Saturday, November 17, 2012



November 30, December 1 and 2

By Anne Butler

St. Francisville’s economy was predominantly agriculture-based into the mid-20th century; the farmers planted sweet potatoes, the farmers’ wives canned the potatoes at the local processing plant, and prosperity proved elusive. But even then, visitors were drawn to the area by its nostalgic charm.

Grand Greek Revival Greenwood offered house tours and the setting for swashbuckling movies like Drango (1957) starring dashing Jeff Chandler. At gothic Afton Villa, Aunt Shug made pralines for the tourists and her husband in top hat and tails swept deep bows to entice passing carss in from two-lane Highway 61. Bewhiskered Jimmy Bowman and his spinster sisters offered peeks of the rundown but still glorious Rosedown Plantation house and overgrown gardens, timidly proffering penny postcards for sale. The Cottage opened the first B&B where would-be Scarlett O’Haras were served morning coffee on silver trays while snuggled in fine four-poster beds.

Alas, Greenwood and Afton Villa burned; the sweet potato cannery closed. The little town of St. Francisville seemed destined to fade away as well, until 1972 when the passionate preservationists of the recently formed historical society hit upon a plan to bring in tourists---and money---with the Audubon Pilgrimage, opening the doors to private historic homes and gardens one weekend each spring. The pilgrimage had as much to say to residents as it did to visitors, giving locals an increased appreciation of the natural beauty and historic treasures they too often took for granted. Is this history relevant today, the cultural antecedents that made the community what it is? As one rather earthy early New Orleans legislator commented, “If ya ain’t got culcha, ya ain’t got sh**!”

For forty years the popular pilgrimage proved St. Francisville indeed had “culcha,” but all the “culcha” in the world isn’t worth much if it isn’t economically sustainable, and this springtime tour lasted a mere three days a year and featured only historic properties. With changing demographics of tourism and year-round interest in visiting the area, it was only natural to augment the spring festival with what has become the region’s most popular small-town Christmas celebration, “Christmas in the Country,” featuring fabulous shopping opportunities and fun-filled family-friendly downtown activities, plus a library fundraising tour of outstanding contemporary houses as well.

lighting of the treeChristmas in St. Francisville has always been a magical time. In the 19th century, country folks from miles around would pile into wagons to do their weekly shopping in the little town’s dry-goods emporiums that offered everything from buggies to coffins. At Christmas, tiny tots would press their noses against frosted storefront windows to gaze with wistful longing at elegant china dolls and wooden rocking horses.

It’s still that way today. Millions of tiny white lights trace soaring Victorian trimwork and grace gallery posts to transform the extensive downtown National Register Historic District into a veritable winter wonderland for Christmas in the Country November 30, December 1 and 2, as the historic little rivertown showcases its continuing vitality as the center of culture and commerce for the entire surrounding region. The enthusiastic sponsors of Christmas in the Country are the downtown merchants, and the real focus of the weekend remains the St. Francisville area's marvelous little shops, which go all out, hosting Open Houses with refreshments and entertainment for shoppers while offering spectacular seasonal decorations, great gift items, and extended hours. A variety of fine shops occupy historic structures throughout the downtown area and spread into the outlying district, each unique in its own way, and visitors should not miss a single one.

Beginning at 5:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 30, Santa Claus comes to town to kick off the Lighting Ceremony of the Town Christmas Tree, followed by a public reception at Town Hall hosted by longtime St. Francisville Mayor Billy D'Aquilla and featuring performances by the First Baptist Church Children’s Choir and West Feliciana Middle School Choir. The Baton Rouge Symphony presents its annual concert of seasonal selections and dessert reception beginning at 7 p.m. at Hemingbough; tickets are available at the Bank of St. Francisville. And designated residences along Royal and Ferdinand Streets allow visitors to “Peep into our Holiday Homes” Friday and Saturday evenings from 6 to 8 p.m.

