunting. 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. For visitor information, call St. Francisville Main Street at 225-635-3873 or West Feliciana Tourist Commission at 225-635-4224; online visit www.stfrancisville.us (the events calendar gives dates and information on special activities, including the lively monthly third Saturday morning Community Market Day in Parker Park) or www.stfrancisvillefestivals.com