Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Proud Main Street Community

St. Francisville: Proud Main Street Community
by Anne Butler
bara sara flood
Bayou Sara Flooded
St. Francisville’s location, high atop blufflands overlooking the Mississippi River in West Feliciana Parish, has been both its blessing and, by some accounts, its curse. Safe from the floodwaters that obliterated its sister city of Bayou Sara right on the river’s banks, St. Francisville was precariously perched on a narrow finger ridge that limited its growth potential, for the town lots fell off steeply into deep hollows on either side of the single main thoroughfare. In a way, this was a good thing, preventing inappropriate development and limiting modern incursions in a historic district where the cozy mix of residential and commercial structures from the 19th and early 20th centuries happily coexist to provide present-day viability. And they can still call it the town that’s 2 miles long and 2 yards wide, with not so much exaggeration.
Founded in the opening years of the 19th century by predominantly Anglo settlers, the little town was an important social, commercial and cultural center for the extensive cotton plantations surrounding it. Its early streets were rude dirt tracks along which herds of cattle and mule-drawn wagons piled high with crops were driven before descending the steep hill to the port at Bayou Sara for shipment on riverboats to New Orleans and thence the world.
Hotel in Bayou Sara
Hotel in Bayou Sara
But improvements were soon effected. By 1809 a hotel had been erected, serving as legislative headquarters for the fledgling government of the independent Republic of West Florida when, in 1810, the Anglo settlers joined together to overthrow a weak and corrupt Spanish regime still trying to hold onto the Florida Parishes well after the 1803 Louisiana Purchase. Over St. Francisville have flown the flags of more governments than any other part of the state—France, England, Spain, the West Florida Republic, the State of Louisiana, the Confederacy, and the United States, some of them more than once.
There the Louisiana Territory’s third newspaper was established, the state’s second library was begun in 1812, a Masonic Lodge was chartered in 1817, and in 1819 an open-air brick market hall was built with arches through which produce wagons could be driven (this would later serve as the town hall). By 1828 the state’s first Episcopal congregation outside New Orleans joined to form Grace Church.

Right in town there were gristmills and cotton gins, livery stables and haberdasheries, drygoods emporiums and supply merchants capable of providing everything the plantations needed, from buggies and fine furnishings to coffins and farm tools, often supplying it all on credit against the next year’s crop. In 1853 the St. Francisville Chronicle reported that, according to the tax rolls, the parish of West Feliciana, with St. Francisville at its core, contained 2,231 free whites, 70 free blacks, and 10,298 slaves producing 2,873 hogheads of sugar, 4,318 barrels of molasses, 334,000 bushels of corn and 23,860 bales of cotton selling at about $70 a bale.
Jewish Church
Jewish Synagogue
The prosperity of the antebellum Cotton Kingdom gave way after the Civil War to some lean years as the area struggled with a declining economy no longer supported by agriculture. Many of St. Francisville’s historic structures fell into disrepair; many of the merchants of the town, some of them Jewish immigrants who had provided the practicalities and financing for the plantation economy, moved to urban areas where the prospects for success seemed more promising. The little town remained, however, the parish seat of government and commerce, and by the 1970s a movement began, spearheaded by the West Feliciana Historical Society, to foster a renewed appreciation of its history and heritage. An annual Audubon Pilgrimage tour of historic homes encouraged the entire community to work together to spruce up and share its treasures with visitors, and a late 1970’s survey documented over 140 downtown buildings of sufficient architectural significance to be listed in 1980 on the National Register of Historic Places in an official Historic District that was expanded in 1982.
When the St. Francisville Main Street program was established in 1994, it was able to provide incentive grants for a great deal of refurbishing and refreshing of the downtown area, where the practical combination of business and residential use ensures continued vitality. There may still be only a few thousand residents in St. Francisville, but this little Mississippi River town has something many small towns across the country lack: a vital downtown that is very much alive. When the shops close for the evening, the oak-shaded brick sidewalks come alive with dog-walkers and skateboarders and strollers chatting over picket fences with porch-rockers and swing-sitters decompressing on gingerbread-trimmed galleries, before heading on down to the local café for food and fellowship as exuberant youngsters carouse and dance to the live local band.
Grace Episcopal Church
The admittedly slow pace allows for plenty of time to stop and smell the climbing roses and ancient camellias blooming in every yard, and residents wouldn’t have it any other way. When a new Mississippi River bridge was first proposed to connect St. Francisville on the east bank of the river with New Roads on the west, replacing the increasingly unreliable state-run car ferry, economic development proponents wanted the raised bridge approaches to go right through the center of the historic district. Determined (some called them “stubborn”) townsfolk banded together to push the country’s longest cable-stayed bridge farther south, thus saving fragile downtown structures and a quiet way of life from the stress of constant heavy traffic, harmful vibrations and noise pollution.
