Tuesday, July 30, 2013


BY Anne Butler

Old Market Hall in St. Francisville, La.
Audubon Market Hall
When the West Feliciana Parish Police Jury in mid-July approved a bid of $2.7 million to construct a new parish library on a wonderfully hilly wooded lot, oldtimers considered it a natural progression in an area that has traditionally been devoted to the literary arts. Indeed, St. Francisville, today the refuge for several published authors and retired university literature professors, had one of the state’s earliest public libraries. Historian Elisabeth Dart wrote that the state’s second oldest library was established in St. Francisville by 1812, and the Silver Anniversary Edition of the local newspaper, the True Democrat, commended the town for its public library as early as 1828.

The early plantations, of course, had extensive private libraries of their own, for the planter families were cultured and well travelled, with wide-ranging interests; their home libraries provided the resources for the education of the younger children, who often were taught by live-in tutors until they went away to colleges Up East. The book collection at The Cottage Plantation, donated to LSU in the fifties, numbered in the thousands, as might be expected for the home of an early contributor of scholarly writings to state historical quarterlies. The library at Butler Greenwood Plantation still contains nearly 3,000 vintage volumes, including such rarities as an 1807 Life of George Washington, the 1814 printing of the journals of the Lewis and Clark expedition, Malte-Brun’s 1831 geographies of the world, Gibbon’s History of Rome, and works by Hugo, Dickens, Fielding, Balzac, Robert Louis Stevenson, Hawthorne and others in French, Spanish, German and Latin as well as English. And one of the most poignant scenes in the Civil War novel So Red The Rose, written by Stark Young at Laurel Hill in upper West Feliciana, depicts the elderly Judge Edward McGehee distraught as he helplessly watches his home, Bowling Green, along with its library full of priceless treasures, burned to the ground by marauding soldiers.

Historic brick Audubon Market Hall on Royal Street in St. Francisville, built in 1819 as an open-air produce market, was later closed in and housed the Drama-Library League formed in honor of the artist Audubon, its members staging tableaux among the arched stalls where vendors once parked their produce wagons on market days. The library itself moved often as it grew to meet local needs. After Market Hall, where it remained through the thirties, it shared space on Ferdinand St. in an 1896 hardware store restored in the 1970s by the West Feliciana Historical Society as headquarters and museum. As the library outgrew that space, it moved into the former post office building down the street, a structure also purchased by the historical society in 1997.

WFP Historical Society Museum
WFP Historical Society Museum
Bursting at the seams once again, the library won approval in a bond issue election last year that allowed planning for a new parish library that can live up to its guiding principle: “Preserving our past, preparing for our future.” The library (website http://wfplibrary.org) is full of digital offerings, e-books, interlibrary loan offerings, computers and databases, and special activities geared to all ages and interests. And yes, there is even a card catalog bursting with good old books.

Besides looking forward to the spacious new library, today’s booklovers anticipate with great relish the revival of a special event dubbed A Gathering of Writers and Readers, begun in 2007 by the Friends of the Library and now under the auspices of Arts For All, the non-profit umbrella agency for all arts in West Feliciana. The celebration brings together published authors with readers who might not otherwise have the opportunity to hear writers read from and discuss their work. Scheduled for Saturday, February 22, 2014, at Hemingbough just south of St. Francisville, the all-day event will be moderated by SLU professor and former bookstore owner Charles Elliott, himself a writer, film director and noted character. Four professional authors will be featured, as well as repeat guest Ernest Gaines who will be honored for his extraordinary literary contributions, and featured writers from previous years are invited to “gather” again.

