ST. FRANCISVILLE’S AUDUBON PILGRIMAGE CELEBRATES A SOUTHERN SPRING
by Anne Butler
Afton Villa Gardens oak alley
The fortieth annual Audubon Pilgrimage March 18, 19 and 20, 2011, celebrates a southern spring in St. Francisville, the glorious garden spot of Louisiana’s English Plantation Country. For four decades the sponsoring West Feliciana Historical Society, its docents resplendent in authentic 1820’s costumes, has thrown open the doors of significant historic structures to commemorate the tenure there of artist-naturalist John James Audubon.
When Audubon arrived in the St. Francisville area in 1821, he recorded in his journal that the rich lushness of the landscape and flourishing birdlife “all excited my admiration.” Having set for himself the staggering task of painting all the birds of this immense fledgling country, Audubon would find the inspiration to paint dozens of his bird studies while residing at Oakley Plantation, one of the featured tour homes.
The Oakley house, a splendid West Indies-style three-story structure with jalousied galleries, was well established by the time Irish-born traveler Fortescue Cuming visited the area in 1809, recording in his travelogue 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.” Cuming found Oakley already a fine plantation with a hundred slaves “and the best garden I had yet seen in this country.”
In 1821 the Pirries hired 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. 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, and the meager living he earned painting portraits in the city made the Pirrie offer particularly appealing. The 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, frilly shirts and satin breeches.
Immensely popular as the central focus of the Audubon State Historic Site since 1947, Oakley has been beautifully restored and carefully furnished in the late Federal style. Another historic feature of the pilgrimage with direct associations with Audubon is Wakefield Plantation, originally part of the property holdings of Alexander Stirling, who acquired roughly 10 square miles after arriving in America in the late 1770s. An 1806 visitor described Stirling as “an old Scotchman, plain and blunt in his manners, but possessed of an immense fortune.” His wife Ann Alston was the sister of Oakley Plantation mistress Lucretia Alston Pirrie, mother of young Eliza whom Audubon was hired to tutor.
Alexander’s son Lewis Stirling married Sarah Turnbull and hired railroad master carpenter Joseph Miller to build a commodious home on the property in 1834, just as Sarah’s brother Daniel was establishing Rosedown Plantation to the south. The house was a grand Greek Revival 2 ½-story structure of wood with Tuscan columns of pie-shaped brick. Fourteen-foot ceilings accommodated innovations like rare built-in mahogany cabinets, handsome sliding doors, and the fine furnishings purchased on an extended journey to the northeast and London. When widowed Sarah Stirling died in 1875, one of the strangest of all estate divisions was effected by four heirs, with the house roof raised to permit the removal of the second floor, then lowered onto the remaining first floor and the chimneys repaired. From the second story came lumber to build two smaller homes. After six generations of Stirlings, the home was purchased and restored by Dr. and Mrs. Eugene Berry, who raise registered longhorns on the property.
Sarah Stirling’s brother Daniel Turnbull and his wife Martha Barrow, daughter of William Barrow of Highland Plantation, were also constructing a fine house in 1834, and it would be called Rosedown. The Turnbulls’ daughter Sarah, beautiful “National Belle” of 1849, married the son of Eliza Pirrie of Oakley Plantation, further intermingling these early families.
Mississippi-born writer Stark Young said of Rosedown, “Of all the houses in the world it seemed to be the beloved of its own trees and gardens.” That charm and appeal continues unabated today, the house folded in the embrace of 27 surrounding acres of 19th-century gardens and live oaks grown to immense size, and indeed the beauty of the glorious gardens has saved the house itself more than once through the generations.
The detailed gardening diaries of Martha Turnbull, spanning nearly 60 years, proved that she was one of the first to introduce azaleas and camellias to the South. These records proved invaluable when the late Catherine Fondren Underwood purchased the property in 1956, her keen eye recognizing the lush beauty of the gardens and haunting dignity of the house even through the creeping undergrowth and peeling plaster. A meticulous 10-year restoration salvaged the house and its unique collection of plantings, and today Rosedown, like Oakley, is a much-visited state historic site.
Another Barrow descendent in 1895 built Spring Grove on a 500-acre tract carved from the extensive lands of Afton Villa Plantation. Wade Hampton Richardson IV’s mother Amanda was the daughter of Bennett H. Barrow of Highland Plantation; his father, Wade H. Richardson III, represented West Feliciana in the state legislature during the Civil War before dying a month prior to Wade IV’s birth in 1869. Young Wade would himself serve as a member of the parish police jury, but found farming more to his liking, branching out into the dairy business, with an immense 200x100-foot barn capable of holding 140 registered cows.
|Young dancers at courthouse|
The progressive Mr. Richardson was an early advocate of improved roadways, and a good seven years before anyone else had the courage to try such a newfangled invention, he was motoring about in the first automobile in the parish. To accommodate it in style, he even had a gingerbread-trimmed porte cochere attached to the side of the Spring Grove house. The home itself, with its large central gable, was glowingly described in turn-of-the-century publications as “an ideal country home supplied with modern conveniences to make rural life agreeable.” Now Spring Grove, at the southern boundary of the magnificent Afton Villa gardens, enfolds the fourth, fifth and sixth generations of direct descendants, the family of Anne and George Kurz.
