Sharing its Journey Stories
by Anne Butler
The Thanksgiving season is often a time of homecoming---going back to Grandma’s, where the roast turkey is stuffed with nostalgia and seasoned with stories---a time of sharing family histories and tall tales of the often treacherous travels our ancestors undertook to claim lands and establish new lives in a new country. How appropriate, then, for St. Francisville to now be making preparations to host the travelling Smithsonian Institution exhibit called Journey Stories, which opens the first week in February in the West Feliciana Historical Society’s museum/visitor center on Ferdinand Street right in the heart of St. Francisville’s National Register Historic District.
This fascinating exhibition has been designed to encourage small towns across the country to examine in depth just who we are and how we got here, revealing nationwide migration patterns as early pioneers braved the perils of travel in the days of dangerous ocean shipwrecks and riverboat sinkings, runaway teams and overturned wagons on rude rutted dirt tracks, plus pirates and outlaws, wild animals and wild Indians.
As compelling as these national records are, the localized ones are even more so. St. Francisville certainly had some unique settlement routes, from the Mississippi River bringing early Anglo pioneers to an area that reminded them of the rolling hills of the Old Country, to the sunken traces worn deep into the loessial soils by horse-drawn coaches and covered wagons, to the country’s earliest standard-gauge railroad line. The entire community has enthusiastically participated in the programs augmenting this exhibit, from young school children to the elderly discussing their memories, so residents and visitors alike stand to gain greater understanding of the builders and shapers of this community—the Native Americans and the immigrants from Europe and Africa and the Eastern Seaboard, some arriving of their own free will and others arriving in chains--and the pathways they took to get here.
Leading up to the opening will be related events to build anticipation, including the Rollin’ on the River-themed parade during St. Francisville’s immensely popular Christmas in the Country the first weekend in December; a Walking Tour of Jewish History on Saturday, February 11, led by Rebecca Kastil to highlight significant structures and contributions of St. Francisville’s early Jewish immigrants, beginning at 11 a.m. at Julius Freyhan School; and at 3:30 on Saturday, February 11, at the Oakley Plantation House in the Audubon State Historic Site, a one-woman play entitled “Rachel O’Connor’s World” featuring talented local thespian Kathryn Ward portraying a determined female Feliciana plantation owner and planter. CD guides available at the museum/visitor center for the duration of the exhibit offer an interesting self-guided driving tour through West Feliciana Parish history, and a map overlay by artist David Norwood contrasts the present roadways with the original ones by which the earliest settlers arrived.
On Sunday, February 12, a grand opening reception kicks off the Journey Stories exhibit at the West Feliciana Historical Society Museum at 2 p.m., hosted by the Women’s Service League. The exhibit stays up until March 19, and every weekend is filled with special activities and programs, all free and open to the public. On Saturday, Feb. 18, the museum hosts a presentation by Feliciana Filmmakers of Student Oral History Projects from 10 a.m. until noon. On Saturday, February 25, Friends of the Library hosts its Celebration of Writers and Readers, bringing together recognized authors and their fans at Hemingbough Convention Center beginning at 8:30 a.m., while Margo Soule will present a program on Louisiana’s Native Americans at 2 p.m. in Audubon Market Hall on Royal St. On Sunday, February 26, the featured program is Dr. Irene S. DiMaio Gerstacker’s Louisiana: Fiction and Travel Sketches from Antebellum Times through Reconstruction, at 2 p.m. in Audubon Market Hall, followed by a reception hosted by the St. Francisville United Methodist Church in the church fellowship hall.
Saturday, March 3, a Gospel Music Fest with local church choirs will be sponsored by the Rotary Club in oak-shaded downtown Parker Park from 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. as tribute to the St. Francisville area’s only really original indigenous music, the soulful songs of the early black religious congregations. Tribute will also be paid to the country’s earliest standard gauge rail line, the West Feliciana Railroad that connected the cotton plantations of the St. Francisville/Woodville area with the riverport at Bayou Sara, in a 2 p.m. program presented by widely respected local historian Elisabeth K. Dart in the old courtroom of the West Feliciana Courthouse, followed by a reception sponsored by historic Grace Episcopal Church.
The following Sunday, March 11, Louisiana’s Lieutenant Governor Jay Dardenne, a wonderful speaker, extols the virtues of the Bayou State in his entertaining presentation “Why Louisiana Ain’t Mississippi,” in the old courtroom at 2 p.m., followed by a reception sponsored by the Julius Freyhan Foundation. The weekend of March 16 through 18th St. Francisville hosts the annual Audubon Pilgrimage sponsored for four decades by the West Feliciana Historical Society, commemorating the 1821 stay of John James Audubon by opening the doors to significant antebellum homes plus glorious 19th-century formal gardens, historic churches and a rural homestead where the rustic skills of early life are demonstrated. The evening of Friday, March 16, at 7 p.m., costumed re-creators rise from the graves in Grace Church’s beautiful cemetery to tell their own stories.
St. Francisville is the last Louisiana community to host Journey Stories; the exhibit comes down on March 19. But St. Francisville is a year-round tourist destination featuring 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, offering periodic fascinating living-history demonstrations so visitors can 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. 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 Chinese and Mexican cuisine to 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) or www.stfrancisvillefestivals.com.
Photographs provided by the Smithsonian Institution.