Saturday, Dec. 1, begins with a 7:30 a.m. Community Prayer Breakfast at United Methodist Church Fellowship Hall just off Royal St., followed by Breakfast with St. Nick for children at Jackson Hall next to Grace Church at 8 and 9:30 a.m., sponsored by the Women’s Service League (reservations recommended; or 225-721-3563). The Women’s Service League also sells fresh wreaths and pre-wrapped Plantation Country Cookbooks all weekend on Ferdinand St. next to the library, with proceeds benefiting local civic and charitable activities.

Throughout the day Saturday there will be children’s activities and photos with Santa, the Main Street Band (noon to 2), handmade crafts and food vendors in oak-shaded Parker Park. There will also be entertainment in various locations throughout the downtown historic district, featuring choirs, dancers, musicians, and other performers.

Christmas ChoirThe angelic voices of the Bains Lower Elementary children's choir—Voices in Motion-- are raised at the West Feliciana Historical Society Museum on Ferdinand St. at 10 a.m. From 9:30 to 10:30 the West Feliciana High School Performance Choir sings at the United Methodist Church Fellowship Hall, followed from 11 to 11:45 by the school’s Beginning and Advanced Choirs. At 11:30 on Ferdinand St. the Westside Cloggers group put on a lively show at Bella Vita Salon, followed by a Shin Sun Korean Martial Arts demonstration. From 10 to 2 the Sweet Adelines’ Lyrical Quartet strolls and sings along Ferdinand and Royal Sts., while the Angola Inmate Traveling Band from Louisiana State Penitentiary performs across from Garden Symposium Park from noon to 4. Kevin Johnson sings on the front porch of Town Hall 11 to 1, and the Swinging Willows Jazz Band performs at the library from noon to 1. Arts for All hosts a photography exhibit at its studio in the Quarters on Commerce St. 10 to 5.

Saturday’s highlight, of course, is the colorful 2 p.m. Christmas parade sponsored by the Women’s Service League, this year’s theme being “Joy to the World.” Dozens of gaily decorated parade floats vie for coveted prizes, accompanied by cheerleaders, bands, bagpipes, vintage cars, marching ROTC units and dancers. Santa rides resplendent in a magnificent sleigh pulled by Louisiana State Penitentiary's immense prized Percheron draft horses, groomed and gleaming in the sunlight with their sleigh bells jingling. Grand marshall is dedicated town employee Eric Schneider, who spreads his own joy on his daily rounds maintaining St. Francisville’s remarkably litter-free streets.

Parade FloatAt 6 p.m. on Saturday, the United Methodist Church on Royal St. hosts a Community Sing-a-long, while the First Baptist Church on US 61 at LA 10 sponsors its very popular Live Nativity from 6 to 8 p.m., reminding of the reason for the season. In addition, Saturday evening from 6 to 8, visitors are welcomed for candlelight tours, period music and wassail at Audubon State Historic Site on LA Hwy. 965, where artist-naturalist John James Audubon painted many of his famous bird studies in the early 1820's. This historic home never looks lovelier than in the soft romantic glow of the candles that were its only illumination for its early years. During the day from 10 to 4, the historic site observes its annual holiday festival.

Christmas in the Country activities continue on Sunday, December 2, with in-town activities and, north of St. Francisville in the Lake Rosemound/Laurel Hill area, the Friends of the Library Tour of Homes, featuring six unique homes on four private properties, with refreshments provided by Heirloom Cuisine. Tickets are available from the West Feliciana Parish Library, at the featured homes and other businesses on the day of the tour (for information, 225-635-3364). Features include the Figges’ lakeside country retreat on Hazelwood Plantation, a cottage called Kwamalusi (Zulu for “place of the shepherd”) housing retired bishop Charles Jenkins and his wife, Paul and Mary Ann Stevens’ Micajah Lodge which began life as a log cabin, and several incredible cypress-and-glass structures surrounded by lakes and waterfalls and gardens owned by the Roland family.

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 and Imahara’s Botanical Gardens are open 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.

Santa's cycleThe nearby Tunica Hills offer unmatched recreational activities in unspoiled wilderness areas—hiking, biking, birding, photography, all especially enjoyable in the cool weather. 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) or