From the Mississippi River to the sandy creeks and unspoiled wilderness areas of the rugged Tunica Hills, from sand pits that look like desserts and deeply sunken roadbeds to architectural treasures like antebellum plantations and rude rustic cabins, from country lanes overhung with moss-draped trees and weathered barns to the quaint little rivertown of St. Francisville and even the state’s enormous maximum security penitentiary, location scouts excited about the area’s potential have directed a number of productions to West Feliciana in recent years---Jonah Hex, GI Joe II, Oblivion starring Tom Cruise and Morgan Freeman, Beautiful Creatures, Whiskey Bay, Maze Runner, Battle Los Angeles, Everybody’s All American, Dead Man Walking, Out Of Sight, North & South. Filming for The Reaping, with Hilary Swank, was interrupted by Hurricane Katrina.
For the just completed docudrama Bonnie and Clyde, a large number of locations in St.Francisville were used in the filming, including the courthouse, recently restored Temple Sinai for funeral scene, Magnolia Café, and Birdman Books and Coffee, plus other locales in the surrounding countryside. The town of St. Francisville was perfect for this production, according to tourist director Laurie Walsh, because “it steps back in time so naturally.” Cover the streets around the courthouse square with sand, bring in some vintage cars and actors in period costumes, and St. Francisville is transformed into an ideal 1930s setting, especially with still-used structures like the 3-V Tourist Courts, tiny overnight cabins with attached garages that were so typical of the era.
Productions like Bonnie and Clyde, so visible and accessible, involve the entire community, according to Walsh, and townsfolk are very supportive, with lots of locals experiencing the excitement of working as extras, not to mention the thrill of sharing a latte with the likes of William Hurt in the local coffeehouse. The exposure for St. Francisville and West Feliciana is great, Walsh explains, and the productions generate income for all segments of the community, not only for tourist services like accommodations and restaurants but also for cleaners (costumes often need cleaning), gas stations, hardware stores, locations for base camps, law enforcement agencies for providing extra security, crowd control and traffic diversions. Thanks to Walsh and an active local location scout, owners of properties used in filming are paid, often quite well.
In addition to serving as the Main Street Manager and Tourist Commission Director, Walsh is also the Film and Video Liaison for both town and parish, charged with overseeing film productions. A required no-fee permit includes practicalities like insurance indemnity and providing advance notification to local authorities on filming sites and shooting schedules, and Walsh very capably assists production crews locating whatever they need.
The town works closely with the Baton Rouge Film Commission, which has just launched a new website, www.filmbatonrouge.com, with St. Francisville area settings like Tunica Hills and Cat Island prominently displayed on the very first page of suggested filming locations. Additional information is available on St. Francisville town and tourist commission websites. According to figures from Louisiana Entertainment, statewide economic impact from the film industry in 2012 was $1.7 billion, generating 14,000 jobs, thanks in part to the state’s film tax credit program. With industry productions having such a huge impact on the state economy, St. Francisville is well positioned to take advantage of continuing interest in movie and television productions that can be enormously beneficial to the entire area.
But it’s not necessary to be a movie star to enjoy the area. Summertime special events in St. Francisville include the popular annual Feliciana Hummingbird Celebration, sponsored by the Feliciana Nature Society in this area where the artist Audubon found inspiration for many of his famous bird studies in the 1820s. It will be held Friday and Saturday, July 26 and 27. The Friday evening kick-off event begins at 6 p.m. at Rosedown State Historic Site, with a wine and cheese reception featuring LSU professor Catherine Fontenot speaking on hummingbirds and the plants that attract them to landscapes. Saturday the banding of birds by biologists Nancy Newfield and Linda Beale gives visitors the opportunity to observe the hummingbirds being captured, weighed and banded from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. at two locations, Murrell Butler’s home and artist’s studio at 9485 Oak Hill Road, and Carlyle Rogillio’s home at 15736 Tunica Trace. Online visit www.audubonbirdfest.com.
Also on Saturday, July 27, from 6 to 9 p.m. at Grace Episcopal Church’s Jackson Hall on Ferdinand Street in St. Francisville, the West Feliciana Animal Humane Society celebrates its first successful year of operations with a “Take a Chance on Me” Anniversary Gala, featuring food and drink, wine bar, live music by the popular local group Delta Drifters, fashion show and silent auction. Tickets of $25 benefit the WFAHS and the James L. “Bo” Bryant Animal Shelter, and they may be purchased in advance by mailing checks (payable to WFAHS) to Box 2032, St. Francisville, LA. For additional information online see http://wfahs.thebonnieblue.net. Thanks to the dedication of hardworking volunteers, this animal shelter has an incredibly high adoption rate; donations and volunteers are always welcome.
Located on US Highway 61 on the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge, LA, and Natchez, MS, the St. Francisville area is a year-round tourist destination. A number of splendidly restored plantation homes are 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 Garden are spectacular. Particularly important to tourism in the area are its two significant state historic sites, Rosedown Plantation and Oakley Plantation in the Audubon state site, which offer fascinating living-history demonstrations most weekends to allow visitors to experience 19th-century plantation life and customs.
The nearby Tunica Hills region offers unmatched recreational activities in its unspoiled wilderness areas—hiking, biking, birding, photography, hunting. 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 ethnic 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 225-6330 or 225-635-4224; online visit www.stfrancisvillefestivals.com, www.stfrancisville.net or www.stfrancisville.us (the events calendar gives dates and information on special activities, including the lively monthly third Saturday morning Community Market Day in Parker Park and the twice-weekend Farmers Markets on Thursdays and Saturdays).