In addition to the large country homes on tour this year, there are also a couple of historic townhouses in recognition of the fact that not everyone lived on an antebellum plantation; many of the important support services and supply houses were located in town, and many merchants lived, if not directly in their places of business, at least nearby.
Surrounded by a picket fence, White’s Cottage is described as a 1903 urban adaptation of that emblem of Upland Southern culture known as a pen-and-passage house, its flanking rooms or “pens” divided by an enclosed breezeway that, when left open by early settlers, gave rise to the more familiar appellation of “dog-trot” house. The front porch spans the full length of the two separate “pens” divided by the central hallway, unifying all under a single roof. Its precarious hilltop perch vividly illustrates St. Francisville’s traditional description as the town two miles long and two yards wide, the limited available space ensuring that commercial and residential spaces coexist as good neighbors in such close proximity.
The cottage was built by Robert Clifford Brasseaux in the opening years of the 19th century, one of a number of such cottages in the little town that served as commercial and cultural hub of the surrounding plantation country. Brasseaux brought the first gasoline distributorship to the area in 1910 and sold kerosene to the little isolated country stores that kept hand-cranked drums of it on their porches for customers in the days before electricity. The kerosene was sent up from the Esso refinery in Baton Rouge via the LR&N railway, and Brasseaux unloaded the tank cars into barrels hauled by a mule-drawn wagon.
Upon the advent of automobile traffic, the enterprising Mr. Brasseaux also opened the first service station in St. Francisville. It was located in close proximity to White’s Cottage, at the upper corner of Royal and Ferdinand Streets in the store/residence of his German immigrant father-in-law. The family gas distributorship is now owned by Brasseaux’s grandson J. Russell Daniel, and it was recently recognized for a full century of service to the community. Since 1978 White’s Cottage has been the comfortable home of Lynn LeSueur Leak, who has furnished it with fine pieces holding sentimental value.
At the opposite end of town is Avondale, and no house better illustrates the vicissitudes of life along Ol’ Man River than this one. Avondale began in 1904 as a fancy late Victorian Queen Anne mansion complete with round two-story tower and upstairs balcony surrounded by an elaborate balustrade, one of the most magnificent structures in all of low-lying Bayou Sara. That bustling port, once the busiest between New Orleans and Memphis, sat right on the Mississippi, its banks teeming in the 19th century with steamboat traffic. There it was persistently inundated by spring floods, the one in 1912 being particularly disastrous, its implications for commercial interests catastrophic and its floodwaters rushing all the way up into Avondale’s second story just as the young daughter of the house prepared for her wedding.
The wedding was moved up the hill into St. Francisville, and so was the house called Avondale, while the port city of Bayou Sara would eventually be completely obliterated by a series of disastrous fires and floods. As the resident family of Mayor John F. Irvine Jr. dismally contemplated the ruination of their financial empire in Bayou Sara, Avondale itself was dismantled, removed up the hill, and rebuilt high and dry on St. Francisville’s blufflands safe from the Mississippi’s meanderings, its architectural extravagances scaled down to suit the family’s straitened circumstances in 1919.
Its propitious location high atop Catholic Hill would in 1943 attract to Avondale new residents, Drs. Philip and Mary Niebergall; he was the well-loved small-town family physician. A restoration by New Orleans architect Richard Koch reconfigured and revitalized the home, and avid gardener Dr. Phil soon surrounded it with thriving groves of camellias, azaleas and other flowering trees and shrubs. Current owners Michelle and Craig Roth have continued the tradition. Michelle, a master gardener, cheerfully copes with some 5 acres of plantings and says she stopped counting camellia japonicas at 300.
Other features of the 2011 Audubon Pilgrimage include three 19th-century churches as well as the Rural Homestead with its 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 playing nostalgic singing games 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, lingering stroll. Friday evening features old-time Hymn Signing at the United Methodist Church, Graveyard Tours raising the dead to tell their stories at Grace Episcopal Church cemetery, and a wine and cheese reception at the West Feliciana Historical Society museum/pilgrimage headquarters. Saturday evening, the Light Up The Night soiree features dancing to live music, dinner and drinks.
For tickets and tour information, contact the West Feliciana Historical Society, P.O. Box 338, St. Francisville, LA 70775; telephone 225-635-6330; online www.audubonpilgrimage.info, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 when the glorious 19th-century gardens are still filled with late-blooming camellias mixed with colorful spring azaleas. 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.