Thursday, May 24, 2012


By Anne Butler

When that great American showman Phineas Taylor Barnum brought his dramatic troupe to St. Francisville in 1838, he was at the height of an exuberant career exhibiting freaks and frauds, Fee-Gee Mermaids and Siamese twins, giants and midgets and everything in between, in various museums and theatrical settings; it was only fairly late in his life that he founded what would become the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus.

His 1855 autobiography, The Life of P.T. Barnum written by Himself, gives an amusing account of a visit to St. Francisville, where a drunk trying to sneak into the show tent for free was denied admission and consequently took aim at Barnum with “a slung-shot.” Said Barnum with characteristic colorfulness, “The blow mashed my hat, and grazed the protuberance where phrenologists located the organ of caution.”

The rejected party returned with “a frightful gang of his half-drunken companions, each with a pistol, bludgeon, or other weapon. They seemed determined to assault me forthwith,” Barnum related. The showman begged the mayor and other respectable citizens present in the theatre for protection against the mob, but the mayor “declared his inability to afford it against such odds.” The rabble-rousing ringleader gave Barnum just one hour to load up his exhibits, strike the tent, and head on downriver on his steamboat. “He looked at his watch, I looked at the pistols and bludgeons, and I reckon that a big tent never came down with greater speed,” said Barnum.

mournersDramatic presentations receive a much more cordial reception in St. Francisville these days, and the summer of 2012 brings several fine opportunities for cultural enrichment as the Transitory Theatre stages four productions and The Day The War Stopped once again presents its moving drama recreating the single day in history that marked one of the Civil War’s most unusual occurrences.

It was a hot day in June of 1863, as the bloody Siege of Port Hudson just south of St. Francisville was pitting 30,000 Union troops against 6,800 weary Confederates, fighting over the all-important control of traffic on the Mississippi River. A mournful procession of Union naval officers struggled up the steep hill from the Mississippi River into St. Francisville, escorting a coffin beneath the white flag of truce. The guns of the USS Albatross, their federal gunboat anchored off Bayou Sara, were silent behind them. The procession was not an impressive one, certainly not an unusual event in the midst of a bloody war, and it would no doubt have escaped all notice but for one fact--this was the day the war stopped, if only for a few mournful moments.

This touching moment will be recreated the weekend of June 8, 9 and 10th. The commemorative events begin on Friday, June 8, at 7 p.m., with graveside histories in the peaceful oak-shaded cemetery at Grace Episcopal Church, where several participants in the original event lie buried---the grave of Union gunboat commander Hart, whose burial stopped the war and united fellow Masons in both blue and grey, is marked by a marble slab and monument “in loving tribute to the universality of Free Masonry,” while nearby lies W.W. Leake, local Masonic leader and Confederate cavalry officer who expedited Hart’s burial. An Open House and presentation of lodge history at the double-galleried Masonic Lodge just across Ferdinand St. from the graveyard follows at 8 p.m. Friday evening.

SF PlayOn Saturday, June 9, lunch is served at the Masonic Lodge from 11:30 to 12:30. Visitors will be pleasantly transported back in time during the afternoon by a concert of antebellum period music and graceful vintage dancing from 11:30 to 1:30 in Bishop Jackson Hall next to Grace Church. At 1:30 commences a moving dramatic presentation showing Commander Hart’s young wife in New York as she reads his last letter to their small son and then receives the terrible news of his death. This is followed by the burial of Hart, with re-enactors in the dignified rites clad in Civil War uniforms accurate down to the last button and worn brogan.

On Saturday evening from 6 to 8:30 p.m. at Oakley Plantation (Audubon State Historic Site), costumed dancers will perform stylish dances popular during the Civil War period, and Oakley House opens from 6 to 8 p.m. for touching presentations of what life was like in the area as husbands and sons prepared to go off to war and wives prepared for the grim reality of a changing world. From 1 to 3 p.m. on Sunday, June 10, Rosedown Plantation State Historic Site presents a program on Civil War medical techniques and their all-too-often conclusion, period burial customs.

Somewhat livelier dramatic opportunities will be available when the St. Francisville Transitory Theatre returns after a four-year respite to continue its mission of expanding the community cultural experience with “passionately creative theatre.” The SFTT began in 2003 as an Eagle Scout project as creative young James Lanius undertook the staggering task of presenting The Reduced Shakespeare Company’s The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) under the live oaks of the local public park on a pair of joined trailers, admission being a donation to the food bank. Subsequent years saw productions not only in St. Francisville but also in New Orleans and New York.

Play by SFTTNow the SFTT returns to its origins in a continuation of its core philosophy to focus on community needs while creatively utilizing non-conventional spaces, its repertoire challenging the oft-tame connotations of so-called community theatre. This summer’s ambitious program of dramatic presentations, in addition to acting and theatre arts classes, include a musical called The Last Five Years by Jason Robert Brown, Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker, La Concierge Solitaire by Matthew Morris and Andrew Farrier, and an SFTT New Play Festival.

The St. Francisville Transitory Theatre is a not-for-profit organization partnered with the local Arts For All, and community support for the productions is essential. Scripts and sets, costumes and performance space, programs and lighting equipment…everything costs money, and pledges from the public are solicited, with donors rewarded according to generosity with anything from “a big hug” to theatre season subscriptions and coveted private dinners with the artistic and executive director! This is a tremendous opportunity for aspiring local thespians as well as seasoned visiting professionals, and a great opportunity for audiences as well.

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. Afton Villa Gardens is open seasonally; Imahara’s Botanical Garden offers garden events on weekends. 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.

SFTTThe nearby Tunica Hills offer unmatched recreational activities in 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 (the events calendar gives dates and information on special activities, including the Farmers’ Markets Thursdays and Saturdays, plus the Community Markets on third Saturdays) or,, or