Monday, July 30, 2012


By Anne Butler

Porch visiorsSt. Francisville, if you take the time to look, seems like a little Louisiana town that has it all, and in many ways it does. Its congenial mix of residential and commercial and governmental structures assures a lively presence downtown 24 hours daily, and when the shops and offices close for the evening, the bricked sidewalks come alive with joggers and dog-walkers and neighbors chatting with porch-swingers across tidy white picket fences. It has been called, without much exaggeration, the town that’s two miles long and two yards wide, for its National Register historic district straddles a high narrow ridge overlooking the Mississippi River, its location keeping it safe from floodwaters and also safe from inappropriate modern development for which there simply is no room.

CourthouseFounded at the beginning of the 19th century, this little rivertown has always served as the commercial and cultural center of the surrounding plantation country, with the countryfolk loading into wagons and buggies on Saturdays to do their shopping and socializing in town, the churchgoers congregating on Sundays in the historic places of worship just as they do now. Even today, specially planned small-town festivities like the spring pilgrimage tour, the lively Christmas celebration, community art and crafts markets and farmers markets all draw folks into the historic district. Monuments around the courthouse square commemorate the unique history here, its early Anglo settlers establishing a little island of English culture in the midst of a sea of French and Creole and Acadian, hardy independent recipients of Spanish landgrants who overthrew their Spanish rulers in 1810 to form a short-lived republic of their own.

Visitors are enthralled with how well preserved the mostly 19th-century structures are and how unspoiled the surrounding Tunica Hills management areas and Cat Island National Wildlife Refuge remain, providing unlimited recreational opportunities and scenic vistas that have inspired creative artists ever since the days when that famous bird painter John James Audubon was spellbound by the beauties of this “garden spot of Louisiana,” where he painted dozens of his famous folios in 1821. Nearly every weekend, St. Francisville’s state historic sites provide living history demonstrations and reenactments showcasing life in those early years.

CoffeeLike small businesses everywhere, St. Francisivlle’s little shops hope for an upswing in the economy, but most have proven to be remarkably resilient, an eclectic combo of quirky antiques emporiums, fine gift and clothing shops, furniture makers and artists’ galleries, plus restaurants serving up everything from ethnic Chinese and Mexican to downhome country and southern seafood. There’s even a coffeehouse that provides a gathering spot for the exchange of ideas and information and just plain ol’ gossip over fancy lattes and cappuccinos; around the corner a breakfast buffet offers such delicacies as Bananas Foster and there’s also a wine parlor that’s the ideal spot to watch the sun go down while rocking on the fanciful Victorian front porch.

St. Francisville’s visitors definitely should spend several days in this oasis of peace and quiet decompressing from the fast pace of urban life, and there are a number of inviting Bed & Breakfasts—historic townhouses, antebellum plantations, lakeside and golf resorts—as well as a couple of motels that can accommodate whole busloads of overnighters. The West Feliciana Historical Society, which for more than four decades has sponsored the spring Audubon Pilgrimage as not just a fundraiser for preservation projects but as a way to encourage local residents to more fully appreciate their own history, joins with the Tourist Commission to man the interesting little museum and visitor information center in town. St. Francisville is also a Main Street community, participating in the state and national programs designed to preserve and revitalize historic commercial corridors, and the longtime mayor and Main Street manager provide enthusiastic support and funding for building rehab and restoration, bricked sidewalks, pocket parks, information kiosks, public restrooms and a fine oak-shaded central park complete with Victorian bandstand.

BikersAfter shopping and dining in St. Francisville, surrounding attractions beckon visitors. There are six spectacular plantations, several dating from the 1790s, and both 19th-century and contemporary gardens open for touring. More active visitors can hike through the rugged Tunica Hills woodlands along sandy creekbeds to a series of waterfalls or to the country’s largest bald cypress tree. These scenic areas are teeming with rare plants, birdlife and wildlife like the chipmunks found nowhere else in Louisiana, delighting photographers, nature lovers, and artists of all stripes. Right in the middle of these hills and bordered by the Mississippi River is the state’s maximum-security prison, notorious Angola, that has progressed from an unsavory early reputation as the country’s bloodiest penitentiary to present popularity as the most unlikely of tourist attractions, its museum filled with compelling exhibits and a thrilling prison rodeo called the Wildest Show in the South. Angola and the St. Francisville area have been discovered by Hollywood, and a number of movies have been filmed both in town and in the surrounding countryside.

Parish seat of West Feliciana, St. Francisville has a good small hospital, one of the best public school systems in the state, an extensive new sports park with ballfields and tennis courts and biking/hiking trails (“The Beast” is a real challenge!), a recently expanded highway system and the country’s longest cable-stayed bridge connecting the area with New Roads across the Mississippi River to the west. Quiet and safe, it is attracting retirees for the history and relaxed lifestyle, as well as young families enchanted by the small-town atmosphere and sense of community. Could there be more employment and housing opportunities? Sure, and the economic development director has a mandate to address those needs while ensuring preservation of significant historic sites and protecting the environment.

Historic HomesSt. Francisville’s residents have a remarkable sense of place and community. Thanks to local writers and graphic artists and techno-whizzes, the area also has a remarkably inviting and diverse presence on the internet, making it seem that this is indeed a little town that has it all plus the means to share it. But what is missing, and what those involved in tourism would like to have, is a video to add to its online sites. Trouble is, with state fiscal cuts gouging deep holes in the tourism budget, there are no funds to pay a videographer, and that’s why St. Francisville is hoping a video class might take on the project as a learning tool for students, with guidance from the tourism professionals in town. Instructors, students or budding journalists wanting to gain experience and add such a project to their resumes should contact the West Feliciana Parish Tourist Commission or the St. Francisville Main Street at 225-635-4224 or 225-635-3873.

For visitor information call those same phone numbers or visit online (the events calendar gives dates and information on special activities) or