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


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