Dr. Wiley Cash, nationally acclaimed award-winning fiction author, had his first novel, A Land More Kind Than Home, selected as a New York Times Notable Book. A North Carolina native, Cash earned his PhD at UL Lafayette and studied under writer-in-residence emeritus Ernest J. Gaines; it was there that he began the book NPR called “great Gothic Southern fiction filled with whiskey, guns and snake-handling.” Rheta Grimsley Johnson is a nationally syndicated newspaper columnist and author of nonfiction books including Poor Man’s Provence—Finding Myself in Cajun Louisiana about time spent in Henderson in the Atchafalaya Basin. Dr. Julie Kane, Northwestern State University professor and Louisiana’s past Poet Laureate, has published five volumes of poetry and her poems have appeared in dozens of anthologies and journals.. Anne Butler writes nonfiction books preserving Louisiana history and culture. Both Cash and Kane are experienced university professors, and Johnson has been on the short list for a Pulitzer for journalism; her popular folksy columns appear in The Advocate. These diverse authors have been specifically chosen to give the audience a well-balanced appreciation for the art of literature---poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, nonfiction, all with great appeal to Louisiana readers. They will share their creative processes and works; participants, including several students on scholarships, are encouraged to ask questions and will have an opportunity to interact with the authors. Online information http://artsforall.uniquelyfeliciana.com or committee chair olivapass@bellsouth.net.

Walker Percy
Author Walker Percy
A few months later, in May 2014, another exciting literary event is being planned for St. Francisville, this one to honor acclaimed author Walker Percy, many of whose novels have local connections as did he himself; he called Feliciana “a happy land of decent fok and droll folkways and quiet backwaters, the whole suffused by gentle Epsicopal rectitude.” Country Roads magazine cites the “unique combination of existential questioning, Southern sensibility and deep Catholic faith” of Percy’s novels, books that “plumbed the depths of family history and the world around him to explore the dislocation of man in the modern age.”

The foundation established to restore the historic Freyhan School in St. Francisville as a cultural center/museum benefits from this fundraiser the weekend of May 9, 10 and 11. Organizers promise the Walker Percy Weekend will feature not just lectures and panel discussions but also tours of area locations important in Percy’s works, and maybe even some stargazing and bourbon tasting, the latter a tip of the hat (or clink of the glass) to Percy’s memorable essay from Signposts in a Strange Land. Bourbon, Percy said, “does for me what a piece of cake did for Proust,” and he meant the aesthetic of bourbon drinking, “the use of Bourbon to warm the heart, to reduce the anomie of the late twentieth century, to cut the cold phlegm of Wednesday afternoons…”

With a new library rising and several literary celebrations in the works, St. Francisville can indeed claim its place as a genuine cultural tourism destination within a state rightfully celebrated throughout the centuries for all of its arts. And with the summer heat making this the ideal time to curl up in the A/C or shade with a good book, readers now have advance notice and can be well prepared to participate in Q&A sessions with and about these wonderful writers.

Mark Lester
 Speaker Mark Lester
There are other end-of-summer activities in St. Francisville to be enjoyed as well. The West Feliciana Historical Society joins the Julius Freyhan Foundation to present “Remember Oleszyce: The Story of Eva Galler” on Sunday, August 18th, at 2 p.m. in recently restored Temple Sinai on Prosperity St. in St. Francisville. Featured speaker is Mark Lester, Social Studies teacher at West Feliciana High School and Holocaust Teaching Fellow. A passionate Holocaust researcher who participated in the first Fellowship program of the Southern Institute for Education and Research at Tulane, Lester will present the experiences of Eva Galler, born in eastern Poland in Oleszyce. Three thousand Jews lived there at the time Germany attacked Poland in 1939; twenty survived. The program is free and open to the public; for information, telephone 225-635-6330 or email wfhist@bellsouth.net.

On Saturday, August 24, beginning at 5 p.m., a fun evening extravaganza called Polos & Pearls puts a little after-hours sizzle into summer by enticing the community into historic downtown St. Francisville’s Main Street community for bargain shopping, food, art and lively music, with participants invited to stroll along the bricked sidewalks or hop aboard a trolley to enjoy the little town’s unique boutique shops, art galleries and antiques emporiums, each enhancing the shopping experience with fine food provided by area restaurants and live music. For information, telephone 225-635-3873 or online www.stfrancisvillefestivals.com.

Musicians at Polo and Pearls
Musicians at Polo & Pearls
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 nice 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 twice-weekly Farmers Markets on Thursdays and Saturdays).