Old Bank
Old Bank in historic district
While some of the town’s historic structures had been fortunate enough to benefit from privately funded facelifts over the years, even more benefitted once St. Francisville became an official Main Street community, backed by grants and funding from both state and national Main Street programs designed to breathe new life into the nation’s deteriorating downtowns. The grants made to spruce up downtown commercial structures were matched by more than a million dollars in private investments.
From the grandly baroque 1905 bank building housing a nationally popular button jewelry company to the two-story double-galleried 1817 Masonic Lodge and the 1819 Market Hall, from the simple 19th-century structure used to store coffins to the tiny headquarters of the black benevolent/burial society founded in 1883, dozens of downtown buildings benefitted from these grants, turning the entire historic district into a popular and picturesque year-round tourist destination. Writing in “Preservation in Print,” Linda Rascoe of the Louisiana Main Street Program called St. Francisville’s downtown historic district a visual feast, saying “the closely packed, village-like streetscape contributes to the picturesque pastoral setting where the purity and integrity of the architecture provide a tangible sense of history and a major draw for its primary industry, tourism.”
The surrounding countryside has dozens of National Register-listed antebellum plantations and glorious 19th-century gardens, plus unsurpassed recreational opportunities in the rugged Tunica Hills, while right in downtown St. Francisville there are historic churches, Bed & Breakfasts, a bustling courthouse complex in daily use, plus an oak-shaded public park complete with bandstand that hosts a number of celebrations throughout the year---all on just two main streets. On-going restorations of the historic synagogue and first public school, on a site overlooking the Mississippi River, pay tribute to early Jewish contributions to the town, and indeed the wonderful brick Julius Freyhan School was one of the first recipients of a small façade grant the year St. Francisville was designated a Main Street Community. In a restored vintage hardware store, the historical society maintains a fascinating museum and tourist information center, space shared with the parish Tourist Commission and Main Street offices.
The enthusiastic Main Street directors in St. Francisville, following the program philosophy of ‘Promotion, Organization, Economic Revitalization and Design coupled with Preservation,’ have led the way in spearheading the movement to ensure that the downtown area retains its appeal, with great financial back-up from the town’s Economic Development Fund providing extras like public restrooms, bricked sidewalks and tourist information kiosks in central locations.
Royal Street
Home on Royal St.
Local festivals are carefully planned to complement the town’s history and heritage, bearing in mind the shift in tourism demographics toward more active ecotourism and hands-on living history, with many of the smaller festivals---the monthly community arts market in the park, the White Linen Night, the Trick-or-Treat Down Main Street---designed specifically to draw visitors to the downtown area to shop. The spring pilgrimage showcases area plantation homes and historic townhouses in a fun community frolic as the azaleas are at their peak, while the Audubon Country Birdfest and summer Hummingbird Festival are ideally suited for this area where artist John James Audubon painted dozens of his Birds of America studies in 1821. In June, The Day The War Stopped is a Civil War re-enactment like no other, commemorating not a booming battle but a brief moment of civility in the midst of a bloody struggle when Confederate and Union Masons joined peaceably in the burial of a Yankee gunboat commander in the Episcopal church cemetery downtown. Fall’s Garden Symposium and the Yellow Leaf Arts Festival highlight the glorious 19th-century gardens of the area and the generations of fine artists who have drawn inspiration from its scenic vistas and bountiful wildlife, while Christmas in the Country draws thousands downtown for a holiday parade, seasonal entertainment, great shopping, and spectacular decorations that transform the entire town into a veritable winter wonderland.
The five members of the St. Francisville Historic District Commission, supported wholeheartedly by an enthusiastic longtime mayor, oversee Main Street activities and preservation projects, with the Main Street director coordinating and combining efforts like co-op advertising and the publication of tour maps and guides, with the goal of promoting tourism and encouraging the development of new businesses in town while providing the means to preserve its historic character and charm. It’s never easy to find just the right balance between economic development and historic preservation, but St. Francisville seems to be doing just that.
Located on US Highway 61 on the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge, LA, and Natchez, MS, the St. Francisville area is a year-round tourist destination, but visitors find it especially enjoyable in the winter when the glorious 19th-century gardens are filled with blooming camellias.  A number of splendidly restored plantation homes are 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.
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.