Monday, July 30, 2012


By Anne Butler

Old Fire DepartmentOn Saturday, February 9, 1907, St. Francisville’s little local newspaper, The True Democrat, carried the horrifying news: “The Julius Freyhan High School building burned to the ground last night. Fire caught most likely in the basement as the flames burst forth from the interior without warning about seven o’clock, and had gained such headway that it was impossible to make even an attempt to save the building. The efforts of the hose companies and of citizens generally were directed towards saving the adjacent buildings. It was a providential circumstance that there was no wind or very much more property would have been destroyed as the heart of the residence district was threatened.”

Half a century later, Greenwood Plantation near Weyanoke was set afire by a lightning strike in August of 1960. Its elderly occupants were saved, as were some fine possessions---the silver venison dish, a couple of Aubusson parlor chairs, a few Sevres porcelain vases. There was no parish-wide fire protection district at the time, and the old fifties-era fire truck that lumbered out from St. Francisville got stuck in the mud trying to pump water from the reflecting pond. Only the chimneys and columns were left of the glorious Greek Revival house.

At Afton Villa, the town fire crew did an exemplary job of putting out the fire with water pumped from the swimming pool, only to have it rekindle. The son-in-law fell off the steep roof of this fanciful French-Gothic villa, saving himself by catching onto a sturdy gutter, while the elderly father of the homeowner watched the flames from a cast-iron recliner on the lawn and promised his daughter that if she wanted him to, he would see that the house was rebuilt just as it had been (it never was). Huge sirens mounted on poles throughout St. Francisville had sounded the fire alarm, and many town residents rushed out to help; the town fire station was “manned” that night by Mrs. Hannah Wood in her long nightgown and robe, directing everyone to the scene of the fire. Massive beds and other pieces too heavy to move were lost, but volunteers managed to rescue many furnishings, even mantles detached from fireplaces by a cousin wielding a fire ax.

Truck and HosesA similar fate would befall far too many other significant historic homes, most of them constructed of old dried cypress and thus highly combustible, even after horse-drawn fire wagons were replaced with motorized trucks, and indoor gas or electric-fueled kitchens replaced detached ones where fires continuously blazed in big open hearths.

The disruption of lives and livelihoods, the displacement of families, the heartbreaking loss of life and possessions and memories---without proper equipment and training, all of the desperate struggles of courageous volunteer firefighters and frantic townspeople were powerless to prevent these tragedies. In St. Francisville, everyone in town knew every detail of every fire, because the town’s first long-time fire chief, James M. Robinson, was also the owner/editor of The Democrat, and through comprehensive coverage of the far-too-frequent fires he made sure his readers understood the need for improved fire protection.

Robinson struggled to stretch his thin resources, both human and mechanical, to provide a modicum of protection throughout the parish as well as within the town proper. It was not until the late 1980’s that, at his urging, the tax-supported Fire District No. 1 of West Feliciana Parish was created, with Robinson overseeing the establishment of 8 district stations across the parish, ordering up-to-date equipment, appointing district chiefs and supervising training. With improved fire protection, parish residents saw a reduction in their insurance premiums, and today a new central administration and training center has provided increased opportunities for raising the level of professionalism as the parish-wide Fire District assumes an expanded role of not only firefighting but also emergency medical response, search and rescue, hazardous material response, and vehicle extrication to assist first responders of other agencies.

House FireInside town limits, funding has never been adequate for sufficient full-time paid firefighters. The chief of the St. Francisville Fire Department is its only full-time paid employee; there is one part-time employee, and about 25 volunteers. St. Francisville Fire Chief Tommy Robinson, who as the son of the late Fire Chief James Robinson practically grew up in the fire station, must rely on dedicated volunteers, and so does District Fire Chief James Wood.

Hats off to these volunteer firefighters who are willing to risk their lives battling blazes; all the funding in the world could not compensate these brave men and women who rush headlong into the smoke and flames to save lives and property. Sometimes, however, the time required for volunteer firefighters to leave other jobs in distant locations and race to the fire costs precious minutes, as was evidenced in the recent burning of an old commercial structure housing a gift shop and lounge right in the main intersection of St. Francisville at the only stoplight in town. The fortuitous presence of a crew of firefighters from a nearby town at the training facility in St. Francisville allowed immediate assistance by additional units, so that connecting structures were saved.

And just as concerned local citizenry had rushed to help when the town’s first central public school caught fire, just as townsfolk rushed out to salvage furnishings from burning plantations in the nearby countryside, so the residents of St. Francisville continued to respond to the need in a heartwarming expression of community. Riverboat passengers being bussed from the river landing to visit local attractions passed through this intersection just as the early-morning fire was raging, and they learned a valuable lesson in small-town life as they witnessed everyone in town rushing from their breakfast tables or from opening their businesses to hurry to the scene to help remove valuable antiques in an adjacent building from harm’s way while the trained firefighters battled the blaze.

Town Hall and Fire TruckThe St. Francisville Fire Department and parish-wide Fire District have come a long way since the days of horse-drawn hose wagons and pumpers, but volunteers remain a valuable component in coping with any local tragedy. Those steamboat passengers, on their way to the state penitentiary at Angola where they anticipated seeing things that would curl their hair, instead had their hearts warmed by what they saw on the way through St. Francisville, things these tourists from around the country would rarely see except in a small southern town---that sense of community, of commitment and concern, of how one person’s tragedy is everybody’s tragedy. They saw how quickly news travels in a little country town, and how by the time the sorrowful tidings reach from one end of town to the other, there are little old ladies rushing up the front steps of the stricken home with consoling squash casseroles or hummingbird cakes, and helpful gentlemen pitching in to help with the chores, or, at a fire, carrying out the treasured silver venison dishes without interfering with the trained firemen fighting the flames.

As parish Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness Director Tommy Boyett, himself a retired fire chief, was recently quoted in The Democrat as saying, “When something happens in this community, we have the unique ability to come together to address the issues. We help each other. This goes on in this parish every day, and it never ceases to amaze me.”

Greenwood Plantation FireThat’s St. Francisville, and besides basking in the warmth of community caring, visitors find there are still plenty of significant historic structures for touring; even Greenwood has been beautifully recreated, and the ruins of Afton Villa have been resurrected as a magnificent garden. There are also some special summertime events like the small-town Fourth of July fireworks and music at dark at the town ballfield, free and open to the public.

July in St. Francisville also features one of the area’s most popular indigenous events, the Feliciana Hummingbird Celebration July 27 and 28, as hummingbird biologists capture and band the tiny birds on Saturday at two private gardens in the Tunica Hills, preceded by a Friday evening wine and cheese garden stroll at Rosedown State Historic Site plus a talk by hummingbird enthusiast Carlyle Rogillio (for information, see or call 800-488-6502). The third-Saturday St. Francisville Community Market on July 21 fills oak-shaded Parker Park from 9 to 1 with music, crafts, baked goods and artworks. Audubon State Historic Site features special programs on July 8 (“In the Footsteps of Audubon”) and July 14 (“The Civil War Homefront 1862”).

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 weekend tours with numerous crape myrtle varieties putting on a spectacular show in July. 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 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. The local Farmers’ Market is open mornings Thursdays and Saturdays.

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) or